The B5678 out of the town of Biventry in the direction of Fayns Eigh meanders roughly north-eastwards uphill on the course of the River Abon through dense woods, before emerging into the Vale of the Grey Earwig at the confluence of the Ab, the Holtbrook and the Drakewater. The little, unspoiled village of Abthite nestles in this pleasant valley on the edge of the foothills rising to the west and north. Abthite hugely repays a visit, and offers a hearty welcome to the traveller both in its celebrated public house the Lundqvist Arms and in such of its shops as serve refreshment. There are a number of interesting antiquities and architectural curiosities in the village that merit inspection, as well as specialist shops in which local produce and handicrafts are available for sale.
Of particular architectural interest in Abthite are the Church and the Castle.
To the north of the village at the end of the High Street is the Church of Saint Sebastian, Abthite, set back from the road in a churchyard whose monumental features include several highly ornamental tombs dedicated to some of the local notables, as well as a large drinking-fountain dating from 1823 and situated immediately inside the lychgate. This amenity is dedicated to the memory of "Spotte, the Dogg", and incorporates a trough at its base from which it was intended that dogs should be able to drink at need. The fountain no longer functions, its water-supply having been cut off with an axe by the Vicar of the time when it was directly implicated in an outbreak of poliomyelitis which claimed seven lives in the village in 1907 and left a number of villagers with severely impaired mobility; the trough beneath survived his righteous wrath and is still used occasionally by the local animal population, though not always for the purpose for which it was intended.
The frieze of gargoyles round the entire roof of the church structure, though probably not original, is the finest and most unusual collection of ecclesiastical decorative carving to be found anywhere in England, even including the "medieval minstrels' gallery" on the church at Adderbury in Oxfordshire. Their provenance has mystified church historians; it seems impossible for experts even to agree as to their number or position, to say nothing of their significance, which Geoffrey Turville (The Influence of the Arian Revival on English Church Architecture, Maskin & Proffett, 1911) stated emphatically to be "quite exclusively pagan, if not downright irreligious", though Anselm Lyall and Marcoul d'Entredeux subsequently made a case for a Lollard influence in the chapter on St. Sebastian's in their definitive study (The Making and Breaking of the Coigne in England, Birken Rudlett and Nephews Publishing, 1933).
The earliest surviving portion of the interior is a carved screen which has been dated at 1276; however, it is certain that there was a church on this site previous to that date, and the first vicar recorded as having held the living is Ugo de Wokyng in 1184. To the right of the West Door as you enter from the churchyard is a list of vicars, from Ugo to the present day; this is complete apart from the lacuna during the interregnum in the seventeenth century. Local legend has it that the incumbent at that time refused to acknowledge the current administration of either Church or country, and held services in a clearing in the Big Woods behind the Church, whilst the Village in turn refused to acknowledge his theoretical successor, whose name is lost through never having been recorded by them.
The triptych over the high altar, an otherwise fine example of early Medieval painting, appears to have suffered considerable damage from wood-boring insects of some variety; there is speculation that these were particularly attracted by the pigments employed in the representation of flesh, since their depredations are remarkably concentrated around the central figure of St. Sebastian, whose features it is now almost impossible to identify. In other respects it is a remarkable piece and well repays examination.
The tower unfortunately remains closed to visitors, for safety reasons, as does the south chantry, which is open only for fifteen minutes on the second Wednesday in February each year. This however affords the visitor ample time to examine the perpendicular font.
The carving of the choir-stalls and pulpit also has a number of interesting features.
To the east of Abthite is the Castle, situated on the hill at the end of Castle Hill Lane; this is not open to visitors, but may be observed from a distance.
The first structure on this site, a simple motte and bailey construction, was built in 1077 by Sir Boamund de Biennes—'Boamund Li Best Savage', as he was known to his contemporaries. Boamund's original castle was expanded and substantially strengthened in the reign of Edward I, and again during the Wars of the Roses, at which time (owing to a fundamental misunderstanding of current affairs by Sir John de Biennes) a moat, palisade and ravelin were built up through the middle of the flower beds.
Sir John's grandfather, Sir Malheury de Biennes, placed over the
front gate the celebrated inscription;
"Roy ne suis,
Ni duc ni comte aussi.
Je suis le Sieur de Abthiet"
The Castle was, however, slighted by Fairfax's men during the Civil War and lay derelict thereafter for nearly two centuries.
