Southern Somerset Strongholds and their Gardens

somerset_south_gdns_mapThe sage enchanter Merlin’s subtle schemes;
The feats of Arthur and his knightly peers;
Of Arthur, who, to upper light restored,
With that terrific sword
Which yet he brandishes for future war,
Shall lift his country’s fame above the polar star!
from Wordsworth’s Artegal and Elidur  lines 51-56
Somerset’s southern portion is brimming with hamlets and villages of which a few tend to the legendary- with some interesting evidence of King Arthur’s Avalon and earthworks which may prove, eventually, to be the remains of Camelot. It has long been a subject of conjecture centered around South Cadbury and Glastonbury Abbey where monks made claim of a discovery of the remains of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. These legends, combined with the extraordinary beauty of Somerset’s southern landscape and gardens, collectively conjure up all those fantastic stories in one’s mind. Let’s go exploring and just see what we find…
cadbury_castle_stukeley_aug_1723 Five miles northeast of Yeovil and just south of the A303 from Wincanton, Cadbury Castle once stood on the summit of the ancient hill fort known today as Cadbury Hill. Composed primarily of limestone, this hill is seated on the southern perimeter of the Somerset Levels in the parish of South Cadbury village near the River Cam and in proximity with the villages West Camel and Queen Camel. Referred to as Camalet, it is associated with King Arthur’s court. Excavations which have been carried out from the late 19th century up to mid-to-late 20th century, by various archaeologists, includes the distinguished Leslie Alcock. He carried out extensive investigations in the 1960s which have revealed evidence that includes a Great Hall, round and rectangular residential foundations, metalworking and even temples and shrines. A visit to the site will reveal terraced earthwork banks and ditches. Along the northwest and south sides are four ramparts and two remaining on the east with the summit plateau of 18 acres.
cadbury_castle_modifiedStudies of the evidence indicate that the original hill fort was most likely created around 400 BC, that the fort was violently taken around AD 43 and the defenses were further slighted later in the 1st century after the construction of a Roman army barracks on the summit. South Cadbury Environs Project has quite a few artifacts taken from the site indicating several metallurgy ages along with a metal-working building and an enclosure along the southeast. The strongest evidence for Arthurian connections are pieces of Tintagel pottery unearthed on the site. Most of the artifacts can be viewed at Taunton Museum in West Somerset.
cadbury-castle According to local tradition, it was John Leland who first documented the possibility that the hill was, in fact, King Arthur’s Camelot in 1542. Geoffrey Ashe wrote an argument for the Journal Speculum that the site was the headquarters of King Arthur of history. Even though Ashe’s strong speculation was not widely accepted in his day, the location of Cadbury is the most likely landmark where the southwestern Brythonic tribes of Dumnonia would have taken up defenses in the fifth century against attacks from the east. Refortifications which have been verified were a response to the great Saxon raid circa 473. If Arthur was conceived at Tintagel, which is only a hundred miles away, he would have been a prince of Dumnonia using Cadbury as a stronghold along the eastern border frontier. Bishop Ussher believed the hill to be Cair Celemion which was mentioned in the History of the Britons as one of the 28 cities of Britain.
     Only fifty miles east, in the county of Hampshire, Winchester was once the ancient capital of the kingdom of Wessex under the Anglo-Saxons and the castle and cathedral there were built by William the Conqueror as one of his very first such edifices. The only surviving part of Winchester Castle is the Great Hall erected in 1235 to replace the original hall and now houses the legendary round table. It is claimed that King Arthur had it shaped round so no knight could claim precedence over any other. Supposed to have been built by the wizard Merlin it has been discovered that the one housed at Winchester’s Great Hall was constructed in the 13th century so it is only a replica, at best. Further reading on King Arthur can be found in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (1139) which introduced the legends connected with the king including the story of the Knight of the Round Table.
cadbury_castle_somerset_map It is said, on the top of the summit, Glastonbury Tor can be clearly seen more than 12 miles away! At South Cadbury village the summit can be reached by walking up a short but steep footpath and is considered open and accessible at any time of the day or night.
     Within the same perimeter and northwest of Dorset, Camel Manor located at Queen Camel, near the River Cam on the A359, was an ancient hunting lodge which is now surrounded by Coages Park. This village which is seven miles north of Yeovil remains small to this day with a population of less than a thousand. As a former site of a Romano-British outpost located southwest of Camel Hill Farm in the early centuries, stone foundations of three separate edifices were discovered and attributed to Henry III who owned the land in the area by the 13th century. The Queen referred to in the village name is in reference to Queen Eleanor and many historians, including John Leland believe that the final battle of King Arthur at the Battle of Camlann was in the area surrounding these mentioned villages.
