We went to the über-charming village of Ashwell in Hertfordshire yesterday. It's a village which is very much part of my childhood landscape. We used to go there when we were living in Bedfordshire in the late 1970s. Back then, and for us kids, the place was all about the little knickknack shop, opposite the church, which was like something from Bagpuss. You could buy yo-yos there, little tiny tin boxes, plastic dinosaurs, Spanish fans and all the sorts of things that young children craved in that era. More than any of this, the little shop opened on a Sunday. Heaven knows how it managed to beat the trading laws, but it was jolly exciting!
Ashwell is a very beautiful village, filled with classic examples of almost every type of architecture from about 1200 to the present day. It's no wonder that my father used to take his history students there so that they could learn how to date houses and buildings.
It was my father's birthday celebration yesterday, but he refused to allow us to mention the word in case the staff in the local gastropub where we were eating appeared with a cake singing Happy Birthday tunelessly! We repeatedly wished him a "happy meal day" instead!
After eating we walked down to the famous springs. I think the village sits on nine springs, and there's a wonderful verdant hollow where you can paddle in the freezing, glorious crystal clear water. They've made little stepping stones, so the whole place is utterly picturesque, like a magical green grotto.
We went to look at the church, which, in the process of dating, my father said: "it's definitely 1350. You can tell by the clunch." After about ten minutes of solid laughter, we ascertained that clunch was a type of wall-covering - like plaster. At least, I think that's what it is. I was too busy trying to think up a joke which involved the word "minch."
The church is famous for its 14th Century graffiti near the alter. One piece of graffiti shows a rather fine etching of St Paul's Cathedral (the building which existed before the Great Fire of London burned it down.) The other notable piece is in Latin, and is about the horrors of the Black Death. Highly eerie and hugely atmospheric.
I learned a rather lovely fact from Sascha, who tells me that ABBA's Dancing Queen is one of our queen's favourite songs. She was apparently recently over-heard saying, when it came on, "I always dance to this tune, because I love dancing, and because I'm a queen!!" About a million gay men regularly say the same thing!
From Ashwell we drove cross country back to Thaxted. And when I say cross country, I mean single track roads, the like of which I didn't know existed in the U.K.! It was actually quite a terrifying experience. There were no passing points, and most of the cars we encountered were driving way too quickly. Sat nav can really screw you over!
We ate cheese for tea at Thaxted and sat in the garden with a friendly blackbird in what was left of the sunshine on an otherwise fairly inclement day. As I drove away from the village, I encountered the famous ghostly smoke again. Why do I never see this particular phenomenon when my mates are in the car?!