Romantic Uphill - where the Axe meets the sea

Uphil ys the Hed wher al the Water issueth to the Severne Se." So wrote Leland, Henry VIII's Royal Antiquary when he visited Somerset

Uphil ys the Hed wher al the Water issueth to the Severne Se." So wrote Leland, Henry VIII's Royal Antiquary when he visited Somerset. It is a description that suggests a much wider and more impressive River Axe flowing into the Channel than that which drifts between its muddy banks today.We have now reached the end of our journey down the Axe from source to sea, and in studying its history it has been clear that in former times it was a much bigger and more important waterway. Records refer to the river being navigable up to Crook Peak, where there was the port of Rackley. Uphill, at the mouth of the river, was also a port, probably a much busier one than Rackley. Today many yachts are clustered at the anchorage at the river mouth, but the old hulks, rotting on the mud banks, which were for years a reminder of Uphill's former seaborne trade, have long since gone.Uphill remains a place of romantic association and mystery. Volumes have been written about it, yet few important discoveries have been made to substantiate what has been claimed for it. Were the first craft that put into Uphill from overseas those of the adventurous Phoenicians? Did the Romans establish a big port at Uphill from which they transported lead mined on the Mendips? Is there any truth in the legend that the child Christ may have landed at Uphill with Joseph of Arimathea? Was the place formerly named Hubba's Pill because it was the lair of the great Danish pirate leader who ravaged these parts? Why was the old church built on the hill?There are gaps in Uphill's story that appear as big as that between Uphill hill and Brean Down, to which it was once joined. A vestige of the vanished range, incidentally, remains in the little island of Black Rock that lies between.One can glance back through the centuries to the days when this part of the country was joined to Wales by mountain ranges and forests, or to that other time when only a stream formed the division.I take up Uphill's story when those fierce, courageous Vikings put out across the dangerous seas in their longships and began to harry the English coasts. It was an age of savagery, and there was no organised force to protect the little communities.These sea robbers ventured into the Irish Sea, and made the Isle of Man a big base. They came plundering down the west coast and round into the Bristol Channel and Wales. From Wales the islands of Flat Holm and Steep Holm were stepping stones or rather bases to attack the Somerset coast. It is clear how these islands got their names, since holm is a Norse word meaning 'island in a lake' or 'an inlet of the sea'.That Uphill too became a base for the invaders is certain. It provided not only good anchorage, but also the Axe, then broad and with tidal reaches deep inland up which the Danes could go far in their shallow-draft ships.What is more likely than that a base which was assuredly much used by the great Danish leader, Hubba, should have become known as Hubba's Pill, and eventually Uphill?The first written record of the village is that in Domesday where it is referred to as 'Opopille'. From this it is deduced that the place did not get its name from its up-hill associations, and that Opopille was a corruption of Hubba's Pill. Antiquarians have gone further and suggested that the Hobbs' Boat ferry further up the river was also derived from Hubba, being a crossing or base used by the Danish Viking and his men.In an earlier series on the Polden Hills I re-told the story of King Alfred at Athelney, and how he rallied the Saxons to defeat the Danish menace which, from making shore raids, had thrust deep inland and threatened to conquer the country.I also expressed my support for the theory that the battle in which Alfred conquered the enemy forces under Guthrum was fought on the Poldens near Edington and not, as some authorities have maintained, at Edington in Wiltshire.Bishop Clifford in an address to the Somerset Archaeological Society in 1875 said that Guthrum had marched towards the Bristol Channel, burned Glastonbury, and took up a position near Athelney."Guthrum's object in this move," he said, "was, apparently, that he might act in concert with another Danish force which had come over from Wales under the leadership of Ubba (Hubba), so as to crush Alfred (who was known to be somewhere in the marshes) between their two armies."One can imagine those Danish forces setting out across the Bristol Channel in their long-ships, no doubt adding to the 'fleet' from the Danes based on Flat