Vanished mansions of the rural area

In his Delineations of North Somerset, published in 1829, historian John Rutter has much to say about the rural area around Weston-super-Mare

In his Delineations of North Somerset, published in 1829, historian John Rutter has much to say about the rural area around Weston-super-Mare. He observes that the remains of ancient court and manor houses formed a striking feature of the district, but adds: "In some instances these mansions are retained as the residence of the lord of the manor, and are consequently preserved in excellent repair, though occasionally much altered in many of their original features, if not in their total character. Others have been entirely demolished and made to give way to the spacious modern mansions, or buried in the centre of more recent creations."There is a hint of what has been lost in his comment: "The greater number have been reduced in size, and converted into farmhouses and agricultural offices; whilst too many others have been entirely demolished, or at the best a few mouldering walls alone permitted to remain as indications of a manorial residence."Among the examples that particularly attracted his attention were Clevedon Court, "unquestionably one of the most valuable relics of early domestic architecture in England", Barrow and Nailsea Courts, "and the remains of those at Kingston Seymour, Tickenham, and Towerhead House, near Banwell".Referring to farming in the area, Rutter is enthusiastic about the richness and fertility of the lowlands, observing, "In the parishes of Burnham, Huntspill, and Mark, are pieces of land which have borne crops of wheat year after year without any manure, for twenty years together, and produce even now heavy crops."He also notes that the meadows generally are laid out in ridges a few yards wide, inclining to a convex form, with narrow drains, the occasional cleaning out of which provided a valuable supply of manure "after being digested in heaps".These meadows, he explains, were separated by wider and deeper ditches which ultimately communicated with the public drainage, thus preventing superfluous water from remaining on the surface of the ground; while in dry seasons, by shutting the flood gates, a sufficient supply was retained for cattle and the moisture of the land.He went on to make the point that: "The public drainage of the fertile and valuable levels is subject to the direction of a body of commissioners who hold their sessions of Water Sewers at stated periods, under the authority of an Act of Parliament at Wells, Axbridge, and Congresbury."At the courts reports are received from the juries of the several parishes connected with the district through which flow the rivers Brue, Axe, and Yeo. The commissioners are empowered to inflict heavy penalties on persons neglecting to perform their stated duty on the drainage, and from their sentences there is no appeal."Rutter observes that the cost of this system and the enclosure of nearly all the common lands had imposed serious hardship on many cottagers.He concedes that "When we regard the public advantage, especially if the land is of valuable character, the improved salubrity of the district, and the increased facility of access to all parts of the levels, the advantages of the present system will be found to preponderate."Although Rutter, in making his tour, was welcomed and entertained by many of the landed proprietors of North Somerset, he inserted a footnote pointing out that some of the cottagers had been "reduced to the extreme of poverty from comparative comfort, or driven to despair to the commission of acts which rendered them amenable to the criminal laws".He does not disguise the fact that Enclosure Acts had in many instances deprived common folk of essential advantages long enjoyed "whether by privilege, by sufferance, or by mere custom", that they were regarded as a sort of right.He suggested that in the case of more enclosures it would be more humane to allot small portions to the poor families who had been accustomed to derive benefit from the commons.Mr Rutter begins a tour of some of the villages to the north of Weston by visiting Kewstoke. He tells us that it was originally simply Stoke, but gained the additional appellation from St Kew, a hermit who lived in a cave or cell in a ravine above the village.Modern authorities are more inclined to the view that the name really means "a place of the boats" and that the winding 200 steps leading down from Worlebury were more likely to have been the tracks taken by the tribesmen of Worlebury camp, to what may have been a landing place at the southern end of Kewstoke Bay.Mr Rutter enthuses over the Norman doorway of Kewstoke church and then takes "a delightful ride (on horseback) of two miles over the sands and about a mile through