Tag Archives: Somerset

Book Review: ‘The Heart of Mendip’, F.A. Knight, 1915.

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I was delighted to rediscover this book at a second-hand bookstall in a Somerset market earlier this year, having not peered between its covers in well over thirty years, a copy of it having belonged to an elderly member of my family, now sadly no longer with us. 

This is a gem of a book, and in its tone and execution very much an artefact of the time in which it was written; the product of a late-Victorian scholar with wide-ranging intellectual interests, possessed of a deep attachment to his local patch of native soil, paralleled by an equally extensive knowledge of its people and their stories. Within these pages, the reader will encounter a mixture of history, antiquarianism, natural history, geography and the occasional ghost story. It is the sort of work that one is unlikely to encounter today, insofar as its compass is intensely local – covering only eleven Somerset parishes – yet the author sees it fit to devote 520 pages of text to the stories of these villages and hamlets (and, technically speaking, a town in the case of Axbridge). This allows the author both the opportunity to deal with a diverse subject matter, and yet afford an in-depth treatment for each of his chosen elements.  

F.A. Knight was born in 1852, and died in the year of the publication of this book – 1915 (readers will note from the cover picture that the version I refer to is a reprint published in 1971). It thus marked the culmination of a life’s interests and research into the local history of this area of Somerset, with the opening chapter being devoted to the parish of Winscombe, which is both where Knight was schooled – at Sidcote – and where he later served as a schoolmaster. Those unfamiliar with the area are likely to know the name of only one of the villages dealt with – Cheddar – which is covered in the penultimate chapter of the book, where a good overview of the development of the world-renowned cheese and its production is provided. Knight trawls through the local parish records to tease out the shadows of events and people long since lost to memory, including a local cunning man and wizard whose spirit reputedly returned in the form of a poltergeist (although the term is not employed), and those who met an unnatural fate thanks to participation in the Sedgemoor Rebellion of 1685, or owing to acts of murderous criminality. The gibbet features on more than one occasion. 

This book will be of particular interest to people with an affection for the villages and landscapes that form the focus of this study, although it will possess a wider general appeal for those interested in some of the minutiae of times gone by. We thus encounter, for example, accounts relating to how much churchwardens used to pay for the eradication of ‘pests’ as foxes, ‘grays’ (badgers), polecats, sparrows, moles, magpies and hedgehogs. Knight – unconsciously – tells us a great deal about how attitudes to the natural world have changed since his own day, given that his writing is filled with frequent references to rare birds of one kind or another having been ‘shot’ or stuffed, or having had their eggs taken, without reference to the wisdom, or otherwise, of killing representatives of rare species. He does at least acknowledge the barbarity of bull and badger baiting, and notes with approval that these ‘sports’ were last witnessed in Axbridge during the first quarter of the nineteenth century.  

We also catch a glimpse of more turbulent national events that reverberated down to the parish level, such as the Wars of the Roses, the Civil War, the scourge of ‘the Turk’ in the form of Algerine piracy and slavery (a peculiar lacuna in the national memory, doubtless today deemed too politically sensitive owing to the thin-skinned sensibilities of their co-religionists who have taken up residence amongst us), and the large numbers of roving Irish displaced by events in their home country during the seventeenth century. There is much in this volume, in the form of anecdotes and the detail of daily life glossed over by grander political histories, that will stimulate the imagination of the author. Some of the names recorded in the local parish registers – such as Blandina, Sexa and Choroty – are a little unorthodox, although a number of them prove to be indicative of imperfect spelling, rather than peculiar local naming conventions. Much charm is to be found in the phonetic rendering of the names as they were once spoken, in a dialect that even Knight acknowledged had been diluted since the coming of the railway to the district in 1869.  

Keen speleologists will also find something of worth here, as Knight himself was an eager participant in some of the early caving on Mendip, and he records a number of the archaeological finds made in the caverns, as well as stories of their discovery and on at least one occasion, of the unfortunate demise of one of the local explorers.  

A general reader, if he or she were to find this to their taste, might award this book four stars, but as I hold a special regard for this part of the country, I hereby declare my partiality and award it a five. I look forward to tracking down Knight’s ‘The Sea-Board of Mendip’, originally published in 1902.

Gwydion’s Glastonbury: the Inspiration behind ‘Gwydion’s Dawn’

Glastonbury – the town rather than the festival – is a unique place both geographically and socially. Although there are other kindred locations across England which act as magnets for folk of a countercultural mystical metaphysical bent, such as Totnes and Hebden Bridge, none of them quite match Glastonbury’s mystique. Neither do they equal its quotient of hemp, crystal nor fairy based business acumen, as is plainly evident from the host of independent businesses that line its High Street. If you pop into a bookshop, you will discover more volumes devoted to aligning your chakras than to fixing your plumbing, although water has played as much a role in the town’s history as has mysticism.

