Blagdon

By Andrew Plaster (1320)

Published in BAFHS Journal 150 - December 2012

The parish of Blagdon in north Somerset lies on the north side of the Mendip Hills and is bounded by the parishes of Wrington and Butcombe in the north, Nempnett Thrubwell and Ubley in the east, Charterhouse on Mendip in the south, and Burrington in the west.  The southern boundary is marked by pre-historic barrows on the hill top.  To the west, the parish is bounded by the stream which runs through the small village of Rickford. The parish also consists of the hamlet of Aldwick.

The name ‘Blagdon’ derives from the Saxon – Blac or Blaec (cold, bleak) and Dun (hill, down).  Through the centuries the name has changed in spelling from Blakedone, Blakedon, Blagedon to its present form Blagdon.  The Romans mined lead and silver at Charterhouse on the top of the Mendips.  A Roman road connected Charterhouse with Blagdon where there was a Roman villa near the church.  Several Roman coins and bits of Roman pottery have been found in the village.

After the Norman Conquest of 1066, Blagdon, together with other estates, is recorded as belonging to Serlo de Burci on behalf of the King (William the Conqueror).  The Domesday Book of 1086 records Blagdon as comprising land in excess of 2,000 acres, including 200 acres of wood.  The manor of Blagdon, together with other lands, later passed to William MARTIN of Falaise, the son-in-law of Serlo de Burci. In 1154, Robert FITZMARTIN, son of William MARTIN, gave Blagdon church and lands in the East End of the village to the Cistercian Abbey of Stanley in Wiltshire.  At the Dissolution of the Monasteries, ownership of these lands reverted back to the village.  The senior branch of the FitzMartins retained ownership of lands in Blagdon till the 1340s after which it passed to their heir, James, Baron Audley.

Little is known about Blagdon's history past this point into medieval times.  There are several houses in the village dating from medieval times and earlier.  The houses facing onto Bell Square (in the north corner of the West End) date from the 14th century.  The shapes of some of the existing fields suggest they are of medieval origin.  Blagdon is, in reality, three separate settlements, West End, East End and Street End.  The latter area probably first developed from common land shortly after medieval times.  The West End area remained in secular ownership.

blagdonchThe parish church, dedicated to St Andrew, is in the East End and was rebuilt twice.  The first church was probably Saxon in origin.  The first recorded rector of the church was Peter de Esse who was inducted in 1317 by the Archdeacon of Wells in the same year that the second church was consecrated.  At the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s, the church was granted to the Cathedral of Winchester whose Dean and Chapter were patrons of Benefice.  Augustas TOPLADY, curate of this church for a time in 1762, is remembered for the Hymn "Rock of Ages", which he wrote on the back of a playing card while sheltering in a cleft in the rock from a storm at Burrington Combe.  The church was rebuilt in 1907–09 by Lord Winterstoke of the Wills tobacco family.  The tower, complete with pinnacles and a cusped lozenge, contains a bell dating from 1716 and made by Edward Bilbie, whose famous family were bell founders and clockmakers of nearby Chew Stoke. Above the door are four primitive Norman carvings which survived the three rebuildings.  The parish registers dating from 1555, the churchwardens account books from 1599 and other records are held at Somerset Heritage Centre in Taunton.

The winter of 1683 and the hardship suffered by the population of Blagdon are recorded in a document written by Edmund DERRICK, where he recalls the 'Great Frost'.  The snow fell and was some six feet deep and lay on the ground for 13 weeks.  It was still on the high Mendips in mid summer. Again in 1703, Edmund recalls the 'Terrible Tempest' when the village was devastated by thunder, lightning, wind and rain.  There was a flood, trees were uprooted, roofs blown off and the streets filled with thatch and tile.  He records how their bed shook with the violence of the storm.

Many men and boys worked in the lead mines, "Mindry" at Charterhouse and the men were paid on the last Saturday of each month.  The original "Mindry Pay House" was in one of the Blagdon public houses so you can imagine the wives were lucky to see any for housekeeping.  There was another scam, where the local shop was appointed to provide the miners with everything.  Each month their debt was settled and they received what was left over, if any.  The miners’ wives lived in fear of their men being "mindered" which was their local name for lead poisoning.

