Lympsham was to have had big coal port

When the old Bristol and Exeter Railway Company opened the line between Bristol and Bridgwater in 1841, its directors held out enthusiastic prospects of the great commercial developments that

When the old Bristol and Exeter Railway Company opened the line between Bristol and Bridgwater in 1841, its directors held out enthusiastic prospects of the great commercial developments that would follow the link with the Somerset coastal area.In trying to get people to put their money into the project it was pointed out that the extension of the railway west of Bristol would "bring the line close to the mouth of the Axe and the natural harbour of Uphill," from which, it was argued, it was possible to establish a line of communication between the whole of the south of Ireland, the southern coast of Wales, and Bristol and London, "of which the most sanguine can scarcely calculate the advantages."The proposed route of the railway through the Uphill locality never materialised. It was said that the intention was to take the main line through Weston and Uphill, going around the hill and with a bridge over the Axe, but that local landowners were obstructive and in some instances held out for excessive terms. Consequently it was decided to lay the railway across the open moor and to cut through the hill.This decision meant the abandonment of ideas for developing Uphill as a port with links to South Wales and Ireland, but the railway had to cross the Axe at Lympsham, and its directors thought a useful cross-channel link could be established there. The river remains tidal to the gates the company put in at Lympsham where the railway crosses the river, and a wharf was also constructed.What the company had in mind was something more than facilities to serve a local trade. It visualised the build-up of a port at which considerable cargoes of coal might be handled, these being switched to the railway and taken over the West Country. Like many of the big ideas the railway companies put forward in order to persuade the public to invest with them, that plan came to little. For many years, however, ketches and later powered vessels brought their cargoes of coal up the Axe to Lympsham Wharf, or, as it was known, Jefferies Wharf. Today the trade has ceased altogether. The wharf is still there, but the only craft that come up the river are those of local yachtsmen.Yet, curiously enough, a flourishing Lympsham Coal Company, whose address is The Wharf, Lympsham, remains in existence! Hereby hangs a story, which was told me by a director of the company, Mr. R. C. Jones. He said that the wharf had been closed for years until, during the trade depression round about 1929-30, his company decided to reopen it. Cargoes of coal were brought from Sharpness, Lydney and elsewhere by small coasters. He produced a stock book for 1932 recording for instance, that the steamship Ocean had delivered her first cargo at the wharf."It is surprising what a big rise and fall of water there is up to this point," he said, "but I am afraid no coasters could come up here now because the river is so silted. In the old days the River Board used to help to keep the passage clear and, of course, vessels themselves shifted a lot of mud."I asked Mr. Jones how the Lympsham Coal Company now obtained its deliveries of coal and he replied: "We send our own lorries to South Wales and even up to Midlands collieries to fetch it!" He added that this was the most economical way of getting supplies these days, the only alternative being to have coal taken by rail to Weston with the journeying and re-loading this entailed.The village of Lympsham does not lie on the banks of the Axe, but is about as remote from it as it is from its only public house, the Hobbs' Boat Inn, which lies just within its boundaries.The inn, formerly the ferryman's house, and the ferry were mentioned in an earlier article, but it is interesting to note that Collinson, writing of Lympsham in 1791, stated: "It is divided from Uphill, Bleydon, and Loxton by the river Ax, over which, one mile north from the church, is a ferry-boat for horses when the tide is in; but at ebb tide the river is not more than two feet deep. This ferry has the name of Hobbs' boat."He also went on to say: "This parish contains sixty houses, and about 320 inhabitants. About forty houses stand near the church; of the rest sixteen are in the hamlet of Edingworth, sometimes called Endeston, thence Eastward Town, and thence by corruption Easterton, near a mile to the east, part of which belongs to East Brent; and three are in a small hamlet called Batch, in the road to Uphill."Lympsham was not mentioned in the Domesday Survey but it was in the possession of the abbots of Glastonbury from very early times. After Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries the manor was granted to the Duke of Somerset.Describing the church of St. Christopher, Collinson says that "the tower leans so much to the West as to be two feet