A-Z of England: Z is for Ashby De La Zouch
A-Z is for Ashby De La Zouch
The English language is our greatest achievement. Every bit as mongrel as the people who speak it and as resilient. It makes a mockery of those who wish to impose hard and fast rules and it questions the whole division of study into separate disciplines. English adapts and embraces. Fifteen hundred years of our history, geography and multiculturalism are entwined in the words we use every day and nowhere more so than in the names of the places where we live, where we walk, sail, ride or climb.
If a place ends in ‘chester’ then it was a Roman settlement, if it ends in ‘thwaite its history is norse. If it ends in field then, contrary to our modern meaning, it was an open unenclosed space. If it ends in ‘barton, biggin, ham, thorpe or wick it was once a farm. If it ends in derry, grove, slough, shaw or wold it was a wooded area. If you are on a fell then you are standing where once the area was dominated by people who invaded from the west and if you are on a moor then the invasion almost certainly came from the east. If you are in a place ending ‘by’ you are inside the boundaries of Viking England. If there is a unusual French sounding suffix (e.g. Chapel en le Frith) then the influence of the Norman conquest can still be felt.
Interestingly, the Normans invaded England five hundred years more recently than the Danes, imposed their language on the country (particularly on the administration of the country) and yet have left very little imprint on place names. There are a mere handful of French names in the country yet there are over 1500 towns and villages using the suffix ‘by’ (almost all of them north of the London/Chester line that divides old Saxon England from that ruled by the Vikings). Our language owes a significant bow to the French but a much greater debt to the Danes, the Dutch and the Germans. Not too surprising when you consider that the language came from them in the first place.
Ashby de la Zouch is a Danish town with a French flourish. Ashby means a farm among ash trees. The de la Zouch refers to the Norman family who were given the feudal ownership of the lands during the reign of Henry III. Today it stands as a very English town whose Danish heritage is limited to a range of pastries behind the counter in Costa. The Zouch has proved popular with owners of restaurants and boutiques but has elsewhere disappeared almost as completely as the Normans. The dominant family for centuries in these parts have the ambiguously Anglo/Norman name of Hastings. The most famous (and here I deliberately confuse real history with Shakespearean history) was one of the principle supporters of Richard III until only the top part of him arrives on stage, in Act III scene 5, carried in a sack by Catesby, who is carrying out Hastings own instructions:
“Come lead me to the block; bear him [Richard] my head.
They smile at me, who shortly shall be dead”
Before his execution he had begun plans to develop the castle that stands close to the town centre. The plans were never fully carried out. It is an fine castle despite of this. An excellent place to explore either as an adult or a child. Lots of room to run around in, towers to climb and tunnels to burrow through. The views from the top of Hastings’ Tower show the entire town and the countryside for miles around.
The castle had already fallen into ruin by the time most of the current town was built. Like all such defensible sites it was rendered indefensible by Cromwell’s troops and left to play its part by recording history rather than making it.
The castle is the setting for one of England’s most enduring legends, albeit in a version written by a scot. Walter Scott set Ivanhoe around Ashby and the famous archery contest, where Robin Hood wins by splitting the arrow already shot into the very bulls eye of the target, takes place at Ashby castle.
Around the town Leicestershire and Derbyshire stretch out over a flat plain that is being turned into England’s newest forest. The National Forest is a plan to fill two hundred square miles of the centre of England with trees and wildlife habitats. The plan is twenty years old and is beginning to take effect. (Until recently you passed signs on the A42 telling you that you were entering the National Forest only to look out of your car window on acres and acres of farmland, villages and small industrial plots). The trees are beginning to grow, pathways are being laid out. Britain has a chequered history in the planting of trees and one can only hope (with some justification) that lessons have been learnt from twentieth century experience. At that time thousands of acres disappeared under Sitka Spruce with damage done to animal and bird life as well as the beauty of the landscape.
It’s raining when I arrive so the library and museum makes an excellent place to start. The cheerful fellow on the museum desk has brevity down to an art. “Pound please. There’s two exhibitions; one in here and one in there.” I felt fully prepared.
And the museum is quite delightful. Once the two men with pushchairs had finished their voluble presentations to their youngsters (which, to the outsider, sound more like an intended demonstration of what good fathers they are) I was free to read the boards that give a potted history of the town and move on to some unusual displays. In one room a Victorian woman swings from a trapeze and in the other room (remember there are only two) a newly dug grave is the central exhibit. The trapeze artiste seems to be swinging towards the shop window of a chemists’ where many bars of soap are displayed while the grave is overlooked by a large collection of commemorative mugs. What the exhibits may lack in coherence they more than make up for in their oddity value.
Apart from the castle, a fine parish church and a water tower that has controversially been given planning permission for conversion into a dwelling, the architecture of Ashby is understated. It is the sort of town where you arrive and say, “This is nice enough” without being over-impressed, and then slowly grow under its spell. The best buildings don’t shout their glories but draw you towards them and slowly reveal their charms. Much of market street consists of wooden framed houses but only a few of the frames are revealed. Some have been sensitively conserved under plaster. Sensitive is not always the first word that comes to mind. The town suffers from some appalling plate glass shop fronts and shop signs that are close to visual vandalism. I sit in a restaurant and enjoy a three course lunch (it was raining and the food was good so I kept ordering) where the view is of “SuperNews and Cards” and “Corals”. There can be few less pleasing views in an English high street. A particular crime as both shops are housed in attractive buildings that they have chosen to despoil.
The Bull’s Head pub is the pick of the buildings architecturally. If I were still a drinking man this is where I’d settle for a pint of bitter beer. If the brewers art is respected as much as the builder’s then it would go down nicely.
Away for the very centre are a series of impressive terraces. England does terraces really well from the glories of Bath to the back streets of Salford. In Ashby there are examples from different eras. The town was once a popular spa (wells of natural salt waters were discovered in the search for coal) and some of the best terraces date from this period. Ashby was never a coal mining town but for two hundred years was encircled by collieries. The very first deep coal mine in England was only a few miles from the centre. For a town with a considerable history it has never been dominated by any particular industry. It’s produced coal and soap and mineral waters and leather goods in its time. Today the biggest employers are KP snacks and Tesco; both bringing jobs and money but little quality to the area.
It has one quiet claim to fame. For years it was the home of Barbara Abney Hastings. A formidable woman who sat in the House of Lords up until reform left her hereditary claim redundant. She could trace her lineage back to George Plantagenet, brother to Edward IV and Richard III and with a stronger claim than either of them to the throne of England (hence, in Shakespeare’s history, the need to have him bumped off…drowned in a butt of malmsey). Her son, Michael Abney Hastings was the subject of a Channel 4 documentary “Britain’s Real Monarch”. If male line primogeniture held and the illegitimacy of Edward IV could be proved (his father was out of the country at the time of his conception) then the true kings and queens of England would have lived in Ashby de la Zouch. Both Michael Abney Hastings (now sadly dead) and his son, Simon have stronger claims on the English throne than the current queen. Both are Australian citizens. That should bring a little extra colour to the state opening of parliament. And a King Simon is long over-due.