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Wanderings in Wessex An Exploration of the Southern Realm from Itchen to Otter online

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be "scrapped" and the church again restored to something of its
previous simple dignity. The painting of the nave and chancel roofs
has a peculiarly "cheap" and tawdry effect.

Sir Walter Raleigh is said to have lived in the town for a time, and
during the Civil War it was for a month the head-quarters of Fairfax,
who turned the church tower into a temporary fortress. Samuel Taylor
Coleridge was a native of Ottery and the son of one of its vicars. The
poet was only nine when his father died in 1781. He was then placed in
the Bluecoat school and there met his lifelong friend, Charles Lamb.
The theological studies that at first seemed to be his natural bent
were no doubt a consequence of his early environment. Near the church
is a house now occupied by Lord Coleridge. Thackeray spent his school
holidays at Larkbeare, the house of his stepfather, Major Carmichael
Smith, and afterwards used Ottery ("Clavering St. Mary") as the scene
of part of _Pendennis_.

The steep, narrow streets around the church have lost many of their
picturesque old buildings, though a few of the smaller houses remain
in the side turnings. The pleasant aspect of the town is greatly
increased by the beauty of the river and of its banks both above and
below the bridge. The stream is a great favourite with anglers, and
Otter trout have a great reputation.

The great high road from Exeter to London passes a short distance
north of Ottery and follows the river valley on its way to the old
town under the shadow of Dumpdon Hill. Honiton is of world-wide fame
in connexion with the beautiful lace that is still made in the
vicinity. The long and broad High Street is practically all there is
of the town, except for a few shops and smaller houses on the way to
the railway station. Save on market day Honiton sleeps the hours away,
or seems to do so; possibly there is an amount of business done behind
doors, and in a quiet way, to account for the comfortable appearance
of the burgesses (for this is a municipal borough). By reason of its
sheltered position from any breeze that may be blowing aloft and its
open arms to the sun, the town has, on an ordinary summer's day, the
hottest High Street in England; that fact may partly account for its
air of somnolence.

The Perpendicular cruciform church suffered greatly from fire some
years ago, though happily the tower escaped. A beautiful old screen
and several other interesting details were entirely destroyed. The
black marble tomb of Thomas Marwood commemorates a fortunate physician
who cured the Earl of Essex of an illness and was rewarded by Queen
Elizabeth with a house and lands near the town. On the Exeter road is
St. Margaret's Hospital, endowed by Thomas Chard, Abbot of Ford
(1520), for nine old people. It was originally a lazar-house founded
about 1350. The chapel was built by its later benefactor.

A curious custom is kept in Honiton Fair week, usually held the third
week in July. On the first day of the Fair a crier goes about the
streets with a white glove on a long wand crying:

"O yes the Fair is begun
And no man dare be arrested
Until the Fair is done."

It is said that this strange privilege is still respected.

The high road to Axminster climbs up the long ascent of Honiton Hill
(there is an easier way over the fields to the summit for
pedestrians), and with beautiful views on the left keeps to the high
lands almost all the way until the drop into the valley of the Yarty.

Axminster is on a low hill surronded by the softer scenery of typical
Devon. The by-ways near the town are narrow flowery lanes such as are
naturally suggested to one's mind whenever the West Country is
mentioned. Axminster has given its name to an industry that has not
been carried on in the town for over eighty years, though "Axminster"
carpets are still famous for their durability and their fine designs.
The whole period during which the manufacture was carried on in the
town did not cover a century. The carpets were made on hand-looms and
the house, now a hospital, that was used as the factory is opposite
the churchyard.

The church is said to have pre-Norman work beneath the tower. The
building as it stands is mostly Perpendicular, but with certain
Decorated details in the chancel and a Norman door. The sculptured
parapet of the north aisle is interesting. On it are the arms of many
ancient families of the county. The two effigies in the chancel are
supposed to represent Gervase de Prestaller, once vicar here, and Lady
Alice de Mohun. In the churchyard is a tombstone with two crutches;
this is the grave of the father of Frank Buckland, the famous
naturalist, who was born here in 1784.

[Illustration: AXMINSTER.]

The town suffered greatly during the Civil War. It was taken by the
Royalists and used as a head-quarters during the investment of Lyme
Regis. It was the resting-place of William "The Deliverer" on his way
from Lyme northwards. He is said to have stayed at the "Dolphin" while
it was the private residence of the Yonges.

