Uphill's historic landmark

Shortly after leaving the dark caves of Mendip at Wookey Hole, the River Axe, at first a narrow but swiftly flowing stream, is babbling beside the church at Wookey

Shortly after leaving the dark caves of Mendip at Wookey Hole, the River Axe, at first a narrow but swiftly flowing stream, is babbling beside the church at Wookey. So near is it, in fact, that its music meets the ears of worshippers as they approach the church porch.The Axe also passes a church at the end of its journey to the sea. It is the grey ruins of St. Nicholas, the former parish church of uphill. The hilltop on which the church stands is only about a hundred feet above high-water mark, but the building is a most conspicuous landmark, and floodlit during the season it forms a pretty focal point at the southern end of Weston Bay. It is not the only former ancient hilltop place of worship in the locality, for just across the river's mouth on Brean Down there once stood a Romano-British temple. Earthworks to the south of the church are also evidence that people lived on and about Uphill hill long before the builders of St Nicholas.In tracing the story of the River Axe we have noted that in former days the river was navigable by ships to Rackley near Crooks Peak where there was a port, and that in the 15th century stones brought to Rackley by ship were hauled to Wells.It was but a short distance from Wells to Glastonbury and accordingly it was not unnatural that antiquarians, in studying our island story, should have tried to link the legend of the visit of Joseph of Arimathea and the Boy Jesus with Uphill.The tradition is that Joseph came to Glastonbury and there founded the Mother Church of Britain, and that on one occasion he brought the Boy Jesus with him.A wealth of documentary evidence about this has been assembled in a book on the subject by the Rev Smithert Lewis, but he does not refer to the possibility of Joseph having come to Uphill.He says, however: "Perhaps there is some truth in the strange traditions which still lingers, not only among the hill folk of Somerset, but of Gloucestershire, and in the West of England, that St Joseph of Arimathea came to Britain first as a metal merchant seeking tin from the Scilly Isles and Cornwall, and lead, copper and other metals from the hills of Somerset, and that the Lord himself came with him as a boy."The tradition is so startling," he continues, "that the first impulse is summarily to reject it as ridiculous. But certain it is among the old tin workers, who have always observed a certain mystery in their rites, that there was a moment when they ceased their work and started singing a quaint song beginning 'Joseph was a tin merchant'."And certain it is that if Joseph was a metal merchant, he must somehow have got tin for bronze, and that Britain is almost the sole land of tin mines. And if he were a metal merchant it is not inconsistent with is being a rich man. And the strange story of our Lord's coming which is so dear to simple Somerset hearts, would be explained by the Eastern tradition that St. Joseph was the uncle of the Blessed Virgin Mary ...."As the years go on, and wider knowledge of our Lord's own visit to Somerset and Cornwall, immortalised by Blake in his 'And did those feet in ancient times walk upon England's mountains green?' grows more and more upon one. The possibilities are great. Between the ages of twelve and thirty we know nothing of our Lord's life. He might well have accompanied his uncle, St Joseph, on a voyage."Some old writers suggest that St Joseph's boat sailed right up to Glastonbury. This may well have been so. In those days there were not only the rivers running across the moors but also many sea-water lakes known as sea meres, from which it has been suggested Somerset derived its name. Whether St. Joseph sailed up the Axe or the Brue it would have no doubt been easy for him to get to Glastonbury by boat.We may not know whether the Boy Christ came to Uphill, but we can be certain that the Faith has been preached at the church on the hill for centuries. Its bells still peal over the countryside and although Uphill's church life is now concentrated at the other St Nicholas, consecrated in 1844, the Rector and parochial church council not only ensure that the fabric of the old parish church is well cared for, but maintain a schedule of services there.This is in contrast to former days, for in the years immediately after the erection of the new church the old one was allowed to go to ruin. Someone writing about it in 1854 observed: "The interior of the church with its perpetual twilight, is in keeping with the drear and desolate aspect of the exterior. On the broken floor are remains of seats and pews, and heaps of stone and rubbish. A few years ago several tablets might have been seen on the walls, but they are now taken away. The pulpit, judging from what remains of it, was richly ornamental."Very mournful and silent is the churchyard without, and wearing the aspect of a forgotten, deserted place. The lowly mounds and mouldering tombstones rise up in the midst - not of roses and evergreens - but of long, rank grass, nettles and thistles. in the ear of fancy the waves falling on the shore beneath sound like a requiem, and the rustling winds seem echoes of smothered sights and broken words of sorrow uttered here .... "Another writer about the same time observed: "In passing around the church I came upon a newly-opened grave. The grave-digger's axe and spade lay on the ground; he had been remorselessly grubbing up the remains of the forefathers of the hamlet."No less than thirteen skulls and numberless bones had thus been turned out of their last resting place, and brought in contact with man. Although the grave-digger, from a sense of decency or shame, had piled them in a heap behind a tombstone, I could not witness this profane exposure and premature resurrection of the dead without sadness and regret."No actual date can be assigned to the building of the old church. It has traces of various styles from the crude Norman to the latest Perpendicular. It is considered that parts of the tower, especially the south side, are probably much as they were left by the early builders, before the close of