This article came from Chronicle published October 1982. Pages 30-32
A fascinating talk on the Somerset County Museum services was given by its Director, Mr.Philip Stevens, at the last of our winter indoor meetings held on 2nd April. 1982. Mr Stevens described the founding of a local archaeological and natural history society in the county town of Taunton in the mid-19c. It arose as a result of the interest taken in the teachings if Darwin by the aristocracy and intellectuals of the day, and of the clergy of the two cathedrals of Bath and Wells, and their intention to found a museum to contain the collections of specimens and to catalogue them; in addition they arranged meetings in different towns in the county to stimulate interest in these subjects.
By 1890 it became imperative to find a permanent home for these collections the limit of expansion had been reached. Fortunately Taunton Castle became available at this time and this the society purchased – it still remains their property at the present time. In 1899 the society had the further good fortune in obtaining the services as curator of Harold St George Gray, expert archaeologist who had been an assistant to General Pitt-Rivers. During the fifty years he remained with the society he was responsible for evolving a system of classifying and cataloguing specimens which has basically stood the test of time.
In 1930 William Wyndham provided the necessary finance to enable the building of a much-needed extension to the exhibition area, and this, was further extended at a later date. Effects of inflation and the upkeep of the fabric following the 1939-45 war imposed a severe strain on resources, and in 1958 the County Council agreed to take over the care and staffing of the county museum, the exhibits remaining the property of the society.
Following the speaker’s appointment as curator in the 1960s, he began the task of re-organizing the museum, an additional responsibility being the incorporation of the Military Museum, which he described as ‘being planted on them’. The visit of the Queen Mother to open this extra section was to prove another impetus and added prestige to the progress of the Museum and the Society. With the attraction of younger workers to the staff, the County Education Authority were able to involve the schools in museum activities with visits and lectures.
Mr Stevens concluded by saying that the aim of the museum was ‘to delight and instruct’, and he gave a description of the many collections and exhibits displayed, insisting that the county museum is not a small replica of the Victoria and Albert, but a reflection of the county’s development and heritage. The speaker was warmly thanked on behalf of the society by Mr L.C.Hayward, a past-president of the county society.
For the first summer excursion, on 24 April,a coach trip arranged jointly with the Art Group of Yeovil was to the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. This world-famous houses collections of almost every kind of art-form, too extensive to enumerate in this brief note, but mention must be made of the renowned ‘Alfred Jewel’, found at Petherton Park and associated with Athelney Abbey, a replica of which is on view in our own Yeovil Museum, and we we able to see what a fine replica that is! Most of us did some exploration of Oxford and by 5.30 had done enough walking to be glad to settle back in the coach for the homeward journey, and to enjoy a mid-evening meal at a ‘Little Chef’ en-route! A long day – but a thoroughly enjoyable one and our thanks are due to the Art Group for having made the necessary arrangements for this special occasion.
Long Sutton was the venue for a gathering of members on the evening of 14 May when we visited the Parish Church, the Friends’ Meeting House, and the Manor Court House. Brian Gittos was our guide in the 15c church where he gave a fully-researched account of it history and architecural features, much of which appears in the article he provided for this issue of ‘Chronicle‘. Leaving the church, we made our way to the Friends’ Meeting house, a plain dignified building, with a distinguished porch canopy. The severe manner of the interior is a common feature of quaker meeting houses, with seating which makes no concession to comfort. Ron Gilson introduced one of the Elders of the Meeting, Mr Ken Gould, of Ash, who gave an account of the origin of the movement, and described in some detail its distinctive form of worship. He was thanked by our chairman.
Adjoining is the 14c Manor Court House, and here we were indebted to Ron who is always in his element when talking about houses of the ‘great hall’ type. He gave a detailed history of the dwelling, its structure, and modifications over the years. This was followed by an ascent to the spacious attic or roof space, to see the timbers of the roof – some being the original soot-blackened members – evidence of the central hearth of the early medieval open hall. His clear explanation helped us appreciate the changes which the Court has undergone. We were indebted to the occupiers of the house (which is associated with a Society of Friends Trust) – Mr and Mrs Clark – for their kindness in allowing this privileged incursion. The chairman expressed our thanks and appreciation to Mr and Mrs Clark and to Brian and Ron for their contributions which had resulted in a most instructive and enjoyable evening.
On Saturday 5 June a tour of Dorset bridges was attended by about twenty members and friends and proved to be a most interesting afternoon, enhanced by perfect weather. As ‘Dorset Bridges‘ is to be the subject of our second winter lecture, only one or two of the nine picturesque bridges we visited are mentioned here.
Julian’s Bridge, carrying the A31 over the Stour, bears dates of 1636 and 1844, the original building and subsequent widening. Whitemill Bridge is reputedly the oldest bridge in Dorset (c.1175) and basically unchanged. Crawford Bridge, of nine main stone arches and with an inexplicable bend at its north end, was built in 1530 and widened in 1719. One or two of us were invited into the garden of Mrs A Brett, whose delightful house looks on to the upstream side. The lower part of the house is let as a self-catering apartment and if any member is interested the secretary has the address and phone number’. At Fifehead Neville, a medieval packhorse bridge with unusual straight-sided pointed arches, our chairman, Miss Rendell, very warmly thanked Marie Eedle and her husband for all the work they had put into researching and conducting a delightful and instructive tour.