camrivernoldmill_west_camel_gg-uk_693898 By the 10th century much of this land was parceled out by England’s earliest kings ( Edmund I, Eadwig and Edgar the Peaceful) but just prior to the Conquest in 1066 it was held by Gytha of Wessex, which the village school is named after and opened in 1873. Camel Manor was granted to Hubert de Burgh by King John in 1202 but surrendered to Henry III by 1228 who spent £163 13s 2d building a residential hall with a chamber before returning the manor to Hubert five years later. Hubert, in turn, gave it to the monks of Cleeve Abbey in West Somerset. Some time later the manor was returned to the crown’s possession and by 1275 it was known as Camel Regis. The longest retainer of the manor occurred from 1558 until 1929 when it was owned by the Sir Walter Mildmay family who lived at Hazlegrove House in the 17th century which was later rebuilt by Carew Mildmay in 1730 eventually  becoming Hazlegrove Prep School. The remains of the hunting lodge which is referred to as a manor house are those of a very small moat with plowed over earthworks and are, amazingly, still visible but quite degraded.
view of the village from Lodge Hill

view of the village from Lodge Hill

A very important Norman castle site is located at Castle Cary which is six miles southeast of Glastonbury Abbey and northeast of Somerton hidden away a few miles from the A303. This small market town is situated on the River Cary along with River Brue- the former a tributary of the River Parrett. The castle site is east, above the town on a natural steep and grassy mound called Lodge Hill, locally. A substantially large stone keep was partially excavated on the motte in 1890 imparting 258 square feet of rectangular foundational tower ruins surrounded by inner and outer baileys, ramparts and a moat. Only the earthworks remain visible now and part of the western portion of the inner and outer baileys were encroached on by the manor farm in the interest of development. The inner bailey’s steep embankment leads down to Park Pond, a wide marshy area which is fed by springs leading to the source of the River Cary. The keep ruins are situated northeast on flattened ground within the raised level of the inner bailey across a steep curving bank and adjacent to the eastern inner defensive bank. Excavations carried out on July 20, 2001 suggest that a Norman D-shaped ringwork existed first before the baileys or keep were constructed and then summarily removed.

     Believed to be built either by Walter of Douai or later by the Perceval family, after the Norman Conquest, the castle was besieged by King Stephen in 1138, 1148 and again in 1153- its third skirmish. By 1468 the castle had been abandoned in favor of a manor (farm)house which was built near the castle site and was held by the Lovels. Possession of the manor house descended by marriage to the St. Maur (Seymour) family in 1351 and so to Baron Zouche in 1409. The manor house was still in existence by the 1780s when the Noares of Stourhead in Wiltshire purchased it and by then Castle Cary was…you guessed it- history!
     On your visit to the small market town you’ll have access to the Market House, the Round House and the old George Inn with its thatched roof and the town is filled with dwellings of the golden Cotswold stone- many attractive historic buildings which offer delicatessens, cafes, tearooms, outfitters, ironmongers, bookstores, antique stores and produce sellers. Tuesday is market day if you want to get in on the bustle in front of the Market House.
hadspen_house_gatehouse_entrance At nearby Hadspen House, the 17th century romance gardens, one square kilometer in size, were restored in 1987 by two professional Canadian gardeners, Nori and Sandra Pope and removed in 2007 by an heir- bulldozed, in fact- and the future of the gardens was placed in the hands of landscaper contestants. These internationally acclaimed pleasure gardens were walled and expertly planned by an owner of the house in the 1960s. The gardens were displayed with an array of just about any variety of flower, including those of hybrids, to view and the nurseries specialized in the sale of old fashioned roses and herbs in flower which were developed in the gardens.
hadspen_gardenhadspenOriginally a farmhouse built by William Player in the 1680s (a Grade II listed manor house) the house was purchased in 1775 by the Hobhouse family and, until recently, have owned it since that time. The acreage of the parkland is immense and not without surprises, such as the summerhouse which sits only 60 yards east of the house. Recently purchased for £13 million, the future for the house is completely open for debate. Razing of the gardens has been a hotly debated topic for nine years now. The first garden restoration was laid out by Penelope Hobhouse in 1967. She became a garden writer and designer subsequent to her involvement by joint ownership. For more information check out the following links.
22june16glastonburymainGlastonbury, once known as Yniswitrin ( Isle of Glass), was in the news this summer for having the worst traffic jam in the history of the rock festival which happens every year, late in June, just outside the city at Worthy Farm in Pilton and coinciding with the summer solstice. Since this sizable town has always had some sort of spiritual or mythical connections some people cop an attitude toward its oddities. Granted- many of the inhabitants and regulars consider it the Capital of Avalonia but that’s only a portion of what goes on here and if you’re a fan of the 60s you’ll absolutely adore the place. Even that’s a bit of a come down, however, since it was among the most important destinations for Christian pilgrims in England at one time, not too long ago. It was famous as a spa town in the 18th and 19th centuries.
glastonbury-abbey-somerset If I can take you back to reality for just a few minutes I would have you know that all of the conjecture may be based on some facts which cannot be refuted no matter how much lore and superstition has been bandied around by mystics, skeptics, actual religious dignitaries and even intellectuals. What is known for certain comes from William of Malmesbury who wrote De antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesiae and De Gestis Regum as an apparent authority on the subject. Glastonbury has been reputed to be a religious center of operations from prehistoric and pre-Christian times with the supporting belief that the abbey dates from the time of the Britons early in the 7th century. However, it is commonly believed that Saxon missionaries originated the town in the 8th century. This doesn’t seem to mix with Robert de Boron’s tale of the Holy Grail which ties King Arthur’s legend with the claim that Joseph of Arimathea (Jesus was temporarily entombed in his family crypt) founded the abbey. Carbon dating has probably disproven this over and over but it’s a great story so it lives on. When Glastonbury was invaded by the Saxons and defeated at the Battle of Peonnum in 658, building with stone began shortly thereafter by several important dignitaries including King Ine of Wessex in 712. A good part of these edifices, including the original abbey, were destroyed during the Dissolution. As a matter of fact only the Abbot’s Kitchen and the 12th century Lady Chapel remain feasibly viewable. The ruined abbey gatehouse greets visitors to this parkland of 36 acres because it was restored, to a point, in 1810. The Monastery was destroyed by fire way back in the 12th century.