the eleventh century and while William the Conqueror still reigned.The chancel possibly dates from about 1130. The fine Early English font was for a long time in a niche in the west wall of the nave, but it was removed in 1892 to the new church. The western end of the church is regarded as of the Decorated period, possibly to about the year 1350, while Perpendicular masonry - of the period 1377-1547 - is observed in the tower arches, stair turret, and north parapet of the tower.We can only conjecture why the church was built on the hilltop. Maybe, in view of the earthworks roundabout, the villagers were merely maintaining the hilltop village of centuries earlier. There is also, of course, the fact that long ago before drainage was carried out, the lowland on either side of the hill must have been subject to frequent flooding.A legend says that the villagers tried to build the church down on the level but that overnight "the foul fiend" removed the stones to the top of the hill. This happened again and again until they gave in and built the church on the hilltop.Uphill's church registers, alas, do not date back earlier than 1696, and it has been suggested the earlier ones were destroyed during the Commonwealth which lasted from 1649-1660. There is a story, however, that they survived until a later date.Someone who was doing research on Uphill's records getting on for 150 years ago wrote: "The word glum would give the reader a very faint idea of our looks when the parish chest was opened and we found that beyond a few modern registers it was as bare as Old Mother Hubbard's cupboard when she opened it to find her poor dog a bone."The parish clerk, Mr Robert Counsell told us that a lawyer, long since dead, who enjoyed a residence of 19 years in the Fleet Prison, and who had owned the greater part of the parish, had made away with all the old books and papers. Whether this is so or nor matters very little as the fact remains that Uphill has no old parish records of any sort; they are irretrievably lost - and even the award and map are missing."One of the earliest references to Uphill in the registers at Wells Cathedral is one dated 1333 from Bishop Ralph to the Dean of Axbridge in which he states: "We propose to visit the Churches of Huttone, Kyustoke, Worle and Lockynge in the said Church of Worle on Friday next after the Feast of St. Matthew the Apostle next. on Saturday, the Churches of Blaedon, Uphulle, Weston, and the Chapel of Pokerstone (Puxton). On Monday the Churches of Lympsham, Loxtone, Cruchestone (Christon) and Brane in the said Church of Loxtone. On Tuesday the morrow the Churches of Burnham, Bergheo (Berrow), Eastbrente and Southbrente, in the said Church of Berghoe."The first entry in the Uphill church registers, dated 1696, is a birth: "Anstes, the daughter of Samuel Bayley and Mary his wife."For a great many years the western wall of the old church was whitewashed as a guide to Bristol Channel and Axe mariners. One can only conjecture whether it was because of this or the exposed position that the church does not appear to have had a west door.There has been much speculation about the past of the Watch Tower on the hill, which is maintained by the Borough Council. During the War it was used successively by the Home Guard and the Observer Corps as an observation post. There is a map, dating from the reign of Henry VIII which shows defences on "The Coste of England upon Severne" and which has a block house, with two guns, and resembling a tower on Uphill hill. The map, however, places it south of the church, roughly on a rise of ground where a tumulus is shown on the present Ordnance Map.It is fairly certain that the tower is the shell of a former windmill. In fact there is a sketch in existence showing it complete with sails, while a former day resident is recorded as saying: "I remember when there was a goodish road up to the Windmill near the Old Church for the farmers round about to bring their corn for grinding."The most interesting discovery throwing light on the earliest days of the Uphill locality was that made at another familiar landmark, the quarry. In 1826 during the early stages of quarrying in the cliff face workmen, removing a stone about 30 feet from the ground came upon a fissure filled with the bones of rhinoceros, hyaena, bear, ox, horse, hog, fox, polecat, water-rat, mouse and bird. Hyaena bones and teeth were especially plentiful, while the bones of other larger animals were much gnawed and splintered, this pointing to the likelihood that it was another hyaena's den such as that near the source of the Axe at Wookey Hole.During further excavations workmen came upon a cave ten to twelve feet high, forty feet long, and from eight to 20 feet wide. The floor was covered with bones of sheep, and while the men were digging into the mud and sand they came upon a piece of Roman pottery and coins of the Emperor Julian.This puzzled the archaeologists who were directing the excavations. How did these relics of human habitation get there in view of the inaccessibility of the cave's entrance? It was possible, of course, that amid the changes of levels that took place in the area through the centuries the cave may once have been on the sea shore, but historian Rutter said the presence of sand in the upper reaches could only be attributed "to that great and violent catastrophe recorded by Moses".About 20 years later when another entrance was made to the cave a pot was found containing two hundred Roman coins.In 1863 a further cave was discovered sixty feet up the quarry face. This contained the bones of wolf, fox, wild boar and otter, the antlers of a stag - and a human skull and thigh bone. Later on in 1896, quarrymen came on a fissure in which were the bones of the spotted hyaena, woolly rhinooceros, elephant, mammoth, cave bear, red deer and badger.These Uphill caves and fissures were destroyed by subsequent quarrying. The quarry is no longer worked, and while one may regret that the disfigurement of the end of Uphill hill was ever permitted, but for the quarrying we should not have the fascinating information the caves revealed about far-off centuries in the locality's history.This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on August 3, 1962