Towns in Somerset
Hinton St. George
Somerset is a county in South West England which borders Gloucestershire and Bristol to the north, Wiltshire to the east, Dorset to the south-east and Devon to the south-west. It is bounded to the north and west by the Severn Estuary and the Bristol Channel, its coastline facing southeastern Wales. Its traditional border with Gloucestershire is the River Avon. Somerset’s county town is Taunton.
Somerset is a rural county of rolling hills such as the Blackdown Hills, Mendip Hills, Quantock Hills and Exmoor National Park, and large flat expanses of land including the Somerset Levels. There is evidence of human occupation from Paleolithic times, and of subsequent settlement in the Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods. The county played a significant part in the consolidation of power and rise of King Alfred the Great, and later in the English Civil War and the Monmouth Rebellion. The city of Bath is famous for its substantial Georgian architecture and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Somerset’s name derives from Old English Sumorsǣte, short for Sumortūnsǣte, meaning “the people living at or dependent on Sumortūn” (Somerton). The first known use of Somersæte is in the law code of King Ine who was the Saxon King of Wessex from 688 to 726, making Somerset along with Hampshire, Wiltshire and Dorset one of the oldest extant units of local government in the world. An alternative suggestion is the name derives from Seo-mere-saetan meaning “settlers by the sea lakes”.
The Old English name is used in the motto of the county, Sumorsǣte ealle, meaning “all the people of Somerset”. Adopted as the motto in 1911, the phrase is taken from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Somerset was a part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, and the phrase refers to the wholehearted support the people of Somerset gave to King Alfred in his struggle to save Wessex from Viking invaders.
Somerset settlement names are mostly Anglo-Saxon in origin, but some hill names include Brittonic Celtic elements. For example, an Anglo-Saxon charter of 682 refers to Creechborough Hill as “the hill the British call Cructan and we call Crychbeorh” (“we” being the Anglo-Saxons). Some modern names are Brythonic in origin, such as Tarnock, while others have both Saxon and Brythonic elements, such as Pen Hill.
The caves of the Mendip Hills were settled during the Palaeolithic period, and contain extensive archaeological sites such as those at Cheddar Gorge. Bones from Gough’s Cave have been dated to 12,000 BC, and a complete skeleton, known as Cheddar Man, dates from 7150 BC. Examples of cave art have been found in Aveline’s Hole. Some caves continued to be occupied until modern times, including Wookey Hole.
The Somerset Levels—specifically dry points at Glastonbury and Brent Knoll— also have a long history of settlement, and are known to have been settled by Mesolithic hunters. Travel in the area was facilitated by the construction of one of the world’s oldest known engineered roadways, the Sweet Track, which dates from 3807 BC or 3806 BC.
The exact age of the henge monument at Stanton Drew stone circles is unknown, but it is believed to be Neolithic. There are numerous Iron Age hill forts, some of which, like Cadbury Castle and Ham Hill, were later reoccupied in the Early Middle Ages.
On the authority of the future emperor Vespasian, as part of the ongoing expansion of the Roman presence in Britain, the Second Legion Augusta invaded Somerset from the south-east in AD 47. The county remained part of the Roman Empire until around AD 409, when the Roman occupation of Britain came to an end. A variety of Roman remains have been found, including Pagans Hill Roman temple in Chew Stoke, Low Ham Roman Villa and the Roman Baths that gave their name to the city of Bath.