Close to the Axe and to the main line of the railway are the scanty
ruins of Newenham Abbey, once of great renown. Founded in 1245 by the
de Mohuns, it met with the usual fate at the Great Dispersal. A mile
farther, on the Musbury road, is Ashe Farm, which once belonged to the
Drake family. A daughter of the house married one Winstone Churchill,
and here in 1650 was born John, afterwards to become the great Duke of
Marlborough. These Drakes were claimed by Sir Francis as his
relatives, but they rather fiercely repudiated the claim, and this
obscure county family took proceedings against the great Seaman for
using their crest - a red dragon. Gloriana, however, retaliated by
giving her bold Sir Francis an entirely new device showing the dragon
cutting a most undignified caper on the bows of his ship. The effigies
of three of these Drakes, with their wives in humble attitudes beside
them, are to be seen in Musbury church, another mile farther on.

Somewhere in this fertile and beautiful valley, between Axminster and
Colyton, was waged the great battle of Brunanburgh between the men of
Wessex led by Athelstan and the Ethelings, and Anlaf the Dane, an
alien Irish King, who captained the Picts and Scots. Five Kings (of
sorts), seven Earls, and the Bishop of Sherborne were killed, but the
victory was with the defenders. Athelstan founded a college to
commemorate the battle and its result, and caused masses to be said in
Axminster church for ever (!) for the repose of the souls of those of
his friends who fell.

The London road from Honiton runs a beautiful and lonely course of
fourteen miles up hill and down dale to Chard in Somersetshire,
passing, about half way, the wayside village of Stockland. The hills
that here divide the valleys of the Otter and the Yarty are crossed by
the high road and involve several steep "pitches" up and down which
the motorist must perforce go at a pace that enables him for once to
view the landscape o'er and not merely the perspective of hedge in
front of him. The remote little village of Up-Ottery is away to the
left on the infant stream surrounded by the southern bastions of the
Blackdowns. Here is the fine modern seat of Viscount Sidmouth. Beacon
Hill (843 feet), to the north of the village, commands a celebrated
view, as wide as it is lovely.

[Illustration: SHERBORNE.]




CHAPTER VIII

THE SOMERSET, DEVON AND DORSET BORDERLAND


Chard is a place which satisfies the aesthetic sense at first sight and
does not pall after close and long acquaintance. The great highway
from Honiton to Yeovil becomes, as it passes through the last town in
South Somerset, a spacious and dignified High Street with two or three
beautiful old houses, among a large number of other picturesque
dwellings which would sustain the reputation of Chard even without
their aid. First is the one-time Court House of the Manor, opposite
the Town Hall. Part of the building is called Waterloo House. It was
built during the last quarter of the sixteenth century. A very
beautiful and spacious room with two mullioned windows and a fine
moulded ceiling graces the interior. This apartment is panelled with
the most delightful carvings of scenes from the Old Testament, and
with birds, animals and heraldic designs above the noble fireplace.
The back of this house is even more charming than the front and the
visitor should pass through the porch and passage-way for the sake of
a glimpse at its old gables and mellow walls. The Choughs Inn at the
west end of the town, not far from the church, is another fine example
of late medieval architecture. Here also one should not be content
with a mere passing glance. The interior is well worth inspection, as
the old woodwork and queer guest rooms of the ancient hostelry have
been jealously preserved. The present Town School was erected in 1671,
but a pipe bears the date 1583, indicating an earlier building on the
site.

The early fifteenth-century church is cruciform if we regard the high
porches as transepts. The whole building, including the tower, is very
low in proportion to its length. The fine gargoyles will be noticed
before entering; equally elaborate is the roof of the chancel, but
perhaps the most striking item is the magnificent tomb of William
Brewer (1641) in the north transept.

