Eccentric clergyman's dim view of village's prospects

Folly, like fear, always acts on bodies of men with still greater force than individuals, otherwise what can possibly induce such myriads to visit

Folly, like fear, always acts on bodies of men with still greater force than individuals, otherwise what can possibly induce such myriads to visit this nasty place, to broil on a loose sand during the dog days, with no other view to amuse them but the muddy expanse of a turbid estuary; or that hundreds of silly projectors should to a certainty ruin themselves in building houses and erecting shops for the accommodation of the company which will shortly desert these ephemeral habitations, and leave them vacant like the fragile shells we pick up on the beach."Thus wrote the Rev John Skinner when he visited Weston in 1929. A most keen archaeologist, Skinner was concerned in some of the most important discoveries in North Somerset, and made copious notes and sketches.The material has been scanned by the local historian the late Ernest Baker, who took extracts from the journals dealing with Skinner's visits to Weston in 1827, 1829 and 1832. Some of the contents were published in the 1930s as Journal of a Somerset Rector, edited by Howard Coombs and the Rev Arthur N Bax, a copy of which is in the Weston Public Library. However, I am convinced that there is much more of interest that could be brought to light from the mass of information Skinner collected. He directed that his executors should "deliver up the MSS volumes, specified in my will, in the number one hundred and fifty, containing journals and productions of various kinds, but chiefly on the subject of antiquities, with the chests in which they were deposited, and with the keys thereof, for the sole use and benefit of the British Museum and the public in general".He added that no extracts should be taken from these books until 50 years after his death, for fear of giving offence by his free remarks on passing events and acquaintances.The will was penned on August 13, 1839, and four months later Skinner's body was found among the beech trees near his Camerton rectory. His mind had been turned by numerous family sorrows and parish problems, and he killed himself.Skinner was a sort of Somerset village Pepys, and his journals are a fascinating record of Somerset life over a century ago.In his journals Skinner reveals himself as a hot-tempered pedant and a crank, but there was also the kindly side to his character and his sense of duty towards his parishioners.He touchingly refers to death-bed visits, caustically comments on drunken brawls, and writes of cholera epidemics, strikes, rough and abusive miners, prostitutes, obscene boys, ale-house debauchers, and tipsy bell-ringers.Skinner writes about the "poor little girl Goold," stricken with smallpox, whom he visited and amused with children's books. When cholera broke out at Camerton he rejected the advice of wellwishers who told him not to officiate at the burial of the victims.He went around distributing camphor and aromatic vinegar to combat the diseases, sent mutton chops to the sick, bought spirits for those who had the unpleasant task of burying the dead, and port wine for the school-mistress who had become terror-stricken at the thought of infection.He visited the sick, offered his Glebe House as a temporary hospital, and tackled the colliery authorities about the dung heaps and filthiness of the miners' homes, which aggravated the spread of the disease.Skinner was born in 1772, and after education at Trinity College, Oxford, studied for the legal profession, but later "with great earnestness and perseverance spent not less than ten hours of the day in my study" reading for Holy Orders. He became curate at Claverton, Bath, and a year later curate at Brent Knoll, or as it was then known, South Brent. In 1800 Skinner's uncle bought him the living at Camerton, near Bath. Skinner went to Brent Knoll in 1799, and arrived by clearing a hedge on horseback. He recorded: "Having learned that I might ascend the Knoll on horseback and get to Mr Phelps' house by only leaping one hedge, I took that direction."Skinner made many tours of antiquarian interest in this district, compiling copious notes and sketches. He journeyed long before the days of railways, and often went on horseback, but chiefly in post-chaises or private carriages.He records an amusing episode at Axbridge in 1829, when he was on his way to Weston to meet the Bishop, who was staying at Claremont Lodge."I left home at ten o'clock," he wrote, "and drove through Cheddar cliffs. My horse I baited at the little inn at Cheddar. Having quitted Cheddar in a heavy storm of rain, and driven through Axbridge Cross, I fell in with a troop of gypsies, who had a train of donkeys carrying their baggage before them; in an instant the wheels of a carriage sounded in my rear, and having the umbrella over my head held by the