West Harptree

By Andrew Plaster

Published in B&AFHS Journal 140 June 2010

The North Somerset parish of West Harptree lies on the north side of the Mendip Hills and is a long narrow strip running from the north up the hill to the top of the Mendips.  The parish consists of the main village and the hamlets of Ridge, North Widcombe and part of South Widcombe, It was bounded by the ancient parishes of Compton Martin, Chew Magna, Hinton Blewett, East Harptree, Priddy and Ubley.  Historically, the Widcombes were in the detached part of the parish of Chewton Mendip.


The earliest evidence of man in the area are the late-Neolithic Priddy Circles and some Bronze Age round barrows, both of which are just outside of the parish boundary on the Mendips.  Close to the parish, the Romans mined lead at Charterhouse and farmed at Chew Park, now under Chew Valley Lake. They left as their legacy a length of roman road now called Stratford Lane.  In November 1887, while searching for the source of a spring near Smitham Chimney in East Harptree, a local labourer called William CURRELL, put his pick into a pewter vessel full of nearly 1500 Roman coins with five ingots of silver and a ring.  The jar was six inches below the surface in swampy ground.  The coins were all struck around 375 A.D. and the best twenty five were selected by the British Museum where they can be seen. This is known as the ‘Harptree Hoard’.  In 1922 more were given to the museum and the rest were kept in the jar in East Harptree church from which, unfortunately, they were stolen in the 1970s.

The intriguing name Harptree is quite different to that of most of the neighbouring Saxon estates, which mostly ended in "ton" – e.g. Compton (Martin), Litton, (Bishop) Sutton, Hinton (Blewett) and Chewton (Mendip).  The origin of the name “Harptree” is by no means a certainty. It is listed in the Doomsday Book of 1086 as Herpetreu and it has been suggested that it means 'the military road by the wood' from the Old English herepoep and treow.  East and West Harptree were probably once a large Saxon estate but, by Domesday, they had become two. At Domesday, West Harptree comprised two manors (later called Gournay and Tilly), one held by Walter de Douai and other by the Bishop of Coutances, who had sub-granted to Azelin.

Azelin’s grandson William FitzJohn de Harptree, who inherited the manor, was a staunch ‘Matilda-man’ during the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda and he fortified Richmont Castle to defend his beliefs.  The castle, of which very little remains, probably dates from the late 11th century and was sited on the eastern side of Harptree Coombe on the parish boundary with East Harptree.  It was later re-taken by Robert of Gloucester around 1140.  Later it came into the ownership of the Gournay family who also gave their name to nearby Farrington Gurney and Gurney Slade.  Sir Thomas de Gournay was one of the men accused of murdering King Edward II at Berkeley Castle in 1327 and this may be the reason why the estate reverted to the Crown at around this time.


The estate was later leased to the BUCKLAND family by the Duchy of Cornwall. Ralph BUCKLAND (1564-1611), a celebrated puritan in the reign of James I, later became a Roman Catholic priest who wrote and translated many religious treatises.  At one stage it was rumoured that he was party to the Gunpowder Plot.  Francis BUCKLAND (1561-1642) built the present Gournay Court, which is opposite the church and was originally a large mansion in the style of the late Tudor era.  The front façade remains.  It has a square portico, rising to three storeys where it terminates with an open balcony.  Over the entrance are two shields, one charged with three lions rampant and the other with two chevrons between three roses.  The mansion was used as a military hospital in the First World War and was later prepared for the ailing Prince John, the youngest son of King George V. Unfortunately the Prince died in an epileptic fit in 1919 before taking up residence.  In 1928 the mansion was bought by Sir Edward Geoffrey HIPPISLEY-COX, but his family were obliged to sell it after his death in 1954.