Abbey Ruins The Abbot’s Kitchen, which can be located on Magdalene St. and southwest of the abbey, is a medieval marvel, really. Glastonbury was rebuilt by the Normans and became quite wealthy. The kitchen shows this splendor even though it is, of course, a recreation which is primarily mid-14th century on a square plan with a fireplace in each corner, an octagonal upper section with twin tier lanterns causing any smoke to escape from a primary working area. On the outside you’ll see gothic transom windows with lanterns which appear to be turrets and three sloping and battlemented roofs imparting beauty it most likely didn’t originally have, in and of itself. In its present incarnation the Abbot’s Kitchen vies with the counterparts of Stanton Harcourt in Oxford and even that of Berkeley Castle.
glastonbury_wenceslashollarstate_1At one time a castle was on this site which was commissioned by Henry of Blois to be built along with many other buildings being as he was abbot of Glastonbury and bishop of Winchester from the early to late 12th century. One chronicler, Adam of Domerham, described it as a regal palace but called it a castle, specifically castellum and this was reiterated as a palace (palacium) by John of Glastonbury some time after Adam. This information has been substantiated by excavations carried out by W.J. Wedlake from 1978 to 1979 when massive wall foundations were exposed near the Abbot’s Hall. Those foundations can be seen in aerial views with the outlines of the buildings in clear view. They were covered in a layer of ash proving the destruction of many of the buildings in 1184 which stood alongside the abbey. Two years after this fire the abbey was rebuilt but not the castle/palace, unfortunately.
glastonbury_klaushoferThe Tor stands a substantial distance away with the tower of the church of St. Michael at its summit. This may have been the original settlement for Glastonbury as it was once flooded marshland with dry areas of higher land and includes most of Somerset. During the Iron Age these water-based settlements (at Meare and Godney) had track ways which were constructed over the marshes and were known as Sweet Tracks, now preserved and displayed in the British Museum. Romans have have been purported to have an anchorage at Wearyall, and also started a vineyard on the south side of the the Tor, which lasted until the Middle Ages. During the Dark Age period – after the Roman legions had deserted Britain – a Celtic Christian church may have been seated at the foot of the Tor. No evidence backs this up and has only come from rumor and tradition, as documentation is quite sparse. St. Dunstan, who was ordained in AD 943 was one of the best known abbots in Glastonbury’s early history. He eventually became the Archbishop of Canterbury.
      The Tor can be seen from the flat Somerset plain and beckoned pilgrims who journeyed to this holiest earth. Legends inform newcomers that beneath the Tor a subterranean Kingdom ruled over by the Lord of the Wild Hunt, Gwynn ap Nudd, (a powerful other-worldly Welsh warrior) was once banished by the Celtic hermit and saint, Collen, but is still believed to haunt the hills around Glastonbury. A recent theory claims the existence of a man-made, sevenfold maze, carved out of the Tor itself. This, it is said, was once a sacred processional way, used by priests and priestesses to reach the stone circle which then crowned the Tor. Modern pilgrims still trace its path to the summit and speak of visionary experiences on the way up. From the summit of the Tor, which rises some 500 feet above sea level, there is a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. Cadbury Castle can be glimpsed away to the south, and Brent Knoll rises away to the west, near the Bristol Channel. The Tor was probably once an island, hence its identification with the mysterious Island of Avalon, a place between the worlds, where tradition says that Arthur came to be healed of his wounds and to await his recall in a time of great need. This is the most likely reason for the legend of his grave being found in the abbey ruins below the hill. Be sure to check out the Somerset Rural Life Museum which is housed in the former abbey barn. There is also lignea basilica best known as the Chapel of St. Joseph which is the loveliest of the ruins connected with the abbey and is considered the area’s chief feature. T-01458 832267
sharpham_park_estateDuring the Middle Ages, Glastonbury largely depended on the abbey but was also a center for the wool trade until the 18th century. A Saxon-era canal connected the abbey to the River Brue and nearby Sharpham Park which occupies more than 300 acres of historic parkland. This large estate was granted by King Eadwig to Abbot Athelwold in 957. More than two centuries later the property was conferred by the future King John I to the Abbots of Glastonbury, who kept possession of the park and house until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539. Richard Whiting, the last Abbot of Glastonbury, was executed with two of his monks on the 15th of November of that year. From that time until 1707 the park was owned by the Duke of Somerset, Sir Edward Seymour, the brother of Queen Jane. The successors were the Thynne family of Longleat (in Wiltshire) and the family of Sir Henry Gould becoming the birthplace of Sir Edward Dyer , an Elizabethan poet and courtier and writer Henry Fielding, and the cleric and naturalist William Gould. Today it is a private residence owned by Roger Saul, the founder of a fashion company, using the estate to grow organic foods and for archaeological and natural restoration.