The profile of the Tor, topped by the ruined tower of St Michael’s Church, arrests the eye of the first-time visitor to the Somerset Levels, its drama and aesthetic appeal self-evident, even when shorn of the myths and legends that have attached themselves to this spot over the centuries. Set amidst the low-lying swamps and marshes that remained hereabouts until being drained by the efforts of mediaeval monks, its former status as a peninsula would initially have attracted settlers, being both defensible, and possessed of a reliable source of good drinking water from Chalice Well. It would likely also have appealed to any aesthetic or ‘spiritual’ sensibilities possessed by those who set up home in this supposed Avalon.

Historically, Glastonbury has been a place of Christian pilgrimage, but it would seem that the publicity of canny monks, eager to raise funds to assist in the reconstruction of Glastonbury Abbey following the fire of 1184, unintentionally gave birth, many centuries later, to the town’s association with myth and all manner of New Age beliefs. Their alleged discovery of the graves of Arthur and Guinevere in 1191 put the town firmly on the map as a place of pilgrimage, even going so far as to attract royalty, but the lead cross said to have been found along with the grave vanished during the turbulence of the English Reformation. Furthermore, the first mention of another key element of Glastonbury’s myth – the ‘Holy Thorn’ – appears later than many might suppose, for the first reference to it did not come to light, in print, until the early sixteenth century, not long before the Abbey was destroyed during the Dissolution.

‘And did those feet in ancient time,

Walk upon England’s mountains green’?  

I would hazard a guess that they did not. Still, it is not Christianity that dominates the town’s ‘spiritual’ life today, but an unclassifiable melange of eastern mysticism, magic and Neopaganism, most of those subscribing to these beliefs possessing a generally benign intent, whilst being innocuously ineffectual. If you should care to walk its streets today, you may not find Gwydion Turner himself, but you might well find someone with views not a million miles from those held by the character, and expressed in equally pretentious and portentous tones. His creation arose from my own personal observations of people immersed in the ‘alternative’ hippie subculture as it then stood some thirty years or so ago, of their attitudes, beliefs and mannerisms. He is representative of a type that seems intent to impose unnecessary complexity upon life, whilst pretending to some closely-guarded esoteric knowledge that transpires to amount to nothing more than a combination of solemn verbiage and a self-professed belief in some ‘deeper reality hidden behind the veil’. Such attitudes are ripe for satire, although they are so theatrical and outlandish, that those who possess them frequently lapse into self-parody without being conscious of the fact.

Many years ago, I recall happening upon a building in one of the back streets of Weston-Super-Mare that had once served as a temple for the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, but whether it remains there now, I cannot say. Given the absence of any pictures of the Osiris Temple on the internet, perhaps it was demolished some time ago. Still, the former presence of this occult network in Somerset suggested that it could provide fertile material with which to work in creating a Glastonbury mystery: an occult mystery at that, so doubly mysterious.

I leave it to you, dear reader, to determine whether ‘Gwydion’s Dawn’ is primarily a mystery or a comedy, but it was written with the intent of being both. You may, perhaps, detect a nod or two to Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Magician’ (which I read so long ago that I cannot honestly say I recall a great deal), with a touch of ‘Spinal Tap’ in Gwydion’s musical recollections, and ‘Hot Fuzz’ in the nature of local policing. Wells, after all, almost shares equal billing with Glastonbury in terms of where the action unfolds, and if you should ever find South Pennard, do let me know. I have heard it said that the peat has long since swallowed up the ‘Royal Oak’.

The Genesis of ‘Old Crotchet’

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The instant that I saw her and her companion, I knew that I would have to write about her. It was not only her face, but also her mode of dress and stature, as well as her stiff deportment, which invited comment. I cannot say that I fell in love with her, for I do not generally find women with thick leathery skin and unprepossessing looks topped off by a sinister expression appealing, but she did intrigue me. She also appeared to be somewhere in the region of four hundred years old. Whether the two of them are Jacobean or late Elizabethan, or merely fashioned to appear of that age, it is hard to say, but what can be said of them with some certainty is this: their appearance is singular.

