This article came from the Chronicle published October 1979. Pages 2-4

Meetings Reviewed (incl. Wells Cathedral, Sutton Bingham, Buckfast Abbey, Mendips and Fyne Court)

Author: R.J.Clynick


At the last of the winter sessions of 1978-9 the Dean of Wells, the Very Rev P.R.Mitchell, gave a scholarly talk on the formidable task of restoring the West Front of Wells Cathedral. As an introduction the Dean spoke of the Cathedral’s history and compared the magnificence of the West Front which transcends all the other cathedrals both in Britain and on the Continent. The cost of restoration, he said, would be in the nature of three million pounds and would take ten years at least to complete – providing the money came in! The width of the front is 147 feet, but that total was increased, by taking in the many buttresses and recesses, to 660 feet at ground level. Originally there were 400 statues of which 300 remain, many of them nine feet high, and all in need of treatment. The excellent set of slides which accompanied the Dean’s talk showed the extent of damage by weather, by civil war strife, and inexpert repair work in previous centuries, and the speaker gave an outline of the painstaking work by present-day experts in conserving the art of the medieval craftsmen. The Dean was thanked on behalf of the meeting by the Rev G.Robinson.

The first of the summer outings, on 5th May, was a half-day excursion to the remains of Farleigh Hungerford Castle, by means of a somewhat circuitous route! Built by Sir Thomas Hungerford, the first Speaker of the House of Commons, the castle which withstood the Civil War, was destroyed in the reign of Charles the Second. Members toured the ruins and also visited the 13th century chapel, once the parish church, which contains rich tombs of members of the Hungerford family, together with armour and trophies from Agincourt; and Crecy, besides very old stained glass, medieval wall and ceiling paintings; an ancient font, Jacobean pulpit, exquisitely carved oak reredos and the grave of a 15th century priest. In the crypt which some of the braver members descended to, are several lead coffins. On leaving the castle, the nearby village church of Wellow was visited. This was built by Sir Walter Hungerford in the 14th century and is distinguished by its very fine painted rood screen, the magnificent roofs of the chancel, and the Hungerford chapel. Admired too were the 12th century font, 14th century pew ends with poppy heads, and a fine stone chancel screen with squints on either side.

On she 18th May an evening visit was paid to Sutton Bingham church, dedicated to All Saints. Mr L.C.Hayward conducted members around pointing out its architectural features and saying that an even earlier church had most likely existed before the present one which is mainly Norman. Members’ attention was drawn to the finely carved chancel arch, the early font with cable moulding, and two deeply-recessed and narrow Norman windows in the west end of the nave. But, said Mr Hayward, the outstanding treasure of this tiny church was undoubtedly the 13th century wall paintings, which had been uncovered during restoration work in the mid-19th century. The Coronation of the Virging is the subject of a fresco in the chancel, and there are various saints and bishops on the walls and in the window recesses. The back of the chancel arch is entirely covered with stylized flower patterns, while on the north wall of the nave there is a large painting of the Death of the Virgin, her soul ascending to heaven being shown as a tiny figure leaving her body. A curious and possibly unique feature of the churchyard, said the speaker, was a table tomb which is surmounted by the shaft of a tall cross, but no inscription is now discernable on the crumbling stone. A more modern stone cross bears a spray of beautifully-carved passion flowers and a dove holding an olive branch in its beak. At the close of the meeting Mr Leslie Brooke, on behalf of the members thanked Mr Hayward for his exposition and congratulated him on his election as President of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural. History Society for the ensuing year,

The first all-day excursion, on 2 June, was to Buckfast Abbey and Morwellham. At Buckfast the party was taken on a tour of the abbey by one of the monks who gave an entertaining description of this modern building erected on the site of a pre-Domesday abbey which was destroyed at the Dissolution by Henry the Eighth. Most of the present building, starting at the end of last century, was done by the monks themselves, with the assistance of some outside work, and the abbey was finished and consecrated in 1938. The Brother was warmly thanked by Our chairman, Miss Rendell, for his most entertaining and often humorous dissertation. Journeying on to Morwellham through Plymouth, members toured at will this once-important mining centre on the Devon side of the River Tamar. Partly restored by conservationists as a feature of industrial archaeology, there is much remaining to show what the place was like in its hey-day, and many members took advantage of a trip into one of the shafts by a mine railway, where a most impressive reconstruction of mining activities has been cleverly lighted to show the various stages of its history.

