By Roy Rice
Published in BAFHS Journal 146 - December 2011
The north Somerset parish of Banwell is situated at the west end of the Mendips on the north side about five miles from the coast of the Bristol Channel at Weston Super Mare. It is bounded by the parishes of Worle, Wick St Lawrence, Puxton, Winscombe, Christon, Hutton and Locking. Besides the main village of Banwell, the parish also consists of the hamlets of Winthill, Yarborough, Whitley Head, Hillend, Knightcott, Stonebridge, Wolvershill, West Wick, Way Wick, Rolstone, East Rolstone and Towerhead, and the village of St Georges.
The settlement may have started on the south side of the Mendip ridge at Winthill but finally settled on the north side where there is a fine spring that produces up to seven million gallons a day in the winter season. This spring ran mills from at least Domesday up until 1924 when the spring was capped and the water used for the ever expanding Weston Super Mare. At this time the village also lost its pond that made an excellent front piece for the church.
The Domesday Book of 1086 lists three mills in Banwell. Since the early 18th century, there has been a mill near the spring head fed from the pond where the bowling-green now is. The buildings of the mill, whose wheels stopped turning in 1921, are still there. One of the buildings that look like a bungalow with a lawn in front, near the steps down to Church Street, is where the water wheel that drove the mill stones was. To the west side of the grist mill in the 18th & 19th century was a paper mill that was turned into a brewery in the 1850's and lasting until 1906. The mills were owned by the EMERY family and were run by the CASTLE family. Later the WILLET family ran the gristmill. The CASTLE family who ran the brewery had various partners which change the name on the product, Thomas Castle, Thomas Castle & Son, Castle & Rogers, Castle Son & Wood. The brewery owned public houses around the district where it supplied the beer.
Banwell was one of the manors of the Bishops of Bath & Wells who had a residence to the east side of the church which they vacated in the 18th century and which has been used as a private residence since. It has been called the Court House and latterly Banwell Abbey. This monastic title seems to have arrived from ancient times when King Alfred gave Asser "a monasterium at Banwell" in 885 AD. Around 1874, the house was rebuilt to its present style by Dyer Sympson who built the Castle. The Abbey property was split into four during the 1950’s.
The mainly 15th century parish church dedicated to St. Andrew has a 100-feet high tower that contains 10 bells from the 18th to 20th centuries and a clock dated 1884. The body of the church has a nave with a clerestory, north and south aisles and it is said, a rather short chancel considering the proportions of the rest of the church. The font dates from the 12th century carved stone pulpit from 15th century and a beautiful carved rood screen built and set up in 1552 and escaped the reformation. There are also some very early bench pews given to date of the 1480's. The church has undergone major restorations in 1812, 1862 and the mid 1960's. The parish registers dating from 1569, the churchwardens account books from 1516 and other records are on deposit at Somerset Heritage Centre in Taunton.
It is unfortunate that five roads of the village, Church Street, East Street, Castle Hill, High Street and West Street, meet in the Square where once the villages cross stood. This cross was moved and rebuilt in the 1754 and removed altogether around 1798 as it was thought to "incommoded the traffic”. Traffic has been and still is the bane of Banwell life and although a bypass was pegged out in the 1930's it has never been built.
Church Street goes north past the old 1874 Chapel of the Free Methodist and later the Baptist, past the church entrance and the sites of the old mill and brewery, wagon works, the gasworks of 1865-1926 and the poorhouses then follows Banwell river to the moor. This contained many large farms with fine houses that brought prosperity in to the village but alas many now just private houses. The poorhouses were used until 1838, when their inmates were transferred to Axbridge Union Workhouse.
East Street, once called Gay Street, starts at The Bell public house and goes past the old non-conformist chapel of the 1790's, the Vicarage, the old 1887 Fire Station, Banwell Abbey, the old village Pound and onto Towerhead, where Bishop Godwin built a large house in the 16th century. This house was rebuilt in the 19th century and called Towerhead House. Just over the parish boundary at Towerhead was ‘Sandford & Banwell’ Railway Station, built in 1869 on the Cheddar Valley line known locally as the Strawberry Line, which closed in the 1963 Beeching cuts. Up until 1967, East Street was very narrow will just enough room for a bus so to help the traffic flow, or so it was thought, the complete line of terrace cottages and shops on the south side of the road was pulled down. Sadly this did not help the traffic that much. The pulling down of the butchers shop opposite the Bell Hotel in the early 1970s lost the shape of Banwell's Square which is now just a junction at the end of the road.
Southwards from the square is Banwell Rhoddy now called Castle Hill that leads of course past the castle built in 1847 as a private residence and then on to Winscombe the next village. If you bear right before the castle and right again you will go past the Roman and Medieval site at Winthill.
