Down Biddisham Lane

To many motorists travelling along the A38 between Shute Shelve and East Brent it must appear that Biddisham is an over-sized nameplate for a cluster of

To many motorists travelling along the A38 between Shute Shelve and East Brent it must appear that Biddisham is an over-sized nameplate for a cluster of swiftly passed houses. It would not occur to them that it is a village with a history of hundreds of years, with records of events and customs that would make an intriguing volume.But what can he know of Biddisham who only glimpse its roadside nameplate? It is necessary to turn down Biddisham Lane to glimpse, among a cluster of trees, a church and churchyard scene repeated hundreds of times throughout this country - the ancient church, the churchyard cross and the giant yew.Like so many of our villages Biddisham has lost its ancient elms to Dutch elm disease, but I was pleased to note that a preponderance of oaks and chestnuts had left its church still delightfully tree-embowered.Biddisham is not a dying village. Attractive bungalows have sprung up down Biddisham Lane, and very pleasant they look with their neatly kept gardens and lawns on which, away from the madding crowd, their occupiers can take their ease and look out on the sweep of levels, once known as the marshes, leading to the Mendip foothills with Crook Peak as a focal point.Change inevitably has come to Biddisham. The Rectory is now the Old Rectory, and The schoolhouse The Old Schoolhouse - a dwelling. Biddisham's children start their schooldays at Weare, and then move on to Kings of Wessex, Cheddar.There is now no resident vicar of Biddisham. When, after 16 years there the Rev. John Heigham retired in 1976 the parish, ecclesiastically, was merged with Weare, Badgworth and Biddisham under the control of the Rev Gordon Millier, the parsonage house being at Weare."We have become a very closely knit community," Mr Millier told me. "There has been quite a lot of development in the area in recent years, and the combined parishes now have a population of about 900."In his 1791 History of Somerset, Collinson says of Biddisham:"It lies in the marsh on the south-west side of the Mendip hills, four miles west from Axbridge and 14 north-east from Bridgwater, being on the turnpike road between those towns. It consists of fourteen houses and eighty inhabitants. The lands are chiefly pasture, and so rich that they produce some of the finest cheese in the kingdom.He adds that under a charter of Edward the Confessor the manor of Biddisham, which had been in the great manor of Wedmore, was passed to the Bishop of Wells in 1150 "towards the reparation of the cathedral church of Wells" and that ever since the dean and chapter of Wells had been the patrons of the living.Biddisham's church of John the Baptist has a tower arch considered to be of 13th century origin. Its font is Norman with scallops below the bowl. There is a carved oak Jacobean pulpit somewhat similar to that at Weare, and on a wall is a scratch dial, survival of timekeeping before there were clocks. There were four bells in the tower 300 years ago, and there are four now.Down Biddisham Lane one meets with such charming names as Manor Farm, Green Farm, and Meadow Farm. The lane - one would term it a minor road today - is a cul-de-sac, and ends when it reaches the banks of the River Axe at Crab Hole, not far from Rackley, the old port below Crook Peak.Possibly in times when it was easier to take merchandise down waterways than along what passed for roads, Biddisham may have had some link with goods loaded and unloaded on the Axe, which was then navigable almost as far as Cheddar.The River Axe was also regarded as a 'frontier' in former times and the earliest touch of drama linked with Biddisham is an interpretation of old writings, which suggests that in 998 there was the Battle of Biddisham that is said to have ended with the Saxons driving the Danes back over the river to Bleadon.In addition to the possible river trade link, Biddisham, being on the turnpike road, was not off the beaten track in olden days, and had its links with traffic going up and down the old Bristol to Exeter highway.The earliest date in the parish registers is 1620, and at that time the names of Churches, Tutton, and Duckett, still familiar today, appeared often.In former times Biddisham had a hectic round of merry-making on Midsummer Day. Of course down the ages, except for the period of puritanical control, midsummer was a day of celebration and rites. Since in Christianity midsummer day is linked with the nativity of John the Baptist, Biddisham church's patron saint, there was special justification for the village making it a big occasion.It had a rare do in the churchyard! Fives were played against the churchyard wall, there were single-stick combats, and round about was all the fun of the fair including stalls, booths and sideshows.We do not know whether celebrations got out of hand on these occasions, but a parish record of 1728 suggests that discipline was exercised. It states that a rate of halfpenny an acre was levelled at Biddisham and Tarnock for setting up a 'peer' of stocks and a whipping post.The parish overseers appear to have done their best for folk in adversity. A local resident, Hannah Day, had a fatal illness and could not afford to keep their little handmaid, Sarah Simmons, so the parish paid three guineas towards binding Sarah as an apprentice in Bristol. The overseers also paid for a pint of brandy to help Hannah through her last days. They also recompensed two neighbours for sitting up with her at night.Susannah Waterman, referred to in the register as 'Su' was poverty stricken and a great expense to the parish for food for her and her three children, and for loads of turf. When she died the parish paid for her funeral, the costs including 'twenty-five quarts of Sidar' for the bearers. This item was preceded by one reading 'Paid ye minister 3d'.A Biddisham man, Robert Day, was buried at Loxton at the parish's expense, and to avoid the longer journey by road the coffin was taken across the River Axe. The register's reference to this item is: "Payd for passing the corpes over the water, 2s. 6d."A remarkable Biddisham farmer of the last century was Edwards Churches. For twenty years he had what was known as 'rheumatic gout' and was confined to bed. But he still directed all the affairs of his farm. His neighbours said of him: "He lies in bed and makes more money than us who work all day."He had his bed drawn up to the window overlooking the farm, and from there directed operations. He painstakingly kept a diary in which he entered details of all who came to the farm and their business.When he had stock to sell, he had them driven up to the window and inspected them and fixed the prices. Sometimes sheep and pigs were even taken into his bedroom so that he might settle a point or two about them.When a really old man and the local countryside was greatly excited about the election of a coroner for North Somerset he had a bed made in a cart, and was conveyed in it to Axbridge where the voting was done and the result declared. Old Ted Churches and many other Biddisham worthies now lie in the parish's secluded churchyard. As for Biddisham Lane, it may be a cul-de-sac, but there is no end to its story.This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on September 29, 1975

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