Rackley's vanished river port

Today one may look in vain for the wharf of the old river port of Rackley, just below Crook Peak, from which the Romans shipped leaden ingots from Charterhouse and Priddy to Uphill and overseas

Today one may look in vain for the wharf of the old river port of Rackley, just below Crook Peak, from which the Romans shipped leaden ingots from Charterhouse and Priddy to Uphill and overseas.The remains of the port warehouses have been incorporated into farm outbuildings, and just across the river the cattle come down to drink and stand knee deep in the water.It is a typical rural scene - the farm by the riverbank - and yet long years ago this was the busy inland port of the River Axe. Here the Roman masters stood as the enslaved Britons loaded the mineral wealth of Mendip on to their ships. The stretch of road which lies between Webbington House and Compton Bishop immediately below Crook Peak is a popular halt for motorists. It commands a fine view, but few of the hundreds who pass a pleasant hour there realise what an historic spot lies immediately below them.As one proceeds towards Compton Bishop from the Webbington direction there is a sharp turning on the right opposite a little roadside clearing. This is the ancient highway to Rackley, down which men and later packhorses toiled with cargoes for the port. Today the highway is "no through road". It ends at a field gate, but the shape of an old road continues through the fields above the riverbank and one can but ponder where it went.I have been told that once or twice through the years, during work in and about Rackley Farm, in whose precincts the wharf once stood, articles of Romano-British origin have been unearthed. For a place once so busy and so peopled, its acres have yielded very little information about its past. Probably few people in the district have heard of Rackley. Certainly few of the hundreds who visit Crook Peak ever stroll or drive down to the cluster of buildings, even including a Rackley House, which is all that remains of the port of "Radeclive". One of the earliest references to it is in a papal bull dated 1178, preserved in the library of Wells Cathedral, in which possessions of the See of Bath, confirmed to Bishop Reginald by Pope Alexander III, included "Cumtoa with Radeclive port".This same Bishop in 1189 obtained from Richard I a grant of all the lead mines on his property, together with leave to create a borough and hold a market at "Radeclive". Rackley, it seems, never became a borough, but it has figured in records through the centuries and was obviously a place of some size and significance in the Mendip country.Rackley is actually on the Cheddar Yeo which joins the Axe in the locality, and in former days navigation to this point was made possible because the river was tidal. The hills sloping up to Crook Peak provided a good landing place.Iron, fish and salt were brought in, the outgoing cargoes being chiefly of lead. There is evidence that in the 15th century stones were landed at Rackley and hauled to Wells: apparently Rackley at one time served as the port of the cathedral city. It has been suggested that the stone was possibly blocks of alabaster, or statues.It is also recorded that in the 14th century the Abbot of Glastonbury won a case against the Crown over levying tolls on ships at Rackley. These ships had such names as Our Lady of Gerant (Brittany) and The Maid of Dartmouth.When he wrote his Heart of Mendip in 1915, F A Knight said that the primitive little quay at Rackley at which barges used to discharge their cargoes could still be seen by the bank of the stream, together with the old rambling sheds in which were stored the salt, coal and slate which in former days were brought up the river from Uphill.I looked in vain for remains of this quay recently. The spot was pointed out to me, and I was told that the former store-sheds had either been removed or incorporated into farm buildings.In his references to Rackley, F A Knight also stated: "Rackley, otherwise according to various maps, Reckley and even Ripley, was once a place of some consequence as a river port, even as far back as the time of the Roman occupation."It stands on the Red Marl, a conspicuous bank of which may be seen above the road; and as Canon Church pointed out, there can be no doubt that this bank is the Red Cliff which gave its name to the place, and that Rackley is a corruption of Portus de Radeclive, a name which appears in documents more than seven centuries old."Two lines of ancient roadway - one coming down from Callow, near Shute Shelve, and the other following a slight hollow to the east of Cheddar, and entering the village under the suggestive name of Redcliff Street, lead down to the quay at Rackley."Knight also says that in 1372 the Dean and Chapter of