somerton_night Directly south of Glastonbury and situated on a plateau, Somerton Castle‘s ruins are gone but the site continues to awe and inspire many with the River Cary running beneath it through the moor and into King’s Sedgemoor Drain on the Somerset Levels. From there it joins River Parret near Bridgwater. The castle was last seen during the latter part of the 16th century and still had battlemented walls encircling a round bastion tower which served as a jailhouse. Legend has it that the dungeon incarcerated French royals and it remains in the present day, buried under the Market Square. Apparently, Somerton was only used as a jail from the time of its inception, circa 1280, when county courts were transferred from Ilchester up to 1371 when it no longer held any prisoners. Records show that the castle was privately owned by a baron, one Sir Ralph Cromwell between 1423 and 1433. By the end of the 15th century it was badly in ruins and the only money spent on it in ensuing times was to add bars for the retainer of prisoners during court sessions. There has been some controversy concerning the actual location of the castle because it has been confused with a medieval house which sits close to the market place but the records show otherwise. The actual town goes back much further than the Norman invasion and the records show that Athelheard, the King of Wessex lost control of the town to Ethelbald, King of Mercia in 733. In addition, Ine of Wessex was a farmer in Somerton before his reign for 37 years of Wessex and the town, once the capital of Wessex, was the meeting place of the Witan (in 949) who were akin to Parliament for the Anglo-Saxons prior to the Norman Conquest. Despite its former importance Somerton never grew into a large town and remains village size to this day.
lytes_cary_apostle-house-view-r  Speaking of Ilchester, on an easy four mile jaunt northeast to Kingston, you’ll find a nice garden respite at Lytes Cary. This offbeat late medieval Tudor Manor House was the home of herbalist Henry Lyte which is encircled by an delightful gardens. The yew hedges nearly obscure the vision of the house from a distance but the borders are planted with mixed shrubs, roses and perennials. Hidden paths delineated with high hedges reveal astonishing glimpses of the primarily mid-15th century house.
     Built by Thomas Lyte circa 1450, the house was modernized by John Lyte in the 1530s. Henry, who was a notable Elizabethan botanist, developed the gardens and adorned the house by filling its halls with family heraldry. No three men could’ve been less alike but apparently appreciated each other enough to retain something from each era. Unfortunately, it was turned into a working farm at some point whereupon Sir Walter Jenner took it over in 1907 and restored the architecture and then turned it directly over to the National Trust in 1949.
     One can tour both the house and the gardens, as a result, and it’s a great chance to view 20th century restoration on a pre-Reformation manor house. The Great Hall is included in tours as well as the early 16th century dining hall with a fantastic bay window and a chapel which was built in the 14th century. Further, the bedrooms run along the back as an extensive separate 16th century wing and looks magnificent from the gardens. From the center of this wing you’ll see the Great Parlor and Great Chamber above it. The interiors are heavy and rather dark with the lights from the windows giving some cheer.
     You’ll see much of the workings and artifacts of Henry Lyte’s herbal and horticultural work in the Little Parlor. A quaint and cozy-looking 18th century niche is off to the side which sports a trompe l’oeil shell backing. Other than the one room, much of his work once displayed here is gone. His Tudor garden was completely removed except for one bed, which was restored with Lyte’s herbs. A copy of his book Niewe Herball  is kept on display in the hall.
T-01458 224471
king_alfreds_tower_view_from_westKing Alfred’s Tower, which is known as The Folly of King Alfred the Great and also as Stourton Tower sits just outside the Wiltshire/Dorset border of the Stourhead estate and as a part of the landscape at Warminster. (Wiltshire land officially.) This triangular red brick tower, designed by Palladian architect Henry Flitcroft, in 1765 stands on Kingsettle Hill on Somerset land and belongs to the National Trust which has listed it grade I and offers magnificent views across the three counties. Henry Hoare II planned the 18th century tower to commemorate the end of the Seven Years’ War against France and the accession of King George III locating it near Egbert’s Stone, where it is believed that Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, rallied the Saxons in May 878 before the important Battle of Edington (historically known as the battle of Ethandun). 
    alfreds_tower_top It includes a statue of King Alfred atop with a dedication below and is hollow, allowing visitors to ascend it up a 205-step spiral staircase along one of the corner projections. The viewing platform has a crenellated parapet with Chilmark stone dressings. Ironically it was damaged by a plane during WWII and restored in 1986. Restoration included the use of a Wessex helicopter to lower a 300-kilogram stone onto the top. The statue of King Alfred was also restored at this time, including the replacement of his missing right forearm. The Leland Trail, a footpath laid down for 28 miles, starts from King Alfred’s Tower to Ham Hill Country Park further south near Yeovil.
  kingalfredstowerstatue   The stone panel bearing a dedication inscription (see below) can be seen along the east front. It was drafted in 1762 and installed when the tower was originally completed in 1772: 
‘Alfred the Great AD 879 on this summit erected his Standard against Danish invaders
To him we owe the Origin of Juries, the establishment of a militia, the creation of a naval force.
