Sometime during the second half of the 1st Century the Roman Highways Department decided to extend Watling Street, which covered the 160km from London to Viroconium (tribal capital of the Celtic Cornovii), to Deva. This would connect London and the River Thames on the east coast to the west coast River Dee, the Irish Sea and the Atlantic. As the Department's roadworkers toiled their way across the scrub-covered plain near the halfway point of this new link road, they may have looked longingly at the shelter of the ash-wooded slopes of the gentle ridge a mile to their east. With the nice safe fort of Mediolanum beckoning to them from just three miles further north and the possibility of Ancient Britons lurking in the hills however, they probably kept right on working.
They wouldn't have known they were digging what was once the bed of the giant late-glacial Lake Lapworth. A lake made of meltwater dammed during a pause in the retreat of an ice sheet 16,000 years before. Or that the plain was made by the outwash from that halted ice sheet. Or that the ash-wooded ridge had been an island in the lake; an island formed by a high pile of sand and gravel left behind during the retreat of the previous glacier. They wouldn't have known that all the gentle plains and rolling landscape around them were created by a series of ice ages over the last 65 million years. Ice ages that made and laid down thick layers of clay over the underlying red sandstone rock that was formed in a hot desert during the previous 160 million years.
1000 years later the Romans were long gone, but their road was still there, Mediolanum had become Westune, a small village on the western edge of Saxon Mercia and two small clearings had been made in the ash woods on the top of the ridge. In the clearings were two hamlets, Saxon-named Ash Magna and Ash Parva, both belonging to the manor1 of Westune.
2000 years after the Romans, the A41 trunk road along Prees Heath still follows the line of their road. Westune is now Whitchurch, a small market town in the northwest of the county of Shropshire in the English Midlands, bordering on Wales. Ash Magna has grown into a village, and, in the late 20th Century, the Post Office decided that it and Ash Parva should both be just Ash.
The Village(s) in 2001
Today Ash Magna is still small with around 75 houses and a population around 250. An 1888 map shows about one third of that number, of which a handful, including Ash Hall, Ash Grove and the two half timbered 'black and white' cottages in the centre, still stand. Other half timbered cottages became dilapidated and were replaced around the 1930s to 1950s. The local council2 built several large family council houses and senior citizens' bungalows at the north end of the village. More houses were built in the 1970s in what had been gardens.
Ash Grove, one of the larger houses, has been converted into a residential home for the elderly and another, formerly a farmhouse, into a nursery. The residential home, the nursery, the village pub and a part time working smithy are the only sources of work within the village apart from farming.
The White Lion pub consists of wooden chairs, small round iron tables on a quarry tile floor, dart board, home made food, no brasses, no piped music or juke box, locals take their pints round the corner to the village hall if they want a game of snooker. There is a lounge with more comfortable seats to the right of the front entrance, but the action is usually in the room to the left.
The village hall, sometimes called The Parish Room, was in need of a major rebuild or replacement and this was the subject of much debate. A decision by 2007, when the old hall will no longer meet licensing requirements, is hoped for.
A telephone box, a bench, a bowling green, a play area and a war memorial are other notable amenities. The war memorial was originally dedicated on 9 October, 1920. It was rededicated on 15 October, 2000 after being repaired and tidied up.
There used to be a bus shelter. It vanished overnight. The next night the gap in the bank where it had stood was filled in. All evidence of it ever existing has been removed. Rumour is that this was the unilateral work of a parish councillor fed up with the teenagers hanging out there.
There also used to be a school, shop, and Post Office. These were removed by economies of scale.
The church, Christ Church, is in the middle of the parish, 1.5 miles from the village, in splendid isolation. It is an Anglican church, that was built in 1836 in red brick with a small tower, one bell and wood panelling inside. The church is part of the 'combined benefice' of Adderley, Ash, Ightfield and Calverhall, and Moreton Saye. This amalgamation happened in 1998, due to shortages of vicars and funds.
Ash Parva has a duck pond - the classic village pond, small but very pretty. This village, or suburb of Ash as the Post Office presumably views it, or Lower Ash as it is sometimes called, has around 20 houses. Like Ash Magna, it has grown threefold since 1888. The houses are mostly small cottages, but include a Methodist Chapel converted to a house, a restored large 18th century farmhouse and a rebuilt early half timbered farmhouse.