the fields" to Woodspring Priory. It was then, as until recently, a farmhouse. He continues along the "somewhat intricate pathway or horse-road through the meadow" to Wick St Lawrence."Wick," says Rutter, "is a rural parish without anything worthy of remark, except the remains of a fine old cross near the churchyard and the stone pulpit in the church which is of delicate workmanship.""Wick St Lawrence," he continues, formed one of the Roman guard stations on the coast of the Severn and Bristol Channel, a series of which commenced at Portishead Point, and were to continue at intervals down the coast of Clevedon, Wick Saint Lawrence, Worlebury, Brean Down, Watchet, Minehead, and Porlock."This place gave its name to its ancient and respectable possessors, the de Wyck, family, who resided at Court de Wyck, near Yatton. They are mentioned as holding two knight's fees in this county so early as 1166, in the returns which were made for levying aid for marrying the King's (Henry II) daughter to the Duke of Saxony."To this Thomas de Wyck succeeded John de Wyck, who was living in the reign of King John, and whose son was a commander in the army of Edward I against the Scots."From Wick Mr Rutter takes us on to Kingston Seymour, a large parish which, he says, consists "mostly of grass land". He points out that Kingston is bounded on the north and south by small rivers or drains, and that it is occasionally subject to inundations. Inside the church he draws our attention to a tablet commemorating the great floods of 1606, when the sea banks broke and several feet of water flooded the parish for several days. Another inscription refers to a similar catastrophe in 1703, during a tempest of which a vivid description was written by Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe.Rutter tells that the Spring tides sometimes breach the banks of earth raised to defend the meadows against the sea. These gaps, he says, are stopped up during the ebb of the tide "by the country people who flock to the spot for that purpose"."Kingston Manor House," he continues, "is an interesting mansion attached to the rectory, erected in the reign of Edward IV, whose favourite badge, a Rose en soleil, appears on the front."It was built in the form of a Roman H and, though greatly modernised, still retains the old banqueting hall, with its open ribbed roof and fine projecting porches, the interior of one of which contained the entrance to the chief apartments of the mansion."In the wall, over the high place within the hall is a small aperture, a substitute for a window, sheltered by a canopy, and directed into the apartment above the withdrawing room by which means the host and his family could command a view of the banquet."Rutter took the view that in his day Kingston Seymour was not a very healthy spot. "The occasional inundations to which the lands are subject render the herbage unpalatable to cattle for a year or two afterwards," he wrote, "and they produce offensive exhalations; the inhabitants, though generally robust and healthy, are subject to attacks of the ague, especially the younger part of them."Rutter's visit to Yatton is especially interesting for his description of "the remains of the ancient mansion of court de Wyck, so named from its ancient founders and possessors, who obtained their name from their early settlement at Wyck St Lawrence."The ruins were extensive until lately; a few aged yews and elms alone remained of the noble avenue of trees, which led to a large gateway formed by two Doric columns, on which were the arms of Paulett and Popham impaled, opening to the grand court; on the left of it, towards the garden, stood the great hall."Beyond, on the same side, were ruins of the great parlour, with the ancient chimney piece, and its compartments of grotesque figures and scrolls. The chapel occupied the northwest angle of the court, the entrance to which was beneath a deep-pointed arch, and in the porch were receptacles for consecrated water."The chapel was small, and had only one large and lofty window to light it from the court. Over the entrance was a small apartment with a window looking into the chapel, for the purpose of hearing mass."We are told, too, that there was a gallery on the north, with the arms of the Newton and de Cheddar families on the adjacent walls. There was also a bell turret; and in the courtyard were two crosses, one very old and massive and known as Stalling's cross. Rutter adds: "On the 15th October, 1333, this mansion was the scene of a great festivity, in consequence of Agnes, the daughter of John de Wyck, being married in this chapel of oratory by special licence of Ralph, Bishop of Shrewsbury, to Sir George Theobold de Gorges, of the adjacent lordship of Wraxall."This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on May 14, 1971