Wells paid Bishop Harewell £10 towards the expenses of making a cut in the river bank art "Radecliffe," no doubt to carry off the flood-water from the Cheddar stream into the Axe, and that many such a cut may still be seen below Rackley Farm.In 1454 the Dean and Chapter leased to "John Pedwell, Vicar Choral, a grange and barton", and the fisheries in the "great course of water called Radeclyffe Yoo", for 50 years, at a rent of 57s. 6d. a year. The same grange, barton, and fishery are also mentioned in a document dated 1534.The importance of Rackley to the district is also stressed by mentions in the accounts of the Moorwardens of the parish of Cheddar, dated 1633-34. John Venn and Richard Chesman, Moorwardens, made charges for "mowing the river", and there was also payment to John Bolting "for bringing up one of the hatches of the elyes whiche the water carried to Reckli".The earliest map of Somerset, Saxon's, of 1575, gives Rackley as "Ratclef," and the place is shown on successive maps until Thomas Bowen's of 1784, where it appears as "Ralcliff". In Emmanuel Bowen's map of 1750 it is "Ratcliff," and a note is added along the line of the River Axe from its mouth, "As River Navigable to Ratcliff".In former days the lives of people living at Rackley and at nearby Compton Bishop must have been very much identified with the activities of the port, and there was a larger population than today.Writing 47 years ago, Knight commented: "Even within the last 50 years a hundred houses have been pulled down or abandoned. A good many cottages, especially near Rackley, have been demolished within living memory, leaving no trace beyond long grass-grown mounds."He suggested that causes contributing to this included the conversion of the land from arable to pasture, and also the end of coaching traffic. One may add that the decline and eventual closing of the port of Rackley may also have had something to do with it.At one time the overseers were greatly troubled about the number of squatters' dwellings erected, suggesting that the neighbourhood attracted a large number of rather rough labouring types who obtained employment in and around the port.There used to be many such dwellings on Mendip, especially in areas such as East Harptree where there was lead mining. The squatters' huts were rudely made of turf, with posts at the corners and they were roughly thatched. It was said that no such dwelling was allowed to remain unless it was started and finished within 24 hours.The records of the overseers of Compton Bishop suggest efforts to thwart would-be squatters, parishioners being urged to "see to it that squatters' dwellings were pulled down before the roofs were on, as such cottages were only nurseries for vagabonds and thieves". In 1715 a whipping post was put up.Knight stated that some of these tenements still survived in 1915, one up the hill beyond the church, and two on the upper road.The Bishop's Register at Wells records that in 1333 two men and a woman, found guilty of transgressions and excesses, were sentenced to be flogged around the church of Compton Bishop on three Sundays or feast days!When I strolled up the road to this village in the fold of the hills on a lovely summer evening, it was difficult to visualize this Somerset churchyard being associated with such scenes of violence.The birdsong included some strident chirping from a nearby wall, and I crossed to discover a nest of bluetit fledglings, all with wide open, thrusting beaks awaiting their parents' return from foraging.I went into the churchyard and felt the thrill of centuries in touching the rough bark of the fine old yew tree. There was the church with the ancient cross standing near. The cross is believed to have been erected in the 14th century. The church has a remarkable Early English south doorway, a finely carved stone pulpit attributed to the thirteenth century, and a primitive Norman font. The foundations of the church are believed to have a Saxon origin.The Compton simply means combe town, while the Bishop no doubt owes its origin to the fact that the parish was once in the great manor of Banwell held by the Bishops of Bath and Wells. Early records refer to the village as Compton Episcopi, and Compton Magna, Compton Magna - or Compton the Great - now a sleepy village among the hills.Weather-beaten Crook Peak has stood for centuries. It no doubt looked much the same when the ships were drawing into the haven under the hill. Rackley's "great course of water" has become but a trickle, but it has the glitter and fascination of history, and is romantically linked with the story of the Axe's timeless journeying to the sea, and with man's comings and goings upon it.This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on June 29, 1962

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