Around and About
The slight ridge of higher ground the village is built on looks over part of the Shropshire plain, bordered by The Wrekin and the Shropshire hills, to the south and over the top of Whitchurch to the Welsh mountains in the west. To the north and east lies the Cheshire plain. The villages are surrounded by green fields. These are mainly grass for dairy cattle but increasing areas of maize are being grown. A mile past the church is Melverley Farm, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)3 for its 47 acres of protected traditional hay meadow.
Half a mile from the village is Brown Moss, a nature reserve and another SSSI, for some small plants that grow on land that is randomly waterlogged. In 1999/2000 there was heated discussion in the village about the felling of some woodland to maintain the habitat for which the Moss was given its SSSI status. Water levels were higher in 1999/2000 and some plant species that had disappeared have returned. It is open to the public who walk dogs, feed geese, slide on the iced lake, or walk in the woods.
After all the tree planting that was done to mark the new millennium there should be plenty of trees by 2030 but in 2001 there were few mature trees in or immediately around the village. They were felled to clear the flightpaths of the planes from the nearby World War Two bomber training airfield half a mile away at Prees Heath. The Heath has been used for mustering armies for centuries. Some of the runways and buildings from its most recent involvement still remain. Part of it is yet another SSSI.
Bits, Pieces and Gossip
Ash Magna is built around the T-junction of two roads that meet around a small triangle. The village school used to be on the triangle. When the school closed it was sold, together with the land, by the church for housing. This is a source of some bitterness for those who say that part of the land should have been common land and therefore not the church's to sell. There was confusion over the necessity to register it as common land and it wasn't done. At one time the open area there served as a playground for the school, and the blacksmith used to put his newly made cartwheel hoops out on the grass to cool.
It was not so long ago, within the memory of some of Ash's residents in 2001, that water had to be fetched from the village pump. This used to be opposite the half timbered cottages, by the wall of the present village hall. The recess off the road where it was can still be seen.
The most noticeable building in the village is Ash Hall. Built on the highest point, in the late 1600s or early 1700s but almost certainly on the site of an earlier building, it is an imposing Queen Anne style house. Originally used as a hunting base, Ash Hall is now a working farmhouse.
A claim to fame lies at the top of the hill leaving Ash towards Whitchurch. Currently a residential home for the elderly, Ash Grove has a long history. It has a regency period facade but a stone inside indicates 1678 as the date of building. It also has sections of wattle and daub,4 hidden in the walls inside. It used to be the home of Alice Lambert. Alice was descended from the general who guarded Napoleon Bonaparte on Elba and from Harry and Juana Smith, made forever famous by Georgette Heyer in her book A Spanish Bride. Harry was an officer at the Battle of Waterloo. He met 14-year-old Juana when he was fighting in Spain.
Just outside the village, nearly at the bottom of the hill on the road leading to Whitchurch, is Ash Grange, a late Victorian mansion. It was built in 1884, complete with coach house and stables, and has been converted into apartments and houses. It is reported to have a ghost - a hooded monk, seen in the 1970s hovering a foot above the ground by a motorcyclist. More recently an Ash Grange mole, (possibly in an attempt to appease some of the occupants of the Grange, and maybe persuade them to desist from sticking lemonade bottles on sticks, garlic cloves and noxious household cleaning fluids in his runs), coming across a silver Charles I shilling in his tunnelling, flipped it up to the top of his molehill where it was found the next day, shining in the sunshine down by the sweet chestnut trees.
Up until the early part of the 20th Century Ash villagers worked on the local farms or in one of the large houses nearby. Some of their descendants still live in the village. In the 1950s there was a large increase in the population when the council houses were built and let. Later there was an influx of people who wanted to live in the country but commute to work in Shrewsbury, Chester or further afield. These groups can have different perspectives on what life in a village, or the countryside, is about.
Memories go back a long way. Some people might not talk because a great grandfather pinched apples from another. Some differences are more recent. The incident of the squashed tomatoes on the Women's Institute tablecloth caused friction for a while. Discussions over the behaviour of village teenagers are perennial. Despite the frictions, memories, and discussions however, Ash villagers pull together when the occasion arises. One way or another most of the village took part in the Ash millennium celebrations and the village has succeeded in keeping some sense of community at least as far as its entry into the third millennium.