Crippled woman who trapped Danish pirates

PUBLISHED: 15:55 21 August 2006 | UPDATED: 09:44 24 May 2010

Steep Holm viewed from Bleadon Hill. In times past residents must have feared the Holm's Danish residents.

Steep Holm viewed from Bleadon Hill. In times past residents must have feared the Holm's Danish residents.

The most dramatic human story linked to the history of the River Axe is that of the crippled woman who trapped invading Danish pirates

The growing village of Bleadon as viewed from the top of the quarry.

The most dramatic human story linked to the history of the River Axe is that of the crippled woman who trapped invading Danish pirates. Steep Holm and Flat Holm are names of Danish origin, and obviously these Bristol Channel islands in former days were used as bases from which the ruthless Vikings made sallies along the Somerset coast, slaying the little Saxon communities, pillaging and burning.It was on one of these expeditions that they tied their boats up either at Uphill, or further along the Axe at Bleadon. With the Saxons fleeing before them they thrust inland, and did not even bother to leave a guard on their boats. There was one old Saxon woman, a cripple, who could not get away with the rest of her people. She hid, and when the pirates were well inland she cut their boats adrift. The invaders were trapped, and when the Saxons knew what had happened they turned on them and, as the old record asserts, "destroyed them with such bloody slaughter" that the place where the battle took place has been called Bleadon (Bleed-down) to this day.This story is said to have been recorded by a Mr Jay of Nettlecombe, near Williton, Somerset, who died in 1684, and a John Gibbons, who was living about 1670, and whose tract A Discourse about some Roman Antiquities discovered near Conquest is included in Langtoft's Chronicles.Referring to the Danes, Gibbons says: "Their fifth invasion was at Uphill, Bledon, etc., where I have enquired of the inhabitants whether they had at any time heard of any Deanes that came in the dayes of yore to Steep homes near them."They told me that the generall tradition of their country hath beene that a fleete of Deanes fled to shelter themselves in the said Isle, and somtime they brake out into England and sometimes into Wales for sustenance."At length coming to Uphill and Bledon they fastened their ships to the shoare, left them and marched up into the Country for booties, and that all the inhabitants fled way before them, one poor lame woman excepted, which hid in a Rock near the ships. When she was near spent with hunger she was necessitated to adventure down the ships for relief, saying to herself, with the Lepers, 'If they kill me, I shall but die'."But coming thither and searching from ship to ship, and finding no living Creature, at last espying an hatchet, she took it, and with it chopped off all the cables which anchored the ships to the shoare, and sent them to Sea where they quickly perished."The Danes having gotten intelligence of the loss of some of their ships, speedily retreated, to save themselves and the rest, but the people of the Country, having intelligence that all their ships were cast away, took courage, pursued them to Bledon, there fought, and destroyed them with such bloody slaughter, as that from thence the place took, and ever since hath kept, the name Bledon, alias Bleed-down or bloud-down, to this day."And some of them have informed me that when their Husbandmen plough their grounds they find multitudes of Men's Teeth there, which being naturally the hardest bones in the body, and obdurated with chewing (in some grounds) are almost as permanent as little stones."And a Gentleman there, within seven years past, having bought a piece of Moorish ground, lying at the foot of the said Bledon, when his labourers renewed the dyke filled up about it, they found great heaps of Men's skulls, and other humane bones as entire as were they had been."The story may well be true - there must have been many a clash between Saxons and Danes in this district - but authorities consider that the village was originally Blaen-dun, Celtic words meaning the end of the hill range.The crippled woman's exploit was commemorated in one of the several quaint inscriptions placed in the hall of Lympsham Manor in former days. Among "Battels in Somersette foughten in Olden Tyme" recorded on the walls of the hall is a mention of "Bleydone, 485," and the following verse:"Ye vessels layOn Axe's quayYe Danes ye swords uplifting.A Bleydone wifeFetched forth ye knife,And sent ye ships adrifting."The date when Bleadon's landmark church was built cannot be fixed, but the Wells Registers record that a chancel and high altar were dedicated there in 1317.There is the fine old village cross just outside the church, the steps and socket of which are older than the shaft and are said to date from about 1380.Bleadon must have had a church long before 1300. Githa, wife of Earl Godwin and mother of King Harold who was killed at the