Soon after the Conquest the other manor was in the possession of an ancient family named TILLY, one of whom held it in 1194.  William Tilly was lord of this manor in the time of Edward III and is tillyrecorded as a benefactor to the Abbey of Glastonbury.  The last member of this family in possession the manor appears to have been Lionel TILLY, lord of Salthay, in the middle of the 15th century.  It then passed into the hands of Sir Walter RODNEY who in 1476 released it with other lands to the ROYNON family.  In 1699, the manor was sold to William EARL, sergeant-at-law, whose son Goodenough EARL lived until 1789.  Ownership then passed through his cousin’s line to the NEWTON family until 1917.  The Tilly Manor stands next to the church; only the central part of the original mansion remains, the two wings having been demolished.  The front still retains tokens of its former respectability, having coats of arms over each of the lower tier of windows.  It is now used as a farmhouse but one of the drawing rooms remains almost intact, with gilt-edged oak panelling and a curious ceiling which has in the centre a deep projecting oval wreath of fruit and flowers.  In the parlour are an antique mantelpiece, carved in oak, and a cornice ornamented with the Tilly arms.                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

The parish church dedicated to St. Mary dates from the 12th century and is built mainly of local conglomerate.  Its tower is the oldest part of the building.  It is possible that the church was founded by the warlord William FitzJohn de Harptree at much the same time as he was fortifyingstmarys Richmont Castle nearby in about 1135. The spire was probably added in the 13th century and was originally sheathed in lead.  In 1864 the church suffered extensive restoration.  Another ‘improvement’ was to strip the lead from the spire and re-cover it with slates. With time, the falling slates proved a hazard to life and limb and in 1966 the slates were removed and replaced with a copper covering.  The memorial clock was erected on the spire in 1947 as a tribute to two parishioners who were killed on active service in the Second World War.  The parish register dating from 1656 for baptisms and 1661 for marriages and burials (though the Bishop’s Transcripts commence in 1598) and other records are kept at Somerset Record Office.

The Victorian restorers removed the only elaborate monument in the church from the chancel to their newly built vestry.  This is a slate tablet with a classical surround in memory of the BRICKDALE family and in particular of John BRICKDALE who died in 1766.  He lived at the Parsonage (now Parsonage Farm) and accumulated a fortune as a wool merchant in Bristol.  He was captain of the militia which suppressed the Bristol Riots of 1753.  He also had the distinction of being picked as sheriff of Somerset twice and was succeeded by his son, John Freke BRICKDALE, who was then 21.  His record for being the youngest sheriff of the county still stands.  Various members of the BUCKLAND family of Gournay Court are buried in the church.  The tombstone of John BUCKLAND (1678) in the porch is the oldest legible monument in the building.  There are two memorials to later members of the family in the tower.  An 18th century brass between the chancel and the aisle contains a rather lengthy Latin inscription recording the deaths of William EARL of Tilly Manor and his wife and three sons.  These range in date from 1703, when Mrs Henrietta EARL died in childbirth, to 1789 when Goodenough EARL passed away at the age of 90.

Robert WOLFALL, vicar of West Harptree (1569-80), sailed with Sir Martin FROBISHER on the ‘Ayde’ as chaplain to the third expedition to the Far North West (Canada) in 1578, the purpose of which was to establish a colony to search for gold in South Eastern Baffin Island.  After a stormy passage and the loss of two ships, he held a service of thanksgiving for their safe arrival followed by Holy Communion according to the New Prayer Book of 1552, the first ever celebrated in the continent of North America.  A plaque for this commemoration was recently erected on the inside wall of the church.

In the aisle of the church is a board headed “Benefactions”.  This records details of charitable bequests made by Mary BUCKLAND, John BUCKLAND, John PLUMMER and William EARL.  Perhaps two more should be added to the list.  One is a settlement under the will of Samuel LOCKIER (1817) applying income for the instruction of poor children of the parish; this was the last “charity school” to be founded in Somerset.  The second bequest is George WOOKEY’s Charity (1892).  In his will he gave the sum of £500 to be invested in Government 3% Consols and directed that the interest was to be distributed each year just before Christmas to the most deserving poor of the parish over the age of fifty.