The main employment apart from mining was in agriculture on the local farms.  There were other businesses in Blagdon, a saw mill, numerous lime kilns, two slaughterhouses, three smithies, a haulier, the bakery, two shirt factories and several shops including the butchers and two inns.  There were other trades such as thatchers, masons and carpenters employed in the parish.  Before a water supply was installed it had to be fetched from the village wells.  One was at Park Batch and the other was Timsell Well.

In 1687, Thomas BAYNARD, the Lord of the Manor of Blagdon, gave some of his lands and property in order to provide the income to pay for a school in the Parish of Blagdon.  The endowment provided the funds necessary to employ a schoolmaster to educate eight children ‘...to teach and instruct the poor children of the said Parish (without charge to their parents for such teaching) in reading till they are able readily to read the Holy Scripture in their mother tongue and no longer …’.

Yearly, at Easter, the minister, churchwardens and overseers were instructed to view the premises and take account of the children taught.  The schoolmaster's income was derived from rents from land and properties.  The Charity Commissioners report in 1825 described the school master teaching 19 children in a house which was in a very dilapidated condition.  In 1834, the Poor Law Amendment Act restricted poor relief to those people residing in workhouses.  Prior to this ‘outdoor relief’ was provided and many small villages had a poor house for those in need.  Axbridge Union provided the workhouse for the surrounding parishes.  In 1840, the Blagdon Parish Vestry decided to sell the poor house and in 1842 the stones were used to build 'a good school house for girls and boys' on the school's present site.

The evangelist Hannah MORE was at the centre of a row over Sunday Schools.  While she and the evangelical branch of the church were in favour of Sunday Schools, the conservative faction considered them to be dangerous Methodist propaganda.  This 'Blagdon Controversy (1799-1803)' focused considerable attention on the parish.  She quarrelled with Thomas BERE, the curate of Blagdon over the schoolmaster, Henry YOUNG, who was accused of Methodism.  This fed into the anti-Jacobin panic of the 1790s.  The controversy was taken up by the Anti-Jacobin Review, which accused her, Wilberforce, and the Clapham sect as being part of a conspiracy to undermine the Church of England.  Eventually she was able to win round Richard BEADON, the Bishop of Bath and Wells and though the Blagdon School closed, the others survived.  It is argued that to some extent she brought her troubles on her own head by her promotion of evangelical clergy in ‘her’ parishes.  She survived because she managed to win over a significant body of high-church opinion but after this bruising experience she proceeded more cautiously.

The three settlements developed gradually as a village of Blagdon and altered very little until the end of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, when it was significantly affected by two things, tobacco and water.  The WILLS family came to the parish as lords of the manor, bringing with them wealth and the lure of plentiful employment.  The WILLS family resided in Coombe Lodge, on the western outskirts of the village.  It was originally an old Georgian house and was rebuilt into a large mock-Tudor mansion with many gables and mullioned and transomed windows in 1932 for Sir Vernon WILLS.  Also some of the out-buildings put up as part of the Coombe Lodge Estate were built in the style favoured by Henry WILLS, Lord Winterstoke – stone, half-timbering and plasterwork.  They included the Home Farm, the agent’s house, head gardener’s house, dairy, laundry and the engine house.

As the population of Bristol and demand for fresh water supplies grew, the Bristol Waterworks Company obtained approval to construct Blagdon Lake as a reservoir in what was described as a 'beautiful valley' below the village of Blagdon.  The ancient landscape, 440 acres of farmlands and an old packhorse bridge across the little River Yeo, was changed forever as a 700-yard earth dam created a lake of 1.6 miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide, which was filled by 1904.  The construction was started in 1891 and the work completed some eight years later.  The dam, which extends up to 175 feet below ground, was built by an army of labourers with horse-drawn carts.  Steam helped too with materials being brought to the site by means of a six-mile branch railway line by the Wrington Vale Light Railway which connected the site to the main Bristol to Exeter line at Yatton.  The railway opened in 1901 carrying passengers and freight and attracted tourism to the lake, a beauty spot.  Mendip Bungalow Hotel was built of asbestos and had a corrugated roof, on the outskirts of the of Street End.  It was described as a high class boarding house on the Mendips and is now a modern complex as the headquarters of Yeo Valley Yoghurt Farms.  In the 1920s, the first motor buses started serving Blagdon, when a handy Bristol to Cheddar service via Wrington arrived on the scene, rail passenger numbers declined sharply and the railway ceased its passenger services in 1931. The only surviving railway buildings to be seen today are the station (plus some old railway lamps) and the recently renovated stationmaster’s house.