right hand, and the rains in my left, I was not so active in getting out of the way as I might have been; indeed the postilion who drove the horses had himself taken the middle of the road to avoid the donkeys, and was close behind ere I perceived him, and not being able to hold them in, ran against the hind wheel of my light phaeton and overset it with a crash sending me headlong in the middle of the road, where I lay for an a instant on my back, quite stunned."On recovering my legs," he went on, "my first feeling was of anger against the awkward fellow who had occasioned my degradation, but lo and behold on looking into the carriage I found it was the Bishop of Bath and Wells."After congratulations, he took me in his carriage to Weston-super-Mare; my own having been refitted by an active gypsyman, his servant drove it to the end of the journey, so out of evil came good."The Bishop was the Right Rev George Henry Law, who was also a keen antiquarian.In his visit to Weston in 1826, Skinner arrived on horseback to inspect the archaeological remains. Curiously enough the first site he visited was the much-neglected Castle Batch at Worle. Some archaeologists have maintained that Castle Batch has never been excavated, but the Rev Skinner commented: "On examining it we were fully satisfied it had been a Barrow, although it had been excavated, and a considerable portion of the earth removed. We could gain no satisfactory intelligence as to the time when it was first opened, or as to its contents. About two years since, the Farmer who occupied the ground on which it stands, wheeled away some cartloads of the soil to put on his fields."In continuing his journey into Weston Mr Skinner speaks of passing near "the windmill". The remains of the windmill now form part of the Observatory.Mr Skinner was not at all happy about the reception he got at Weston's inn. He wrote; "Mine hostess not liking our appearance, or judging perhaps we were not prepared to spend a great deal in her house, scarcely thought us deserving attention, and it was a long time before we could procure any refreshment. We could find no accommodation but in the bar, and there no courteous treatment, as the mania of the mud-bathers seems to affect the whole company from the highest to the lowest."He went on: "Leaving Weston with the same kind of feeling the traveller experiences on quitting his bed wherein he has been tormented with fleas and vermin, we rode gently along the beach towards Uphill, stopping on the way to look at the foundations of a new hotel just emerged from the sand."This was a reference to the building of the Half-way House, an inn that once stood on the site of the Royal Hospital and was said to be a haunt of smugglers. "Is not he a foolish man who buildeth his house on such a foundation?" asked the Rev Mr Skinner.While Mr Skinner's first impressions of Weston were not good, he made several other visits. During his visit of 1829 he refers to an outing to Worlebury hill with the Bishop of Bath and Wells, the Rt Rev Henry Law, and the lord of the manor, Mr Pigott. They went in the Bishop's four-wheeled carriage, and in addition to having a look at Worlebury camp, there was the diversion of getting workmen to open up two long vanished barrows.He wrote: "We first visited two tumuli, or long barrows, one measured 45 feet in length by 15 feet wide, and was thrown up in a small dell or dip in the ground facing Birnbeck, a small rocky island, lying a little beyond the Weston point of Worle Hill. Both these barrows have long since disappeared.After visiting the camp they left at the eastern end, and Skinner comments: "Leaving the camp we proceeded straight forward towards the opposite extremity in quest of some small graves, at least I imagined them to have been such, thrown up near the enclosures .... On our way thither we saw a Barrow which had been excavated whether in former times as a beacon, or later in order to examine the interior I do not know."Historian Ernest Baker commented that this barrow has also entirely disappeared, and even the site is unknown. Possibly, though, Skinner might have been referring to the Peak Winnard cairn.On the party's return to the barrow being excavated near Birnbeck, Skinner wrote: "... the supposed graves ... showed no kind of token of internment. Disappointed in our search we descended the hill to open the largest of the Long Barrows we had noticed on first coming to the spot. The workmen dug from one end to the other but without meeting with anything".Skinner visited the only booksellers at Weston. "I went thither to purchase a Prayer Book, as they had forgotten to put mine in my trunk," he said. "The price they asked for the cheapest was so much beyond what I thought it worth that I contented myself with a Psalter, for which I gave 15d."* This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on July 29, 1967


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