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DISCOVER WALDEN: Saffron Walden Countryside History & Wildlife Walks

by Jacqueline & Peter Cooper (1996: ISBN 1 873669 01 1)

Walk 9, Ashdon

Only a few miles from Walden, the lovely village of Ashdon is a rambler’s dream, with a network of over a hundred rights-of-way. This circular walk is short but goes right round Ashdon on good paths through a different sort of countryside, of steep fields and thick hedgerows, of meadows, woods and deeply-cut valley, as well as arable fields on both boulder clay and chalk.

Start at All Saints Church,14th century, but on the same site as an earlier church - pagan burials have been found nearby. Inside is all the quiet charm of the best English village churches, cool and clean and unfussy: most of its riches were plundered after the Reformation but the Norman font-bowl survived. There is a story that the altar rails were restored in 1927 after being used for almost 50 years as henhouse perches. Such things are valued all the more for being temporarily mislaid. Likewise there was joy when the bells peeled forth in 1969 after being out of repair for 90 years.

Outside in the churchyard, ‘all the air a solemn stillness holds’, and it is pretty with waving wild grasses, offering living habitat as well as resting place. From behind the church can be seen the timber-framed, medieval ‘Gilde Aule de Asshendon’, a beautiful building whose chequered history reflects the vicissitudes of government: when Henry VIII abolished religious guilds, it became a poorhouse, later with 25 poor folk living here and working at spinning in the 18th century. But when the official mood changed again in the 1830s, the village poor were carted off to the hated, impersonal Union in Walden, and the old guildhall became residential.

To the left of the church is a field said to be the site of the deserted medieval village of old Ashdon, which fell into silence after the Plague in 1348, when the present village centre emerged. There is disagreement among academics though - 13th century pottery and sunken tracks, the finding of weapons and animal bones, show there was some great significance in Home Meadow. But the bumps could be ancient vineyard terraces, or possibly just the hollows of old diggings - careless 19th century gravel diggers destroyed evidence. It may be the mystery field has some connection with the significant Battle of Assendun of 18 October 1016, even that the victorious Danish army of Cnut might have camped here. After all it was Holinshed, no less, in his sixteenth century Chronicle who stated that King Edmund ‘hasted foorth to succour his people, and at Ashdone in Essex three miles from Saffron Walden, gave battell to Cnute...’

From the church door, turn right through a gap in the fence and over a stile. Bear right across Home Meadow to another stile, then left but immediately right to cross the stream on a high causeway, past an overgrown area once a gravel pit. Over to the right is Pond Bay, said to be the site of a medieval stewpond or fishpond. All is now tumbled back to nature with tall teasels, mugwort and other wild plants. Even more delightful is the flora of the field track, skirted in summer by a verge full of colourful wildflowers - blue scabious and white bladder campion, pink clover and purple hardheads, with red field poppies and waving grasses of green and gold. Dogroses of palest pink climb the hedgerows and above them the lark celebrates the freedom of this beautiful landscape of flowing hill and shallow valley - behind to the church, distantly left to Goldstones,and away right to Little Hales Wood where many a gang of men in poorer times caught their dinner on a dark winter’s night. Poaching was a way of life in Ashdon, with so many tempting woodlands about. Almost a tenth of Ashdon parish was woodland one time. Passing hedges, into the next field, through another hedge,the path turns left on a walkable field-edge beside a hedge of hawthorn. The heavier clay of this side of the parish can make it heavy going in wet seasons. But it’s a pleasant downhill trek through a gap over a rather wobbly stile into a long, narrow slipe of a meadow, then over a step-stile into a bigger meadow, and continuing down to a little footbridge.

Hazel in the hedges is a picture of sulphur yellow in spring, and it is good to hear the rookery noisily from the treetops, for rooks are not as common as they once were. Here, dividing the parish in two, is the little Bourne, its name meaning ‘river river’, and the reason why a settlement grew up here. Downstream it gathers water from the hills, becomes the Granta and eventually joins the Cam which goes through Cambridge. Below ‘green and deep the stream mysterious glides beneath’, seeming too mild to have cut this deep ravine, but the water table was higher in earlier times, and perhaps it was deepened for watermills. Nearby is Water End, where Baptists used to hold open air services in the 1900s.

Go over the river on a solid railed footbridge across to an area laid out for equine pursuits - turn left along here, a nice woody area left to nature. Big yellow bracket fungi find a niche in the piles of old logs left for wildlife - too often these are tidied up and a valuable resource lost. There are squirrels doing acrobatics in the treetops, and butterflies in the glades. This field, once a marshy meadow, now drained, is known as The Wilderness, and is a delightful natural area.