As at Honiton, the mile of High Street is undeniably a true section of
the Fosse Way, though at each end the modern road departs from the old
way and shirks the hills. The geographical position of the street is
interesting in that it stands on a "great divide." During rain the
gutters take the water in two directions, to the English Channel and
the Severn Sea. There is no clear evidence of the existence of a Roman
station hereabouts, though it is more than probable that such was the
case. The name of the town proves it to have been a Saxon settlement.
Bishop Joscelyn of Wells made its fortune by his endowments and the
gift of a borough charter. Chard bore its part in the Civil War and
Charles I was obliged to stay here for a week, in his retreat from the
west country, awaiting the commissariat that Somerset had failed to
provide. "Hangcross Tree," a great oak, stood within living memory in
the lower town on the way to the South Western station. This was the
gibbet upon which twelve natives of Chard, followers of Monmouth, paid
the penalty for their rebellion.

[Illustration: FORD ABBEY.]

The excursion _par excellence_ is to Ford Abbey, situated about four
miles away on the banks of the Axe. (Prospective visitors who wish to
see more than the exterior must make preliminary inquiries.) The
situation is beautiful, as was usually the case with those chosen by
the Cistercians. Unlike most of the great abbeys despoiled by the
iconoclasts of the Dispersal, Ford fell into the hands of successive
families who have added to and embellished the great pile without
entirely doing away with its ancient character. A good deal of
alteration was carried out by Inigo Jones who destroyed some of the
older work and inserted certain incongruities more interesting than
pleasing. The imposing appearance of the south front amply atones for
any disappointment the visitor may experience at his first sight of
the buildings from the Chard road. Over the entrance tower is the
inscription:

ANO' D'NI MILLESIMO QUINQUESIMO VIC'MO OCTA'O
A D'NO FACTUM EST THOMA CHARD ABB.

The beautiful cloisters are much admired and the magnificent porch is
one of the finest entrances in England. In the "state" apartments the
grandeur of the ceiling in the Banqueting Hall is almost unique. The
great Staircase was designed by Inigo Jones; this leads to the Grand
Saloon in which are five Raphael tapestries, the finest in England;
unsurpassed for the beauty of their colouring. The original cartoons
are in South Kensington Museum. The visitor is conducted through the
Monks' Dormitory to the Transitional Chapel, the resting place of
Adeliza, Viscountess of Devon, who founded the Abbey for some homeless
monks, wayfarers from Waverley in Surrey, who had unsuccessfully
colonized at distant Brightley and were tramping home. This was in
1140. In 1148 the church was completed. The carved screen is
elaborately beautiful and there are several interesting memorials of
the families who have held this splendid pile of buildings, now the
property of the Ropers. The traveller by the Exeter express has a
charming glimpse of the picturesque "back" of the abbey, should he
make his journey in the winter. In summer the jealous greenery hides
all but a stone or two of the battlements.

Chard is surrounded by a number of small and secluded villages. Most
of them are delightfully situated on the sides of wooded heights or
between the encircling arms of the hills. The most charming is perhaps
Cricket St. Thomas on the south of the Crewkerne road. On the other
side of this highway, on the headwaters of the River Isle, is another
beautifully situated hamlet called Dowlish Wake, after the ancient
Somerset family of that name who flourished here in the fourteenth
century. A short distance north is Ilminster, an ancient market town
with a beautiful Perpendicular church crowned with a poem in stone
that is of surpassing loveliness even in this county of lovely towers.
White Staunton, four miles away to the west towards the Blackdown
country, has a church remarkable for the number of interesting details
it contains, though the fabric itself is rather commonplace. Its
treasures include a very early Norman font, curious pewter communion
vessels, a squint having an almost unique axis, some ancient bench
ends and medieval tiles in the chancel. St. Agnes' Well, a spring near
the church, is said to be tepid, and to have healing qualities. Near
by is an old manor house dating from the fifteenth century. In its
grounds are the foundations of a Roman Villa discovered about forty
years ago.

[Illustration: TOWER, ILMINSTER.]

Proceeding along the London road over Windwhistle and St. Rayne's
Hills, and with delightful views by the way, Crewkerne is reached in
eight miles from Chard. This is a pleasant little market town of no
great interest apart from its noble fifteenth-century cruciform church
which has an uncommonly fine west front, with empty niches, alas! but
beautiful nevertheless. The porch is another interesting feature of
its exterior. Here are quaint figures of musicians playing upon
various instruments. At the end of the south transept is a small
chamber, the actual purpose of which is unknown; it may well have been
the cell of an anchorite.