 

blagdonpumpAn imposing Gothic style brick building, a pumping station, was built in 1900-1905 to house four huge steam engines and the six boilers needed to power them.  With a pumping capacity of 7.5 million gallons of water a day, the boilers consumed nearly nine tonnes of coal.  The railway still carried coal freight until 1949 when the pumping station converted to electricity and this led to the closure of the railway. Two of the engines were replaced by electric pumps, so the high tower was no longer needed and the top half was removed.  The remaining steam engines were preserved and today form part of the very popular Blagdon pumping station and visitor centre which is open throughout the summer for visitors.

 

blagdonrickfordRickford is situated about a mile west of Blagdon at the foot of Blagdon Coombe (on the Wills estate) from which the Rickford Spring, known as The Rising, issues from the hillside to feed the Mill Pond.  It is an attractive setting, nestling at the northern foot of the Mendip Hills.  The attractive old public house 'The Plume of Feathers' is popular with visitors and walkers.  A mill pond has existed here for many centuries with a leat once flowing behind the more recent lodge to the site of the mill, which was a flourishing flour mill and later a paper mill.  The flour mill appears to have been destroyed by fire.  The paper mill built in the late 18th century produced good quality paper and later artists’ papers.  Paper was still made by hand there until 1895.  A small boathouse built over the leat can still be seen. A charming Swiss chalet-like building erected in 1888 to serve as a Baptist chapel was closed in the 1960s.  The building has since been taken over as a Masonic Lodge.  The old Mill House, probably built in the early 17th century, is close but visible behind the lodge.  The area surrounding the pond was landscaped by W.H. Wills in the late 19th century and the pond stocked with trout.  The Rickford Rising emerges from a chasm in the rocks in the wood, then flows under the road and into the far end of this pond.  A short distance from the Mill Pond is the Gauge House, built in 1895 by the Bristol Waterworks Company, beneath which are the regulating weirs controlling the flow of water into the brook and the underground pipe to Blagdon Lake.  Historically the brook formed the boundary between the parishes of Blagdon and Burrington but local residents often found that this caused divisions when local issues were being considered.  After a referendum in which residents voted to become part of Burrington parish, the boundary was officially changed. In times past the village had many local industries using the ready supply of fresh water from the spring. An excellent book 'Rickford - A History of a North Somerset Village' by Mary COWARD, containing many old photographs and a wealth of information, was published by the Rickford History Group to commemorate the millennium.  Copies are available from the Plume of Feathers or by request at rickfordvillage@gmail.com.

The hamlet of Aldwick is in the north-west of the parish.  The first mention of Aldwick is the name of its lord of the manor recorded in the Ubley court rolls dated 1433 - Richard CHEDDAR esquire.  The Manor of Aldwick was passed to a series of owners, the families of NEWTON, CAPELL, TURNER and BAKER.  The present Aldwick Court was built in 1791 by Samuel BAKER, a successful solicitor.  His great grandson Ernest Edward BAKER was a prolific local historian in Weston-super-Mare, even interviewing elderly residents in the 1880s and recording their memories. In 1921, he presented to Butcombe church, a fine old and beautiful carved oak screen, which is placed under the chancel arch as a memorial to his two sons killed in the Great War.  The screen had been built into the wall of Aldwick Court Farm, and was originally from Blagdon church.

Today, in Blagdon village, the bigger West End has the facilities such as fire station, Baptist chapel (built in 1875), village shop and post office plus the children’s play area, tennis court and football and rugby pitches.  The East End has the village school, police station and church plus much of the post-war housing.  The Street End has the Methodist chapel, recently moved to a new site.  Perhaps because of this, Blagdon still manages to support four pubs, the Seymour Arms and the Queen Adelaide in the West End, and Live & Let Live and New Inn at the East End.  The latter pub provides a magnificent view of the lake.  The village club near the Seymour Arms was given to the residents by the Wills family.  Coombe Lodge, the former home of the WILLS family, is now used for weddings, parties and conferences.  Many of its out-buildings have been converted into workshops for light industry, keeping the area alive.  Blagdon Local History Society published a five volume set of books 'A History of Blagdon'.  Copies are available from Blagdon Village Stores priced £5 or by post at £5 plus p&p to be advised at point of order.  For online enquiries, email the society -
local.history@blagdon.org.