Turn left over a high stile to a waymarked bridleway, past Moor Cottage with its attractive garden, towards another waymark post beside a former chicken house. A footpath on the right leads up to Springfield which early in the century was the experimental site of Ashdon’s fruit farming tradition. This woody track is an old green way called Rock Lane, originally linking Ashdon with Walden via Redgates Lane at Sewards End. This is the best bit, a sheltered streamside stroll, serenaded by birdsong and breezes, high above the little Bourne, where there used once to be a watermill. The path shows signs of recent improvement works, but not to the detriment of the tangled underwood enjoyed by a myriad creatures, and dampness enjoyed by Pendulous Sedge and wild Comfrey, the miraculous knitbone herb

Picturesque cottages with pretty gardens lie at intervals along the Bourne. Somewhere over to the left, on 9th March 1923, a meteorite weighing 44 ounces landed making a two-foot dent in a cornfield and frightening the life out of a farmworker nearby. It was heard as far away as Saffron Walden, where there is a copy in the Museum, the original being unusual enough to find home in the Natural History Museum.

Possibly Rock Lane got its name from that extraordinary artefact from outer space? Strange things happen in Ashdon. Ten years earlier the most ferocious hailstorm imaginable had ripped through the village, breaking every window with huge lumps of ice. Continue ahead on a signposted bridleway beside which ‘the water is cool, gentle and brown, above the pool’, where tiddlers sport in sunny shallows. Those who know the river speak of finding trout in secret places. Trees offer many wildlife niches, from the tops of their branches where the songbirds call, to their old gnarled roots in the bank where rabbits burrow and bees dig little holes. In the sunnier spots are ordinary pretty things, flowering grasses attracting butterflies, and the ubiquitous little pink Herb Robert. A green archway of fallen trees leans in old age against an even older pollard, decorated with bracket fungi, a piece of natural woodland sculpture.

Glimpsed through trees is Hilly Meadow, climbing to Hill Farm, which used to house Ashdon Museum, now in the village centre, a fascinating collection of bygones. What is it about this parish, a special something, which touches people? Its ingredients seem simple enough - the Victorian writer, John Player, said Ashdon in 1845 had plenty of ‘hills and dells, water-courses and umbrageous retreats’ but was otherwise undistinguished. Yet others have more accurately found it ‘no ordinary village’.

The wayside weeds, pernicious elsewhere, seem beautiful in Ashdon - tall and stately spear thistles, luscious butterfly-nettles, sticky willy clambering over a tree stump. Even ground elder, foolishly imported as a pot herb by the Romans, transforms into a stately clump of creamy-white flowers when allowed to do its own thing.

The lovely lane ends all too soon, crossing over two bridges made of railway sleepers, into a meadow and through a gap in the hedge. In June the warm sloping home meadows smell of sweet new-mown hay, calling to mind that long ago summer of 1914 when the hay harvest lay rotting, for all the Ashdon farmworkers were on strike, seeking to increase their 13 shillings weekly wage. An old oak stump, thoughtfully left in the meadow, would have been a mature tree then. There are some lovely trees at the top of field, beside a fine tiled barn and timbered Tudor Croft, with notable chimneys.

Cross the field diagonally to emerge on the Radwinter Road opposite Kate’s Lane, an 18th century name - once this formed the boundary with a separate hamlet, Steventon. A militia sword from the Napoleonic Wars, found in Kates Lane, is a proud possession of Ashdon Museum. Turn left through the village centre, rich in old cottages, of timber, plaster, red or yellow brick, pegtiles and slate, sometimes thatch. The old police house is well named; the legend of Dick Turpin gets reference; there is a 300-year-old former bakery, an old bootmakers’ now ‘Maltings’, and a former butchery now ‘Willow Cottage’.

Meeting places, past and present cluster round the junction: the present village hall; 19th century Baptist Chapel, replacing the dilapidated old barn at nearby Chapel Farm; and the last two pubs, the Old Fox now residential, and the Rose and Crown, noted for its 17th century wall paintings, a pub for over 200 years - the men loved it for its speciality brew, a strong porter known as ‘entire’, and for the women Crown Hill was also a meeting place for gossip round the pump. Here one time the vestry met to organise the minutiae of village life - doles to the poor, repairs to the roads. The Fox, which closed in the 1960s after 140 years, had a well-known publican, who lived to a ripe old age, and doubled up as parish clerk, schoolmaster and village constable.

In a field behind the Fox, the Ashdon strikers held concerts in the summer of 1914, singing the ‘Red Flag’ to piano and accordion accompaniment. Their public meetings also took place in the village centre. At least one confrontation took place in front of the Rose and Crown, and there was trouble everywhere - broken farmgates, burned haystacks, blocked roads. On one occasion they marched to Saffron Walden and back, forks and hayrakes on their shoulders. They won their 15 shillings, just in time to save the harvest - and to march off to the trenches of France.