The first impression on entering the church is one of light and
airiness, due to the size and number of the windows, of which that at
the west end is the finest. The wooden groining of the tower is
curious, and the base of the walls show the existence of a former
building that lacked the present aisles. The ancient font belongs to
the older structure. A figure of St. George, that was once outside and
over the west window where the dragon is still _in situ_, two old
chests, and a number of brasses complete the list of interesting
objects within. To the north of the church are the old buildings of
the grammar school, now removed to a site outside the town to the
east.

About two miles to the north is the curious old church of Merriott,
built during several periods. The extraordinary carving over the
vestry door called the "fighting cocks" is in the eyes of the
villagers its chief merit! There are also some interesting gargoyles
and a very ancient crucifix. A mile farther is the pleasant village of
Hinton St. George. The fine village cross, though much mutilated,
still retains enough of its former splendour to make us regret the
many we have lost. The old thatched house known as the "Priory" is a
delightful building. Hinton House is the home of the Pouletts, a
famous family who came originally from the North Somerset sea-lands.
Part of the house dates from the reign of Henry VIII. The family came
into prominence about that time, for a member named Amyas was knighted
after the fight at Newark. He became more famous still perhaps for his
collision with Wolsey when the latter was a young man, for he had the
misfortune to put the future great prelate in the stocks! The family
became pronounced Protestants and one of the grandsons of Amyas was
gaoler of Mary Queen of Scots. These beruffed and torpedoe-bearded
Elizabethans are in Hinton Church, a fine and dignified building that,
like many other Somerset churches, is more imposing outside than
within.

South Petherton is about three miles north. Here is another fine
church with an uncommon octagonal tower placed upon a squat and square
base. Of more interest is the beautiful house, known as "King' Ine's
Palace," which dates from the fifteenth century. It may have been
erected on the site of one of that Saxon monarch's many houses. There
are one or two ancient buildings in this village as also at Martock,
another delightful hamlet still farther north. But we are being
tempted outside our arbitrary boundary and must return to the Yeovil
road that wanders up hill and down again into the charming vales of
the Somerset borderland by way of East Chinnock and West Coker. In the
latter large and rambling village is a church of note for the unique
horn glazing of the small windows in its turret. The Decorated
building has a squat tower out of all proportion to its size. The
manor dates from the fourteenth century and belongs to the Earl of
Devon.

There is an alluring sound about the name of Yeovil; a name suggestive
of ancient stone-walled houses with roofs clothed in russet moss with,
perhaps, a hoary ruined keep on a guardian mound and a clear swift
moorland stream flowing between encircling hills. But the reality is
very different. Many years ago, when two great railways took the town
into their sphere of influence, factories and streets began to appear
as if by magic and just before the Great War a fresh impetus was given
to Yeovil by the development and extension of certain well-known local
firms. In fact the present appearance of the town is that of an
industrial centre of the smaller and pleasanter sort, but with the
inevitable accompaniment of mean houses and uninviting suburbs. The
main streets of the newer parts are spacious and clean, but are
reminiscent of an ordinary London suburb.

The great glory of Yeovil is its church, the interior of which is one
of the most impressive in Somerset. Its lofty and graceful arches and
wonderful windows belong to a period when the Perpendicular style was
at its best and purest. The crypt beneath the chancel is of much
interest. The single central pillar supports a fine groined roof. The
church has few interesting details, but the magnificent lectern with
its undecipherable inscription and a couple of brasses will be
noticed. There are but few old houses in the centre of the town.

[Ilustration: YEOVIL CHURCH.]

The usual excuse of disastrous fires is offered, and one did occur in
1449 when 117 houses were destroyed, but more probably ruthlessness on
the part of eighteenth-century owners is responsible for this dearth.
In Middle Street is the George Inn, an old half-timbered house, and,
opposite, the still older "Castle," said to have been a chantry house.
The Woborne Almshouses were founded about 1476, but no portion of the
early buildings remain.

One of the most delightful views in South Somerset is that from
Summerhouse Hill, about half a mile away; another, magnificent in its
extent, can be had from the Mudford road that runs in a north-easterly
direction. The great central plain is spread before one with distant
Glastonbury Tor on the horizon. The environs of Yeovil are delightful.
One of the best short excursions is to East Coker, the birthplace of
William Dampier, two miles to the south. The church and Court are
beautifully placed above the old village and a picturesque group of
almshouses line the upward way to them.