On the western side of the parish, the road called Harptree Hill was the old Bristol to Wells road which had been abandoned as a main road by the time of the Turnpike Commissioners taking over in the mid-18th century.  On top of the road on the Mendips is the Wellsway Inn, which was one of the four inns serving the road.  Close by, near the hamlet of Ridge (once called Rudge) and in the middle of a field is a rectangular stone-walled enclosure which was an old cockpit.  It seems to have been the custom for cockpits to be sited outside a village away from prying eyes, although cockfighting was never actually illegal.

North Widcombe (in the north-east of the parish), after being for centuries a detached part of the huge parish of Chewton Mendip and forming of its tithing, became a parish in its own right during the 19th century.  Subsequently, it has evolved into the contiguous parish of West Harptree, which also includes Heydens and Edgehill Farms in South Widcombe.  A survey of 1650, and various other documents connected with a farm called Widcombe Farm, make it clear that this was sited where New Manor Farm is now and also show the land holding of this chief tenement of the manor.  This seems to have remained more or less the same from 1611 until at least 1840. In the 17th century, events are documented such as this one in 1666: “…. we present John Playster for divertinge of the water-course which comes down from Widcombe Hill out of its ancient channels which is a greate denyall to John Wilkins in Improvinge of his grounds. ………”.  The land around Widcombe was mainly owned by the Duchy of Cornwall.

In the north of the parish, the area was flooded to create the Chew Valley Lake, the Bristol Waterworks Company’s second great reservoir in the Mendip area.  The lake was inaugurated by the Queen in 1956 and it lies around the present parish boundaries with Chew Stoke, Compton Martin and Stowey Sutton. The two mills in the parish were lost in the lake. Herriot's Mill stood for centuries close to the new bridge, which now bears its name, at the south end of the reservoir.  In 1816 Charles GUMM was in charge of the Mill and he was engaged in the production of paper.  Like many similar family mills, the Gumm's were not able to compete with the newer mechanised concerns and so, by 1830, had ceased papermaking and turned to flour milling.  For the next 100 years or so two families occupied the mill: William SWEETLAND and his wife Sarah (later his widow) ran the business until the 1860s after which John BAKER, who for a time was landlord of the Crown Inn, took over.  The BAKERS were at the Mill for at least the next 55 years.  Just a few hundred yards downstream was probably a late-18th century corn mill. It was Stratford Mill, which was found a new home with all its machinery in Blaise Castle estate, north Bristol.  Local legend has it that a ghost of a young girl named Catherine BROWN from the hamlet of Moreton (in the parish of Compton Martin) drowned at Stratford Mill at the turn of the 20th century. There have been a number of sightings of a ghostly lady over the years and one description says “her hair was loose, very thick, and longish to the top of her shoulders and blowing off her neck. She had a heavily embroidered Victorian style dress with leg-of-mutton sleeves. They were billowing back with the breeze and her dress was very bright, as if electric.”   The picturesque lake provides recreation for anglers, birdwatchers, sailors and anyone else who likes to ramble in peaceful natural surroundings.

In the centre of the village is the road junction, the main road going to Bath or to Weston-super-Mare and the side road leading to Chew Stoke.  The Crown public house, the church and the schoolschool (now The Old School House, built in 1852) are at the road junction.  The two fine manor houses remain – Tilly Manor is next to the church and Gournay Court is next to the school.  The village is now a very pleasant and affluent community, with many of the old cottages and homes comfortably converted.


Sources and further reading:

“West Harptree – History of the Church and Village” booklet

“Walking on the Mendip Hills”, by Sue Gearing

“The Manor of Widcombe – an Historic Landscape Survey”, by Avon County Council

and also Ian S. Bishop recently published ‘Around Harptree’ featuring dozens of rarely seen photos of the bygone area (available from BAFHS postal sales).


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