An afternoon excursion into Wiltshire was made on 16 June for guided tours of the parish churches of Westbury, Edington, and Steeple Ashton. All Saints, Westbury, in the Perpendicular style, has been much renewed, but contains several fine windows with 19th century glass, a two-storeyed south porch with handsome vaulting and an octagonal font patnelled with shields. At Edington the building of the Priory Church of St Mary and AU Saints was begun in the mid-14th century by William of Edington, Bishop of Winchester, and is a miniature cathedral – a very large church serving a small community. Notable among its many distinguished features are a ceiling of pink and white plaster, a 17th century pulpit with tester, a fine 16th century double screen which separates the chancel and nave, and the Lady Chapel which contains some original stained glass. Steeple Ashton took its name from the steeple which once surmounted an already lofty tower and rose to a height of 180 feet above the church, which bristles with pinnacles and buttresses. Inside it is richly decorated and above the south porch is a library of ancient books and documents. In the absence of the chairman, Mr Edgar Silcox thanked Bill Chapman for the arrangements which had resulted in such an enjoyable afternoon.

The second all-day excursion on 30 June was to Caerleonand to the Welsh Folk Museum of St Pagans. At Caerleon – the Castle of the Legion – Mr L.C.Hayward acted as guide and gave a graphic description of what the fortified stronghold was like in Roman times. Members were dwarfed in the centre of the amphitheatre which is a large oval measuring 185 feet in length and 135 feet across, capable of holding some 6,000 people. Built by the Legion itself in the first century AD, it is still an impressive sight, while nearby, although only a small. portion of the whole, the site of part of the barrack complex covers a large area and gives one the sense of military preciseness in its formal layout. The second half of the visit took us to the grounds of St Pagans which, covering 100 acres, is laid out with rebuilt premises which have been rescued from destruction, and furnishes a realistic impression of the life and activities of bygone Wales. It is impossible to describe all that was there to see, but the newly-built galleries contain a wealth of costume, agricultural, music, manufacture, and materials which is a model of display techniques. The fine weather added to this most enjoyable visit to Wales which ended all too soon.

On 14 July, under the expert guidance of Ron Gilson, members explored the lead-mining area of the Mendips, covering Charterhouse, Priddy, and Harptree. Here were seen the remains of workings, now derelict, from ancient times to more recent years. Our guide began with the Roman period in the first century AD, outlining in great detail the different stages of development and exploitation throughout succeeding centuries. To the uninitiated, this rough, bleak terrain, which abounds in humps and pits with scattered mounds of shining black slag, leaves him wondering what it was all about; but Ron’s clear explanations, coupled with his enthusiasm, helped shed much light on what was at one time one of the most flourishing of Britain’s industries.

On 4 August an afternoon trip was made to Fyne Court in the parish of Broomfield on the Quantook Hills to the north of Taunton. The present buildings are only a fragment of the Court which was destroyed by fire in 1898, and was the home of the Crosse. and Hamilton families from 1634 to 1952. It is now the centre of the Somerset Trust for Nature Conservation, and stands in forty acres of semi-wild woodland in which a nature trail has been established. Fyne Court was the home in the 19th century of Andrew Crosse, philosopher and experimenter in electricity, the latter earning him a reputation as an eccentric, though his work has since been, recognized as pioneer investigation. Broomfield Church, which is close by, was then visited and the carved bench-ends there attracted much admiration, as did the delicately panelled roof with its decoration of little carved angels wearing coronets. Also in the church is an ancient chest with enormous locks, some medieval glass, and in one corner a plain wooden table with a wide copper strip inserted, once used by Andrew Crosse for his electrical experiments – a sturdy obelisk in the well-kept churchyard is a memorial to him. The journey home was broken at Bishop’s Lydeard for a re-visit to the parish church.

On Friday evening, 31 August, members paid what has now become an annual visit to the season’s excavations of the Halstock Roman Villa. The party was given a resumé of this year’s work by the director of the excavations, Mr R.Lucas, who said there was a great deal more to be learnt which would take many more years to reveal.

The final excursion of the summer took place the following day when members met at Yetminster for a perambulation of the village led by Mr R.Machin of Bristol University. Yetminster is a conservation area and 75% of the 17th century houses there – unique in Dorset – are listed. Mr Machin explained in great detail the construction, style, layout, and such alterations as had been made of each building as it was reached, and the weather remained kind for the event. At the conclusion, conveyances were directed to Mrs Colberd’s residence at Corscombe where members were treated to one of her generous ‘end-of-season’s’ teas, a fitting climax to the summer’s outings for which she was thanked most heartily, both for her hospitality and for having arranged the afternoon’s programme.

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