Taking the byway to the charm of Rodney Stoke

The charm of the Cheddar valley is infinitely varied, and the A371 out of Weston that takes one through it is an astonishing stretch of highway. To see all that is worthwhile

The charm of the Cheddar valley is infinitely varied, and the A371 out of Weston that takes one through it is an astonishing stretch of highway. To see all that is worthwhile along and just off it one could take days on the some 20 miles to Wells.Just past the airport the village of Locking beckons. It would be a pity to miss looking around the church that spreads itself beneath the 14th century tower and has one of the most interesting Norman fonts in the area - one with primitive figures stretching out long arms to join hands.A little way on there is the glory of Banwell church, especially the beauty of its screen. Winscombe church is a bit off the route, but it, too, contributes to the reputation of a county of fine churches. To miss dipping down into medieval Axbridge to visit its museum at King John's Hunting Lodge and to see the 'cathedral' of the west Mendip country would be a great loss.On Cheddar's attractions I do not need to expand. After Cheddar most travellers are inclined to think of Wookey or Wells as the next stop. When they get to Rodney Stoke they no doubt admire the great woods that pack the southern slopes of the Mendip at this point. The woods are a nature reserve and are reckoned the best surviving example of a Mendip ashwood. But Rodney Stoke has more than its nature reserve.As a village it appears to have little to offer of interest along its A371 section, but there is the byway that takes you out of the twentieth century and leads to the church where the famous Rodney family have a chapel gloriously adorned with effigies in almost lifelike state of preservation.Then most noted of the Rodney line, Admiral George Brydges Rodney, was born in London in 1719. He was the grandson of George, youngest brother of Sir Edward Rodney, of Rodney Stoke, and his career in the Navy began at the age of 12. But no doubt in earlier boyhood, or in later life, he visited Rodney Stoke to see the tombs of his ancestors.Collinson in 1791 described the parish as being situated "in a fine champaign country under the brow of Mendip. Then moors bound it to the west, interspersed with some beautifully green woody hills."He says that anciently it was known as Stoke and later, taking the names of its lords of the manor, it successively became Stoke Gifford and Rodney Stoke.In the Norman survey it was said to have fifteen acres of meadow and eight acres of pasture, and "was formerly worth sixty shillings, now fifty shillings".Today cattle graze on the moorland fields, but on the uplands many Rodney Stoke acres are out to strawberry growing.At one time cider-making was a big local industry and at Honeyhurst Farm up to 100,000 gallons a year were made.Despite inevitable changes in modern times Rodney Stoke still has old-world charm along the road which runs down to the church.Even the Romans found Rodney Stoke a pleasant spot at which to settle. In 1927 a farmer who wanted to improve his cattle's drinking place in a field near a pumping station on the moor got to work removing turf on a mound to extract some stones. He hit upon the remains of a paved roadway and what appeared to be a ' pitched" courtyard.The report on the discovery stated: "Buried some 18 inches deep just outside the upright edging stone of the road, his further search disclosed two urns, wheel-turned of the usual late Romano-British size and shape. The first was broken during the excavation, but the second was complete. Its mouth was closed by a large rough pebble. It contained a hoard of 43 small coins of the later emperor."Other coins were found, and also a piece of a grinding stone and a bronze, ring-shaped brooch. I have no information on whether this site has been explored more intensively since. Probably a Roman villa stood there once. It is not far from the old course of the River Axe.One can only hazard why the former occupier left his or her treasure behind. Possibly it may have been buried for safety's sake, and secretly, the owner later dying suddenly either naturally or in the attacks which some Roman settlers faced when their Empire's dominance of this country began to crumble.The earliest reference to Rodney Stoke's church of St Leonard is in a document of the time of Bishop Reginald (1174-92).A former rector, the Rev C G Chitty, who took a great interest in the parish's history and compiled a manuscript history, stated that Roger Whiting, whose family held the manor in early times, appeared to have been the founder of the church about 1175. "The original church was probably small and mean," he wrote, "but the low chancel arch may be the original."The whole building is of Draycott stone, and it is interesting witness to the fact that this conglomerate was being quarried fairly in Plantagenet times. It is a 'pudding stone' formed by glacial pressure."Arthur Mee in his Somerset in the Queen's England series gives a charming description of the Rodney tombs: "In the tiny chapel off the chancel lie Edward Rodney, who gave the church its lovely screen, its pulpit, and the cover of the font; George, his son, who died at 21; and Anna his daughter. The best of them all is Anna, perfectly charming under a window, serene in a richly embroidered bonnet with lace collar and cuffs, her sash and sleeves looped with bows, and double rows of pearls on her neck and shoulders."Looking down on her is the grim figure of George, grim because he is getting out of his coffin with his shroud still on his hands raised, his long hair falling on his shoulders, and above him is an angel blowing a trumpet to announce the resurrection."Looking across the chapel towards them are Edward Rodney and his wife in oval recesses under a curtained canopy, their eyes wide open."He is trim and stern, she is looking like a Puritan maid, with queer, old-fashioned angels beside them, and above them all is an angel benediction rising from the clouds."Between the chapel and the chancel sleeps the oldest Rodney of them all, Sir Thomas, of 1478. Cherubs and angels hang from the canopy of his richly sculptured tomb, a dragon peeps out from a spandrel, and on the tomb he lies, a neat and captivating figure, his head on a helmet with his eagle crest his feet on a dog, his dagger at this side."Five queer little women look from the front of his tomb into the chancel, one kneeling at prayer for his soul, two counting their beads; and looking down on the other side, faintly carved on shields are St Anne with the Madonna and child, St Leonard with the shackles he struck off the wrists of prisoners, and a bishop. A fascinating group the Rodneys."Historian Collinson tells how an incident during an archery practice led one of the Rodneys, Sir John, to disinherit his eldest son from part of the estates that would have come to him."He made a small alteration grounded on the following incident: The eldest and one of the younger brothers shooting at the butts (the archery shooting range) differed about a shot, which was left to the other brother to decide, who did it in favour of the younger.""This caused the eldest to threaten them both that they should repent it when he came into his land. Sir John, the father, overhearing, called them to him and told his eldest son that he would make them live without him, and thereupon settled the manors of Over-Badgworth and Congresbury on his two younger sons and their heirs."Then there was another John Rodney, who died in 1549. His son was Maurice, who was only nine when his father died. Family papers state that he was given in ward to a Serjeant Powell who "carried him to his house in the north of England, where he was carelessly bred and during his nonage married a smith's daughter from whom he was afterwards divorced."Cavalier Sir Edward Rodney was the last of the family to live at Rodney Stoke. He did much to improve the church and he and his wife were commemorated by a lengthy epitaph.The pews of Rodney Stoke church bear excellently carved bench ends, which are copies of some of the finest in our Somerset churches. They were the work of a local group who attended 'Home Art Classes', directed by the Misses Evelyn and Margaret Coleridge Smith, whose father was rector from 1890-1923.One of the party who carved the bench ends was Reginald Hale, who decided to emigrate to America. No doubt he thought himself very lucky to be able to make the voyage on the maiden trip of the Titanic. He was one of the 1,500 passengers who lost their lives.* This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on July 2, 1976


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