The Castle owes its present form to Sir Ranulph Biennes, the notable Victorian explorer and eccentric, who based his design on the recently-completed palace of King Ludwig of Bavaria. Shortly after the beginning of the Second World War the castle was requisitioned by the Ministry of Defence, and in 1957 it passed into the occupation of the Special Operations Executive of the Milk Marketing Board. When the MMB was disbanded in the early 1990s, and the Last Alliance of Bears and Piglets drove the Dark Power out of Thames Ditton, the Castle was considered as spoils of war and sold, at which time it came into the possession of the presently resident Princess' family, who have maintained it since that date and do not open it to the public under any circumstances. The Princess' interdict on trespassers is enforced by one of the two resident dragons of Abthite, whose cave is situated under the Castle Mound. From a distance, however, the Castle lends enchantment to the view, a fairy-tale construction.
Other points of interest of the village may best be listed in the order in which they would be encountered by a visitor approaching from the south on the B5678 from Biventry.
Near the southern boundary of the village proper is the Mill of Abthite, an impressive fourteenth century structure just visible to the east of the road. Tradition asserts that the miller's family has held this position in Abthite in an unbroken line, father to son, since the Reformation, and although the present miller admits to having discovered "a little bit of wrong side of the blanketry" in the family records from the time of Richard II, many believe the family has been a central pillar of the community for a millennium and more. The Mill of Abthite is one of the few working water-mills remaining in the area; much of the machinery has been dated to the reign of Elizabeth I, and is still used by the jovial miller to grind flour from the produce of the local agricultural establishments. The dangers posed to the unwary by the various wheels, shafts and stones, now also used to sharpen machinery and even to charge batteries, mean that only supervised parties can be permitted onto the Mill premises, and you are strongly advised to book a tour of inspection. If time precludes such a tour, the visitor may at least pause to admire the Mill's exterior, with its fine display of gargoyles.
To the left of the Mill, closer to the road, rises the Granary, now alas almost fallen into disuse, since grist for the Mill is no longer stored there; the structure remains intact, but is considered unsafe for public access. Nevertheless its exterior, like that of the Mill, presents a pleasing appearance, having a splendid selection of gargoyles around its eaves. The entire structure rests some seventeen inches from the ground on a large body of what the local residents call "mushrooms", stone pillars of that shape designed in the thirteenth century to repel the incursions of rats, which are thought to be thwarted by the pillars' overhang. Privately, the Miller will affirm his belief that the rats would use the steps at the front, just like anyone else, and that a rat too stupid to do so would not survive long in the competitive atmosphere of the Village. This theory has not been recently tested, since no rat has been stupid enough to be seen in the village since the Great Rat-Hunt of 1927, when terriers from all over the county were called in, and the final specimen of the day was run down outside the Granary, unable apparently to climb into it up one of the "mushrooms" in spite of having on a full set of crampons, rope and a climbing harness. These latter miniature artifacts are preserved in a case inside the door of the Mill, just to the left of the Great Chain, and are believed to be evidence that the Squire of that time was possessed of a somewhat warped sense of humour.
Passing the Mill on the right, the traveller arrives at the Crossroads, actually a triangular junction at which Mill Road, as the B5678 is known on this section of its route, is joined from the right by Castle Hill Lane, and becomes itself the High Street. The chestnut tree that grows in the triangular grass plot between the roads, spreading its branches over the junction, is one of the finest specimens to be found in the county. Beneath the shade of this tree is the Bus-Stop, retained and maintained by the villagers partly out of a sentimental feeling of nostalgia and partly because of a superstitious belief that one day a bus will come. In keeping with this faith, the Village Blacksmith ritually stands beneath the tree on Thursdays (market day in Biventry) and Mondays (market day in Marden Incipit) from nine until ten in the morning and waits for the bus to appear. That it has not done so in living human memory, and the route was in fact officially "taken off" at the time of the privatisation of public transport, has done nothing to prevent the traditionally-minded from taking part in the annual "Cleansing of the Bus-Stop" on Blanket Monday, which involves a libation of old ale, and also, on a more practical note, the complete refurbishment of both stop and shelter, so necessary for the local vandals to practise their art upon. It is said that anyone who can successfully vandalise this bus-shelter is immediately in line for the Regional Vandalism Championships, moving by a default directly into the semi-finals; as a result the rate of ordinary vandalism in Abthite is virtually nil, all potential vandals finding less challenging targets beneath their notice or dignity. Visitors' attention is drawn in particular to the elegant wrought-iron detail in the roof of the shelter, and to the fine gargoyles at the five corners of the structure.
