Friday, 27 February 2015

King Alfred's Monument at Athelney

According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle King Alfred the Great hid from Danish invaders on the 'island' of Athelney for 7 weeks in 878 AD. During this time he is reputed to have built a fortress here.  This is where he is reputed to have been scolded by a swineherd's wife for allowing her cakes to burn.  He went on to defeat the Danes at Edington in Wiltshire at Easter in 878.

The Life of King Alfred, which was a biography supposedly written by a Welsh monk called Asser in 893, says that Alfred founded a monastery at Athelney in 893, to give thanks to God for the defeat of the Danish army.   Athelney is described as  ‘...surrounded by, swampy impassable and extensive marshland and ground water on every side. It cannot be reached in any way except by punts or by a causeway which has been built by protracted labour between two fortresses. A formidable fortress of elegant workmanship was set up by the command of the king at the western end of the causeway’.  However it is now thought that the Life of King Alfred was written by an unknown author in c1000, so the description may not be entirely accurate. 

A monument was erected on the hill above Athelney Farm in 1801 by John Slade of Maunsel, North Newton to commemorate Alfred's stay here.  It was repaired by Somerset County Council in 1985.  There is no public right of way to it but there is a signed permissive path.  The grid reference is ST 3432 2925.  There is space to park a few cars where the road from East Lyng to Athelney meets the River Tone.  It is a walk of about 250 metres from the farm to the monument.

An article now known as the Alfred Jewel was found in a peat bog in North Petherton in 1693.  It was given to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford in 1718 but recently returned to the Museum of Somerset for the month of February 2015.  It is thought to be an aestel or pointer, which was used while reading manuscripts.  It has the words "AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN - Alfred ordered me to be made" around the outside in gold and in the centre is a male figure dressed in green against a blue background, which is made from rock crystal and enamel.  The figure could be Jesus or King Alfred.

Further Reading: 

Athelney Abbey by Rev Thomas Hugo - Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society Vol 43, 1897  

Why Alfred burned the Cakes: a King and his Eleven Hundred Year Afterlife by David Horspool.  Published by Profile Books in 2006

Alfred the Great: Asser's Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources: translated, with an introduction and notes by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge.  Published by Penguin in 1983

King Alfred's Monument at Athelney

The Sweet Track and other Ancient Trackways across the Somerset Levels

Trackways were constructed across the low lying marshy land of the Somerset Levels by Neolithic people to link the islands and hills together.  They were skilled woodworkers even though they only had stone axes and knives and wooden mallets and wedges to use as tools. The trackways would have been used by farmers and hunters.  Although off the beaten track today, in their time they were themselves very much the beaten track!

The Sweet Track is the oldest prehistoric trackway found in Britain.  It has been precisely dated by dendrochronologists in Sheffield and Belfast who studied the tree rings in the timber to 3807/3806 BC.  It is named after the peat cutter Ray Sweet, who discovered it in 1970.  It ran from the bottom of the Polden Hills near Shapwick towards the 'island' of Westhay. 

The trackway was constructed across marshy ground where there was often standing water and where sedges and reeds grew.  Its aim was to provide a raised walkway to allow people to cross this part of the levels with dry feet even in winter.

Long pegs of hazel, alder, elm, ash and holly sharpened at one end were driven diagonally into the ground in pairs to hold posts or rails laid end to end in place.  Flat oak planks were then laid over the top of the poles and in the same direction as them.  In places spare pegs and pieces of planks and rails were wedged in to make the planks secure.  The ends of some of the planks were held in place by thin pegs driven through pre-cut holes vertically into the peat.

Neolithic people dropped or hid various artefacts along the route of the Sweet Track, which have subsequently been found by archaeologists e.g. a flint axe possibly from Sussex and an unused axe head of polished light green stone from the Alps.  A few bits of broken pottery have also been found and a wooden dish and some flint arrowheads.

The Sweet Track was built along the line of an even older structure, which is known as the post track.  This was comprised of long ash and lime planks laid on the surface of the marsh and held in place by vertical wooden posts mainly made from hazel, which were placed about 3 metres apart.

A short section of the Sweet Track has been reconstructed on the Shapwick Nature Reserve.

 Line of the original Sweet Track 

 Sweet Track Reconstruction
 Sweet Track Reconstruction

This notice by the reconstructed section of the Sweet Track says "The management would like to apologise for the 5,814 year delay in rebuilding this trackway since its closure in 3,800 BC.  The trackway is not yet complete, so please do not attempt to walk on it. Hopefully we will be able to allow public access later this winter."