To the West of the Square is High Street. This confuses many visitors that venture up it hoping to find the main street but find a narrow winding hill with cottages either side. Until the 20th century this road was called Harding's Lane, for what reason is not known although a Harding's Barn is to be found in Harding's Lane on an 18th century estate map. On the first steep part of High Street you pass two old pubs now closed, The George and The White Hart. Near the top of the hill you pass the old school of 1867, then two paths to Banwell Hill, Rock Path and Hill Path. Follow through the "narrows" with cottages on either side you find on the right hand site the Jubilee Well of 1887 which is a 76 feet deep. High Street then follows the north side of Banwell Hill past mainly modern buildings inter-dispersed with restored old cottages. At the west end of High street is situated the Caves House once the residence of Bishop Law. Under this house are the Bone and Stalactite Caves.
The fifth street off the Square is West Street, the main street. It starts at what was once The Ship Hotel, a coaching inn, continues past the War Memorial where the village lock-up stood in the 1830's and where nearby a German bomb fell in 1940, past the Methodist Chapel built in 1862 and "Pruens Lane" on the right the entrance to Ten Acres. This is the field behind the shops that was used for Banwell Horse Show and where the remains of Roman buildings were found in 1967. A short lane next the last of the shops leads to the Malt House that once belonged to the Brewery. Here the flats next to the Malt House and those next to the car park are replacement for houses also bombed in 1940. The New School was built in 1926. Next to the car park is the Grange one time home of the Emery family which in years gone by had a tan yard behind it. West Street carries on pass Wolvershill Road turning to the recreation field where it becomes Knightcott Road. Wolvershill Road goes to Worle and St Georges passing Stonebridge and West Wick on the way.
The parish of St Georges is a modern creation since 1996, the area having previously been part of the parish of Banwell. The area has seen much new housing development in recent years, an extension of the development of the neighbouring North Worle area; although the village itself remains separate from the new development. The village is close to junction 21 of the M5 motorway, and still has one public house called ‘The Woolpack’. A railway station at St Georges was opened by the Bristol & Exeter Railway in 1841. It was initially named "Banwell", but was renamed "Worle" when a new Sandford & Banwell station was opened on the Cheddar Valley Railway in 1869. A Worle station was opened on the new Weston Loop Line in 1884, after which the station was renamed "Puxton". Following the closure of Worle, the station at St Georges became "Puxton & Worle" in 1922. It closed in 1964.
Most of the early buildings in Banwell are on the north sides of East Street and West Street, and both side of Church Street, there are many other ancient buildings mainly farm houses scattered around the outlying parish. There also seems to have been quite a few large houses for the gentry built or rebuilt in the 19th century.
Banwell had two fairs, January and July; the January fair has survived in a very small way. This fair was for cattle and sheep; the whole of East Street where it was held was shuttered up from the Square to the Abbey gates. The fair had all the trappings with sideshow entertainers and traders selling all kind of wares. Also open on fair days was the fire station that adjoins the Abbey estate in East Street. We still open the Fire station on fair day but it is more a museum now as the county fire service was withdrawn from here in the 1980's. The Fire station was the gift of Miss FAZAKERLEY of Chorley, Lancashire, who came to the Abbey in 1883 for her health. In 1887 she supplied an up to date fire engine for the fire station with equipment and uniforms for the crew. She also supplied instruments and uniforms for a village band.
There has been a Wesleyan chapel in Banwell since the 1790's the first just off the Square in East Street two doors from the vicarage. This chapel was replaced by one in West Street in 1862. The old chapel became, for want of a word, a village hall called the Literary Institute where most village functions were held. It later became a builder and undertakers workshop and is now a private residence. There is also an old chapel in Church Street started by the Free Methodist in 1872. The chapel was eventually sold to the Baptist chapel in the 1940's, then became the church hall in the 1950's and is now a private business premises.
There are only now three public houses in the main village; the Brewers Arms next to the river below the Old Brewery, the Whistling Duck on the Knightcott Road on the way to Weston. This is on the site of an earlier pub The Smiths Arms. The Bell in the Square is an ancient inn that had stables off an entrance in Church Street. In the 18th century the Bell belonged to the TUCKEY family two of whom were parish clerks and whose beautiful writing can be seen in the churchwardens account books. The Tuckeys were also stone carvers and a masterpiece can be seen in the Bell front bar, a royal coat of arms by Edward TUCKEY dated 1764. Nearby opposite the Bell was another ancient large inn called ‘The Ship’, which sadly went out of business in the 1990's, but is now thankfully very nicely restored to business office accommodation. There were two pubs in High Street up until the 1960's called ‘The George’ and ‘White Hart’.