Alfred the Light of a benighted age was a philosopher and a Christian
The father of his people, the founder of the English monarchy and liberty”
off B3092, 3 miles northwest of the A303 at Mere T-01747 841152  protected by The National Trust
ballands Nearby Ballands Castle between Stourhead and Chiffchaffs, was a motte and bailey castle, probably built after the Norman Conquest in 1066 near the village of Penselwood. It neighbors the Norman castles of Cockroad Wood, just northwest and Castle Orchard northeast as part of a system of fortifications to control the surrounding area. The steep-sided motte of Ballands is now approximately ten feet high and up to nineteen feet wide with two baileys ( inner and outer) both stretching out along the south and the entire site is surrounded by ditches with a stream along the west. This castle site is a scheduled monument.
        Not far away, Blackford Bishops Palace’s earthworks once formed a complex of buildings surrounded by a moat. These included a hall and chapel but the edifices were demolished by John Harewel late in the 14th century. Seated at Blackford Village beside the A303 road and four miles south west of Wincanton it is designated as a Conservation Area. In the Domesday Book of 1086 the manor was recorded as being in the possession of Turstin FitzRolf. As part of the Whitley Hundred, Blackford is believed to have been a bishops palace and there was also a Baron Blackford, and the title was created in 1935 for the barrister William James Peake Mason in 1918. The titles became extinct in 1988 on the death of his great-grandson, the fourth Baron.
hanging_chapel_langport Only 5 miles west of Somerton, Langport is located along the ancient way from Glastonbury to Taunton. Langport Town Defenses began with earth ramparts which were never strengthened by a continuous stone wall. The gates, however, were all rebuilt in stone by the 14th century. Only the east gate remains and is surmounted by the so-called Hanging Chapel erected by a town guild in 1353. Although town gateways were commonly surmounted by chapels, at one time, this is one of the rare surviving examples of such and is comparable to those at Bristol and Warwick. This impressive medieval building was built of square-cut lias stone with a clay tiled pitched roof between coped gables with ball finials. The chapel was first mentioned in 1344 as the Guild Chapel of St. Mary (still dedicated as such) and has been modified over the centuries for a myriad of diverse uses. In the late 16th century it was the Town Hall and Court House, a grammar school in the 18th century, later an armoury, a Sunday School early in the 19th century then privately rented and in 1891, a Masonic Lodge. Currently, it is leased by the town council to Portcullis Lodge.
     Perched atop the gateway, the chapel is surrounded along the north, east and west sides with a wide stone-coped parapet and is reached by an external flight of steps located along the southwest corner of the gateway. During the time that the chapel became a school, a stone extension with a flat roof was added to the south side of the chapel at a lower level. Even though the arched gateway existed first- possibly 13th century in origin- the stone matches the chapel with plain end-walls chamfered at each end where traffic continues to pass through. After an excavation was carried out in the 1990s it has been speculated that the site was an original breach in the defensive bank from Saxon times. As a scheduled ancient monument it hasn’t exactly been protected as it should be- back in 1998 the gateway was sideswiped by a lorry truck which left long scars 0.39 inches to 0.59 inches deep, although, luckily, no basic structural damage occurred.
langporttownIn medieval times Langport was a prosperous inland port and was most famous for cloth making. As a fortified burh (burg or city) it was a part of the south and west network of defensive citadels of the 10th century. There was a coinage mint established by 930 and part of the commercial settlement, agriculturally, with Somerton, by the time of the Norman Conquest although the parishes of Huish, Combe and Pibsbury had been granted to the bishop of Wells one year prior.
     Bow Street causeway was the main trading area in the middle ages and had a bridge with nine tiny arches. Little Bow Bridge was too narrow and low to allow modern ships to pass through by the 19th century so Great Bow Bridge was constructed under the terms of the Parrett Navigation Act of 1836 and was completed in 1841 at a cost of £3,749 replacing the medieval bridge. The first documented bridge on the site was in 1220 and had a total of 31 arches and only nine of them covered the river. Nineteen of those original arches were located by ground-penetrating radar in 1987 underneath the road which runs from Great Bow Bridge to Little Bow Bridge.
     Saxon earth ramparts are still apparent in two areas which once surrounded the town, presumably. Some distance northwest of the Hanging Chapel a steep artificial scarp appears in the garden of the town convent and continues northwest, becoming much less evident where it was modified with a 19th century carriage drive. There are also very tall earthworks along the southeast corner which continue west in an arched direction for about 120 meters finishing at the top of a steep slope that reaches North Street. The latter delineations are very distinct and not destroyed or removed and may have even had a moat or strong ditch. More defenses have been documented around Whatley Hill and stated to be 2400 feet in length and were natural S slopes which look out on the Parrett Valley.