Other later trackways have been discovered on the Somerset Levels.  The Walton Heath Track was a 40 metre stretch of carefully made hurdles or panels of coppiced hazel.  The Abbot's Way ran for 1.5 miles between the islands of Westhay and Burtle.  It was built around 2500 BC and was constructed using alder planks, slats and branches held in place by alder, hazel and ash pegs and stakes.  The Eclipse Track, which stretched across 1 kilometre of marsh near Meare, was constructed in around 1800 BC.  The Blakeway Farm Track, which was excavated in 1944 ran between Westhay and Mudgeley and is also Neolithic in origin.

The Meare Heath Track was discovered by archaeologist Arthur Bulleid in the early 1930s.  It ran from the bottom of the Polden Hills near Shapwick to the island of Meare.  More of it was exposed in the 1970s by peat cutters.  It was built around 1400 BC and its construction has similarities to a modern railway line - sleepers were placed at intervals over a bed of brushwood (guelder rose, alder buckthorn, hazel, alder and willow) and held in place by oak stakes driven through holes cut into the sleepers.  Pairs of oak planks were then laid at right angles to the sleepers and these where kept in place by the top of the oak stakes.  A short section has been reconstructed on the Shapwick Nature Reserve.

Reconstructed section of the Meare Heath Trackway

Could this be a ladder to the Underworld?  Or maybe as this is the Avalon Marshes, King Arthur is going to reappear at any moment?

Further Reading:
  • Prehistory of the Somerset Levels: John Coles and Bryony Coles.  Revised edition published in 1990 by Somerset Levels Project
  • Sweet Track to Glastonbury: the Somerset levels in prehistory: Bryony and John Coles.  Published in 1986 by Thames and Hudson
Lending and reference copies of both titles are available in various Somerset Libraries.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Holy Wells and other named springs

Holy Wells are not as common in Somerset as they are in Cornwall, where nearly every village seems to have one,  but they are more numerous than I realised, although not many of them have visible and publicly accessible remains.

What exactly is a holy well?  There is no definitive answer to this question but holy wells are usually believed to have curative powers or they were originally used for baptismal purposes or they are associated with and dedicated to a particular saint.  Many of the locations were probably already significant in the pre-Christian era.  

Some of the springs are of clear pure water, while others contain various minerals e.g. the Chalice Well at Glastonbury is a chalybeate spring, which means the water contains iron, while the water issuing from the Black Well at Queen Camel contains sulphur and that from the spring at Barrows Farm between Middle and East Chinnock is salty.

By the time Dom Ethelbert Horne published his book Somerset Holy Wells and other Named Springs in 1923 many of Somerset's holy wells had been filled in, covered over or their exact locations forgotten.  Some place names suggest that they were named after holy wells but the evidence for this is sometimes rather tenuous e.g. Luckwell Bridge near Wheddon Cross (St Luke's Well), Holywell Lake near Wellington, Rumwell  near Taunton (St Rumbold's Well), Pedwell (St Peter's Well), Holwell near Cloford and Swell. 

Edington Holy Well (grid ref ST 3888 3996) is located at the north end of the village by the side of the lane that heads north to Burtle.  It was restored in 1937, in a style that I think is reminiscent of 1970s crazy paving, in memory of Margaret Charlotte Fownes Luttrell.   The water apparently contains sulphur, although I could detect no smell when I visited in November 2014.

Edington Holy Well
Edington Holy Well

St Decuman was born in the 7th century in Rhoscrowther in Pembrokeshire.  He felt called to evangelise the people of Somerset.  He wasn't welcomed by everyone and was beheaded.  However, undaunted he picked up his head, washed the blood from it in the waters of the well and put it back on his shoulders.  Local people built a small church to him on the spot.  The well (grid ref ST 0643 4273) is now surrounded by a tranquil and well maintained garden.  It can be accessed by walking west down the lane on the north side of the church.  The well is on the right hand side a 100 metres or so beyond the church.

Entrance to St Decuman's Holy Well above Watchet
God breathed and man became a Living Soul, Genesis Chapter 2, verse 7
St Decuman's Holy Well, Watchet
St Decuman's Holy Well, Watchet
St Decuman's Holy Well, Watchet
St Decuman's Holy Well, June 2020

St Agnes Well at Cothelstone (grid ref ST 1839 3184)is medieval and has been dated at between 1300 and 1500 AD.  It is traditionally said to have magic properties e.g. the ability to divine the love of a person and to aid fertility.  Young women used to visit on the Eve of St Agnes Day - 21st January - and used divination to find out who their future husbands would be.  The Agnes is the name may have been Agnes Cheyney, who married a local squire Edward Stowel.  It was repaired in 1987 by the Friends of the Quantocks. 
St Agnes Well is located on the west side of the lane running north from Bishops Lydeard up Cothelstone Hill just north east of Cothelstone Manor House.   There is a footpath running close by and there is a signed short permissive path to the well.  When I visited in January 2015 it was very boggy, so walking boots or wellies are recommended in winter at least.

