A tale of two Wookeys: Visiting Wookey and Wookey Hole
PUBLISHED: 15:19 28 June 2018
© Pete Watson Photography
Andrea Cowan visits two very different Somerset villages that just happen to have a similar name
Wookey and Wookey Hole are two villages in the Mendip Hills lying just a couple of miles apart, either side of the A371 road from Wells to Cheddar.
The name Wookey, which appeared in the Domesday Book of 1086 as ‘Wokey’, has a couple of possible meanings: it may derive from the Old English pre-7th century word, ‘wocig’ which means ‘animal trap’. The alternative suggests that it comes from the Celtic word ‘ogof’ meaning ‘cave’ – although that would imply that Wookey Hole Caves actually means ‘cave, cave, caves’!
Other than a simila name, there is little else to join the two villages together, except for both lying on the River Axe and plenty of fascinating historical features.
St Matthews Church, with 12th century origins, is at the heart of the larger village. Going back even further, it is thought that the site possibly commemorates a burial ground following a battle between Saxons and Danes. With more drama afoot, the 15th century church tower was struck by lightning in 1906. Next to the church is Mellifont Abbey, an architecturally interesting former rectory named after an abbey in Ireland. It was re-fashioned in the mid-18th century into a Gothic Revival style and converted into a residential nursing home shortly after the Second World War.
The village even boasts one of the first palaces of the Bishop of Bath and Wells, first documented in 1224 when Bishop Jocelin was permitted to use oak trees from Cheddar forest for its repair. Court Farm incorporates the remains of the moated Episcopal manor house. Meanwhile, the village church school had a famous pupil-teacher in 1880. The mother of 12 year old H. G. Wells arranged for him to join the school through a distant relative who was headmaster.
The village manages to sustain three busy pubs, and demonstrates a great entrepreneurial community spirit. In 2016, the Wookey Hub opened in the centre of the village, winning Best Newcomer of the Year in the Somerset Life Food & Drink Awards. This bustling café and shop is owned by Andy Childs, a coffee enthusiast, and provides homemade cakes, grocery essentials and local produce.
Another enterprising venture is The Wookey Theatre Group, set up in 2011 to raise money towards the refurbishment of the village hall. £15,000 later, the group still holds two productions every year. And who’d have thought that amongst the village population of 1,300 (2011 census) there would be musicians, writers, seamstresses – and even a retired set designer. Sending up the regular mix up between the two Wookeys, one of the phrases shouted by the audience in the annual pantomime is ‘You’re in the wrong village!’
An addition to the farming community is the Wookey Goat Farm complete with a small farm shop. There are about 150 dairy goats, milked twice a day, and visitors are welcome to come and watch. For a proper look round the farm however, it is worth visiting on an open day: July 8 and September 16.
This village attracts thousands of visitors each year, principally to the stunning series of limestone caves, that are now a world-class tourist attraction.
One cavernous chamber houses the source of the River Axe and at one point it was a paper mill powered by the river that brought the village wealth and notoriety. Although there are a few houses in the village that date back several hundred years, the majority were built by W.S Hodgkinson who bought the paper mill in 1848. He constructed the large manor house, Glencot House, for himself, as well as extensive housing for his mill workers. He and his son were also responsible for building a school (which closed in 1988), the St Mary Magdalene Anglican church and a social club, which is still going strong.
The paper mill has now ceased as a commercial operation although handmade paper is produced as part of the Wookey Hole Caves attraction. The church, however, still enjoys its visible raised position in the centre of the village. As well as the weekly service, concerts are held with the village Wookey Hole Orchestra and Choir. There is also an annual summer fete held in the beautiful church grounds, a major community event.
Sadly the village’s post office, village shop and café have closed in recent years. But Wookey Hole Inn in the high street attracts custom from near and far. And a community spirit still thrives. Hodgkinson allowed the villagers to play cricket in the grounds of Glencot House, and it is still home to the Wookey Hole Cricket Club.
Meanwhile the social club, Wookey Hole Club, remains an important part of the community. Run by volunteers, there are music nights and an annual music festival, as well as facilities for pool, skittles and darts, and a monthly scrabble club. A nearby community hall hosts regular groups as well as a monthly cinema club, popular with both residents and visitors to the area.