Weare once had two members of Parliament

PUBLISHED: 17:09 03 May 2006 | UPDATED: 09:13 24 May 2010

Weare Church.

Weare Church.

Even as the River Axe has declined in importance, so many of the places along its banks have known more busy and prosperous times. Today, they have shrunk into quiet little villages, and there is scarcely anything left that recalls the time when their mil

The River Axe, viewed from the bridge on the A38 at Lower Weare.

Even as the River Axe has declined in importance, so many of the places along its banks have known more busy and prosperous times. Today, they have shrunk into quiet little villages, and there is scarcely anything left that recalls the time when their mill wheels turned busily, boats came trading up the river, and they even had borough status.Weare was once a borough, and in the reign of King Edward I had two members of Parliament. In its time it has known the prosperity of places fortunate enough to straddle both a waterway and a main highway. Trade undoubtedly came to it along the River Axe, whilst its merchants must also have done business with those who, first with packhorses, and then with vehicles, plied between the cities of Bristol and Exeter.Weare's prosperous past is epitomised by the figure of an early 16th century merchant, John Bedbere, whose effigy in brass in the church sanctuary shows him with a big well-filled purse hanging at his side.Today the road traffic still streams over the River Axe at Lower Weare, and is of much greater variety and volume than that which entered the village across the narrow, hump-backed bridge of old. Although the Axe's journey onwards to Weare is across flat, unpopulated country, names crop up that excite interest. There are, for instance, Barrow's Hams, Monk Moor, and Oxmoor. The river skirts around Crickham, goes under the Wedmore-Cheddar road at Clewer, and at Lower Weare passes under the Somerset County Council bridge built to carry the A38 in 1928.What a highway cavalcade must have passed through Weare through the centuries. There was always the river to cross, and way back in Domesday time the Axe was turning the wheels of two mills in the village.I do not know when the first bridge was built over the Axe on this highway to the West, but a very old, narrow one was pulled down and replaced in 1810. Prebendary Coleman, a former rector of Chapel Allerton, about a 100 years ago wrote an interesting record of his researches into local history. In it he states:"The heavy stage wagons and the well-laden coaches that then rolled through Lower Weare tried the old bridge sorely. For those were the days of those grand old four-horse coaches. Every two hours of the day was enlivened by them, and many were the friendly greetings as the 'duke of York' rattled through, or as Whiffle's coach ran by, or as Tammil's called at the 'Unicorn' or 'Spread Eagle'."Now you can see no such scenes, except up in Westmorland and Cumberland, or perhaps the Welsh mountains; for even the remotest hamlet and smallest country town is not far off from a railway station. The telegraph wires trace their hard lines even through Weare; the Cheddar Valley trains puffs along within easy distance, and the accommodating Post Office delivers its halfpenny letters at our doors. What more can Lower Weare want? Only one thing - a supply of good fresh spring water."In the years between, Weare has had its water supply, but the halfpenny post has become a threepenny one. The stagecoaches have gone, and with the coming of the motorway, the great stream of holiday road traffic touches Weare no more. Thanks to Dr Beeching's streamlining of the railways, trains no longer puff along the Cheddar Valley line.Before the gates were put across the Axe at Bleadon and the moorland was drained, the Lower Weare area must have been very swampy. The old historian Collinson wrote: "The whole parish is in a low, damp and foggy situation, and apparently in an unwholesome air."He could not have been doing Weare justice. There may have been swamps and mists over the lower land, but even in those days Weare had its fertile acres on the hillside.It must have had rich resources to have attained borough status. The manor of Weare was greatly prized and was linked with such famous families as the Berkeleys, Gournays, Mores and Percivals.In the reign of Edward III as the Lord of the Manor of Over or Upper Ware, Anselm de Gournay obtained a grant for himself and local burghers exempting them from payment of customs throughout the realm.Gourney had attended the King on his Scottish campaign, and presumably must have performed some special service to receive this privilege.Today the Axe