TWO GLIMPSES OF SOMERSET IN THE 1860s
Shortly before Christmas in 1860,‘XYZ’ took a walk up Ham Hill and described his afternoon-out in a letter to the Editor of the Western Flying Post:
‘SIR, – It being Christmas time, with your permission, I will endeavour to add somewhat to the light reading you usually provide at this festive period by giving a short description of a pedestrian excursion to Ham Hill on a fine frosty day last week. Often, as the same road may have been trodden by your readers, everybody may not perceive the same beauties and make the same reflections. There is nothing remarkable, I must admit, in the footpath across the fields to Preston or in the road through Montacute; and it is only when you approach the foot of the hill itself that the real beauties of the neighbourhood force themselves upon your attention.
The day I selected for my peregrinations was, as I have said, frosty, and the sun shone with all the keen brightness customary at this time of the year. Unluckily, however, a milk-and-waterish looking mist veiled the distant hills and hid many of the fine points in the view observable on a cloudless summer’s day. With one long gaze I drank in all the beauties of the scene. Langport looked in the distance like a small seaport town, and the uninitiated would hardly be convinced that the expanse of water which was visible, was the result of the rains only. The numerous small towns and villages which lie between Langport and Crewkerne presented a most peculiar appearance. The blue smoke, vainly endeavouring to overcome the atmospheric pressure, lay in massive-looking wreaths around the brows of the fine towers which invariably characterize the churches of Somerset. The rays of the setting sun pierced through the heavy air and flooded landscape with a tint such as the artist Claude might have endeavoured in vain to convey to his canvas; and the metal on the church spires flung back the radiance in mingled hues of excessive brilliance.
Turning with reluctance from the fascinating beauty of this picture, I looked towards Glastonbury. There hung the mist in gauzy masses which seemed to place a limit to space and to annihilate the idea of anything beyond. Then came the reflection that to a person twenty miles off gazing at the eminence on which I stood, I should appear enveloped in the same indistinctiveness. The sun had now sunk behind the hills, and the first breath of the chill night air made me think of retracing my steps and bidding adieu to Ham Hill and the surrounding beauties. I with no little difficulty reached the foot of the hill; and “stepping” the six miles in one hour and eleven minutes I arrived at home just in time for tea.
Wishing you, Mr. Editor, and your numerous readers all possible happiness on this glorious and Christian anniversary.’
To complete this glimpse of the Somerset 157 years ago, the following article from the Western Flying Post of Tuesday 1 January 1861 provides a homely glimpse into country life at that time:
‘On Wednesday last, the entertainment given annually to the workpeople on the Newton House Estate, by George Harbin Esq., took place amidst general rejoicing. The annual treat has been generally prepared at the conclusion of harvest time, but with the snow lying thick upon the ground, and heavens threatening another fall, we can hardly designate it this year a “Harvest Home.” Nevertheless the fare provided was as good and as thoroughly English as on all preceding occasions, and the workpeople assembled under the same happy presidency of Mr Dunning, the bailiff. Loyalty as ever characterised assemblages of British workmen, and following in the footsteps of their worthy squire they drank to the health of the Queen – “good Queen Vic” – with the lusty strength of English hearts. Revelling in the blissful ignorance of politics, the meeting exhausted the list of homely toasts and flung forth their happiness in good old English ballads. A joyous dance, in which those who knew how and those who didn’t joined, brought the evening’s conviviality to a conclusion. The satisfaction of all present was testified by three hearty cheers for the beloved and respected donor of the feast after which the party separated.’
The weather over the Christmas time in 1860 was a mixture of heavy rain followed by piercing cold and frost, followed by heavy snowfalls and a sudden thaw. The Western Flying Post commented that the Christmas snowfalls were the heaviest for seven years with drifts over 10 feet deep in Dorset, and the lake at Barwick House was frozen to a depth sufficient to bear skaters.