The visitor to this sleepy little hamlet may prefer to park in one of the convenient laybys situated at the edge of the Green and explore on foot, since the "setts" in the back-lanes of Abthite are ill-designed for motor vehicles, dating back as they do to the late Middle Ages in some places, and certainly being more suited for the passage of pack-trains than of lorries. Whilst it is not advised that you park under the spreading chestnut tree itself—in Autumn this is a particularly hazardous undertaking, and at any time of year any vehicle parked at or near the Bus-Stop is liable either to summary removal or to being treated as a bus and driven to Plox Crucis or beyond with or without its erstwhile owner's consent—the rate of actual crime in the village is remarkably low, and in general items left in parked cars are as safe as the legendary naked virgin with a bag of gold, reputed to have walked unscathed from one end of the Village to the other during the reign of King Alfred. Cynical inhabitants remark that since the virgin in question is said to have been the then-blacksmith's son Byrhtmoth, a six-foot-nine brawny-thewed early exponent of Naturism, and the gold was the property of the then-resident dragon, this is not so remarkable a story as it may appear at first sight, speaking more of common-sense than of honesty on the part of the other inhabitants, but it has been taken as exemplary by generations of parents, if not by their offspring, if for no other reason than that the present-day resident dragons tend to take personal exception to petty crime just as their predecessors have always done.
His car once safely bestowed, the visitor and his party cannot do better than stroll up Castle Hill Lane, pausing perhaps on the bridge over the River Abon to peer down into the pellucid waters in the hope of glimpsing one of the piraña, strayed down-river from the ford of the Drakewater in the High Street, as it comes to the surface in the hope of a scrap of meat from a sandwich or of a carelessly-placed limb. In the distance ahead, at the extreme eastern edge of the village, the Castle may be discerned on its hill-top.
To the north of Castle Hill Lane, facing onto the Green, are the Almshouses, erected in 1896 to a design by Dame Dora St. Denis and endowed by her in perpetuity or as long as the funds hold out, to use her own phrase. This apparently inconvenient Gothick structure contains surprisingly commodious accommodation for the Deserving Poor of the Village, who to this day pay a peppercorn rent for use of the premises. That one of the gargoyles (the seventeenth from the left as you approach from the Crossroads) bears a striking resemblance to an elderly Horace Walpole (1717-1797) has been adduced by locals as evidence that Dame Dora had her fair share of her family's well-known black sense of humour, and that she still "Knew What Was What" in spite of having married a Wealthy Furriner from Bream (eight miles away) and been absent from Abthite until his death of the botts seventeen years later, at which time she returned to the Village from their residence on the French Riviera and devoted herself to Good Works in the face of all opposition. Unfortunately all the units are occupied, and the visitor cannot make any inspection of the interiors, which owe a great deal to Dame Dora's youthful friendship with several notable members of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement. At least three of the corner-cupboards are said to have been made in person by William Morris (1834-96), as a favour to her family, and the dados in the withdrawing-rooms are taken from a design by Sir John Millais (1829-96). The free-standing baths, with their reptilian feet and onyx soap dishes, are of an earlier period, almost certainly mid-Regency, and it is believed that Dame Dora bought them as a job lot in a fire-sale.
Beyond the Almshouses stretches the Village Green, scene of many a stirring contest and rousing victory during the Village Cricket season, and also of course of the Village Fete, at which such traditional sports as Dragon Tug-o'-War, squid-wrestling and earwig races take place in late summer. Visitors are asked to be especially careful not to set foot on the cricket square, which as is only proper is Sacred Ground to the inhabitants. At the northern end of the Green the neo-Palladian residence of the Village Choir-Master can be glimpsed through the trees on the rising ground to the far side of the Holtbrook: this imposing dwelling is reputed to have been designed by no less architect than John Nash (1752-1835) during one of the many periods when he needed ready cash to pay his more immediate debts, whilst awaiting payment from the Prince Regent for some project undertaken by him for that impecunious ruler. This provenance unfortunately cannot be conclusively demonstrated, all the papers in the house having sadly been lost during the Great Chill of 1894, but is certainly regarded as a fact by the residents of the village.
Continuing anti-clockwise round the edge of the Green, the visitor should take note of a most unusual feature in an overgrown garden to the south of Castle Hill Lane, believed to be the only pre-Victorian wrought-iron greenhouse for three counties around. Unfortunately this interesting structure is in very poor repair, and has sagged considerably from its original shape, possibly owing to the weight of the many gargoyles that serve it in place of more conventional guttering.
