When Churchill villagers welcomed a queen
PUBLISHED: 16:09 21 August 2006 | UPDATED: 09:44 24 May 2010
One of the most delightful walks in the Churchill locality is that starting from Churchill Batch along the by-road passing the Nelson Arms, and leading up the wide stony track, beside which stands the Crown Inn
One of the most delightful walks in the Churchill locality is that starting from Churchill Batch along the by-road passing the Nelson Arms, and leading up the wide stony track, beside which stands the Crown Inn.To the north are fine views of the Wrington Vale, and to the south stretches the equally lovely Winscombe Vale. To the east across the ravine through which cuts the A38 stretch the grey, fallen ramparts of the great hill fort of Dolbury. The stony track over Churchill Batch, the first few yards of which are the worst, becomes a pleasant pathway that leads across the hill and joins the A38 near the Star Inn. In the old coaching days it was once the main Bristol to Exeter highway. Formerly this highway passed the Nelson Arms and then climbed to the top of the Batch. It was no doubt on the Batch that the Churchill folk assembled in 1643 to see Queen Henrietta pass by. In this year, shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War, she travelled from Oxford to Exeter, and Churchill's parish accounts record her passage through the village with the item: "To the ringers when ye Queen came by, 2s. 6d."To walk up Churchill Batch is to come, rather surprisingly, on a cluster of cottages and bungalows. One does not expect to find further habitation "out in the wild," but this was formerly one of the West Country's main highways. There is another point too - the presence of a Dinghurst Cottage, which does not simply imply that someone has found a pleasant name for a home. This cottage stands in what was once the village of Dinghurst. Moreover, it is near the site of Dinghurst camp,This fortification is on nothing like the scale of the mighty Dolbury across the ravine, but it was one of the chain of forts with which the primitive folk of several hundred years BC dominated the district. Dolbury and Dinghurst between them could command the pass to the Mendip country through which the A38 now runs past Churchill Rocks.Although Dinghurst has become an almost forgotten name in the district, it was mentioned in records of over 600 years ago preserved in the library of Wells Cathedral. In 290 it was known as Thinghurst, and a William de Thinghurst was a virgater, or holder of 40 acres of land.The outline of the former Dinghurst Camp is now difficult to trace among the grassy mounds that indicate immense toil by the Mendip lead miners of later years.Although I have walked the Churchill Batch route many times I have never yet seen an adder there. F A Knight, however, records that in 1904 two men who were working on the Batch "came upon about a hundred adders, hibernating together in a hole in the ground. By the time the men had provided themselves with sticks many of the reptiles had got away, but twenty-two of them were killed."Although adders are still common in the Mendip country I do not think there are so many of them as there used to be. This, alas, is also true of the many varieties of rare wild flowers which could once be found in the district.The present route of the A38 through the hill at Churchill Rocks was cut in 1819. The turnpike gates that crossed this road and the road to Churchill were removed in 1866, and one of them is preserved in the garden of nearby Dinghurst Farm.Some years ago Churchill's Women's Institute did the village a good turn by collecting material for a local history called The Story of Churchill with Langford.It was compiled by Mrs Esmund King. The history is especially interesting for the inclusion of recollections by older inhabitants of the village as they knew it in childhood. Of the old coaching road over Churchill Batch a resident said: "The ruined cottage at the top was the tollgate house, and further on is a cottage which was the inn where the horses were changed before going into the village. The Batch was enclosed by a gate in those days."The turnpike house at Churchill cross-roads remained for many years. At one time it was a sweet shop, then a doctor used a room there as a surgery, but ultimately the building had to come down to improve visibility at what has become one of the busiest and most dangerous crossroads in the county.A contributor to the WI's history spoke of a huge cave, now lost, in a field on the top of Churchill Batch. He said that his father, with a Mr Baker of the old blacksmith family, and others explored the cave with candles. They went a considerable distance until stopped by a sheet of water. They reckoned they were then under Windmill Hill, close to the church, and concluded that Bishop's Well, opposite the church, which flows after a prolonged wet spell, is an overflow of this underground lake.The WI also recorded a note on a former much loved vicar, the Rev S P Jose, who, from 1872 onwards was there for 44 years,We are told that "he had a carriage and pair, and was driven round the parish to visit his parishioners every week. By accident his horses were fed one day with oats which had come in contact with weedkiller. They