Wednesday, November 01, 2006


Old cottages in the village of Ashow

The village of Ashow, just east of Kenilworth, is mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086) as Asceshot, possibly meaning “ash hill.” Ashow lay then, as it does now, along the north bank of the River Avon. Across the Avon from Ashow, at the time of the Domesday Book, lay the village of Bericote. Ashow was a larger community, with two mills to Bericote’s one, nine villeins to Bericote’s four, and four ploughs to Bericote’s two. Ashow also had the local church, the Church of the Assumption of Our Lady, which was connected to the priory in Kenilworth.

In this photograph, you can see four different stages in the architectural history of the Ashow church. At the back of the church (far right) is the early twelfth-century, Norman chancel, constructed of local red sandstone. Above where the chancel meets the nave, you can see mid-twentieth century wooden shingles. The lighter color stone on the south side of the nave is an eighteenth-century addition to reinforce the Norman nave. The square tower dates to the fifteenth century.

The medieval village of Bericote no longer exists. Looking at an Ordnance Survey map of Warwickshire (for example, OS 205, which covers the area around Stratford-on-Avon) you will see marked in Gothic print the sites of other medieval towns, now abandoned and virtually obliterated from the landscape. “Medieval village of Thornton (site of).” “Medieval Village of Compton Scorpion (site of).” What happened to them? Why did Bericote disappear?

One possible explanation is that Bericote was wiped out by the Black Death, which caused widespread depopulation of the English countryside in the middle of the fourteenth century. The plague hit especially hard in 1348-49, and again in 1361. It’s interesting to note that here in Kenilworth, the church of St. Nicholas went through fourteen different vicars in the fourteenth century—three vicars in the year 1349 alone, and eight in the twenty years between 1341 and 1361. This is another indication of the high mortality rate in the fourteenth century.

Bericote, however, seems to have held on until the middle of the sixteenth century, when it was probably done in by land enclosure. Ashow—larger and more prosperous—was not enclosed until the middle of the seventeenth century, and managed to survive. A local historian in Ashow explains the process and the effects of enclosure on the village:

Agriculture and society in Ashow were transformed in the seventeenth century with the enclosure of the common fields and meadows. After several centuries of operation, the medieval practice of strip farming was finally abandoned, probably around 1647, with the division of the land into individual units. The new fields were bounded by hedges and each was rented and worked separately by the tenant farmers. Rights in common to the woods and meadows were withdrawn. With the ending of strip farming, a system of community endeavour and co-operation was replaced by one of individual enterprise. Enclosure represents the biggest single change in the history of agriculture in the parish.

In the Middle Ages, villagers farmed strips of land in communal open fields surrounding the village, using the ridge and furrow method of cultivation. The traces of these medieval ridges and furrows can be seen in this field, outside Brinklow. You can also see in this photograph one of the reasons that the medieval open field system came to an end: sheep. As livestock farming, particularly sheep, became more extensive and profitable, there was increasing pressure from wealthy landowners to enclose the common land for grazing. The process began in the twelfth century, but actually slowed a little in the fourteenth as the plague depopulated the countryside and reduced competition for land. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, enclosure sped up again. Entire communities, like Bericote, disappeared as their inhabitants, mostly small tenant farmers, found that they couldn’t afford to rent the newly enclosed land. Enclosure resulted in the pattern of individual hedge-bordered fields so characteristic of the Warwickshire landscape today.

Halloween update. We had three groups of trick-or-treaters come to our door last night. We were also visited by the Kenilworth Youth for Christ, who were handing out blessings rather than asking for treats. "We don't believe in Halloween," the youth group leader told me. "We believe in the Light, not the darkness." This morning, I saw one roll of toilet paper draped in a hedge, and I passed a group of old people discussing the ways in which they eluded the trick-or-treaters who came to their doors.

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