Down the centuries at Priddy

The central feature of Priddy village green is its thatched stack of hurdles. It has been said that if the hurdles were not left there from one sheep fair until the next

The central feature of Priddy village green is its thatched stack of hurdles. It has been said that if the hurdles were not left there from one sheep fair until the next, the lord of the manor could refuse the right to hold this notable event, which has taken place there since 1348.It has also been held that Priddy Fair was started because Wells decided to transfer its Charter Fair there when the city was in the grip of the Black Death.Priddy poses so many queries, not the least of which is why a settlement should ever have been established at so bleak a spot on Mendip top. Yet we know even prehistoric man moved around this area, and the Bronze Age folk left one of their most striking memorials, the Nine Barrows, at one of the highest, most windswept spots nearby.The Rev John Skinner excavated several of the barrow in the Priddy area in 1815, and in one of the Ashen Hill group he came on a cremation burial in a pit covered by a stone slab. In it was a bronze ring, amber beads, part of a bronze spearhead, and a small vessel with grape-like adornments, known as a grape cup.An intriguing legend linked with Priddy claims that the boy Jesus visited it with his uncle, Joseph of Arimathea?The legend of Christ's visit to Priddy is linked to the fact that little is known about his life between the age of four and thirty. It is said that Joseph not only founded the other church of Britain at Glastonbury, but in earlier years as a metal merchant came to Britain, trading in Cornwall and in the lead mining area of Priddy, and brought the boy Jesus with him.From this legend it is maintained that Blake drew the inspiration for his immortal lines, "And did those feet in ancient times ...."Legend has it Uphill was the port at which Joseph landed with Jesus. There is, however, another former port that also claims that Joseph arrived there by boat with the Christ child. It now stands high and dry in mid-Somerset, but there is no doubt of its former port association, since it is called Pilton.Its church banner, which is beautifully designed in colour, shows a delightfully situated harbour with dense woods reaching up from the shore, and Glastonbury Tor beyond it. In a boat in the harbour are the figures of Joseph and the boy Jesus.In Cornwall there are also traditions of Christ's visit linked with Looe, Portlove, and St Just-in-Roseland.Whether or not there is any truth in the Priddy legend it is certain that lead was being mined in the locality when Christ was a boy. Priddy probably owes it existence on this bare upland to the lead mining industry. The Christian faith was established there early, and the rather squat tower of St Lawrence's church is substantially that of the 13th century.Judging by the stories handed down about them Mendip lead miners may not often have been seen at Priddy church. They preferred the alehouses, of which there were many. A number survive as well-known hostelries.Just off Priddy green, for instance, there is the once-thatched New Inn, which I can recall when it was lit by oil lamps. I remember, too, its flagstone floors, black beams and great open fireplace.Not far away on the road that leads down to Wookey Hole is the Victoria Inn, while another of the old mining inns in the locality is Hunter's Lodge.From time to time down the years old residents of Priddy have recalled the closing years of Mendip lead-mining in the locality. Among them was Bill Voke, who had to walk six miles to work in the mines and who earned but 4d. a day.Books found in one of the mining area sheds showed that in 1907 the company paid 6s. for "one day's work, one horse." A fortnight's coal hauling (48? tons at 3s. a ton) cost £5 7s. 6d. At that time a youth working at the mines could get 2? d. an hour, and a skilled man 6d. The last load of lead taken from the Priddy area is said to have fetched £23 a ton.Mr Gilbert Weeks, who helped to build the last furnace at the Priddy works, was employed there for 10 years, his father having been foreman there for 40 years.In its final days the industry was restricted to resmelting old slag. There were those who could recall when the industry employed a hundred men in the locality. Mr. Silas Vincent's comment was: "There were a lot more people living there in those days, but now many of the old houses have been pulled down."Another resident once produced a ledger of hours of work which showed that A. W. Brock worked an 82-hour week, which included one spell of 24 hours.Priddy Fair would not have become so noted an event had not Mendip in former times also been a great sheep rearing area. With this was allied the production of wool and cloth, and spinning and weaving were industriously carried on in cottage homes.Priddy Fair grew in importance, not only for the sale of sheep and cattle, but also for general merchandise, especially woollen cloth. In 1352 it was chosen as the first place in Somerset at which to read out a new Weights and Measures Act, under which all dealers were instructed to stop using their own rods and use a uniform standard of measurement.The shepherds, as well as the miners of Mendip, have handed down stories of their hard lives. One shepherd worked for the same employer for 20 years at an unvaried wage of 18s. a week.He walked three miles to and from work every day, had no holidays with pay, his working hours being the then normal ones of six to six. He gave his wife 17s. of his 18s. a week to housekeep for a family of five, and from his shilling he often saved enough to buy the children shoes! He regularly bought a 20 lbs shoulder piece of beef at 3d. a pound, and this lasted the family for a fortnight.Priddy Fair survives as a sheep fair, but I have a newspaper clipping of many years ago, in which the passing of some of its former day characteristics were deplored:"Old-timers gathered in knots mourning together the passing of the good old times of Priddy Green when the second day given over to the gipsy or didecoy traffic, was a lively as the first, when half a bullock was always roasted on a spit out on the green, and when the latter might be seen covered with young horses and colts; when dealers left their standings in the village and met the first likely buyer as far out as Hunter's Lodge."In the paddock hard by the green one old man could remember six pairs of local maulers, supported by their separate crowds, stripped to the buff to beat each other up with bare fists for purses made up long before fair day."Sporting features at the fair also at one time included single-stick bouts, and an old advertisement read: "Single stick fighters shall not lack good encouragement. He that breaketh most heads shall receive a gold guinea, a three cornered hat and a gold button."In addition to the bullock roasting on a spit on the green, a small hindquarter of beef was boned and roasted on a spit in front of a huge fire at the nearby New Inn. A boy turned the spit with a handle. Farmers started coming in at half-past six in the morning, and had breakfast off the roast, which was usually 'sold out' by about three in the afternoon.Ernest Speed used to do the carving with a three foot fork and a knife made from a sword used by an ancestor against the Russians at Balaclava. Potatoes and turnips were served with the beef, and were cooked in large boilers or "coppers". Nets were used to take one lot out and put another in.The locals drank a mixture of gin and cider from an eight pints glass.Walter Speed recalled roasting 20 pounds of beef and serving it with potatoes and beef for 1s. 2d. He could also remember when 'literally thousands' of people used to fill the green for the fair, some of them having come from long distances including Hereford and Gloucester.Among the light relief of the day was that of hunting the greasy pig. The pig was well oiled and larded so that it was difficult to hold, and then let go with a score or so of competitors in pursuit. Good fun, no doubt, but not for the poor animal.There was in circulation at one time a rhyme in Zummerzet dialect about this event entitled, The Lay of the Hunted Pig. I have never seen it, and if any reader has a copy I shall be grateful for the loan of it, or for a copy.In Priddy's story one must not overlook the annual Whit-Monday walk of the village's Friendly Society, which was founded in 1814.I once attended this walk. There was a church service, followed by a parade around the village headed by a band, halts being made at various farmhouses en route to sample "the brew".A luncheon followed in a marquee on the green at which there were the usual toasts to The Society, The Bishops and Clergy of All Denominations and The Mendip hunt. The luncheon was followed by sports and later there was dancing in the marquee.If when you visit Priddy you would like a little "treasure hunt", see if you can find the cottage, not far from the Green, the builder of which, over 230 years ago, ensured that his name should live after him, by carving on the front wall: "This stone my name shall evar have when I hame dead and laye in my grave and greedy worms my body eat then you may read my name compleat ... Thomas Reeves 1739."This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on July 7, 1972


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