Lytes Cary Manor in Somerset, the seat of the Lyte family from the 13th to the 18th centuries, was restored to its present charming state under the ownership of Sir Walter Jenner, who purchased the estate in 1907, but since 1949 it has been under the stewardship of the National Trust. It has served as home to these two antiquated ladies for an unspecified period of time, and who brought them into the house, and for what reason, has been long lost to memory. The guides at the house refer to these two figures as ‘the good companions’, and although their purpose is uncertain, it has been suggested that they were employed on those inauspicious occasions when thirteen diners were expected for dinner, with one, or both of them, being brought to table to make up the numbers. This detail was the germ around which the story of Old Crotchet was to coalesce.

Both the mannequins and their residence invited something of a supernatural treatment, and it was with a nod or two to M.R. James, that the idea of penning a ghostly tale against a festive backdrop suggested itself. That it has been published in the height of summer – insofar as it may be termed as such, given the autumnal feel to the weather of late – is somewhat inapposite, yet unavoidable, for having completed it in April, I did not wish to wait until winter to make it available to the public. This does however remain, in many respects, ‘a ghost story for Christmas.’

It seemed apt to set it at a moment in the past when the old rural order was reaching its point of dissolution, and longstanding customs and folkways – such as wassailing, as detailed by Ronald Hutton in his ‘The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain’ – were dying out, or almost dead. There was no period of social disjuncture greater than that occasioned by the Great War of the last century, a conflict that hastened the decline of the country house and social deference, as well as accelerating technological development. It is thus the clash of the modern with the traditional, the urban with the rural, symbolised by the arrival of George with his young wife Celia in their Talbot Tourer, which awakens Old Crotchet, like some domestic guardian spirit, from her many centuries of slumber.

Hinton St Cuthbert Manor exists in the imagination alone; it is something of a composite, an amalgam of the imaginary and the real, drawing elements and features from a number of historic houses in the south of Somerset. From Lytes Cary it takes its relatively modest dimensions and Great Hall, the latter with its beautiful vaulted ceiling, wooden panelling and stained glass windows providing the perfect setting for a Twelfth Night dinner. Other aspects of its appearance – its honeyed Hamstone exterior, barley twist chimneys and plasterwork ceilings for example – were drawn from Barrington Court and Montacute House, both of which are open to the public, and under the care of the National Trust.

Although the publication of Old Crotchet is out of season given its midwinter setting, it appears to be in step with an appetite to revive the ghost story for a contemporary television audience, as evidenced by the current screening of a new supernatural drama series by the BBC – ‘The Living and the Dead.’ This, coincidentally, also happens to be set in Somerset, albeit some three decades earlier in 1894.  Like ‘Old Crotchet’, it focuses upon the theme of the intrusion of the modern and the metropolitan – in the form of Nathan and Charlotte Appleby – into the world of the traditional and the rural, and its coming leading to the awakening of a supernatural presence that has long lain dormant. That is where the similarities between the two come to an end, for the tone employed in each differs significantly, with Old Crotchet being shot through with a strong vein of wry humour, which is absent from the BBC production.

From what I have seen thus far, ‘The Living and the Dead’ is handsomely filmed, and in terms of its look manages to capture its era successfully, although some of the characterisation is perhaps better placed in the 1990s rather than the 1890s. If you do not find its initial instalments engaging, it is worth persevering with, for it truly gets into its stride by the third episode. I shall reserve judgement on its overall merit until I have watched the entire series. Clearly, a considerable amount of investment has been ploughed into its production, yet for all that, a big budget need not be necessary to create a piece of television that elicits a sense of psychological unease in the viewer. One need look no further than Christopher Lee’s masterful delivery of a number of M.R. James’s tales in his ‘Ghost Stories for Christmas’, originally screened in 2000, for an example of what can be achieved using relatively modest resources. It is a great pity that he is no longer with us, and given that I have mentioned him, it would be remiss of me not to note that some reviewers have drawn parallels between ‘The Living and the Dead’ and ‘The Wicker Man.’

Although the writers of the former appear to have drawn upon some elements of the latter, it falls far short of approaching the 1973 cult classic’s atmosphere, originality and deranged air of menace, so eloquently embodied in Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle. ‘The Wicker Man’,whose director Robin Hardy has just passed away, was a unique cultural artefact, very much of its time, with its texture being enriched by its idiosyncratic soundtrack. ‘The Living and the Dead’ should thus also be considered on its own terms, and seen as a reworking of certain supernatural themes with a contemporary audience in mind.

Old Crotchet is the first in a series of West Country Tales, many of which will possess a supernatural or occult element, as well as a marked streak of wry humour.  To preview, or purchase Old Crotchet for 99p or 99c, please click here. This novelette is free to download for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.