To the east of the Green two streets lead to the north, one (Holt Leas) along the edge of the Green itself and the other (The Shambles) passing between various charming cottages on its way to the Old Cheese Shop, in which as well as many unusual varieties of cheese the visitor may purchase home-made cakes, scones and other delectable comestibles, and many items of local handicraft including miniature models lovingly handcrafted in resin of some of the gargoyles to be seen on local buildings, and glass goblets etched with the Village badge of a cubit arm vambraced, the hand in a gauntlet, grasping a quill pen, with the motto "What we have we holt". This badge has no authority from the College of Heralds, but owes its existence to a misunderstanding by a vicar of the parish in the late nineteenth century, when he erroneously assumed that the ancient arms of the de Biennes family (sable, a mailed fist proper, with the motto "Habeo Teneoque" - "I have and I hold") were those of the entire village, and ascribed the motto, with its local pronunciation of "hold", as a reference to a notable local family not descended from Sir Boamund de Biennes. It has been adopted by the Village with or without proper right, and is displayed on for example the blazer pockets of members of the Cricket Club, and many of the hassocks in St Sebastian's Church.
On leaving the Cheese Shop, the visitor may walk back towards the Green down Home Farm Lane and join Holt Leas, and it is from here that the best view is obtained of the mysterious hill-carving from which the valley gets its name. Perhaps an imitation of the chalk figures so well-known in the South of England such as the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire, the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset, and the Long Man of Wilmington in Sussex, to name but three, this primitive work of art is certainly of at least as great antiquity—unlike the eighteenth and nineteenth century imitations at for example Westbury, Wiltshire—though on a less monumental scale, measuring under a hundred and fifty feet from end to end where the White Horse is over three hundred and fifty. It has been variously interpreted by archeologists, but the local population has never been in any doubt at all that it represents a grey earwig, cut through the turf of the hillside at the west of the village and down to the rock beneath. That it was impossible until the end of the last century to explain what, precisely, might be the significance of such a representation has never worried the inhabitants of Abthite; more recently, it has been assumed that the figure must have been the result of a prophetic or shamanic dream, and was intended by their distant forebears as a warning to Be Careful What You Ask For. Visitors are advised that the best time of year for viewing the figure is in the spring, when it is most clearly distinct against newer, paler growth; later in the year, the darker colouration of the undergrowth surrounding it tends to obscure the clarity of the image.
The Grey Earwig is cleared once a year by the villagers, but outsiders are rarely invited to join the festivities on this occasion and uninvited persons may find their escort from the scene somewhat rough.
On joining Holt Leas at the edge of the Village Green, the visitor might care to turn to the right and walk to the edge of the Green past the Cricket Pavilion, noting the excellent display of gargoyles along the edge of its roof; this is believed to be the only 1930s pavilion in the country with examples of "musician" gargoyles. Your attention is drawn in particular to the harmonica-player and the swanee-whistler, each a masterpiece; the illusion of actual harmonica- and swanee-whistle-playing is, we understand, caused by the play of the wind through cunningly-placed reeds within the "spouts" of these elegant monstrosities.
The Library stands on the edge of the Green, and it is here that another feature of village life unique to Abthite may be found: the only fully-functional guineapigapult in existence is situated to the north-west of the library, and the really fortunate visitor may be lucky enough to see it in use, as the Village Guinea-Pig employs it to assist him in returning a book to the library before selecting another and returning to his palatial residence by chute from the upper-floor window through which he had gracefully flown, impelled by the powerful elastic of this cast-iron and bronze masterpiece of the engineerwig's art.
Tearing his attention from this extraordinary device, the visitor may then turn towards the north, where, amongst the fine beech-trees on the slope to the north of the Ab below its confluence with the Holtbrook, he may descry the choir-master's neo-Palladian mansion, set in grounds now alas somewhat run wild but nonetheless charming in late spring, when the rhododendrons are in flower. This superb house has already been glimpsed from the far end of the Green; it is now possible to observe it more closely, though the rather nice frescoes by a pupil of Canaletto are not on public display, the choir-master valuing his privacy and not being persuaded that charging sixpence for a glimpse of them would provide an income outweighing the inconvenience of having to dust the rooms. This may be the only neo-Palladian mansion in existence with gargoyles providing rain-water disposal from its otherwise unremarkable porch.