Five miles north of Yeovil on the Fosse Way, where a branch road
leaves the ancient Bath-Exeter highway for Dorchester, stands the old
Roman town of Ilchester, or Ivelchester. An unimportant one at that,
for the Romans made but little attempt to build in the wild and remote
country that was to be the home of an obscure Saxon tribe - the
Somersetas. Ilchester to-day is strangely uninteresting and we have to
depend entirely upon the imagination for even a plan of the Roman
town, of which no vestiges remain. Possibly these disappeared during
the Civil War when the town was fortified. The church has an octagonal
tower with the rare feature that its sides are the same form from base
to parapet. The older portions of the building are Early English, but
it has suffered from a good deal of pulling about. This is the only
one remaining of the five churches of which Ilchester could once
boast. A much maltreated market cross stands in the main street with a
sundial stuck on the summit of its shaft. Otherwise there is little to
detain the stranger. Roger Bacon, philosopher and scientist, was a
native of the town or immediate neighbourhood. At Tintinhull, two
miles to the south-west, are some fine old houses, ancient stocks, and
an Early English church of much interest. The church's tower is on the
north side, an unusual position. Bench-ends, brasses and ancient tiles
are among the objects likely to interest the visitor of antiquarian
tastes. Montacute, still farther south and on the road from South
Petherton to Yeovil, should be visited if possible. Here is a
beautiful Elizabethan house, the seat of the Phelipses. Its east front
is decorated with an imposing row of heroic statues; its west front is
almost as magnificent. Taken altogether it is perhaps the grandest
Tudor house in the county. The interior well bears out the sumptuous
appearance of the great pile from the outside. A great gallery, one
hundred and eighty feet long, extends through the whole length of the
building, and the hall is equally grand.

[Illustration: MONTACUTE.]

This great house replaces a one-time Cluniac monastery founded in
1102, though in 1407 the establishment abandoned the foreign rule of
Cluny and became an ordinary English Priory. All that is left of the
ancient buildings is a beautiful gateway with turrets and oriels
dating from the fifteenth century. St. Michael's Hill, or "Mons
Acutus," is remarkably like Glastonbury in outline, and is the scene
of a wonderful legend. Here was found the sacred Rood that was
eventually taken in the days of Canute to distant Waltham in Essex,
where afterwards there arose the great Abbey of the Holy Cross.

Montacute Church is a building that has seen much legitimate
"tinkering," not of the restorer's brand but of the sort that delights
the antiquary. The earliest work is very early Norman. This is seen in
the chancel arch and then we come down through the various stages of
architectural history - Early English transepts, a Decorated window on
the south side and, what is almost inevitable for Somerset, the
Perpendicular nave. The tower is also "Somerset," and very dignified
and beautiful.

From the hill of Hamdon near by we obtain one of those exquisite
prospects of this English countryside that few can look upon unmoved.
The beautiful hills of Somerset and Dorset, fading into the gentlest
tones of soft purple and blue, ring the horizon on every side.
Alfred's tower, built to commemorate the victory over the Danes, is
far away on the Wiltshire border, but appears startlingly close for
some rare moments when winter rain is near. Away to the west are the
distant Quantocks and the hills of "dear Dorset," fold after fold, in
the south. Close under the steep northern face of Hamdon is Stoke,
with a quaint, and delightful inn known as the "Fleur de Lis," and a
beautiful old church with a Norman tympanum, an elaborate chancel arch
of the same date, and many other gracious and interesting details. If
the direct road is taken from Montacute to Yeovil we pass through
Preston Pucknell with its small and over-restored Decorated church. Of
more interest is the fine tithe-barn close by, and a beautiful old
medieval house with delightful porch and elaborate chimney.

Three miles north-east of Yeovil is the interesting church and manor
house at Trent. In the latter the fugitive Charles II was hidden, and
his hiding-place can still be seen. The stone spire of the church is a
rare feature hereabouts and within will be found many interesting
items, including the finely carved screen and bench ends, some bearing
the words "Ave Maria"; the pulpit carved with scenes from the life of


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Online LibraryEdric HolmesWanderings in Wessex An Exploration of the Southern Realm from Itchen to Otter → online text (page 12 of 23)