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Somerset: Widdershins




Where is Somerset?

In our second and forty-first episodes, we referred to loads of interesting Somerset-based things - and promised links and photos, so here they are:

Glastonbury Holy Thorn

The Glastonbury thorn is a form of common hawthorn, found in and around Glastonbury, Somerset, England. Unlike ordinary hawthorn trees, it flowers twice a year (hence the name "biflora"), the first time in winter and the second time in spring. The trees in the Glastonbury area have been propagated by grafting since ancient times.The tree is also widely called the holy thorn, though this term strictly speaking refers to the original (legendary) tree.


It is associated with legends about Joseph of Arimathea and the arrival of Christianity in Britain, and has appeared in written texts since the medieval period. A flowering sprig is sent to the British Monarch every Christmas. The original tree has been propagated several times, with one tree growing at Glastonbury Abbey and another in the churchyard of the Church of St John. The "original" Glastonbury thorn was cut down and burned as a relic of superstition during the English Civil War, and one planted on Wearyall Hill in 1951 to replace it had its branches cut off in 2010.


Glastonbury Tor

This iconic and evocative landmark offers magnificent views of the Somerset Levels, Dorset, Wiltshire and Wales.


Steeped in history and legend, excavations at the top of the Tor have revealed the plans of two superimposed churches of St Michael, of which only a 15th-century tower remains.


Glastonbury Tor also has a grisly past. Abbot Richard Whiting was executed here in 1549 on the orders of Thomas Cromwell, the first Earl of Essex.


Glastonbury Tor is known as being one of the most spiritual sites in the country. Its pagan beliefs are still very much celebrated. It’s a beautiful place to walk, unwind and relax.


Bath

Built for pleasure and relaxation, beautiful Bath has been a wellbeing destination since Roman times. The waters are still a big draw today, both at the ancient Roman Baths and the thoroughly modern Thermae Bath Spa, which houses the only natural thermal hot springs in Britain you can bathe in.


Bath’s compact, visitor-friendly centre is overflowing with places to eat and drink, plus some of the finest independent shops in Britain, making it the ideal city break. Immerse yourself in Bath’s remarkable collection of museums and galleries, and enjoy year-round festivals, theatre, music and sport. 


Bath's stunning, honey-coloured Georgian architecture is straight from a Jane Austen novel; highlights include the iconic Royal Crescent and the majestic Circus. There’s plenty to see beyond the city, too, with beautiful Somerset countryside to explore, as well as attractions including Stonehenge, Avebury, Castle Combe, and Longleat Safari Park.


King Bladud

Bladud or Blaiddyd is a legendary king of the Britons, although there is no historical evidence for his existence. He is first mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136), which describes him as the son of King Rud Hud Hudibras, and the tenth ruler in line from the first king, Brutus, saying Bladud was contemporaneous with the biblical prophet Elijah (9th century BC).


Supposedly he ruled for twenty years from 863 BC or perhaps 500 BC, in which time he built Kaerbadum or Caervaddon (Bath), creating the hot springs there by the use of magic. He dedicated the city to the goddess Athena and in honour of her, lit undying fires, whose flames turned to balls of stone as they grew low, with new ones springing up in their stead: an embellishment of an account from the third-century writer Solinus of the use of local coal on the altars of her temple.


Sedgemoor Easter Cakes

Ingredients

  • 8 oz Plain Flour Sifted

  • 4 oz Butter cut into small pieces

  • 4 oz Currants

  • 4 oz Caster Sugar

  • 1 teaspoon Cinnamon

  • 1 Egg Beaten

  • 2 tablespoons Brandy

  • Milk as needed to make a soft dough


Method

  1. Rub the butter into the flour till you have a 'fine breadcrumb' mix

  2. Add the remaining dry ingredients and mix well

  3. Beat the egg and brandy together

  4. Make a well in the dry mix and add the egg mixture. Pull the dry ingredients in and mix thoroughly

  5. Add enough milk to make a 'dropping' consistency - a bit wetter than pastry

  6. Put dessertspoons of the batter into individual bun cases (I used mincepie pans). You can sprinkle the tops with a little sugar at this stage if you want a sweeter bun, or ice them with sugar glaze when cooled.