On the eastern side of the Green a prospect of the High Street spreads along the far bank of the Abon. This street has a pleasing dishomogeneity which is nevertheless harmonious, with houses and shops representative of a variety of architectural periods, made from several different materials, and yet withal forming a whole that reveals no radical dissonances to the eye. By walking round the edge of the Green in a clockwise direction, retracing the route already covered on the roads, the visitor is afforded a view of the front of the Almshouses, with their delightful bow windows, and may make out the residence of the last scion of the de Beinnes family, a pleasant Queen Anne house somewhat resembling the Lamb House in Rye, which stands overlooking the Ford where the High Street crosses the Drakewater as its waters enter the Ab. The resident of this house traditionally has charge of the piraña that infest the Drakewater.
Looking across the Green towards the Ab and the Abon, the visitor may be fortunate enough to enjoy (briefly) a sighting of the Ferry operated by the Abon and Drakewater Steamship Company. It is generally referred to as the 'wig ferry, since that is how it works (Wing In Ground-effect). Its designer, Isambard Kingdom Earwig, supposes that it might also be called "The Abon and Drakewater Steam Ferry", in keeping with the name of the company that operates it, whose title was chosen in spite of the fact that the ferry is neither powered by steam nor a ship. There is at present only one ferry.
In appearance it bears a startling resemblance to a very small jet aircraft with deep (fore-to-aft) wings and a single engine mounted low on the T-tail. It operates after the manner of a hovercraft, compressing air under the wings and body to provide lift, so it spends most of its time three or four inches above the surface of the water; but this compression is achieved purely through forward motion, rather than requiring an extra lift engine.
It produces relatively little spray; most of that is undirected, forming a cloud behind the ferry. There is almost no wash—certainly not as much as comes from an enthusiastic piraña. (Isambard is a moderately responsible citizen, particularly when it comes to annoying people who are bigger than him.) Isambard supposes that the best means of avoiding the spray cloud would be to point an umbrella towards the sound of the approaching ferry and keep it there until the ferry has passed, which takes very little time: the ferry travels at a top speed of 125 mph, and can manoeuvre at over 9 G (which earwigs do not mind in the slightest) with its full load of eight crewwigs and 400 passengerwigs—something of a necessity in the confined spaces in which it operates.
The noise is perhaps louder than one might wish, but the light turbofan does only produce 25lb of thrust, so the volume of air being moved is not all that great.
The ferry is capable of travelling over land—sand or snow would be best, though short-cut grass would also be possible—but is entirely unable to take off again should it be forced to touch down away from the water. It requires a 25-yard takeoff run.
On the High Street slightly to the north of the Ford, the Book Shop has one of the finest collections of second-hand and new books outside Hay-on-Wye, and attracts bibliophile customers from all corners of the globe both in winter and in summer; the Village Shop and Coffee Room, two houses further north, appears to stock any ordinary household item that has ever been requested by any resident of the Village, and many things whose uses are nowadays unknown or arcane; this shop is worth a visit if only for its value as a source of theoretically useful gifts guaranteed to baffle and fascinate the recipient. Some items are for display purposes only (for example the spokeshaver's coracle suspended from a beam, and the guitars) and are not for sale, but an order for a similar item can be placed, and will be dispatched within three days.
Opposite the Church and the duckpond is the village Pub, the Lundqvist Arms, until recently notable for the enormous size of its sign (now unfortunately no longer on display, having blown away in the high winds of the autumn of 2002). Surely there could be no better place for the weary visitor to come to rest after the tour of Abthite! An old coaching inn festooned with roses, ivy and gargoyles, and boasting a fine view over the village Duck Pond and the Green, the "Lundy" provides excellent home-cooked meals, some of the finest beers and ales for six counties around both bottled and on draught, and a range of liqueurs and spirits both ordinary and exotic and including sixty-three different single malt whiskies, all served by the jovial hostess and licensee. For a real taste of the best of Olde England, an evening spent in the convivial company of the locals at the Lundqvist Arms cannot be beaten. After the session, visitors may be invited to join in the game of "count the gargoyles", and should not take it to heart if they, like the locals over many years, are unable to decide just how many gargoyles there are on the roof of the inn!
One individual inhabitant of Abthite should not be left unremarked: Patricia the Learned Pig occupies a sty in the yard of the Lundqvist Arms, and may perhaps impart some of her wisdom to the discerning visitor who comes in search of it and remembers to bring an appropriate offering. She is particularly partial to brown-bread-and-lettuce sandwiches, and her preferred tipple is a pint of TS. Visitors are asked to replace the rake on the hook provided when they have finished using it to scratch her back.
For further information on Abthite or on any of the subjects mentioned in
this guide the visitor is directed to the following works: