Churchill

By Andrew Plaster

Published in B&AFHS Journal 122 December 2005

The north Somerset parish of Churchill, “a well-timbered and beautiful district of very irregular shape, lies partly at the foot of the northern slope of Mendip, and stretches a long way out into the great Severn flat, while part of it climbs high up into the hills” (Knight, 1915). The parish is bounded by the parishes of Winscombe, Congresbury, Wrington, Burrington, Rowberrow and Shipham, and consists of the main village, the western half of Langford, and the hamlets of Stock and Doleberrow. The present-day village of Churchill is intersected by A38 and A368 roads, of which, connect Bristol, Bridgwater, Bath and Weston-super-Mare. The southwesterly quarter of the village, covering Dinghurst and Churchill Batch, was not in the parish until the change of parish boundary in 1934.

Churchill is not mentioned in Domesday book of 1086, having, at the time of the survey, formed a part of the vast manor of Banwell, and is there set down among the possessions of the Bishop of Wells. The first known allusion to it, is in an award made in 1231, by Bishop Jocelyn, concerning “the chapel of Churchill” (Bruton Cartulary, Deed 114). The same document names Robert FITZPAYNE and John de la STOCKE (the hamlet at the north-east corner of the parish) as local landowners of the period. A Roger FITZPAYNE is mentioned in an account of an action at law, dated 1276, concerning a house or holding in Churchill. And it may be the same man whose name, in its Latinised form of Roger PANGANI, is given in the Perambulation of Mendip, in 1298, as the owner of the “Vill of Churchford and Langeford” which, in common with nineteen other manors, had at some previous time been wrongfully taken within the bounds of the Royal Hunting Forest of Mendip, was then declared to be disafforested.

The manor of Churchill passed through a series of owners - the families of TRETHEKE, ST. LOE, and JENYNS. A Richard JENNINGS, whose son-in law John CHURCHILL was afterwards the first Duke of Marlborough, sold the manor in 1652 to his relation, another John CHURCHILL, who was knighted in 1670, created Master of the Rolls and elected Member of Parliament for Bristol in 1685. He died in that year, leaving four daughters, and after prolonged litigation, the estate was sold out of the family. The present Churchill Court is situated next to the church, and is a fine 16th century building, and has had alterations and additions since then. It is probably the oldest dwelling site in the village.

The 15th century parish church of St. John the Baptist has been made new outside, but has kept much that is old inside, including two fonts (the oldest Norman), a row of stone faces, a splendid oak roof, and fine solid benches with high carved finials. There is the rather gruesome monument of Sir John LATCH, a life-sized figure in military wear of the Stuart period in scarlet coat, brown jackboots, and gold hilted sword. He is seen half-reclining beside the figure of his wife, who is wrapped in a winding sheet tied at the top and the bottom. Sir John is pulling back the sheet to disclose the nose and a small portion of the face of his lady. Seven boys and four girls in red caps kneel on red cushions round them, and one baby in swaddling clothes, some holding skulls to show that they died before that tragic day. The 14th century south aisle contains a fine Brass of Ralph JENYNS and his wife Jhane.

The earliest surviving entry of the parish register was made in 1653, and bishop’s transcripts in 1605 but there are gaps in some years. “It is interesting to find that some of the names that are well known in the parish now, such as BADMAN, EDGELL, TRIP, CLARK and SIMMONS, occur in these records from their very commencement” (Knight, 1915). The births of Sir John CHURCHILL’s four daughters are entered in their father’s handwriting on a separate leaf. The Churchwardens’ Accounts go back to 1636, and although the bulk of the entries contain much, of family history interests, one finds among them, here and there, passages which throw light on the manners and custom of the time, and on some of the alterations, additions and repairs to the church. All parish records are kept at Somerset Record Office.

The road from Churchill crossroads towards Bath is full of interest. There is a splendid stretch of wooded hillside, and not far past the row of chestnuts on the offside is a house – Over (or Upper) Langford Court, in the hamlet of Upper Langford. Its intriguing porch dates from 1611, and was once removed, but later returned. Several generations of the Latch family lived there. The ST. LOE and JENNINGS families were also associated with it.