St Agnes Well, Cothelstone

St Agnes Holy Well, Cothelstone

St Aldhelm's Well, Doulting (grid ref ST 6451 432)
St Aldhelm was the Bishop of Sherborne.  He died at the site of the Doulting Holy Well on 25th May 709.
St Aldhelm's Well, Doulting

St Agnes Fountain (grid ref SS 9047 4736), which is located half a mile to the north of Allerford at the edge of the Allerford Plantation, doesn't live up to its name.  When I visited it in mid December 2014 with West Somerset Ramblers it was more of a trickle than a fountain. As it was nearly Christmas we sang Good King Wenceslas while we were there, as it seemed appropriate:

 ""Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know'st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes' fountain."

It was constructed in 1820 and is named after the youngest daughter of Sir Thomas Acland, who owned the Holnicote Estate.  However the spring itself is much older and may have been significant to people prior to this date.

 St Agnes Fountain
 Shadows of West Somerset Ramblers singing Good King Wenceslas at St Agnes Fountain

On the banks of a small stream on the north side of the A39 at Brandish Street near Allerford (Grid Reference SS 906 466) there is a small brick built well head, which once covered a small medieval dipping well.  The idea behind the dipping well was that it was dug a few metres from the bank of the stream and that the water from the stream would be filtered through the earth, so that by the time it reached the dipping well it would be purer than the water in the stream.  The brick well head protected the well from dust, falling leaves etc.  The well has been filled in at some point and is now dry.

Dipping well at Brandish Street or maybe it is a pixie house?

St Andrew's Well at Stogursey has the same dedication as the village's parish church and has been a holy well for many centuries, if not millennia. The archway above the entrance to the well was probably built by the Egment family, who purchased the Manor of Stogursey in 1757.  Their arms are displayed on the inner face.  By 1847 the well was described as providing the only good drinking water in the village and it was noted that it had never been known to fail.  There are 2 wells and the right hand one was considered to produce the softest water for washing clothes in.  The well was restored in about 1870 by Peregrine Acland and his arms are displayed over the entrance archway.  Stogursey Parish Council restored the well again in 1979.  The well is located just off St Andrews Road at grid reference ST 202 428.
Entrance to St Andrew's Holy Well, Stogursey
 St Andrew's Well, Stogursey

 St Andrew's Well, Stogursey

Fair Lady's Well is located on a public footpath that forms part of the Monarch's Way, about a mile to the east of the village of Priddy.   It is situated on the boundary of Chewton Mendip and Priddy Parishes and close to the medieval and later lead workings of St Cuthbert's and Chewton Lead Mines.  Who the fair lady it is named after is unknown.  The water looked black and very unappetising when I visited in July 2015. Grid reference ST 545 508. 

 Fair Lady's Well, Priddy

Fair Lady's Well, Priddy

An outflow for the Chalice Well in the aptly named Well House Lane in Glastonbury can be found on the opposite side of the road to the White Spring.  The Chalice Well is a chalybeate spring and the water that comes out is a reddish colour, as it contains iron.  The White Spring water is clear and contains calcium carbonate.  Its source is Glastonbury Tor.  There is an entrance fee to the Chalice Well Gardens but the outflows in Well House Lane to both springs can be accessed for free.

White Spring, Glastonbury
 Entrance to the White Spring, Glastonbury

White Spring 
The man in the picture is filling up a bottle at the outside tap
 Chalice Well - the public outflow on Well House Lane

Sisters Fountain, Glenthorne.  I realise that technically this spring is in Devon and not Somerset but it is only just over the border and is such a delightful place that I have decided to include it.  It is located on the South West Coast Path about half a mile north of County Gate on the A39 but about 200 metres vertically below it. Bear this in mind if you decide to visit!  The current spring head only dates back to the early 19th century but legend has it that it marks the place where Joseph of Arimathea stopped off on his way up the Bristol Channel to Glastonbury in search of fresh water.  When he didn't find any he struck the earth with his staff and water gushed out. The spring runs down the hill into a manmade oval pool formed by stone rubble retaining walls.  The spring head and pool are above Glenthorne House, which was built for Rev Walter Stevenson Halliday and was begun in 1829.  Grid reference: SS 793 492.