both died."On Mr and Mrs Jose's silver wedding anniversary the parishioners presented them with a pony carriage. Mrs Jose, we are told, always wore the prettiest of bonnets, with lace and satin ribbons, and there is a recollection of her "driving to church on Sunday mornings from the Old Vicarage by the clock tower, with her donkey and three wheeled chaise; the chaise hooded and with a glass front".The parish of Churchill has an unusually large number of fine old houses. Besides Churchill Court and the Old Courthouse there is also Langford Court, the residence of Sir John Wills. Parts of the Court date back to Elizabethan days. Rutter, writing in 1829, said: "Langford Court is a large mansion, originally a hunting seat to the Capels, Earls of Essex. It was probably built in the style of that age, but was greatly modernised by the late Dr Whalley, and is now thrown open to a well-wooded park and pleasure grounds."Historian F A Knight discounts the association of the Court with the Earls of Essex, but W J Robinson, in West Country Manors mentions the local tradition that the original building was an Elizabethan hunting box of the Essex family, and states that the first owner mentioned in the title deeds in 1590, the 33rd year of Queen Elizabeth's reign, was Giles Hoby, whose wife Elizabeth was daughter of Lord Thomas Powlett or Paulet, of Crossington, in Somerset. Elizabeth was a descendant of Sir William Paulet, who held several notable offices in the days of Henry VIII and Edward VI, and was made Marquess of Winchester. The owner of Langford Court in the 18th century was John Withers Sherwood, to whom there is a memorial in Burrington church.Then it became the home of the eccentric, poetry and play-writing clergyman, the Rev Thomas Sedgwick Whalley, who spent £60,000 on building the luxurious Italian style Mendip Lodge, against the northern slope of the Mendips on the Blagdon road, of which only a few shattered walls remain today.Dr Whalley had extravagant tastes. He set to work to modernise Langford Court. He also bought the centre house at Portland Place, Bath, where he lavishly entertained. The notabilities staying at Bath went rolling down to Langford in their carriages to make up huge weekend parties. In 1783 Dr Whalley and his wife went abroad, and let Langford Court. They never returned to it. On coming back to England they lived for a time at Langford Cottage, which, in 1787, Dr Whalley developed into Mendip Lodge, the Italian style home inspired by their Continental travel. This had an 85-feet verandah, a winding carriage road, terraced walls, grottos, plantations of larch, fir, oak, elm and ash, and laurels, and shrubberies of magnolias, azaleas, rhododendrons and other plants.The rooms included the magnificently furnished State bedroom. Whalley is said to have shorn Langford Court of many of its beautiful features to adorn Mendip Lodge, including the "Painted Rooms" and fine Adams mantelpieces in marble and wood.Of the hospitality the Whalleys lavished on their friends at Mendip Lodge, a former Bishop of London, Dr Porteus declared that "in all his London experience of magnificent dinners beyond all other cities of the earth, and amongst the princes of the land, had never witnessed an entertainment so perfect in its appointments."A distinguished literary figure who was not so impressed with Mendip Lodge was Thomas De Quincey, author of The Confessions of an English Opium Eater. He wrote: "The villa, with its embellishments, was supposed to have cost at least £60,000; of which one half at least had been absorbed, partly by the frailest of all ornaments - vast china jars, vases, and other 'knick-knackery' baubles, which held their very existence by so frail a threat as the carefulness of a housemaid, and which, at all events, if they should survive the accidents of life, never are known to reproduce to the possessor, one tenth of the part of what they have cost."Out of doors there were terraces of a mile long, one rising above the other, and carried by mere artifice of mechanical skill along the perpendicular face of a lofty rock.De Quincey declared that "Mendip Lodge was a monument to the vanity of human wishes and a melancholy comment upon the blindness of human foresight". In later years Dr Whalley had reason to repent of his extravagance. Debts piled up and he tried to sell Mendip Lodge for £30,000, but could get no purchaser.The great Italian villa built against the Mendips had no future. It changed hands several times in later years, and finally fell into decay. So ruinous did it become that ultimately it was demolished. Today a few shattered walls glimpsed among the trees are all that can be seen of a once famous Mendip home.As for its builder, according to De Quincey, in his old age Dr Whalley went to the south of France and "sick of the world and of himself, hating to live, yet more intensely hating to die, in a short time the unhappy old man breathed his last, in a common lodging house, gloomy and vulgar, and in all things the antithesis to that splendid abode which he had planned for the consolation of his melancholy, and for the beguilement of old age."This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on July 10, 1964
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