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.
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
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.
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.
In 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. www.langport.eu/map/roman-map-somerset.html
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 !
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
As 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
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:
Ham 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.
The 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
historical 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.
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
A 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.
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.