     Just east of the city the Battle of Langport was fought north of Highfields Farm on the 10th of July in 1645, in which a Royal field army was destroyed and the Parliamentary victory in the Civil War became inevitable. When the Royalists retreated through the town many were killed by the bridge over the River Parrett and many buildings were set afire. It has been stated this was an act of the Parliamentary cavalry but obviously the Royalist cavalry set the lower town on fire in the vain hope that it would hinder the pursuit of Cromwell’s cavalry.
muchelneyabbey Two miles south of Langport the Benedictine Muchelney Abbey was largely destroyed during the Dissolution but the foundational ruins have proved it to be on a caliber with Glastonbury albeit a bit smaller in size. The cloisters appear well-preserved as they are still featuring the carved stone windows of golden hamstone. The abbot’s lodgings are a marvelous visit with a truly great chamber and its beautiful fireplace, parlors with mural painted walls, kitchens with a timber roof and living rooms- all quite intact because they date from the early 16th century. Most of these form one side of the old cloister adjoined with the refectory- all in marvelous condition. The cloister walk was a restoration subject with an arcade and if you examine a bit closer you’ll see that the Gothic vaults were truncated and a normal ceiling installed in its place. Upstairs the abbot’s parlor has a fireplace with quatrefoils decorating the overmantel and carved vineage with two lions. Pevsner found this feature quite exquisite and referred to it as pre-Reformation. Four more rooms fill this floor, one with unrestored wall paintings. I highly recommend that you also visit the Priest’s House while you are there as well. It is a very well preserved thatched medieval cottage which was saved from demolition by Thomas Hardy, Bernard Shaw and William Morris’s widow. Most of the original medieval features remain. English Heritage’s interactive displays make your visit a veritable joy !
T-01458 250664
montacute-st-michaels-hill-bw Four miles west of Yeovil, the former site of Montacute Castle sits atop Michael’s Hill with an impressive view in aerial photographs. The black and white aerial photo (above) shows the massive size of this Norman motte and bailey which was most likely built upon although it may have been abandoned relatively early. Today an 18th century monument, referred to as St. Michael’s Tower replaces any vestiges of the original castle but the impressive ancient ramparts remain. In July of 2010 more than 500 trees were removed on and around the spot because of the threat to the integrity of the site. The National Trust and Charlotte Allen (the Gardens and Parks Manager of Montacute House) said the work had to be carried out in order to protect the archaeological excavations, increase biodiversity along a section of the hill and in order to preserve the motte and bailey remains.
montacute_stmicaelstower Montacute was built on the east side of the plateau on Ham Hill, an Iron Age hillfort west of Montacute village, reputedly by Robert, Count of Mortain as his English seat in 1068. (Robert later founded the Cluniac Priory.) Locating his motte and bailey on this peaked hill was considered an affront to the defeated English because a Holy Rood (a black cross made of flint) was discovered there earlier in that century by a village blacksmith. As a result it was besieged only a year later by English rebels locally and from neighboring Dorset. Because of his position it was possible for him to cull garrisons from London, Winchester and Salisbury and along with the Norman bishop Geoffrey of Coutances were able to defeat these rebels utterly and completely.
     St Michael’s Tower was built by Edward Phelips V (of Montacute House) in 1760 and it occupies the place of the former castle known as Mons Acutus from which the name of town and castle were derived. Built of local Hamstone, it is 16 & 1/2 feet in diameter and stands nearly 50 feet high. It can be surmounted by a 52 step spiral staircase.
montacute_house_somerset_elizabethan Further afield you’ll want to see the marvelous gardens and awe-inspiring Elizabethan manor, Montacute House seated on 300 acres on the other side of Montacute village and surrounded by lush and evergreen topiary, trees and landscaping which greet visitors on the long and straight approach to the frontage. This H-plan mansion built of a sunny-colored hamstone is a stunner inside and out with lush gardens of formal mixed borders, roses laid out by Vita Sackville West, fig walk, orangery, cedar lawn and fabulous yew hedges. Inside is a treasure trove of heraldic glass, beautiful plasterwork, amazing mantel pieces, 17th and 18th century furniture and samplers and graced throughout the vast Long Gallery with Elizabethan and Jacobean paintings from the National Portrait Gallery.
montacute_natltrst Montacute has come to be accepted as quintessential Elizabethan grand architecture even though it was built toward the end of the era- so much so that it has been referred to as the Jacobethan revival. When you look around England you’ll see it’s delineations and features duplicated time and again. The house was built at the end of the 16th century for Sir Edward Phelips who was a lawyer, Speaker of the House of Commons and the much-lauded prosecutor of Guy Fawkes. Montacute remained in the same family of Phelips clear into the 20th century.
montacutegardens_73-1 By 1915 the house had the good fortune to fall into the hands of Lord Curzon, who was an obsessive restorer of English castles (including Bodiam, Tattershall and his own Kedleston). After the death of his first wife, he briefly shared Montacute with his mistress, Elinor Glyn, and then (to Glyn’s fury) with his second wife. Curzon spent lavishly on the “preservation of a lovely thing for the nation”. His purse was heavy so he completely overhauled the walls, the floors, rehung fabrics and changed the decor with Tudor furniture.