three inches out of perpendicular".He did not mention the story that has been handed down, which claims that it was by the financial help of Charles I that the tower's tendency to lean further and further was halted.That Charles held the manor of Lympsham is proved by a grant written in Latin and English that still survives, and an early historian vouched the king gave the church aid. The figures 1633 are cut on an inserted stone beneath the south window, and this is considered to have been the date when the tower's lean was arrested by rebuilding the tower-head.It is also said that at the nearby manor house where there was once a fine collection of English and foreign armour there was also "a handkerchief belonging to Charles I said to have been used by the King at his execution".Lympsham church has an impressive interior. There is a fine ceiling, and a gallery beneath which are raised special pews for the churchwardens, with candle-sockets at the side. Here one may also see memorials to members of the Stephenson family who did so much for the village, even to the extent of re-building its cottage homes.The well-to-do Stephensons began their association with the village in 1809, when the Rev. A. J. Stephenson became rector and lord of the manor. He bought the manor from Lord Powlett. At that time there was a great deal of poverty in the place, and many of the villagers were ill clad and lived in tumbledown cottages. Mr. Stephenson and his more distinguished son, Prebendary J. H. Stephenson, who succeeded him in 1844, set about achieving a transformation.To-day Lympsham, lying among its clusters of trees, is a place of interesting contrast. There are the council houses and the modern bungalows, and also the cottages built in a distinctive way by the Stephensons, some of them incorporating an old English letter S.The Stephensons built the attractive Tudor-style manor house, planted trees and created gardens and grottoes. They also had a manor hall and school erected and Lympsham emerged form its former squalor to be a model village.The family had come from Yorkshire, and the males had taken holy orders for centuries. They were collaterally descended from the Stillingtons, a Robert Stillington being Bishop of Bath and Wells and Lord Chancellor from 1468 to 1473.Prebendary Joseph Henry Stephenson, rector of Lympsham for over 50 years, was regarded as one of the finest preachers in the diocese. He was so popular that the gentry came in their carriages from considerable distances to hear him. In fact there were so many visitors to Lympsham church that the Prebendary had a parking problem on his hands, which he solved by building large stables so that the horses might be tied up and rested.The Rev. Arthur Findlayson, writing about him in the Nineties, said: "It is more than fifty years since he came to take the duties of that church (Lympsham) and preach the Word of God within its walls. More than fifty years ago, and after all that time of labour after many changes and sunrises, the same preacher, white-haired, impressive and vigorous still rises to deliver his accustomed message."His love of nature is apparent in his constant allusions to the fields and flowers, the rising and setting glories of sunlight, and the wilder splendours of the forest and the ocean. The effect of this enthusiasm for beauty is often thrilling, and gives a force and freshness to his words..."He is never happier than when preaching to or visiting his parishioners. He has been known, at the age of 73, to pay as many as twenty visits in a day, and certainly Lympsham affords an illustration of the adage, 'A house-going parson makes a church-going people'."An old parishioner once said of him: "He is the child of the parish I might say, sir; his father held the living before him, he was reared amongst us, he has grown up amongst us, he has been about us in the cottages almost since he was able to walk, and there is hardly an old inhabitant upon whose knee he has not sat when a boy."Prebendary Stephenson was born in a room at Lympsham Manor where seven of his own children also came into the world. The affection with which he was held was demonstrated on one occasion when he had been away for a month, and in his absence someone had stirred up trouble by accusing him of holding opinions tending towards Romanism.The villagers demonstrated their loyalty on his return on a June day in 1858, when he was escorted from Weston by about fifty parishioners on horseback and in carriages and carts, with the Naval Promenade Band in front in a wagonette drawn by four grey horses.At the Hobbs' Boat the rest of the parishioners had assembled to greet him, and the procession into the village was made beneath arches of flowers and flags bearing such messages as "Welcome Home", "Peace and Concord", and "Welcome, Dear Pastor, Home".The little village among the trees still contrasts the Stephenson world with that of today. This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on July 20, 1962