Sisters Fountain, Glenthorne, Exmoor

 Sisters Fountain, Glenthorne, Devon 

The present pump house at the Patwell in Bruton dates from the late 18th or early 19th centuries and replaced an earlier building on the same site.  According to the plaque on it was restored in 1984, is in working order and the machinery may be inspected by arrangement with the parish clerk

 Patwell at Bruton

The Shad Well in Wincanton is located at the point where Shadwell Lane meets North Street (grid reference ST 710 288).  There is a big stone arch with two smaller arches underneath it and recessed into the back wall.  It is thought to have been built c1855/1865, possibly by the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway to replace a previous building, which was buried by the new railway embankment, which was built at this time behind the well. The railway line ran from Bournemouth to Bath but closed in 1966.   The left hand archway has a stone basin in it and the right hand side one has a small pool of water.

Shad Well, Wincanton
St Leonard's Well is situated in Conduit Lane, 400 metres west of the edge of Dunster village and on the north side of Grabbist Hill.  It is thought to have supplied water via a conduit to the priory and two public troughs in Dunster: one in the churchyard wall and another which was formerly located at the south end of the High Street.  The well head is thought to be 16th century.

St Leonard's Well, Dunster

The holy well at East Coker is located behind the Forester's Arms pub in the hamlet of Holywell.

East Coker Holy Well

East Coker Holy Well

The Tun Well, Tunwell Lane, Stoke sub Hamdon

The Tun Well, Tunwell Lane (footpath from North Street), Stoke sub Hamdon

Littlewell is located on the A39 to the north of Coxley.  The natural spring is located in the field opposite and the water is then piped to the roadside well.  The well was probably created in the 19th century as a public water supply.  It was used for drinking water by those local people who did not have their own wells, until the mid 20th century, when mains water arrived in the village.  It is located on private land and was restored by the landowners in 2004.

 Littlewell, A39 Coxley

Littlewell, Coxley

Further reading: Somerset Holy Wells and other Named Springs - Dom Ethelbert Horne, published by Somerset Folk Press in 1923.
This book is out of print but there are a few lending and reference copies available in various Somerset Libraries.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Snowdrop Valley, Wheddon Cross, Exmoor

Snowdrop Valley is located half a mile north of the village of Wheddon Cross in the valley of the River Avill.  The land is privately owned by the Badgworthy Land Company but they allow free public access to Snowdrop Valley during the snowdrop flowering season c. late Jan - early March each year.  Badgworthy is pronounced Badgery, if you are interested.

There is a small car park in the centre of the village and a very large overflow car park a few hundred metres down the road towards Exford.  This is the car park for the Exmoor Farmers Livestock Auction.  The footpath down to Snowdrop Valley is clearly marked but be warned it can be very muddy and a bit slippery, so walking boots or wellington boots are a necessity.  It is downhill all the way, which means of course that it is uphill all the way back! 

If you don't want to walk there or are unable to do so, Cutcombe Parish Council, in conjunction with Exmoor National Park Authority, runs a Park and Ride Service to Snowdrop Valley on certain days and staffs the Snowdrop Valley Information Point in the Car Park.  The footpath around Snowdrop Valley itself is fairly flat and slightly less muddy than the path down to it but I wouldn't recommend walking round in ordinary shoes or trainers.  

Snowdrop Valley is located on a narrow lane.  This is closed to all traffic except the few residents who live on it and the park and ride minibus during the snowdrop season, as there are few passing places and there is nowhere to park along it anyway.

There is a café in the Moorland Village Hall in Wheddon Cross, which is run on a rota basis by various local groups at weekends and on some weekdays during the snowdrop season.  They offer simple lunches, tea and cake.  There is also a pub called the Rest and Be Thankful Inn and a B&B that runs a tea room in snowdrop season.  These are both in the middle of the village.  The Exmoor Farmers Livestock Market also has a café, which is open some days and there is a village shop, so one way or another you don't need to go home feeling hungry or thirsty.

Snowdrop Valley is popular, so you are unlikely to have it to yourself unless you go at first light or dusk or on a weekday but not when it is the school half term holidays.  It is possible to do a variety of longer circular walks from Wheddon Cross, which incorporate Snowdrop Valley.  I have done 3 different ones of 8-10 miles but I am sure there are many other possible variations.

Most of the valleys and many of the hedgerows in West Somerset at this time of year have some snowdrops but I haven't seen anywhere else in Somerset that has this many in one place.  However if you don't like mud or flowers it isn't the place for you.



 River Avill

 Picking of the snowdrops is prohibited

More snowdrops

 River Avill

 River Avill

Old Weir

 Yet more snowdrops