The River Banwell

Quiet waterways are especially inviting in these days of crowded highways. I want to take you on a trip with me down the Banwell River. The river has its source in the never failing

Quiet waterways are especially inviting in these days of crowded highways. I want to take you on a trip with me down the Banwell River. The river has its source in the never failing, plentiful spring in the centre of the village, and the course to the sea is but a brief one across the moors to Woodspring Bay under the lee of St Thomas' Head.It is not a river that has any romantic links with the past of shipping in the Bristol Channel, but it has played a big part in the history of the locality. Like the cathedral city of Wells, the village of Banwell owes its rich story to the presence of springs of crystal clear water. In times when we can get all the water we need at the turn of a tap (even if it is getting expensive!) we are inclined to overlook the fact that in the year before piped water supplies, no place could expect to thrive unless there was a plentiful, pure, natural supply at hand.When, as was so often the case, it was claimed that these springs had healing qualities, that attracted people from far and near."Banwell", says one authority, "is Bananwyl", and another, commenting on this ways if the theory is right "Banwell means 'Bana's Well', where Bana is the epithet of a man". F A Knight adds: "Banan is the genitive case of Bana, which in Anglo-Saxon usually means 'a slayer', that is to say, a man who has killed another in battle, or in a duel."This suggests that possibly centuries ago there dwelt beside Banwell's stream a man so famous as a warrior or for some particular exploit that the place became named after him.Healing propensities have been associated with the Banwell spring in its time, and it is said that it was once famous for curing scrofulous disorders.It must not be imagined that the River Banwell has for centuries followed a clearly defined course such as that shown on the Ordnance Survey Map. Land only a short distance from the church is but a few feet above sea level. We have to picture Banwell of centuries ago as being much nearer the sea than today. In fact, historian Collinson went so far as to suggest that the village's name "seems to have been compounded of the British 'ban' (deep), and 'weilgi' (sea), the waters of the Channel having once overspread the valley above which the village stands".It is certain that the vast low lying area stretching east from Weston was once no more than a swampy waste, no doubt a rich hunting ground for wild fowl and fish, and covered at high tides. Its character changed only with the building of sea defences and the vast network of man-made rhymes that drains the area today.At times the flooding of the area was so severe as to cause loss of cattle and human lives. There is a Chap Book which tells how in January, 1607, a sea wall near Burnham gave way and an area 20 miles long and five miles wide was flooded to a depth of 10 or 12 feet.Thirty villages were inundated, and they included Banwell, Puxton, Congresbury, and Yatton. "In this civill Warres between the Land and Sea," stated the Chap Book, "many Men, Women, and Children lost their live; to save which, some climbed uppe to the tops of the houses, but the rage of the merciless tide grew so strong, yt. in many, ye most of the Villages aforenamed, the Foundations of the buildings being washed away, the whole frame fell down, and they dyed in the water."Others got up into trees, but the trees had their rootes unfastened by the self-same destroyer, that disjointed barnes and houses, and their last refuge was patiently to die."There is no record that any place along the course of the River Banwell had former day associations as a port, but no doubt the early voyagers in the Bristol Channel from Wales and Ireland, including missionaries and Danish pirates, visited this area along such deep water channels as existed.Woodspring Priory had its links with knightly patrons in the Quantocks country, and when those patrons visited the priory they would doubtless go by boat from one of the Bridgwater Bay ports, round Sand Point, and come ashore to Woodspring at St Thomas' head. The flow of the Banwell spring remains prolific, as much as six million gallons a day, and possibly in former times it was even greater, so that it is reasonable to assume that across the swampy waste to the sea there was a channel along which boats could quickly reach the higher ground of the Mendips in the Banwell locality on the rising tide.Banwell once had a pretty pond on which were swans, and beside which mill wheels turned. This pond was fed by the spring, but the village was deprived of it when in 1923 Weston-super-Mare bought the spring for its water supply. Today, the site of Banwell's pond is covered by the village bowling green.A description of what the pond was like in 1811 was written by George Bennett, a solicitor and keen antiquarian, who lived at Rolstone."The beautiful sheet of water here called the pond," he stated, "covers a considerable space of ground, and is surrounded by a well-built wall or dam of stone of sufficient thickness to form a pleasant footpath round the greatest at of it, on which two persons may walk abreast without inconvenience."The spring rises at the south west side of the pond and at some little distance is another spring of the most limpid and pure water. This is called Adam's Well, and supplies the inhabitants of the village with water for culinary purposes. It was formerly esteemed for its efficacy in scrofulous disorders."There are two mills at the damhead, one a grist-mill and the other a large paper manufactory. These are never in want of water, as the springs always yield a copious supply, and were never known to fail even in times of greatest drought. These mills and pond are the property of John Emery Esq., a truly worth and respectable man."From the pond flows a charming, gurgling brook over a gravely bottom, which runs due north about a mile from the village, when it makes a bend to the north west, and after meandering thee or four miles further, falls into the Bristol Channel at a place called New Bow, between Woodspring and Week St Lawrence."This stream is of the greatest importance to the farms lying on each side of its course, and without it the whole of the rich and fertile vale through which it flows would be rendered almost desert, and the inhabitants and their cattle would be driven to the utmost distress for want of water."The grazing lands Mr Bennett mentions remain dependent upon the River Banwell today, and the terms in the Act of Parliament obtained by the Weston Council when it took over the Banwell spring laid down that 50,000 gallons a day must be allowed to flow down the Banwell River, plus another 250,000 at time of drought.The spring rises about a 100 yards west of the church, and it was after the Saxon era that it was dammed to create a pond. At one time it used to throw up masses of coal. The lumps were sharp and altogether unsmoothed by water action so that they could not have been carried far.The nearest former coalfield to Banwell was that at Nailsea some seven miles distant, but Banwell has yet to add coal-mining to its industries.It is a pity that Banwell has lost its pretty village pond source. Today one finds the source of the River Banwell flowing out of a pumping station and running in a concrete channel beside the former brewery building.But when one follows it past the Brewer's Arm and the Riverside houses into the open country one feels that the River Banwell is much the same as it has been for centuries. The willows overhang its banks, swans and herons are seen upon its waters, and in the shallow stretches on any sunny summer's day one may see the children paddling and following the ancient pastime of catching tiddlers.* This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on September 6, 1963


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