April 6

Visiting Somerset


Generalizations about any English county are of dubious value. In the case of Somerset this is especially true, for the old county has been truncated, and the northern coastal towns of Weston-super-Mare, Clevedon and Portishead, together with an ample slice of the Mendip Hills, have been incorporated in the new county of Avon formed in 1974. Having been born and brought up in Clevedon, then styled ’the gem of sunny Somerset’ and likened to Rome on account of its seven hills, I was placed in the curious situation of having to drive some twelve miles south and over the River Axe at Lympsham (marked by the Viking sign of the Hobb’s Boat Inn) in order to attain the county of my birth. The change-over enraged many traditionalists ’I invite you to join the growing number of people who refuse to call Somerset anything but Somerset,’ urged a letter addressed to me at the time. One automatically sympathizes with such a view but unfortunately the packaging and re-allocation of boundaries is as old as history.
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Even allowing for the dramatic depletion in the extent of the county, it remains an excitingly varied place, difficult to pin down with any specific image. What does Somerset imply? Simply different things to different people. To the Powys brothers it meant the dusky-gold Hamstone villages of Montacute and Tintinhull where gloving girls and dairymaids with cowslips in their hair dallied with local youths on Hower-starred greens. But to the novelist Henry Fielding, born at Sharpham Park in the shadow of the Poldens, it probably signified grey stone and red-tiled villages where peat was dug and where Glastonbury Abbey was once the supreme landowner. RD. Blackmore’s Somerset is dramatically different again, conjuring up the sheep-cropped, buff-green uplands of Exmoor where clusters of thatched cottages overlook gushing troutstreams. But many would call Exmoor, with its luxuriant combes and aura of cream teas, more typical of Devon and draw attention instead to the alluvial Vale of Taunton Deane, where cider orchards abound and corn grows tall. This was the region that nurtured the poet Samuel Daniel, a contemporary of Shakespeare, and Thomas Young, who developed the science of optics and helped decipher the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone.

What exactly is typical Somerset? Perhaps the most apposite clue is the name itself, derived from ’Seo-mereseatan ’dwellers by the sealakes’. This alludes to the early settlers at the lake villages of Glastonbury and Meare who raised wooden huts on grassy mounds above the marshes which provided such rich ground for fishing and hunting. The area is now called Sedgemoor and is characterized by its millions of intersecting drains, locally called rhymes, which form a glistening network separating fields and farms. The villages of these plains are slightly solemn, pervaded by a plodding, hoof-heavy atmosphere of unvarying agricultural routine, and the most persistent music is the sullen dong of milk churns banging their metallic torsos as they are jostled along by farm wagons. The buildings are of grey limestone or severely whitewashed, while the churches, made splendid by the power of the ’Golden Fleece’, may be pinnacled, exuberant, with a rich show of statuary and gargoyles.

Geographers tend to classify villagers according to the pattern of their layout: ’nucleated’, ’dispersed’ and ’polyfocal’ are specimens of the incantatory jargon used to intimidate the layman. An example of a nucleated village might be Nunney, tightly wedged in its combe, the houses clinging like iron Filings around the magnet of the castle. while Spaxton on the Quantocks could be classed a5 dispersed, consisting as it does of hamlets and farms scattered over a large area. Martock can be seen as polyfocall for it has several distinct, interlocking units of development straggled along its main street. And then there are spring-line groupings, such as Brent Knoll and East Brent, and open-field-type settlements like Hinton St George where strips of land follow up behind the backs of houses. But in general such scientific classifications have been avoided here, for they are almost impossible to demonstrate without detailed mapping and extensive analysis. This book aims at impressionism rather than microscopic scrutiny.

Many chapter divisions in the present volume are self-explanatory. Exmoor, the Quantocks and the Brendon Hills are homogeneous regions with their own Hora, fauna and microclimate. The same could be argued of the Blackdown Hills and the Poldens, which form a low, thin ridge across the Sedgemoor plain. Taunton Deane is a large administrative area embracing the flatlands to the east as well as the red-soiled Tone valley and parts of the enclosing hills. Sedgemoor is truly extensive, necessitating a separate chapter dealing with the Northern Levels and further chapters describing the zoy parishes and the Curry villages. In certain instances an area has been designated after a major settlement, notably in the chapter detailing the villages around Frome. On other occasions a physical feature has been used, such as the Brue meadows, the Sheppey valley or that region, dominated by the twinkling spectre of Arthur, traversed by the tiny River Cary and guarded by the wooded ramparts of Cadbury Castle. These strategies have been resorted to in order to draw together disparate elements which inevitably occur in so geologically complex a county as Somerset where hills are continually giving way to plains, and rocks vary from chalk, Hint and greensand to red sandstone.



Somerset, Visiting

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