library_at_montacute_house_4676328238 Following Curzon’s death in 1925, the Phelips family retook possession by 1931 and tried to liquidate the house. Instead, a second benefactor, Ernest Cook (grandson of Thomas) who acquired a fortune from the sale of the family travel agency, used the proceeds to purchase and donate Montacute along with other properties to The National Trust.  on south side of A3088 and 3 miles East of the A303  T-01935 823289
     Originally a Roman settlement, Ilchester was the county town in the 12th century later becoming a market town. At the town hall city museum you can view a 13th century ceremonial mace (a club with a metal head) decorated with three kings and an angel which indicates the oldest staff of office in England. Located right on the River Yeo, the sheriff in 1167 placed a jail for Somerset in the town until nearby Somerton Castle took over this purpose becoming the county town until 1371. Ilchester Castle appears to have suffered the same fate as the one at Somerton which was used primarily as a jail. The listing for it places it outside the town walls and on the opposite side of the river but records refer to the site only as a jail. The Town Walls were in existence from Saxon and Norman times and were refortified during the Civil War. Medieval documents refer to four town gates and foundations of them are still visible in several areas where it has been determined that the remains are of Roman origin. There is only one documented location for the castle but it is still speculation since this would be within the triangular area bordered by Foss and Dorcester Roads and near the marketplace. 
ilchester_bridgeAs a general rule county towns had castles of royal foundation even though some of these were quite small (i.e. Derby and Stafford). Another general rule is that medieval jails (i.e. dungeons) were a part of castles and for that reason most people hated castles- especially in England. Mention of Ilchester occurred in 1086 suggesting that 107 burgesses paid the king 20 schillings (apiece) which was a typical feudal order and requiring the need for an administrative center to collect the revenue. This substantiated that there was, indeed, a small Norman castle for a period of time outside the town walls and on the opposite side of the river Yeo. As a royal administrative residence for the sheriff, a court house and a jail the term castle would not be refuted for any reason.
The medieval town had four gates. East Gate, by which the Limington road left the town, was mentioned in 1242, and still stood in 1426. North Gate, presumably at the southern end of the bridge, occurs in 1304. West Gate is first mentioned in 1200, and was apparently still standing in 1605 and it spanned the Fosse Way, a Roman road and gave access both to the Exeter road and the route to Pill Bridge and nearby Langport. South Gate, built some time between 1230 and 1240 with St. Michael’s church above it, was known as Michael’s Bowe because it was arched and vaulted. Leland proclaimed it “the greatest token of ancient building” in the town and speculation exists that it was probably still standing in 1576.
Richardson documentation disclosed several excavations around the former Roman town walls producing evidence of pilferage on the wall foundation ruins and later construction of a new town wall using the reclaimed stone by the late 12th or early 13th century. The medieval wall was apparently built on the same alignment, outside the Roman wall, cut into the silted Roman ditch. So far excavation has only revealed evidence for the foundations and subsequent robber trenches for both the Roman and medieval walls.
 Mr. Masters T- 01935 840512
east_lambrook_manor_gardens_-_geograph-org-uk_-_419777_beer For more lovely gardens to visit you can’t go wrong visiting East Lambrook Manor at South Petherton. This internationally famous Grade I listed English Cottage garden was designed by Margery Fish. She was celebrated for her wonderfully informal style and has dramatically influenced English gardening in the 21st century. The manor houses a display of the National Collection of Geraniums and for those who linger try the 17th century malthouse for homemade lunches and teas. There is an art gallery and special plant sales. You can check them out online or by phone:      01460 240328
ham_hill_panoramaHam Hill Country Park situated on 390 acres is controlled by South Somerset District Council and is visited by over 250,000 people each year. It is the end of the Leland trail, previously mentioned, which runs southwest from King Alfred’s Tower to this war monument atop Ham Hill. In earlier times, three local farms used the ancient free range grazing rights on the main grass area of the hill. The absence of the sheep over the decades has enabled woodland and worse to overrun and obscure the previously grassed Iron Age earthworks, most noticeably on the northern flank of the hill. A fire along the south (overlooking Little Norton) during a drought in 1976 wiped out the vegetation on the entire side of the hill. In some places this has now given way to woodland, but the fine grassland that existed before the fire has not returned until recently.
ham_hill_stoke-sub-hamdonThe northern end of the plateau is crowned by a war memorial obelisk dedicated to those killed in the village of Stoke-sub-Hamdon during the two World Wars and subsequent conflicts. It was designed in 1920 and unveiled in 1923 with four steps which lead to a square plinth and a tapering four-sided obelisk with a flat top. The memorial is clearly visible from the surrounding countryside, including the A303 trunk road which now follows the course of the Fosse Way near the base of the hill.
     The village of Stoke-sub-Hamdon stretches around Ham Hill and portions of it are part of the country park. The Bronze Age and Iron Age hill fort was occupied by the Durotriges tribe. Eighty-six years ago a Roman milestone was found at Venn Bridge and after investigation it was discovered that it was actually a colonnade and later converted to a milestone inscribed with the name of the emperor Flavius Severus who ruled in 305-306 AD. By the 10th century it became part of the estate of Glastonbury Abbey, then after the Norman Conquest was granted to Robert, Count of Mortain and later to Robert FitzIvo.
     The Beauchamps of Hatch took possession of the town becoming known as Stoke Beauchamp for a time. Today it is owned by the Duchy of Cornwall (read: the Prince of Wales and his wife Camilla) and has been since 1443. As the parish of Stoke it has been a part and parcel of the Tintinhull Hundred with stoke-sub-hamdon-priory-7661-shistorical edifices such as the 14th century Stoke sub Hamdon Priory which is a former priest’s house of the chantry chapel of St Nicholas, destroyed after the Dissolution and owned by the National Trust since 1946. Then, there is the manor best known as Beauchamp Castle.
