Hiking through the district in 1799

The Rev Richard Warner's hike through Somerset in 1799 took him southwards from Cross along what was then the main Bristol to Exeter

The Rev Richard Warner's hike through Somerset in 1799 took him southwards from Cross along what was then the main Bristol to Exeter coaching road and which today, much straightened, widened, and generally improved, we term the A38.Apparently it was a busy highway in 1791, and in one of the letters he wrote about his tour Mr Warner said that after two hours' tramping he "turned, right joyfully towards East Brent, a pleasing little village, with its spire-crowned church, planted at the north-eastern extremity of Brent Knoll, one of those conoidal hills which rise suddenly out of the flats of Somerset".Like many antiquarians of his day Warner believed that the remains of the hill forts which abound in Somerset were made by the Romans, whereas, of course, they were the work of the tribes that settled in these parts hundreds of years before the Romans came.The easily defensible characteristics of Brent Knoll made it an obvious choice for an encampment of early man, and it must have changed hands many times down the centuries as successive tribes swept over the country. For all we know the last battle may have been fought on it between the settlers and the all-conquering Romans under Vespasian, who swept up the country in AD 476 and who are thought to have achieved the final overthrow of Worlebury Camp.Because of its shape and hollow interior many people are inclined to think Brent Knoll was of volcanic origin. This is not so. Apparently the Knoll was capped by marlstone, and this was extensively quarried at one time. Unfortunately the quarrying largely destroyed the ramparts of the ancient fort, and minimised the possibility of unearthing relics there of early man.The Rev Richard Ward was entranced by the view he got from the top of the Knoll. "The mountainous heights of Devon, speadily to be explored, rose before me," he wrote. "Wed-more, Mark-Moor, and Godney-Moor, the Netherlands of West England, we spread to the left, terminate by the pointed hill and lofty Tor of Glastonbury; and on the other, my eye, after sweeping a wide expanse of water, the Bristol Channel, reposed itself ion the hills of Glamorganshire."Descending from the hill, Mr Warner called on an old friend, the Rev John Skinner, at Brent Knoll, which was then known as South Brent. Its name was changed many years ago at the request of the Post Office and railway companies owing to the confusion that kept arising between it and South Brent, in Devon.The Rev John Skinner was another keen antiquarian, who pursued his hobby extensively around the Weston area and wrote lengthy diaries and notebooks, which he bequeathed to the British Museum. His voluminous manuscripts were in locked chests, and they remained unopened for nearly a century before they were gone through and found to contain much valuable information about the West Country and its archaeology.Skinner was made curate of Brent Knoll in 1799, and could only have been there a few weeks before his friend Warner called on him. Of the village in 1791 Warner wrote: "The only curiosity of South Brent is its little church which has many vestiges of antiquity both within and without. Its seating is particularly curious, being anterior to the Reformation."Instead of pews it has (like Russian churches) a regular series of plain oaken benches, with a back to each running from either side towards the middle of the church, at right angles with the wall.The flat boards which form the terminations of these seats are curiously and variously carved with subjects most grotesque and ludicrous; such as a fox or an ass in a mitre; a pig roasting, and a monkey acting the part of a turnspit; a party of geese hanging a pig; a monkey at prayers; a pig preaching, etc."This jesting by medieval wood-carvers survives in the church and has puzzled experts down the years. One of our present day authorities, Nikolaus Pevsner, comments: "What does this imply? A general hatred of the parishioners or some wealthy donor for monasteries and Glastonbury in particular. Or a topical references which escapes us?"There is no evidence to prove that at the time Glastonbury tried to recover South Brent which had gone to the Bishop of Wells in the 12th century. Whatever the immediate meaning, the outspokenness of the statement remains memorable."For his part Mr. Warner's view was: "These caricature carvings I should consider as instances of practical satire by the parochial clergy against the mendicant orders; for its is well-known that the most inveterate antipathy subsisted between the parish priests and the friars, in consequence of that considerable influence which the latter had obtained by their absurd vows and itinerant preaching"Of the font in Brent Knoll church, Warner wrote; "The font also lays claim to considerable antiquity, being deep and capacious and intended for the total immersion of the infant to be baptised.""This, you know, was the ancient mode of performing the ceremony, and only within these two centuries, when good sense getting the better of prejudice, the custom almost universally disappeared, to the great benefit of the population, since the chances must have been very considerably against any infant which was this, within the month, plunged head over heels into a bath of cold water."Warner left Brent Knoll accompanied by his friend Skinner, and they made their way across the Huntspill levels which, he wrote, "exhibits the province of Holland in miniature; a resemblance which is strengthened by the appearance of the women who, like the Dutch females, have mostly very white teeth and fair complexions."The travellers reached the Shoulder of Mutton inn at Pawlett, where they decided to spend the night.While they were there a ragged old woman arrived in a cart drawn by a pony no bigger than a Newfoundland dog. They talked with her and were told she had been born at the poor-house at Huntspill, and had lived in the parish all her life. She married a labourer, "took terribly to breeding" and in seven years presented her husband with as many children."Two of them, however, died in infancy," Warner recorded, "but while she was big with the eighth it pleased Providence to take her husband from her.The woman was thus left a widow with six children and no money. Rather than send them to the workhouse she got up at 2am, did what was necessary for the children, and then walked eight to ten miles to market with a large basket of pottery ware on her head, sold it, and was back home with her earnings by mid-day.Eventually she managed to save a guinea-and-a-half, and having to quit her cottage decided to build her own. She got a man to help her but one day, when she was gone to market he stole her savings and decamped.After cursing the rascal, undaunted she worked harder than ever to achieve her aim, the family meanwhile sleeping in an improvised shack. Eventually she not only built her home but bought a cart and pony."To be sure I ben't very rich," she said, "but what I have is all my own getting ... I maintain myself and don't care a farthing for Pope or Keesar (Caesar)."Saying this," wrote Warner, "Dame Johanna Martin snatched up her whip and drove off, leaving us in admiration of a character equally rare and exemplary - a mind unconquerable by disaster; a spirit which preferred contending with difficulties almost unparalleled rather than submit to the shackles of dependence."Warner was making for the Quantocks country, and to get there he took what was known as the Combwich passage. It was a short cut by ferry over the River Parret to Combwich, and avoided the wider sweep that would have been necessary had he gone on by road to cross the river by the bridge at Bridgwater.In former days there was always a ferryman at hand to take travellers over the Combwich passage, while at low tide horses and cattle crossed by the ford. It has been suggested that the passage lies on the route of a Saxon herepath coming over the Quantocks from the west, and stretching on towards Brent Knoll. From the river bank at Combwich you may look across and see the pathway leading from the other side of the ferry towards Pawlett.Warner starts one of his letters by stating; "My companion and I were early today on our way to the passage-house on the banks of the Parret, about two miles and a half from the Shoulder Of Mutton inn, which had last night given us shelter .... The passage house, apparently, was a comfortable little cottage, which though not a public house, holds out hospitality to the traveller, and afforded us an excellent breakfast."Before continuing his journey Skinner waited to see the Parret's tidal bore, of which he wrote: "Its approach is announced by a distant roaring sound, which gradually increases on the ear, until the cause itself appears; a volume of water, like one vast wave sometimes rising to the height of four feet (though when I saw it, not more than two) rushing on with irresistible violence, and covering instantaneously the steep banks, which had been left dry by the recess of the tide."At the river bank Warner said good-bye to his friend Skinner, and here too we must leave him, being ferried over the river to continue his hike in the Quantocks.* This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on January 1, 1973