By Andrew Plaister
Published in B&AFHS Journal 159 March 2015
The parish of Winscombe in north Somerset is bounded by the parishes of Compton Bishop, Axbridge and Cheddar in the south, Christon and Banwell in the west, and Puxton, Congresbury, Churchill, Rowberrow and Shipham in the east. Much of the parish is upland, set on the western end of the limestone hills of Mendip, and the northern part is low-lying forming part of North Somerset Levels. The original boundary of the parish is a strange shape - composed of two triangles, the northern one (the Sandford area) symmetrically balanced on the pinnacle of the southern triangle (Winscombe), looking like a butterfly lying on its side. In the centre of the parish is a wide, open valley between the limestone ridges, the form of which may be the origin of the 'combe' element of the place name - meaning something like Win's, Wine's or Wint's valley.
Between 959 and 975 AD King Edgar (of Wessex and then all England) granted Winscombe to Aelfswith, sometimes described as 'queen', but actually a nobleman's widow, who later became a nun. She bequeathed the 15-hide estate of Winscombe to Glastonbury Abbey. In the Domesday Survey of 1086, 'The Manor of Winescome' is belonged to Glastonbury Abbey and consisted of 15 hides. Its entry includes: 3 slaves, 28 villagers, and 6 smallholders (probably indicating about 250 people); 1 mill, 8 cows, 16 pigs, 30 sheep and 31 goats. In the 13th century, the Manor was handed over to Savaric, Bishop of Bath & Wells, even though the monks of the Abbey refused to recognise him as their head. When Savaric died in 1205, Glastonbury Abbey regained its independence but in return had to surrender various lands to Bishop Jocelyn, who was Savaric's successor. Subsequently, in 1239, Bishop Jocelyn gave the Manor of Winscombe to the Dean & Chapter of Wells Cathedral, with whom it remained until the19th century.
The parish is exceptionally well endowed with medieval documents held mostly in Wells Cathedral Library and some at Somerset Heritage Centre. There was a survey carried out for Abbot Sully of Glastonbury Abbey in 1189 and a Custumal of the Manor from 1290 listing the names of the tenants, as well as the rent, taxes and services due from each of them to the Lord of the Manor. There are abundant court and compoti rolls dated from the late 13th century to the mid 16th century, surveys of Sandford dated 1540 and Winscombe dated 1572 and 1650, and also the excellent William White map of Winscombe and Shipham dating to 1792.
Winscombe is made up of many separate settlements with first dates for mention in documents including Dinghurst (1189), Lyncombe (1235), Nye (1189) and Sandford (1189) in the north; and a larger area to the south containing Barton (1068), Ford (1189), Hale (1235), Knap (1290), Max (1319), Oakridge (1290), Shute (1067), Sidcot (1235), Winscombe (1086), Winterhead (1086) and Woodborough (1235).
By 1290, a mill and smithy are mentioned: Maxmills with its long leat, pond and elaborate water-works looks like a Glastonbury Abbey scheme and, therefore, probably 12th century; another mill, Woodborough Mill, was at 'Mill Pond Cottage'; and there may have been another mill at Sandford on the Towerhead Brook. There was also a Medieval windmill on The Lynch (Saxon - 'ridge'), which links the hamlets of Woodborough and Ford. There is considerable documentary evidence for settlement in the Medieval period at Barton. The oak roof timbers at West End Farm, Barton have been dated to 1278. This building is a rare example of a true cruck type construction. This is one of the oldest, continuously occupied domestic dwellings in England.
The upland areas were for centuries almost certainly open sheep common - Sandford Hill, Wavering Down, Callow Hill and Winterhead. These areas were not enclosed and farms were not built until after 1790. But, mining for lead, calamine, ochre and lime has taken place in the areas since at least the Roman times. In 1650, it is recorded that 100 tons of lead ore were extracted from Woodborough Green during a 12-week period. There are still 'bell-pits' on Sandford Hill which probably relate to ochre mining there in early times. Caves have been discovered here and in one of them remains of a cave bear, cave lion and cave hyena. It is also reported that in 1770, some miners discovered the skeleton of an elephant, twenty-four feet below the surface. At the western end of that hill, is a disused quarry and lime kilns where many people used to work. Opened in the 1850s, the quarry closed in 1995. The carboniferous limestone from here was used in the construction of many large building projects such as Avonmouth Docks and several railway stations including Temple Meads, Bristol. This stone was also used for making lime, and many lime kilns can still be found in the parish. The largest, latest kilns are in Quarry Road but there are earlier small ones dotted about the parish near Star, Shipham Lane and Shute Shelve.
The southern boundary of the parish follows the tops of the ridges of Callow Hill, Shute Shelve Hill, Wavering Down and Compton Hill nearly to Crook Peak. Public hangings - a warning to others not to break the law - took place at Shute Shelve in the 17th century. Fine views of Wavering Down and Crook Peak can now be enjoyed. The site has become much of an attraction.
The parish church dedicated to St. James the Great, is in the middle of the original hamlet of Winscombe with the former Court House belonging to the Dean & Chapter of Wells, and is situated in a very odd position halfway up the side of a north facing slope. There are no records remaining of the Norman church on the site, but there is evidence of the building of the church which was consecrated by Bishop Jocelyn in 1236. The present building dates from the 15th century. The four-stage 100 feet tower was added around 1435, by Bishop John Harewell, and at the same time stained glass was added. The church was restored and a new chancel added in 1863. The bells have long called people to worship, the original bells being cast in 1773 by local founders, the BILBIE family. Two newer bells were added in 1903 by Taylors Founders. The original poor house, consisting of two small cottages, was in the north-west corner of the churchyard before moving to Woodborough Green in about 1800 until 1838 when the Union Workhouse was built in Axbridge.