meanders along the outskirts of Lower Weare as though it never had a part in the village's story. Cottage homes, mills and farms do not cluster around its banks as of old, but Prebendary Coleman wrote that there was a garden some 40 yards in length by 30 yards in width running down from the Bristol road to the banks of the Axe which, retaining the name of "Chapel Yard," bears witness to its having once been the site of an ancient chapel. He said the oldest inhabitant of his day remembered the ruins of the building being there some 70 years earlier.In former days Weare had a noted fair to which hundreds flocked from far and near. It was a two-day event, and was held on the eve and on the Festival of the Assumption, August 14 and 15.The village was not always glad to see the travellers who came along the Bristol to Exeter road. They must have been a very mixed company ranging from the knight and his retinue to cut-throats, highwaymen and beggars.The destitute were far from welcome, since they could become a charge on parish funds, and old records show that the overseers dispensed charity, not so much to help the needy, but to ensure that they got out of the village in the quickest possible time. There were such entries as "1s. given to a woman pauper taken in labour on the road," "2s. 6d. given to a pauper sick on the road," "6d. given to a poor man and woman with a pass."In 1820 a pauper, Thomas Court, who arrived at Weare "in distress" was given 1s. 6d. Later the overseers had to pay 8s. 6d. for an order from the justice, plus 3s. expenses, to have him and his family removed to Wellington. They also paid £2 15s. for the hire of a horse and car, and turnpike fees to take the family there, the journey there and back for the driver taking two days.The most unwelcome visitor Weare ever had was the one who brought the plague to the village in 1646. In London alone this outbreak killed 130,000. In Weare there were 22 deaths, and the list of those who succumbed hints at family tragedy in the reference to "Thomas Pearce, Alice Pearce, his daughters, Prudence Pearce, Elizabeth Pearce, Mary Pearce and Constance Pearce."Immediately one turns off the A38 at Lower Weare into the road running to Upper Weare, one is in the atmosphere of peaceful, charming rural England. The fine tower of the church of St Gregory stands impressively on rising ground.The church is entered by a huge old door - the keyhole of which on my visit was stopped up to keep the draught out! The date 1755 is on the latch. There are old oak pews, a Norman font, while the pulpit has "1617" carved on it. Beside it is the iron frame for the preacher's hourglass.The chancel seats, which are richly carved, were a memorial to Mary Anne Ruscombe Fownes Luttrell who died in 1908. The carving includes scenes from the life of St Gregory, while the choir stalls each have a line of music cut in front. The inscription on the huge Bible gives the name of Weare as 'Weer'. It is dated 1807, and the churchwardens' names are given as Chas Ham and Robt Crossman. Ham is the name most met with at Weare. Not so very long ago there were 25 Hams on the church's electoral role, and also five Isgars, four Durstons, five Counsells and six Stitches.In visiting Weare church you must not omit to see the brass figure of the Sixteenth Century merchant John Bedbere I mentioned earlier. This is in the chancel. It has the inscription:Of your charite that paseth herbyPray for the sowle of John BedbereYt here doth ly.On whos sowle Crst Jhu have mercy.Of the long line of incumbents at Weare one, Richard Towgood, a native of Bruton who died in 1683, became Dean of Bristol. When 76 he was offered the bishopric but refused it, probably on account of his age. As one of Charles I's chaplains he was several times imprisoned in Commonwealth days. Once he was sentenced to be shot, and it was with great difficulty that his friends secured a reprieve.Collinson suggests that Weare may have got its name "from some weir raised in former times upon the river", while long ago someone giving a paper to Somerset Archaeological Society about an old Banwell document that described the locality centuries ago suggested that it was a salmon weir.In its church and in its parish records much is revealed about Weare's past, but only enough to stimulate one's interest. Today it is just a village, and does not look as if it had ever been anything but one. All we can glean of its past does not really enable us to picture it as it was when it was a thriving borough on the banks of the Axe.This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on June 15, 1962

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