Another spot to ponder over along this stretch of road is what remains of a large gateway where once drove, some of the most famous people in the country to be guests of that eccentric playwright clergyman, the Rev. Thomas WHALLEY, who spent a large amount of money on building the luxurious Mendip Lodge. He was firstly married to a wealthy widow heiress of Langford Court, somewhat older than himself; they lived happily together despite the fact that he proceeded to reduce her very considerable fortune by his extravagance. Ten years later, such was the state of his finances that he was forced to let Langford Court, and it was then he began to build the Italianate house in 1787. It has a veranda 84 feet long, and was approached by a winding carriage road, and there were terraced walks, grottos, plantations of trees, and shrubberies of magnolias, azaleas, rhododendrons and many other plants. Rev. Whalley’s life ended in sad decline after the separation of his third marriage. In an attempt to put his finances right he tried to sell Mendip Lodge, but it reputed to have cost a fortune - £60,000 – failed to realise £30,000. After a period of neglect, then restoration, Mendip Lodge also began a steady descent from giddy heights envisaged by him until it is no more than a decayed shell today.

Crowning the hill south-east of the parish is Dolebury Warren, there is a prehistoric hill fort of over 20 acres protected by huge stone ramparts, later used by the Romans. Roman and Saxon coins, spearheads and swords have also been found on the site. Like other areas of the Mendips, Dolebury has periodically been the subject of mining operations for iron, lead manganese and calamine. Quarrying and burning limestone in kilns have left traces in the rocky steeps of the eastern end of Dolebury and the high road below Churchill Batch. The old parish poor-house was in Doleberrow (or Dolebury Bottom), and consisted of two cottages, which on the site later occupied by the little way-side inn called “The Royal Oak”, now once more converted into dwelling houses.

Churchill Batch, through which, is a wide and untarmaced lane, was the old Bristol and Exeter coach-road until the present (A38) road was cut through Dolebury Valley in 1819. Before that year the coach-road passed in front of the inn called the “Nelson Arms” in the corner of Skinners Lane and Dinghurst Road, and up the steep and rocky slope to the top of the Batch, coming out into the present road again in Star, a hamlet in the parish of Shipham. The steep rise must have been tough going for horse-drawn coaches. It was beside this ancient highway that people of Churchill flocked to see Queen Henrietta, consort of Charles I, pass on her way to Exeter in 1643, an occasion commemorated in the churchwarden’s accounts with the item “To ye ringers when ye Queen came by, 2s 8d”. My PLAISTER ancestors lived on the top of the Batch, for several generations, and were lime burners. Churchill Batch was in the parish of Winscombe until 1934, when this southwesterly quarter of the present-day village was transferred to Churchill parish.

The church and Churchill Court are situated in the western end of the village. In the late 19th century, there, sprawling eastwards to the crossroads, the beautiful Cottage Homes, a Wesleyan Chapel with a schoolroom and a charming clock tower were erected by Sidney Hill, a great benefactor of the district, who made a fortune as a merchant in Cape Town, South Africa. The clock tower commemorated Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. On the road from there towards Weston, the Guild House (now a private house), “erected by subscription, are the permanent country-quarters of the Bristol Guild of Poor Things, to which that most beneficent institution sends down companies of the poor blind, crippled and feeble recipients of its bounty to spend a fortnight or so at a time to enjoy the sunshine and fresh air of this beautiful spot” (Knight, 1915).

North-east from the crossroads towards Lower Langford, a village school, several times enlarged since the first erection in 1823, is now recently turned into private houses. The mission-church of St. Mary’s in Lower Langford was built in 1900 by Field-Marshall Sir Lintorn SIMMONS, a descendant of the LATCH family. Langford House, an Italianate villa, built in 1850, was long the residence of Sidney HILL, and is now a Veterinary College of the Bristol University. He also founded the Victoria Jubilee Langford Homes. An Evangelical chapel was built in Blackmoor Road. The eastern half of Lower and Upper Langford including Langford Court, Langford Green and the former Langford railway station are in the parish of Burrington.

Since the last war, new houses were built around the crossroads and towards Lower Langford. A new secondary school was built next to Churchill Court. The A38 road was very busy, particularly during holiday times. Much of this traffic was diverted with the opening of the M5 motorway, not built through the parish. The road is still quite busy, especially for commuter traffic. Churchill may be a dormitory village, for many inhabitants now commute into the four key destinations, from where the crossroads connect.

Sources and further reading:

“The Heart of Mendip”, Francis A. Knight, 1915

“Churchill – A Brief History”, Michael A. Hodges, 1994

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