The hamlet of Woodborough, now known as Winscombe, was built around a common or green with "squatters" cottages being erected on former waste land alongside roads. In the Lynch, Woodborough Hall, now a scout hall, was once a meeting place for the Temperance Society and the Men's Institute, and British School was based here from 1861 to 1921. Further up that road, Union Baptist Chapel was founded in 1827, rebuilt and enlarged in 1911. The arrival of the railway in 1869 with stations in Sandford and Woodborough made it possible to transport milk and other farm products to urban areas. This was the Cheddar Valley line, which ran from Yatton to Wells via Cheddar. It was nicknamed 'The Strawberry Line' because of the cargo of early strawberries, grown along the southern foot of the Mendips. Limestone quarried in Sandford Hill was also transported by rail. The station in Woodborough was soon renamed Winscombe to avoid confusion with another station of the same name in Wiltshire. The development of the parish moved from around the church to Woodborough and Sandford. Gradually the old village name of Woodborough died out, and Winscombe is classified as a 'service village' which supports the adjacent hamlets and villages, providing their daily needs including banking, a post office and a wide range of shops.
The village of Sandford 'has no striking features, but some of its houses are very old, and in some of them is an ancient wood carving. The most important buildings are the church and the railway station' (Knight, 1915). The All Saints church formerly a chapel of ease was built in 1881, and is now in ecumenical partnership with Methodists. The Railway Inn is the only public house in Sandford. The Board School was built in 1891, the Methodist chapel (now a United Reformed church) in Hill Road in 1900, and the Parish Room (now the village hall) in 1909. Sandford is home to one of the region's main cider producers, Thatchers Cider. The company started producing cider in 1904 and has continued in the same family since. William THATCHER built up the Myrtle farm from a small holding and was the person who took the momentous decision to start producing cider for his own farm workers. His son Stanley Thatcher, born in 1910, began selling draught cider to pubs in Somerset and the company's presence in the area grew. The company is still family owned and employs around 75 people. Thatcher has pioneered a method of growing its apple trees in a hedgerow style. Trained on wires, this enables easier harvesting and also helps to ensure the fruit has the optimum combination of sunlight and rain. Many of the traditional ciders produced at Myrtle Farm are matured in 100-year-old oak vats, which give the cider a distinctive taste.
In the north-eastern 'arm' of the parish, the settlement of Dinghurst, also known as Churchill Batch, in the south-westerly quarter of the present-day Churchill village, became part of Churchill parish in 1935. A wide and untarmaced lane called 'The Batch' was the old Bristol and Exeter coach-road until the present A38 road cut through Dolebury Valley in 1819. Before then 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 Maria, consort of Charles I, pass on her way to Exeter in 1643, an occasion commemorated in Churchill parish 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.
On the other side of the A38 lies another hamlet - that of Sidcot, where the famous Quaker Meeting House and School are based. The first Friends' Meeting had been established at Sidcot in, or perhaps even before, 1690. In common with many Quakers at the time the Somerset Friends were concerned about the provision of school and in 1698 discussed the matter in two Quarterly Meetings at Glastonbury. The second meeting chose 'Sidcot' as a suitable site and guaranteed the schoolmaster £20 a year for two years. In 1699 William JENKINS opened a school for the children of poor Friends in an extension to a house already there, near the gate of the present Meeting House. This was a period of persecution but the early school survived pressure from the Sheriff of Somerset and the Bishop of Bath & Wells. William Jenkins sold the school in 1728 and the most prominent of later schoolmasters was John BENWELL who bought the school in 1784 and had built it up to 45 boys by 1805. In 1808 the school was re-established as a 'public school' to which girls, as well as boys were admitted, though this has been greatly extended.
The parish was last most drastically changed in the 1960s when many new housing estates in Woodborough and Sandford and new roads were laid out. A new school was also built at Woodborough. The railway was closed, and today the route is a public footpath and cycle track; the site of the former Winscombe station is now the Millennium Green, and Sandford station became a heritage centre. Also in the parish is a popular dry ski slope that is lit up at night and which winds down through Lyncombe Wood on the eastern outskirts of Sandford. These developments, in a short period, enlarged the settlements far more than had happened in the previous 1,000 years.
Holdings at Somerset Heritage Centre in Taunton for the parish of Winscombe include the parish register dating from 1658 for marriages and 1662 for baptisms [entries 1724-31 torn out] and burials, though the Bishop's Transcripts commence in 1598 but there are gaps in some years; five accounts books of Overseers (1678-1807); Apprenticeship Indentures (1633-1837); Bastardy Papers (1696-1834); Enclosure Award Map (1799); Glebe Terrier with list of tithes payable (1613); Indemnity Bonds (1684-1832); Militia Papers (1709-1813); Parish School Minutes Book (1874-80); Removal Orders (1720-1844); Settlement Orders and Papers (1679-1840); Sunday School Attendance Book (1785-89); Tithe apportionment (1840); Vestry Minute Books (1741-1922); and typescripts of some medieval records.
Sources and further reading:
"The Church in Winscombe", by Maria Forbes (2000)
"The Heart of Mendip", by Francis A. Knight (1915)
"A Parish and the Railway: Winscombe & Sandford before, during and after the Railway", by Peter Knight (2000)
"The Book of Winscombe", by Margaret Tucker, Halsgrove Press, ISBN 1-84114-344-8
Articles on medieval history of Winscombe parish, written by Mick Aston, Martin Ecclestone, Maria Forbes & Teresa Hall, can be found in journals of Somerset Archaeology and Natural History Society (Volumes 151 to 155).