There has been a school in the village since the end of the 18th century that included one associated with Hannah MORE. One of the schools in High Street was converted from a Temperance Hall in 1867 and was used until the 1950's in conjunction with the current school of 1926 in West Street. There have been schools in West Street long before this (private ones) although it cannot be said exactly where they were. The 1861 census lists Anne PLAISTER aged 52 with 15 girl boarders then a small cottage and the National School, (which may have been opposite Wolvershill Road), a house, then a boarding school for boys with Anne’s brother William PLAISTER as the master. Anne and William are also listed in the 1841 census at the same place. Their father, John was also a schoolmaster and another brother John was a parish clerk besides also being a schoolmaster. Seems the Plaisters were an educated lot!
At the back of West Street is another field called Ten Acres that belonged to the Brewery. Here from the 1880's to 1930's the Banwell Horse show was held although it did alternate with the Abbey ground the other side of the river. Ten Acres luckily has not been developed as it might have been, for in 1967 a pipe track dug near to the river by the waterworks revealed 4th or 5th century Roman buildings with mosaic floors. A small excavation was made of the site but the extent of the building is not known. The site is now scheduled so will not be built. To the west side of Ten Acres where the Scout Hut and Community Centre stand was the site of the Banwell Sewage Works closed in the 1970's. The car park above this area off West street was created by pulling down one of the ancient cottages that partly survived the 1940's bombing.
After sixty odd years of trying, Banwell finally built a Village Hall near the Westfield estate on part of the recreation field left to the village by Robert DAY in 1902. The rest of this field is still used for recreation and is the site for the village carnival in July. The field was in the past also used for the Harvest Home and the fun fairs that went with it.
To the east of the village is Banwell Wood with a knoll that was an Iron Age fort where the ramparts can still be seen. To the west of this fort is a low earth and stone bank in a cruciform shape surrounded by a rectangular bank the whole likened to a rabbit warren. When it was put there or for what reason is not known although some have suggested it has an association with the thought that St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, was born in Banwell.
Nearby is a Victorian castle built in 1847 by a London Solicitor as his home, which is now a hotel and restaurant. To the west of the castle on the south side of the hill is Winthill where roman and medieval occupation was found during excavations in the 1960's. One of the important finds at Winthill was a roman glass bowl engraved with hunting scenes and a verse "VIVAS CUM TVIS PIES" translated I am told "long life to you and yours drink and you will live", the bowl in now in the Asmolean Museum in Oxford.
Follow this south side of this hill westwards past Whitley Head and we come to the Bone and the Stalactite caves, the latter was discovered by miners in the 17th century but then lost. In the 1830's the land on which the cave was thought to become into the ownership of the Bishop of Bath & Wells, George Henry Law (1824-1845). At this time the lost cave (Stalactite) was found again and opened up. In trying to find a better entrance to the Stalactite cave another cave was found containing a great number of bones of other animals including bison, wolf, large brown bear, reindeer, red fox and arctic fox, hence its name, the Bone Cave. The buildings around the caves were gradually extended into a mansion with all the grounds set out as ornamental gardens with various follies and building such as a small museum to house some of the finds from the bone cave. On the hill behind the mansion, the Bishop built a 50-feet high tower with a balcony at the top where you can get a fine uninterrupted view in every direction of the surrounding countryside. The whole estate gradually fell into disrepair in the mid 20th century but with the new owners of the house in the 1980's and help of the farmer of the estate lands the whole area is being brought back to life and restored. The Bone cave and tower are open now at selected time of the year, but the Stalactite cave is restricted to those with caving ability.
In September 1940 a stray stick of bombs fell on the village killing five people and destroying four early terrace cottages in Lower West Street and the Post Office and General store at the top end of West Street towards the Square. Sadly all these were rebuilt in the 1950's to the poor designs of that time. In the 1950's a council estate was built to house local people and families that had been displaced by the war and were residing in squatter camps at Hillend and Summer Lane, the name squatters was not used then as a derogatory name as it is today. The council estate was enlarged through the 1960's and infill around this estate continued with private bungalows and houses which attracted a lot of retired people from the Midlands. Later development has carried on westwards on both sides of the road towards Knightcott.
Banwell from the mid 19th century thrived with more than its share of shops and businesses, many gentry families resided here which gave trade and employment but with the rise of Weston Super Mare and the traffic problems, Banwell has declined so that at the turn of the 21st century we are down to eight shops from the 26 odd of the 1940/50's. Sadly many people see Banwell as a village with a traffic jam but you will see from the above if you wander around on foot Banwell appears in a different light.
Sources and further reading:
Journals of the Banwell Archaeology Society (1958–2008)
“Banwell through the Ages” – by Stan & Joan Rendell (1997)
“Lest Banwell forgets” (covers those who died in both wars home and abroad and stories of Banwell’s Bombing in 1940) - by Lynette Rice
“Banwell, Somerset - Pictures and notes of a village now lost” – by Roy Rice