After the Romans left, Britain was invaded by Anglo-Saxon peoples. By AD 600 they had established control over much of what is now England, but Somerset was still in native British hands. The British held back Saxon advance into the south-west for some time longer, but by the early eighth century King Ine of Wessex had pushed the boundaries of the West Saxon kingdom far enough west to include Somerset. The Saxon royal palace in Cheddar was used several times in the 10th century to host the Witenagemot. the Norman Conquest, the county was divided into 700 fiefs, and large areas were owned by the crown, with fortifications such as Dunster Castle used for control and defence. Somerset contains HM Prison Shepton Mallet, which was England’s oldest prison still in use prior to its closure in 2013, having opened in 1610. In the English Civil War Somerset was largely Parliamentarian, with key engagements being the Sieges of Taunton[2 and the Battle of Langport. In 1685 the Monmouth Rebellion was played out in Somerset and neighbouring Dorset. The rebels landed at Lyme Regis and travelled north, hoping to capture Bristol and Bath, but they were defeated in the Battle of Sedgemoor at Westonzoyland, the last pitched battle fought in England. Arthur Wellesley took his title, Duke of Wellington from the town of Wellington; he is commemorated on a nearby hill by a large, spotlit obelisk, known as the Wellington Monument.
The Industrial Revolution
in the Midlands and Northern England spelled the end for most of Somerset’s cottage industries. Farming continued to flourish, however, and the Bath and West of England Society for the Encouragement of Agriculture, Arts, Manufactures and Commerce was founded in 1777 to improve farming methods. Despite this, 20 years later John Billingsley conducted a survey of the county’s agriculture in 1795 and found that agricultural methods could still be improved. Coal mining was an important industry in north Somerset during the 18th and 19th centuries, and by 1800 it was prominent in Radstock. The Somerset Coalfield reached its peak production by the 1920s, but all the pits have now been closed, the last in 1973. Most of the surface buildings have been removed, and apart from a winding wheel outside Radstock Museum, little evidence of their former existence remains. Further west, the Brendon Hills were mined for iron ore in the late 19th century; this was taken by the
Many Somerset soldiers died during the First World War, with the Somerset Light Infantry suffering nearly 5,000 casualties. War memorials were put up in most of the county’s towns and villages; only nine, described as the Thankful Villages, had none of their residents killed. During the Second World War the county was a base for troops preparing for the D-Day landings. Some of the hospitals which were built for the casualties of the war remain in use. The Taunton Stop Line was set up to repel a potential
Decoy towns were constructed in Somerset in World War II to protect Bristol and other towns, at night. They were designed to mimic the geometry of “blacked out” streets, railway lines, and Bristol Temple Meads railway station, to encourage bombers away from these targets. One, on the radio beam flight path to Bristol, was constructed on Beacon Batch. It was laid out by Shepperton Studios, based on aerial photographs of the city’s railway marshalling yards. The decoys were fitted with dim red lights, simulating activities like the stoking of steam locomotives. Burning bales of straw soaked in creosote were used to simulate the effects of incendiary bombs dropped by the first wave of Pathfinder night bombers; meanwhile, incendiary bombs dropped on the correct location were quickly smothered, wherever possible. Drums of oil were also ignited to simulate the effect of a blazing city or town, with the aim of fooling subsequent waves of bombers into dropping their bombs on the wrong location. The Chew Magna decoy town was hit by half-a-dozen bombs on 2 December 1940, and over a thousand incendiaries on 3 January 1941. The following night the Uphill decoy town, protecting Weston-super-Mare’s airfield, was bombed; a herd of dairy cows was hit, killing some and severely injuring others.
The boundaries of Somerset are largely unaltered from medieval times. The River Avon formed much of the border with Gloucestershire, except that the hundred of Bath Forum, which straddles the Avon, formed part of Somerset. Bristol began as a town on the Gloucestershire side of the Avon, however as it grew it extended across the river into Somerset. In 1373 Edward III proclaimed “that the town of Bristol with its suburbs and precincts shall henceforth be separate from the counties of Gloucester and Somerset … and that it should be a county by itself”.
The present-day northern border of Somerset (adjoining the counties of Bristol and Gloucestershire) runs along the southern bank of the Avon from the Bristol Channel, then follows around the southern edge of the Bristol built-up area, before continuing upstream along the Avon, and then diverges from the river to include Bath and its historic hinterland to the north of the Avon, before meeting Wiltshire at the Three Shire Stones on the Fosse Way at Batheaston.
Bristol Channel < Somerset > WILTSHIRE