Battle of Hastings, conferred the manor of Bleadon on the church of St Swithin, Winchester. The manor remained in Winchester's possession for many centuries, the grant to Winchester Cathedral having been continued by Henry the Eighth at the dissolution of the monasteries.King Harold's mother, Githa, fled to the district after the Battle of Hastings and the Anglo Saxon Chronicle states: "Harold's mother, Githa, and the wives of many good men with her, went to Flat Holme, and there abode some time, and afterwards went from thence over sea to St Omer's".Bleadon probably owes its origin to the extensive lead mining once carried on in the locality. Men have worked to extract the mineral wealth of the Mendips for centuries, and quarrying is still carried on in the locality. It has been suggested that the nearby hamlet of Wonderstone gets its intriguing name "from the beautiful Breccia so-called, which consists of yellow translucent crystals of carbonate of lime, disseminated through a dark red earthy dolomite".Apart from the livelihood afforded by lead-mining on the hillside, Bleadon folk through the centuries have tried to make the most of the richly productive acres that lie around the nearby River Axe. The origin of nearby Shiplate or Shiplake may be from the Anglo-Saxon meaning a sheepfold. In former days the Axe was navigable up to Rackley, near Crook Peak. Bleadon was also something of a port, and had its wharf until comparatively recent years.The surrounding Bleadon Level, although now rich, well drained pasture land, is but about 20 feet above high water mark, and in former times, especially when there was no barrier on the river, flooding must have been frequent. In fact, the Level was twice flooded during the last century, but cattle were rescued.There were some very tough customers roaming around the Bleadon area long before the first primitive homes were put there. They were the huge animals that hunted through the swamps and forests that surrounded the mightier Axe of bygone centuries,Some of their remains were unearthed in a fissure at Bleadon (long since destroyed by quarrying) by a former Rector of Bleadon, the Rev David Williams. The bones he unearthed included those of the wolf, tiger, cave-bear, elephant, ox and horse. It was estimated that the cave bear must have been almost nine feet high. The ox was also enormous. Most extraordinary was the size of the elephant. The fragment of tusk unearthed was six feet long and two feet in circumference, the original length being estimated at 16 feet! Just fancy being confronted with a monster with tusks like that on coming out of the Queen's Arms of an evening!At Rackley, near Crook Peak, the River Axe is joined by Cheddar Yeo. A little further on it receives another tributary, the Lox Yeo, which rises near the old mill at Max. The river then makes a big sweep to the south at Bleadon. Man-made cuts today keep the main course of the river fairly close to the hillside until it reaches Bleadon.The flood-gates at Bleadon were erected in 1808, and so ended the passage of boats further up the river. Bleadon's wharf also had to be moved when the river was crossed by the railway bridge. A new wharf was built at Lympsham by the former Bristol and Exeter Railway Company, which had great hopes of a sea-rail link up in the transport of coal from South Wales, hopes which, alas, like many others associated with the early years of the railways, were never realised.The River Axe underwent several changes through the Axe Drainage Act of 1802. In addition to its course being shortened by the cut towards Loxton which by-passed the river's big sweep towards Biddisham, there was the diversion of the river at Bleadon where the old embankments may still be seen south of the existing waterway.The old course took the river closer to the Hobbs Boat Inn, which in former days was the ferryman's house.There was no bridge over the Axe on the Weston to Bridgwater road before the construction of the floodgates and the present crossing in 1808.The route was unimportant in those days. Weston was but a village, and no road to or from it had anything like the use of that of the major highway from Bristol to Exeter. So minor were the routes leading south from Weston that there was not even a road to Uphill. The usual route taken was along the sands, and no doubt it was a far better one than most roads in those days.Way back in 1713 the Hobbs' Boat ferry formed part of the marriage settlement of John Andrews, of Axbridge, and widow Sarah Champney. They had two daughters, Sarah and Philly. In 1737 Sarah married Thomas Popham, of West Barborough, who eight years later bought Philly's interest and thus became sole owner of the ferry.When the floodgates and bridge were built in 1808 the then owners of the ferry, Messrs Popham and Petherham claimed £675 by way of compensation from the Commissioners of Sewers.This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on July 6, 1962

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