The sweep of Somerset history

Aspects of Somerset History is not a very engaging title for a book. Written by T J Hunt, with drawings and editing by R R Sellman, it was published by Somerset

Aspects of Somerset History is not a very engaging title for a book. Written by T J Hunt, with drawings and editing by R R Sellman, it was published by Somerset County Council in 1973. The work is infinitely more intriguing than its title and is a most interesting survey of the sweep of Somerset history from Stone Age and Bronze Age down to modern times and leading up to the absorption of the northern area of the county into the new county of Avon.The earliest prehistoric cultures, of which remains have been found in Somerset, are those of thousands of years covered by the Palaeolithic or Old Stone Age, a period when at times this country was land-linked with the rest of Europe.Flint tools including oval, pear-shaped and pointed hand axes of this early culture, have been found in the Avon valley, in the gravels of the Tone and its tributaries from the Blackdown Hills, and on Watchet's seashore, where teeth and tusks of mammoths have been found.It was in the late phase of the Palaeolithic period, we are told, that the limestone caves of Mendip provided homes for primitive man. Cheddar Caves have yielded the remains of the famous Cheddar Man and other finds. There were the important discoveries at the Hyena Den at Wookey Hole, while at Aveline's Hole in Burrington Combe there was a burial with a necklace of shells, and many implements of flint and bone.Unearthed in the caves, too, have been the bones of bison, reindeer, red deer, and horse, on which prehistoric man in these parts lived, supplementing his diet by nuts, fruit and berries.In the phase when Britain finally became separated from Europe, there were the Mesolithic age hunters and fishermen and they were followed between 3500-3000 BC by the more intelligent folk of the Neolithic or New Stone Age. They had mastered the art of making more effective stone weapons, had pottery, tended herds and cultivated the land.They did not make motorways, but across the Somerset levels the foundations of their trackways have survived - hazel rods and thin birch timbers, covered with brushwood sometimes held in place with obliquely driven stakes. The roads of England were taking shape.These people and the tribes who followed them into a country rich with game and fish were not allowed to settle peacefully. As with the nations today, much of their wealth and their time had to be devoted to defending themselves.One of their hill forts in this district is on Worlebury Hill. There is another and much bigger one at Dolbury. What industry, for instance, must have gone into putting up the once massive ramparts of Worlebury? The stones that made them were not quarried, but gathered from all parts of the hill.The people of the pre-Roman Iron Age were those who made the fascinating lake villages of Godney and Meare. They also occupied and improved the hill forts of those who had gone before them, but could make only feeble resistance to the Romans.The more civilised Romans constructed villas with 'mod-cons' the like of which the county had never known before. They constructed great highways that survive today, and left a famous monument to their work in their baths at Bath.There were also the Romano-British temples, the remains of one of which was unearthed on Brean Down. We are given a short chapter on Saxon Somerset, the Saxon conquest beginning with the battle of Dyrham in 577. The Saxons founded many of Somerset's towns and villages, and Mr Hunt mentions that some of the estates, like the Bishop of Winchester's great manor of Taunton, became administrative 'hundreds'."At Wrington," says Mr Hunt, "the boundaries recorded in a Charter of 904 have been retraced and found almost to coincide with those of the modern parish."We also had the Saxon palaces including that used by the Saxon kings when they hunted on Mendip, whose important remains have been unearthed at Cheddar.It was to Athelney in Somerset, too, that the great Saxon king, Alfred, retreated after defeat, and later rallied his forces to defeat the Danes.To the Saxons we owe the introduction of shires and hundreds, while William the Conqueror's Domesday Book has yielded information for which historians have never ceased to be grateful.In an interesting chapter on castles Mr Hunt says only two were mentioned in the Domesday Book, both strongholds of Norman lords. They were the de Mohuns castle at Dunster, and that of the Count of Mortian, half brother of William the Conqueror at Montacute. In the thirteenth century, however, Somerset following the twelfth century long years of civil war, had a chain of castles strategically based.In the 14th century some of the wealthy Somerset folk including Sir Thomas de Hungerford, of Farleigh Hungerford, converted their homes into castles."Henry VIII built a number of castles to defend the harbours of the Channel coast," Mr Hunt writes, "and a plan of the coast of Somerset at that time shows towers with guns at Porlock, Hurlston, Uphill, and other places along the coast. They were probably not castles but only temporary fortifications, for no trace of them has survived."Aspects of Somerset History, which can be bought from booksellers at 95p (or downloaded or read online at http://www.somerset.gov.uk/archives/ASH/index.htm) also had chapters on the influence of the Church and the religious houses. Christianity was brought to Somerset in the fifth and sixth centuries by British missionaries from Wales. Their coming is still brought to mind in churches, chapels, and holy wells named after their founders, including St Congar at Congresbury, St Decuman at Watchet, and St Carantoc at Carhampton.Glastonbury's Monastery was established by the Britons before the Saxon conquest. The converted Saxons built churches. Most of the buildings in their time was of wood, and the only Saxon stone work that survives in a church in Somerset is at Wilton, near Taunton. It is of the late period. Wiltshire, of course, has a gem of a stone-built Saxon church at Bradford-on-Avon.In AD 909 Somerset became a diocese with a bishop whose cathedral church was at Wells. Over 400 parishes were created in Somerset, each with its own church. Most building was done between the Roman Conquest and the Reformation.The publication touches on the history and the big influence the Church had on religious and working lives of the people, development of agriculture and drainage work. This in itself should provide a fascinating book, with such material as the histories of the monasteries of Glastonbury, Bath, Athelney, and Muchelney.An interesting map illustrating a chapter on coastal defences pinpoints the invasion beacons and their lines of intervisibility.The Somerset tragedy of loss of life, impoverishment, of countryman against fellow countryman is surveyed in the highlights of the Civil War. Included, too, is that sad chapter of Somerset history that reached its climax in the Battle of Sedgemoor, and was followed by merciless vengeance.Moving into the 18th century we get the picture of how enclosure gave the county the pattern of fields and hedgerows which provided Somerset and the country generally with its characteristic patchwork.The development of roads, rivers, canals, and railway is also reviewed, and the book ends with the story of local government, a concluding paragraph referring to the then pending reorganisation which has since switched part of the county into the new county of Avon.With inflation gaining pace the change could not have been made at a worse time and most people at the moment feel disillusioned. We must hope that those who have been moved out of Somerset may one day combine love of their old county with a sense of 'belonging' and pride in their new one.* This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on December 6, 1974


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