Rural revels included backsword fighting

When the River Axe leaves Wookey it is to be glimpsed from time to time at the side of the Wells to Highbridge road until, near Panborough, it turns off across the moorland towards the hills. In travelling this road one passes through the closely-knit ham

When the River Axe leaves Wookey it is to be glimpsed from time to time at the side of the Wells to Highbridge road until, near Panborough, it turns off across the moorland towards the hills. In travelling this road one passes through the closely-knit hamlets of Henton, Bleadney, Panborough and Theale. At a glance they do not appear historically interesting, yet there is a hint about them of a richer, busier past. The ruined cottages here and there beside the river, the crumbling walls and barns suggest that these hamlets have known very different days.This was certainly so. In former times large-scale sporting and social interests centred on the Punch Bowl, the Piccadilly Inn, the Panborough Inn and the several other hostelries packed into a short stretch of road. There were the annual revels, which were of such drunken and brawling character that they were denounced from the pulpit of Theale church. And there were the backsword-fighting, club walks, harvest homes and other events that offered lively pleasures for leisure hours.The village of Henton once had eight public houses. Some of the surviving inns along this stretch of road are of great age. Backsword-fighting used to take place regularly outside the Punch Bowl, while the field opposite was once the venue of the harvest home, which has now lapsed.Like many other villages Henton also once had its Friendly Society. It used to hold its annual festival on the Tuesday in Whit Week. There was a dinner at the Punch Bowl, this event later being transferred to a marquee in the field opposite.The Piccadilly Inn was opened by the Horsington family about 200 years ago. The landlord could not make up his mind what name to give it. It so happened that a frequent visitor he accommodated was a Peter Peterine, an itinerant trader who used to come down from London with a stock of watches, necklaces, bracelets, etc. He went from door-to-door in the villages round about, and when he had sold out would go back to London for more. "Why not call it the Piccadilly Inn?" was Peterine's suggestion, and the Piccadilly Inn it became.Henton once had over half-a-dozen shops, but now only the village post office, which sells most things, remains. The attractive little church dates back to 1847.One may drive through the hillside hamlet of Panborough and scarcely notice it, but as I went by the other day I pictured to myself the scene at the Panborough Inn over 100 years ago when a clergyman, hot and dusty from having ridden quickly from Theale, alighted from this horse and entered the inn with the firm purpose of stopping a fight.He was the Rev William White, the Theale incumbent, who tells of the incident in his autobiography, published over a century ago.One evening his workman had told him: "There is going to be a fight tomorrow morning, sir.""Indeed," I replied, "I don't think there is. What time is it to take place, and who are the parties?""'Tis between Mr W of Mark, and Mr P of Mudgeley, and they meet at 9 or 10 o'clock, I forget which, in the morning.""Get my horse ready early in the morning, and I will see what I can do."White says he went to bed with a heavy heart, fearing that the resolutions of the evening would fail him in the morning. In the morning, however, he rode off, and on reaching Mudgley saw one of the intending combatants, and said: "I hear you are going to fight this morning, is it true?""Yes, I am going to fight.""I don't think you are if I can prevent it. Can't you give it up?""No, there is money paid down, and I am bound to fight."White immediately rode back and secured a person in authority to go with him to the Panborough Inn, with the object of stopping the fight. He continues: "One of the parties had arrived, and was sitting in the chimney corner. The other was not yet come. After a short time, the other made his appearance, and sat down in the opposite chimney corner. Here, as I thought, I had them both secure, but the room was full of people, and there seemed to be something agitating in the room which I did not like."Presently, the combatant who arrived last, a strong, powerful man, addressed me, and asked what business I had there. 'My business,' I said, 'is to see that the peace is kept in the place of which I am the minister. I have business to attend to out of the pulpit as well as in it.'"As White spoke several men rushed across from the fireplace, tore the man from the curate, and carried him off to the field where the fight was to take place. "They have seized one man, but I will make sure they do not get the other," thought White. "So," he added, "we kept him in the chimney corner until the time fixed for the fight was long past."The waiting crowd in the field was, of course, angry. Many of them had come from long distances, but eventually they all got tired of waiting, the fight was called off and the crowd dispersed."The people returned to the inn, and as they began to move off I distributed tracts among them," stated White. "'What doest thou here, Elijah?' was one of them. Thus ended one of the most painful trials I have ever experienced."White tells of a similar incident at Wedmore. He was walking through the village one morning when he saw a huge crowd of people coming from all directions as though in great haste. They were heading for a fight.He walked on with the crowd until he caught up with one of the combatants. "His poor wife," said White, "was sitting down in the ditch by the roadside, lamenting her husband in a most piteous manner. I endeavoured all I could to persuade him not to fight, but he said he must fight as the prize-money was laid down.""'Never mind that,' I said. 'If you will return and not go to the fields, I will take care that you shall not lose your money.'" Eventually, he persuaded the man not to fight, but wondered how he would get him back through the crowd."Surely, I thought, a few will be found to take my part. Nor was I wrong in my conjecture, for after a while half-a-dozen persons came forward, and undertook to see the man safely conducted to his home, to the no small joy of his wife, who I saw weeping in the ditch."White went to the field "where several hundreds, if not thousands, of people were assembled together. What for? To hear the Gospel? No, but to see two of their fellow creatures disgrace themselves by fighting! And yet they did hear the Gospel, too - the gospel of Peace; for I addressed them, and showed them, as well as my agitated mind would allow me, the folly of such proceedings."Theale's pleasant little chapel, charmingly situated on the brow of a hill, and overlooking the moor through which the Axe flow, does not look the sort of place of worship at which one would expect to hear the parson vehemently denouncing the wickedness of his parishioners' ways, and trying to get them to abandon social events that were linked drunkenness, fighting, and immorality.White was the first incumbent at Theale chapel. He writes of the laying of the foundation stones in 1826, and the subsequent consecration. He also tells how he had some of his addresses published as pamphlets and circulated throughout the district in a bid to put down the notorious Wedmore Revels."Danger is now near at hand," he wrote. "This danger is the approaching Revel, a revel patronised (as all revels are) not by God, but by the god of this world, the Devil. Have not hatred, variance, wrath, and strife been frequently nourished and fed, and has not fighting sometimes ended in murder?"Now can you one moment think of supporting these scenes of iniquity? Here, too, you meet together to encourage your poor fellow creatures to break the heads of each other in a dreadful amusement called backsword playing, falsely called the glory of Wedmore, but rightly called the shame and disgrace of Wedmore, for certainly our parish is disgraced in the sight of God by this abominable practice."Answering those who declared that there was no harm in the revel he declared: "There is harm of every description. Wives and children injured and starved. Misery and discord are encouraged. And oftentimes disgrace brought down on families of the most awful nature!"Theale's curate did more than persuade from the pulpit and by pamphlets. He started counter-attractions to the notorious revel. They included a Friendly Society, while on the day of the revel the grounds of Theale parsonage were opened to the children for games, other entertainments, and a tea.The Revels, backsword-fighting and many other old customs are no more. But the River Axe flows on. It disdains to enter Theale, and of its own choice would never have kept the road company through Henton and Bleadney. Through this stretch the river is obviously flowing along an artificially high level, and what one sees is a millstream diversion that once served the Bleadney mill, now an attractive residence. In the Panborough locality this diversion turns away across the moor to join the river proper in the direction of Westbury-sub-Mendip and Rodney Stoke.This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on May 19, 1962