The second Saturday afternoon outings was to Meare on 10 July, and this, once,again, was under the guidance of Ron Gilson. Meeting at the Abbot’s Fish House, set in what was once flooded countryside, this building was a two-floor habitation – on the ground floor was stored the fishing tackle while the upper floor comprised the living accommodation for the Abbot of Glastonbury’s fisherman. The one-time outside stairway which provided the only means of access to the upper floor has long since disappeared.
We next visited the nearby manor house and, through the kindness of the occupiers, were permitted thoroughly to explore both inside and out. Alterations to the internal structure presented problems, but it possesses a remarkable double first-floor hall, sixty feet long, with mostly original massive roof timbers, and a fine hooded fireplace. The building boasts a south porch with room above, and several Gothic windows with fine tracery.
Lastly, a short distance away, we entered the church which possesses a fine door hanging on very rare hinges, said to be contemporary with the building, made in floral decoration and covering some 10 feet around. The nave has a panelled roof supported by stone angel corbels, and there is a high clerestory. The chancel is 14c and by the sanctury a Tudor arch with elaborate tracery window over, leads to the vestry. There is a curious piscina which is set at an angle in the chancel, a hagioscope, an elegant candelabrum, and a finely-carved stone pulpit dating from the 15c. It was a pleasure, on this occasion, to welcome Cdr.E.H.D.Williams as guest. Miss Rendell expressed appreciation and thanks to Ron for the arrangements and commentaries.
The evening; meeting, on 30 July, was to explore some ‘Somerset Churches‘ under the guidance of former secretary Bill Chapman. Inclement weather reduced the number attending on this occasion, but those who gathered at the church of St Mary the Virgin at Huish Episcopi, were amply rewarded with the fine view of one of the finest 15c towers in Somerset which has been featured on a postage stamp. The stop here was a brief one, just long enough to glance at the big Norman south doorway and a glimpse of the inside with its 15c font and screen and Jacobean pulpit.
From here the motor cavalcade proceeded to St Andrew’s church Curry Rivel, a good example of the Perpendicular style, with some unusual 13c tombs in the north chapel. The fine tower, rebuilt in 1661 is a faithful copy of the original and note was made of the south porch vaulting and that of the tower. There are 15c parclose screens, painted glass, 16c bench-ends and Victorian hat brackets under some of the seats.
With rain now descending in a steady downpour the party made for St Catherine’s church at Swell which is like a chapel, in the middle of a farmyard next to Swell Court. Of 12c origin it has a fine Norman south doorway, a panelled chancel arch and 15c windows, while the Jacobean-style pulpit is dated 1643.
Isle Abbotts was the final venue, here above the flats surrounding the river Isle, rises an outstanding Perpendicular tower with most of the niches filled with original sculptures. The chancel is c1300 with Decorated work and contemporary windows, the rest 15c and early 16c, with fan-vaulted porch and panelled aisle roof, the font is Norman.
Bill had provided each member with a descriptive sheet covering the main points to be looked for, and this he augmented with his own observations at each of the churches visited. The weather, on this occasion, marred what would otherwise have been a pleasing meander through country lanes – indeed some of the party were made aware of the danger attending those who live on the low-lying parts of the county when they negotiated not inconsiderable amounts of flood water across the road!
There was a good turn-out of members on September 4, however, for a visit to East Lambrook Manor, a medieval hall-type building dating from about 1470. For many years the home of the late Margery Fish, an authority on the layout and care of gardens, she developed her own famous one from a derelict piece of land around the manor. But it was the house we came to see and, yet again under the guidance of Ron Gilson, we we able to benefit from his expert knowledge. This was a primitive ‘hall’ house, with its fireplace in the centre of the floor and with a high roof. The original door is still there, as are signs of the existence of a later hall-passageway, which has been removed. Converted to an Elizabethan house towards the end of the 16c, it was built mostly of Hamstone with large fireplaces common to this area. Later there was a conversion, providing a bakehouse, a bacon-curing cupboard, and second-storey domestic rooms; evidence of the existence of a post-office at a later date, was seen in one wall where a post-box had been cut out. The dining-room of 1584 contains original oak panelling and a heavily-plastered ceiling. On the first floor Ron’s expert examination of the roof structure, with its soot-blackened timbers, led him to deduce that the main bedroom was once part of the old solar. Though there had been many changes over the centuries the roof timbers were the original ones dating from about 1470. Ron said the manor was a very complicated house, worthy of further careful study. The residents of the manor were heartily thanked for their kindness in permitting our visit and Ron for his expert guidance.
It was unfortunate that half-a-dozen members, including the secretary, were unavoidably absent from the above meeting, since they were attending the annual meeting of associated societies of the SANHS, held at Bruton, and this year organized by the South East Somerset Archaeological Society. In the morning our secretary attended a business meeting while the others were taken on a guided tour of Gant’s Mill record of which goes back to the 12c, and which is still a privately-owned working mill. In the afternoon Michael Aston, president of SESAS, introduced speakers Michael McGarvie, who spoke of Bruton’s history and architecture, and Mary Whitfeld, John Keylock and William Porter who dealt with ancient woodlands in the area.