     Lord John de Beauchamp had this house built during the reign of Edward I (after 1272). In 1304 the second Lord John founded Chantry House (a priory) as the residence of a Provost and four priests to say mass in the free chapel of St. Nicholas situated nearby. In 1334 license was granted to embattle and fortify Beauchamp. John Leland’s visit to Stoke in 1540, spoke of the ruins of a castle ‘in the bottom hard by the village’ and a very old chapel in the Manor Place. This place written about nearly five hundred years ago, shows remains of an old wall with gateways along the south and east walls. There are the ruins of an old gatehouse on the southwest corner where a 16th century house is built over an older building from the 13th or 14th centuries. West and north of the manor precincts (and the village) are two ancient fish ponds, known as the castle fishponds, with foundations of a boundary wall extending eastwards from the northeast extremity of the east pond. South of the ponds is the site of St. Nicholas Chapel, where tiles bearing heraldic arms were found.
     In September of 1906 excavations revealed the site of the ‘castle manor’ itself in a builders yard. Along the southeast perimeter, compact flooring of Ham stone rubble, overlain by stone tile fragments and substantial wall foundations were uncovered along with medieval glazed pottery and a fragment of a knife. Two gateways can still be seen in the wall but there is no gatehouse. The conjecture of the present is that the fortified manor house may lie under the adjacent farm.
    tintinhull-house_17thc Landscaped gardens at Tintinhull should not be missed because they are marvelous and extensive. As a matter of fact they dwarf the small manor house altogether. Located north of Stoke-sub-Hamdon just up the road off the A303 it is a wonderful way to spend a morning!  As designed by Mrs. Phyllis Reiss, the plan was divided into seven segments with clipped yew hedges and walls. Each segment has its own uniqueness but as a whole it is surprisingly unified and wonderful to see. This photo shows only a portion of the pool garden, fountain gardens, traditional kitchen garden and mixed borders with various color schemes throughout.  T-01935 822545
     market_house_martockA stopover at Martock, a mile northwest off the A303 between Ilminster and Ilchester, will be interesting for medieval survival fans. It is a large town and shows any number of ancient buildings in mild-colored hamstone. There is All Saints Church and Treasurer’s House- the oldest inhabited house in Somerset from early 13th century. Originally, the house was built as a parsonage to the church. Later it was known as Martock Priory when the Bishop of Bath and Wells took possession of it. Originally mentioned in records from 1226, the oldest part of the current building is the Solar Block, built around 1250. The solar block was covered in limewash during the 16th century, and when the limewash was removed it revealed a section of 13th century wall painting depicting the Crucifixion. Later, in 1293, a Great Hall was built at a right angle to the solar, giving it a T-plan. To this, a small kitchen, with an exceptionally large fireplace was added in the 15th century. Most splendidly, the house is surrounded by a medieval garden allowed to grow as it always did, perhaps. You will find entrance through a carved angled arch gateway from the 15th century. Further, the Market House and Market Cross were built mid-18th century but because the hamstone they are built from is so uniform with the town, it would be difficult to tell they are more modern without paying close attention to the architecture.
      croftcastle_castlehill_westcrewkerne  At the southernmost point of Somerset a 14th century tower, known best as Crewkerne Castle and additionally as Croft Castle, sits in low ruins atop Castle Hill at Crewkerne village. This once large tower was part of a castle most likely erected during the Norman invasion, originally. Crewkerne is situated between Montacute and Forde Abbey (in the westernmost corner of Dorset).
     On this isolated outcrop, which reaches a height over 450 feet, 12th century pottery was uncovered along with nails and a piece of hamstone during excavations. A scientific survey conducted most recently in 2010 has exposed a ditch which encloses the hilltop, along with fragments of masonry and has proven to be the foundational remains of a stone tower (or keep) a year later after excavations were carried out. The Time Team went further with six more trenches being excavated and revealed a cellar with a well, preserved mortar and stone flooring. As they continued these investigations the team were unable to provide much more information through the lack of sufficient remains to conduct conclusive dating experiments.
     Historical  documentation suggests that Croft may be associated with the de Reivers who were the Earls of Devon. William de Reivers granted the land to his daughter Joan, which was originally granted to him by Henry I in 1107, upon her marriage to William de Briwere at ‘Craft’, a manor of Crewkerne in the 13th century. Decades later, the Bishop of Salisbury was given the services of knights associated with this castle.
Lower Severalls at Crewkerne is an exemplary original garden with the pastoral visage of a large 18th century Hamstone farmhouse. These informal gardens feature profuse herbaceous borders around the house including innovative features such as a living dogwood basket, a wadi (water landscaping) and scented garden. An on-site nursery specializes in herbs, herbaceous and conservatory plants.

She’s back…



About Evelyn

The Castle Lady Official web site: other blogs:
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One Response to Southern Somerset Strongholds and their Gardens

  1. Evelyn says:

    I miss comments. They were my lifeline. If you would like to say something by all means do so. It helps me out, believe it or not !


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