  7. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 180c for about 20 minutes till the tops go golden brown. If necessary turn to ensure even cooking

  8. Remove from the oven and allow to cool on a rack before storing in an airtight tin


Sally Lunn Bun

There is no truly useful common English word to describe a Sally Lunn Bun as it is part bun, part bread, part cake…


A large and generous but very very light bun; a little like brioche/French festival bread….but traditionally it is a bun so, even if it isn’t really a bun, let’s call it a bun!


Versions of the Sally Lunn bun can be found across the globe – bakers in the UK, Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia have all tried to replicate it…but without success. And that’s because the original secret recipe was passed on to us with the deeds to Sally Lunn’s house.


Blue Ben

Blue Ben is a legendary dragon from Kilve in West Somerset, England. The skull of a fossilized Ichthyosaur on display in a local museum is sometimes pointed out as belonging to him. A promontory near East Quantoxhead, approximately 1 kilometre (0.62 mi) from Kilve, also bears the name Big Ben.


The story exists in more than one version. Usually, Blue Ben dwells in the shale caves along the Somerset coast, regularly bathing in the nearby waters in order to cool himself after breathing fire. In order to avoid getting stuck in the extensive mud flats between the water and his lair, he built the limestone causeway there to provide him safe passage.


The Devil, who had watched Blue Ben for some time, decided to capture him for use as a mount. The Devil rode the dragon mercilessly through the fires of Hell until the dragon escaped. Hurrying to get back to the security of his lair, Blue Ben made the mistake of tramping through the mud flats. He got stuck in the mud, which consumed him. An alternative version of the story says that he lived inland but went to Kilve to cool off.


Stanton Drew Megaliths

There are three stone circles at Stanton Drew, one large and two small.  They have never been excavated, so it is difficult to say exactly how, why and when they were built. However, based on comparison with other stone circles and timber monuments, it is likely that they were constructed as ceremonial monuments around 2500 BC, during the late Neolithic period.


The Great Circle, at 113 metres (370 feet) across, is one of the largest in the country. It has 26 surviving upright stones, although there may once have been many more. 


Geophysical surveys, which detect features under the ground, have revealed that the monument would have looked very different 4,500 years ago. Inside the circle were nine concentric rings of wooden posts, each standing several metres tall. Although similar timber circles are known elsewhere, such as Woodhenge, this is the largest and most complex timber monument known in the British Isles.


Surrounding the stones would have been a large and deep circular ditch, 6–7 metres (20–23 feet) wide and about 135 metres (440 feet) in diameter, probably with one or two banks, making it a henge monument. A 50-metre (164-foot) gap on the north-east side formed a wide entrance. 


Wookey Hole Caves and the Witch of Wookey Hole

Wookey Hole is famous for lots of things, but the legend of the Witch is one of the most popular stories.


It all started about a 1000 years ago when a woman living in the caves was thought to be a witch by the local villagers. These were very different times and women who were suspected of being witches were shunned by their neighbours, or even worse put on trial and executed.


According to the legend, anything that went wrong in the village was blamed on this lady who had made the caves her home, from crops failing, cattle dying or even people disappearing.


The story goes that the villagers demanded the local Abbott, based at Glastonbury Abbey, help them deal with the Witch. The Abbot sent a monk called Father Barnard to investigate. 


Hardy's Wessex


Thomas Hardy called Somerset 'Outer Wessex' - and if you're seeking a frame of reference, the story from today's episode takes place near what Hardy called Stancy Castle - Dunster in the real Somerset - as prominently featured in his novel A Laodicean.

T.S. Eliot's East Coker

The famous Modernist poet and playwright T.S. Eliot is buried at St Michael's Chuch in East Coker, alongside his wife Valerie. There's a plaque in their memory:

Eliot's poem, East Coker, from his Four Quartets begins:


In my beginning is my end. In succession

Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,

Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place

Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.

Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,

Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth

Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,

Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.

Houses live and die: there is a time for building

And a time for living and for generation

And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane

And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots

And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.


You can read the whole poem here.


Taunton Castle


The Castle is a Grade I Listed Scheduled Ancient Monument standing at the heart of Somerset’s county town. It has been the home of a Museum for well over 100 years.


A residence for the bishops and a minster church evidently existed at Taunton during the Anglo-Saxon period. But it was in the 12th century that the present Castle began to take shape. It was most of all an administrative centre and a status symbol, which welcomed royal guests including King John and his son Henry III.


Occasionally it was also tested in warfare. In 1451 the Earl of Devon, a Yorkist, was besieged at Taunton by the Lancastrian Lord Bonville. And it was at Taunton Castle in 1497 that Perkin Warbeck, the failed pretender to the throne of Henry VII, was brought before the Tudor king as his prisoner.


Defended for Parliament in the Civil War, the Castle was severely damaged during three bitter sieges in 1644–5. Forty years later, in September 1685, it was the terrible setting for the Bloody Assizes which followed the Monmouth Rebellion. Judge Jeffreys, presiding in the Castle’s Great Hall, sentenced 144 rebels to be hanged, drawn and quartered.


The Cheddar Man

Excavated in 1903, the Cheddar Man is Britain's oldest near-complete human skeleton. The remains are kept by London's Natural History Museum, in the Human Evolution gallery.

The skeletal remains of the Cheddar Man date to around the mid-to-late 9th millennium BC, in the Mesolithic period, and it appears that he died a violent death. A large crater-like lesion just above the skull's right orbit suggests that the man may have also been suffering from a bone infection.


He was found in Gough's Cave in Cheddar Gorge, which you can visit here.

Glastonbury


If you've never been, Glastonbury is an amazing place, with Glastonbury Abbey being a particular highlight for folklore lovers.

Legend has it that King Arthur's body was buried here - though sadly it seems to have been lost after Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Mother Shipton and Porlock

The famous witch Mother Shipton was born in Yorkshire (don't worry - we'll talk more about her, and her monkey familiar, in future episodes!) and spent much of her life in the Somerset village of Porlock.

Learn more about Porlock on The Best of Exmoor website.


Dunster


Joan Carne was born in Dunster, where the National Trust have excellent sites at both Dunster Castle and Bat's Castle.


The Witch Joan Carne's Three Homes...

This is Sandhill Manor Farmhouse as it appears today. You can book to stay there here.

This is Orchard Wyndham House. Book to visit here.

Alas, Edward Carne's Elizabethan manor house was destroyed in 1803, but the ruins of Ewenny Priory are still standing - though are in private ownership.


You can visit them though, provided you contact the owners and make arrangements with them, which you can do here.


St Decuman's Church, Watchet


The churchyard of St Decuman's in Watchet is where Joan Carne's body is said to be buried in an iron coffin, barred beneath the earth.

Interestingly, John Wyndam's mother Florence was accidentally buried alive in the same churchyard. There's a splendid ballad celebrating the event, written by Victorian poet Lewis H. Court, in which a Sexton comes to steal the rings from the corpse and gets a nasty shock...


...He seized the slender fingers white

And stiff in their repose.

Then sought to file the circlet through:

When, to his horror, blood he drew.

And the fair sleeper rose.


She sat a moment, gazed around.

Then. great was her surprise.

And sexton, startled, saw at a glance

This was not death, but a deep trance,

And madness leapt to his eyes.


The stagnant life stream in her veins

Again began to flow:

She felt the sudden quickening.

For her it was a joyous thing,

For him a fearsome woe.


He sprang, and like a madman fled

From the accusing vault,

And made his way among the tombs

As one chased by a hundred dooms.

Who dared not call a halt.


The lady beckoned him in vain.

He was too scared to heed.

She would have given him his price;

He cleared'the churchyard in a trice.

Spurred by his desperate deed...


You can read the whole poem here.




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