Axbridge - but it is nowhere near the Axe

No mystery surrounds the River Axe to-day. Its course is carefully mapped from source to sea, and frogmen diving through the labyrinth of caves at Wookey Hole have followed its passage deep under the Mendip Hills

No mystery surrounds the River Axe to-day. Its course is carefully mapped from source to sea, and frogmen diving through the labyrinth of caves at Wookey Hole have followed its passage deep under the Mendip Hills. If only one could trace the river's history as easily as one can now follow its course!the Domesday Book tells us about the mills the Axe turned, and the history of the places along its banks also hints at something odd in its story. But there is so much one would like to know to which the answers cannot be found. Through the centuries nature and man have altered the river's course considerably. The certainties are that the river rises at Wookey Hole and reaches the sea between Uphill and Brean Down, but much has happened in between.How can one account for the fact that Axbridge is nowhere near the River Axe?If, in accordance with popular supposition, one accepts that the ancient borough got its name from the river, one would expect its story to be most illuminating about the Axe's history, but although Axbridge possesses one of the finest collections of ancient records and documents in the country, they reveal nothing of the township's links with the river.The Axe lies more than a mile from Axbridge. Collinson, in his History of Somerset, wrote: "The river Axe divides the parish from Over-Weare, and running under a wooden bridge supported by stone piers on the foundation of a more ancient fabrick, gives this place its appellation." But does it?Collinson, of course, was referring to the bridge over the Axe at Weare. It is possible that "bridge" is a corruption of "burgh", meaning the borough or town of the Axe. One authority has put the view that it was originally "Acs-byrig", a Celtic term for the town near the river. The Domesday spelling is "Alsebruge". Other old records give the name as Oxebridge, Oxibridge and Auxebridge (Pipe Rolls 1167-1173). Axebruge (Charter Rolls 1204), and Axebrugge (Tax Rolls 1327). Axebrugge suggests not the bridge over the Axe but the Burgh, the town or fortress near the Axe,There is no Roman camp near Axbridge, nor have any Roman villas been unearthed there, but one writer has suggested that Axbridge lay upon the line of the Roman road running from Old Sarum in Wiltshire to Uphill.It was certainly a military base in Saxon times, but its importance was not only concerned with the defence of the country. At hand was the great Royal Forest of Mendip, which was rich in game. Then, as now, the land about Axbridge was famed for its productiveness. In addition to game and good crops, there was also the nearby Axe fishing.The Saxon kings often stayed at Axbridge when they came hunting deer and boar in the Mendip Forest. Domesday records that the 32 burgesses of Axbridge paid a rent of twenty shillings to the Crown. They enjoyed a number of privileges, but in return had to afford hospitality to the royal parties when they came hunting. These parties obviously had to be entertained right royally, since it was laid down that they were to be provided with "corn, wine, barley, sheep and oxen, and other cattle of the field; and fowls of the air and fish of the sea."The records state that "in Axbbrygge there were 32 burgesses to whom was granted by Athelstan, Edmund, Edred, and Saint Edward, and other ancient Kings of England, the right of hunting and fishing in all places of warren except between the places called Kotell-in-Asche and the rock called le Blacstone in the Western Sea". This was presumably a reference to Cottle's Ash near Frome, and the Black Rock at Uphill.Centuries ago Axbridge was clearly a place of considerable importance, not only because it was visited by kings, but as a centre of trade for the sale of produce, livestock, and wool.In the township's old documents is an acknowledgement of £12 paid by the Mayor of Axbridge on November 5, 1638 "for and towards the setting forth of a shippe of warre, according to said writt in that behalf directed, for the safeguard of the seas and the defence of the realm".This does not imply that there was ship-building at Axbridge. The reference merely means that Axbridge, in common with other places, had paid the tax demanded of it for national defence.But even if the town's records throw no light on any link between Axbridge and the Axe, clearly the river must have played an important part as a trade route to the Mendip borough.Those were days when such waterways as existed must have provided a swifter means of transport for merchandise than using packhorses on the narrow, twisting, unmade tracks on which horses could sink up to their girths in mud.We can believe if we like that Axbridge was vastly bigger than it is today, and that its homesteads straggled across the moor to the Weare bridge, so that the place might reasonably take its name from the river crossing.Alternatively one can ponder the alternatives including one given to me by a reader recently - that Axbridge might have got its name from having been "Asser's borough", the township having been included in King Alfred's gift of the manor of Banwell to his favourite abbot, Asser.In these days when millions of gallons of water are taken from our rivers daily for water supplies and when an intricate drainage system has been built up, we are inclined to forget that before all this the rivers must have been very much bigger.This is certainly so of the Axe. Besides having a much greater flow, before the floodgates were built at Bleadon there was no check to tidal wears, which must have made the Axe extremely wide at full flood, and also hundreds of surrounding acres very swampy.There is evidence that the river was navigable by fairly large ships of the day so far as the port of Rackley just below Crook's Peak. It was from here that the Romans shipped lead from the mines of Mendip.Depend on it there was also the river link with Axbridge. F A Knight in his Heart of Mendip refers to a route associated with the Cheddar Water or Yeo as it is known. He says:"The south-west corner of the parish just touches the latter stream, up which before the erection of the flood-gates at Bleadon in 1802, coal and salt, bricks and timber were brought in barges from Uphill; but the former, the slow-moving, muddy little river which gave its name to the manor, is not only more than a mile from the town, but is entirely outside the parish boundary. While the Cheddar Water was still navigable, barges that ascended it from the sea ewer brought up a rhyne called Helen's or Ellenge stream, where some old clay pits, south of the Workhouse, mark the site of the quay."Axbridge had a Mayor and Corporation for centuries, and only lost its status in 1886 under the Unreformed Corporations Act. The records tell of a time when the borough was being brought to financial ruin by the expensive feasting of its Mayor and Corporation.A resolution passed in 1666 read: "Whereas of late tyme many and great summes of money have been expended and disbursed for wine and spent at the usuall and customary meetings and feastes made and helde by the Mayor of this Burrow, the abdundance and superflewety thereof much exceeding the quantitie spent in former times, to the great exhausting of the annual revenew of this Corporation:"It is ordered that from thenceforth the sums to be spent in wine be limited to £1 6 8 for the day on which the Mayor is sworn; 13s. 4d. at each of the two Sessions dinners; and on the day of the election of Mayor 6s. 8d. If anything above be spent, the Mayor to pay for it."Axbridge, it seems, not only had Mayors who were a little too fond of liquor, but also those who were of a violent character.In 1680 a resolution was passed which read: "Whereas Mr Thomas Durson, the present Mayor of the Burrow, hath, since his being chosen, open and publiquely committed divers notorious outrages and breaches of the peace, assaults, batteryes and woundinge of severaille persons; and having threatened to kill or mischieffe several others; and publiquely defamed and abused the Aldermen of the said Burrow (he being a justice of the peace) ... he is hereby removed from office and Mr John Tuthill substituted in his place."At the corner of Axbridge Square, impressively approached by steps, is the parish church of St John the Baptist where, through the centuries, there was pointed a way of life very different from that linked with the Mayoral orgies and the brawling and drunkenness at the annual fairs.This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on June 22, 1962

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