Holm and Steep Holm, and possibly putting in at Uphill before rounding Brean Down and proceeding across Bridgwater Bay and up the River Parrett.Hubba himself never joined Guthrum. He landed at Combwich, but his force had been spotted coming across the Channel and the Saxons were warned by beacons lit by watchers on the Quantocks.When Hubba's men landed they won an opening skirmish with the Saxons who were led by Odda. The Saxons took refuge in the Castle of Cynwit at Cannington.By their opening victory the Danes appear to have been lulled into a false sense of security. They went off on some other local raid, and when they came back their boats were high and dry on the mud. The Saxons meanwhile had sallied forth and were waiting for them. In the battle that ensued Hubba was killed. He was buried in a mound near Combwich which is still pointed out and said to have the name of Hubbalowe.This reverse was a bad omen for the Danes, for the legend says that their war banner, 'The Raven', was captured.The banner had a raven device on it, and the bird was believed to have the power to flap its wings when the Danes were going to win. Their chiefs used to consult it before a campaign, and if the wings flapped they knew they would be victorious and went into battle fearlessly.The news of the victory over Hubba's forces greatly heartened the rallying Saxons under Alfred. Some of Hubba's men joined up with Guthrum, but there was no prospect of the Danish leader achieving the encirclement he had visualised.Support for the view that the great battle in which Alfred conquered the Danes was fought near Somerset's Edington is found in the record that three weeks afterwards Guthrum and his leaders were baptised "at Aller, that is near Athelney". There also followed the Treaty of Wedmore, by which Guthrum conceded to Alfred all the territory south of the Thames including London and half of Mercia.So ended the important chapter in our national history with which was linked the Danish chief Hubba, who is said to have given Uphill its name.And what of the village's links with the Roman occupation? Did Uphill become a really important port in those days? Opinions seem to be divided, and in the Victoria History of Somerset Oppenheim declared that the idea of a Roman harbour at Uphill appeared to be altogether fictitious!His argument was that it was extremely unlikely that the Romans would have exported lead by the long and circuitous voyage from Uphill, involving the difficult navigation of the Bristol Channel with its dangerous shoals and violent tides, besides the risk of shipwreck off Land's End, when there was a far shorter and safer route overland to the neighbourhood perhaps, of Southampton, and thence by a comparatively easy sea passage to Gaul.Another antiquarian, Haverfield, said that evidence for the supposed Roman harbour at Uphill appeared to rest on a scanty foundation which did not amount to much more than some late coins found in a cave.Even the existence of a Roman road laid over Mendip specifically for the purpose of linking with the port of Uphill has been questioned.However, there is a great weight of evidence against the doubters. They were writing long before the discovery of the foundations of the Roman-British temple of Brean Down. Coins and fragments of pottery have been found on Uphill hill, while to the south of the old church are earthworks that suggest they were Roman guard stations or signalling posts.Sir Richard Colt Hoare, a noted Wiltshire antiquarian wrote: "On the hill above the creek there are vestiges of a square circumvallation, and we found many fragments of antique pottery including a large piece of red Samian ware."He further stated that at Uphill were to be found such names as 'Borough Walls' and 'Cold Harbour' which were usually attendant on Roman roads and stations, and that across the river there were the remains of strong fortifications on Brean Down.The probability of Uphill having been a Roman port is also strongly defended by J W Gough in his Mines of Mendip. He comments: "As regards the dangers of the Bristol Channel they were not necessarily any worse for the Romans than for the sailors of the Middle Ages and even later times, until the invention of modern appliances for navigation; yet the Danes found their way up the Channel to raid its coast on more than one occasion, and in the Middle Ages there is evidence that ships came up the Axe, very likely for lead, not indeed to berth at Uphill itself, but at the port of Rackley some miles higher up."I shall be returning to Uphill's interesting associations as a seaport in a further article.This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on July 27, 1963