Turn right at the junction, once called the ‘three-went way’, past the lovely gardens of Juniper House. The public well used to be along here - in 1688 the inhabitants of Ashdon were summonsed for not enclosing it. This is where Ashdon keeps its treasures - a Silver Jubilee seat of 1977; the garden war memorial, with the names of ‘many a lightfoot lad’ who never came back to Ashdon; trophies from some distant best-kept village competition - the trophy from a more recent win in 1988 is kept outside the village hall ; and a very well-made village sign, showing the ash tree after which the Domesday Ascenduna was named, amid a pastoral scene from the past, blending into the present background of hedges and fields.

Cross the road opposite the splendid Victorian village school dating back to 1878, its clock always useful to villagers.Turn left up a little old winding lane, Dorvis Lane, possibly named after John Dover, who owned land here a long time ago. A house in the lane, known as Aylewards, a former shop, has an unusual spiral staircase, and dates back to medieval times. The former Manse had an old pond, the Lady Well, said to be haunted by the ghost of a lady who drowned when lightning frightened her horses.

Passing the last cottage, go through the gate, closing it carefully as there may be stock in the meadow. At one time Dorvis Lane continued beyond the gate, hence the high bank may be the lynchet of the old lane.This is a fine spacious meadow dotted with oaks, populated by rabbits, with views of distant wooded hills. Ashdon is full of separate ‘ends’ - Knox End, Church End, Water End. Holden End nearby was a centre for strawplaiting in the last century when about 20 families lived there. Ignore the stiled footbridge, beside which is a large sarsen stone, remnant of an ice age millions of years ago. Unfortunately there is no view of the famous Roman burial mounds, the curious Bartlow Hills.

Follow the track alongside a fence, then through a farm gate to pass Newnham Hall Farm, built on a sheltered, streamside site in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but replacing an earlier building nearby, one time known as Cloptons after its medieval owners. It is many centuries since it was new, for at Domesday ‘Neunham’ belonged to one of William the Conqueror’s right-hand men, and at one time the manorial lands spread right across the parish. The 13th century lord of the manor had the right to erect his own gallows, and hold assize of bread and ale. There were sheepwalks here one time for the chalk soil, though easier to work, was not as fertile as the claylands elsewhere. Today Newnham is part of the vast Vestey landholdings.

There are ghost stories round here, legends of fighting men seen on moonlit nights in distant fields, related perhaps to the Civil War battle at Linton which is not far away. A hoard of silver coins hidden at this time was found in 1984, a short distance away near Walton Hall. Skirt the left edge of the farmyard past the byre and silage area to a somewhat hidden stile on the right between tyres and machinery; but take care as the path is narrow and the stile slippery. Over to the left can be seen The Rectory, one of the finest houses in Ashdon.The path along the field is ploughed close and it is hard to find the track to the right through the woods. But persevere as this is a lovely little bluebell and oak woodland apparently called The Brues, with signs of fox as well as pheasant. Both wood and field paths emerge on an old high-banked lane, very near where the high-arched bridge of the Bartlow branch line used to cross: labourers working in the fields told the time by means of its four daily trains. There were dreams of linking further afield, but nothing came of it and then the whole railway got Beechinged anyway in the 1960s. Signs of Neolithic man have been found in the past hereabouts.

Turn left up steep Rectory Lane, looking back to another little woodland and a pink house to the right called Ricketts. Turn right at ‘Westview’ on a signposted path up a driveway to a newly-surfaced farm road. Look for a waymarked gap up the bank, and cross here to the other side of the hedge. Foxes can be spotted hereabouts. Mind the stinging nettles, in summer black with the caterpillars of tortoiseshell butterflies.

After passing some old farm implements, keep to the right along the side of a paddock, then right again to the driveway of Hall Farm - this was the farm linked to Ashdon Hall, one of four ancient manors of the parish. Then turn left back down to Church Hill, passing a flinted building which used to be the nineteenth century Ashdon National School, remaining in use till the village board school opened. Opposite is Ashdon Hall whose lovely gardens, lawns and moat are out of sight. The other big house in Ashdon, Waltons has another walk to be recommended.

In fact there is fine walking everywhere in Ashdon, a tradition started by the late Dorothy Homewood, after whom one of the Ashdon paths is named. As John Player observed over 150 years ago: ‘Travelling folk in search of the picturesque very often go a great number of miles to see places not nearly so interesting after all, as their own’.

© Jacqueline Cooper 1996