There are small villages in the British isles that rarely find themselves on the pages of guide books. Neither are they written about by travel writers of fame. Yet it is often in such places that you chance upon a quaint quality that adds charm to this island that at one point in history boasted of colonies all over the world. During the course of my various jaunts across the countryside of England with my husband, I came upon such a small village called Tilton On the Hill in the county of Leicestershire.
If you have ever been to the Midlands, you shall note that Leicester has been bereft of fame. To my mind, I can co-relate it to the War of Roses (fought in Bosworth in Leicestershire that brought to the throne of the country the House of Tudors) and the death of Cardinal Wolsey at the Leicester Abbey. Of course recently, Leicester had a shot at asserting its pride when it was found that the ‘humpback’ king of Shakespeare’s tales, Richard III, lay in a car park in the city and has been lying there for some 500-odd years. Till his scoliosis-ridden skeleton was excavated and is now to be re-interred in the Leicester Cathedral.
On a short winter’s day, when day light was fading as early as in the afternoon, we puttered down to the Tilton on the Hill. It is curious and yet charming how the English have this penchant of naming places geographically. Look at Ratcliffe-on-Soar and Newcastle Upon Tyne, for instance. They are named after the rivers that they are perched upon.
Tilton’s name is a derivation of the Anglo Saxon ‘Tila’s Tun’ (Tila’s settlement). The village is considered older – since it is at the crossing of ancient, possibly Bronze Age, trackways. The St. Peter’s Church in the village even finds place in the Domesday Book as the first known mention of a religious establishment in Tilton. In a brief aside: The Domesday Book is a record of the great survey of much of England and parts of Wales, completed in 1086. It was executed for William the Conqueror of England and is now housed at the National Archives, Kew, in south west London.
When we arrived at Tilton, which is known as the highest point in Leicestershire and located 700 feet above sea level, the first building that our eyes fell upon was the Rose & the Crown. It turned out to be a bustling public house or pub as we know it today.
When I entered the pub for a quick stop, I was astonished by the liveliness I detected because outside in the village, there was barely a soul to be seen. Strangely enough, I felt transported back in time when The Rose & the Crown would have been the nerve centre of the village. It has been at its social heart since 1707. My favourite memory of the pub was meeting ‘Santa’s Little Pet’ in its car park — a beautiful cocker spaniel wearing a black and white coat with the words stitched onto it. With his soulful brown eyes casting furtive looks at us apprehensively from the front seat of a red Mini Cooper, Droopy Ears had us cooing at him in no time. He did look rather forlorn.
Once we had our fill of befriending efforts toward our canine friend, we ventured out of the pub and within a few yards found ourselves among tombstones in the graveyard of St. Peter’s Church. While entering the church we were greeted by an old English couple, accompanied by the typical Englishman’s comment on the weather. “Not too cold a day, is it?” smiled the man. My silent answer to the cheerful rhetoric lay in the goosebumps on my arms.
The church had old, old graves. Some like that of Sir Johan de Diggebye and his wife, dated to the year 1269. I would like to think that he was an important man belonging to the village. Since research on him yielded little information. There were graves of soldiers who fought in the First World War. What we found fascinating was the fact that most parts of the church date back to the 13th and 14th century, though restoration work was conducted there in the mid 1800s.
The village itself was so small that we could walk a few yards in either direction and encompass all of it in the matter of half an hour. Small lanes led the way to adjoining hamlets. Yet Tilton had that ancient, untouched air about it — that made me imagine it almost like it would have been in Saxon times, situated as it was at the cross roads of ancient paths between Leicester, Market Harborough and Melton Mowbray.
There is however the Deserted Medieval Village of Whatborough that I am fixated upon to visit, the next time we are in the vicinity of Tilton. In this country, there are said to be 3,000 such deserted villages that were abandoned during the middle ages, typically leaving no trace of their existence apart from earthmarks or cropmarks. I have always been intrigued by the stories behind these abandoned hamlets. The kind of lives they once witnessed. The air of mystery that probably hangs around them.
(All sketches are by the author)