Shepton Mallet in Somerset - Gateway to the Mendips
PUBLISHED: 16:43 04 January 2010 | UPDATED: 00:14 06 February 2013
Fall in step with Malcolm Rigby as he explores a town famous for its sheep, an odd baby deer and inspired paternalist businessmen. <br/><br/>Photos by Neville Stanikk
If you happen to be a visitor to Shepton Mallet approaching from the south, you will encounter a roundabout adorned with a group of sculpted sheep. The locals like to dress them up in suitable clothing to mark festivities such as Christmas or Easter, but their significance is to stress the importance of the past wool industry to Shepton Mallet.
Possibly the best place to start your wander of this historic destination is at the Tourist Information and Heritage Centre located in the top of the town. Here you can pick up information on just about anything, organise concert tickets, learn about the towns history or buy a lamb-size version of Jeff Bodys sculpted sheep.
The history of the name Shepton Mallet can be traced to an Anglo-Saxon village by the name of Sceapton, meaning sheep fold, mentioned in the Domesday Book, while the Mallet bit comes from the Malet family who held Shepton from the Abbey of Glastonbury in the 12th century. But the origins of the town go back much further; excavations near Cannards Grave in 1995 revealed Bronze Age homesteads and pottery, and there has been confirmation of a large Roman occupation of the site.
There was great excitement in 1990 when anarchaeological dig led to the discovery of a small silver amulet decorated with a Christian chi-rho symbol, as it was thought to be the earliest evidence of Christianity in the Westcountry. However, two years ago it was proved to be a fake; there are now suspicions that it was planted by a hoaxer trying to stop a development take place.
Go down Park Road and you quickly reach the rather wonderful Collett Park, a large community green space complete with bandstand and lake. The park recently celebrated its centenary and Colletts from all over the globe assembled for the festivities. The story goes that many years ago a young John Kyte Collett was ordered off a path through the field on the site by a gamekeeper, so he vowed that if he ever got rich he would buy it and give it to the local people and he did precisely that. Every June a Collett Park Day is held where local groups gather for entertainment, colourful stalls and fundraising.
Coming out at the school and leisure centre, you turn left then right down Frithfield Lane and encounter the imposing Shepton Mallet Gaol. Established in 1610, it is Britains oldest working prison. While the atmosphere around it is a little eerie there is also a certain magnificence in the high stone walls. There is an area of filled-in brickwork where the treadmill once protruded: this was used for the back-breaking work of grinding corn and crushing stones. Several American personnel were executed here during the war when it was used as a military prison; during this time it was also employed as a safe-house for some of the nations most important documents such as the Magna Carta and the Domesday Book.
Continuing around, you discover the quiet hidden heart of Shepton in Legg Square, an odd mixture of manors, mills and cottages. Just by is an old inn known as the Dusthole, so called because quarry workers would come here, from their workplace close behind, still covered in dust. In olden times the pub would also provide drink to the wealthier inmates of the prison.
Towards the end of the ever-varying Garston Street you find the huge buildings of the Gaymer cider production plant and ultimately a model of the Babycham deer, which was for years the mascot of the fizzy pear drink who cant remember the excited woman exclaiming Id love a Babycham in the advert? The cartoon-like animal was for a long while perched on top of the factory, a kind of emblem to the town, for it was here that Francis Showering developed the famous drink in the late 40s.
On hitting the main road, the Mulberry factory shop is located on the left in the old school, but straight ahead is Kilver Court, formerly the home of Mulberrys headquarters and now, amongst other things, the farm shop of Roger Sauls Sharpham Park. Pass through the yard and you reach the magnificent Kilver Court Gardens, created originally for the workers of the Industrial Revolution, though in the past ironically it was closed to the public for many years, unlike today.
Without any doubt this is Sheptons gem. From the deer to the gardens it is the ridiculous to the sublime. Framed by the 27-arched viaduct of the Somerset and Dorset Railway, aka Slow and Dirty, the serene and gentle mill pond is flanked by a cascading waterfall and a tasteful dovecote. In front Roger Saul has added a French-style parterre. It is perhaps not surprising that every Saturday this year has been booked for weddings as it is genuinely romantic, capturing the beauty of horticultural landscape with the nostalgia of bygone railways.
Meandering back through the lanes and alleys, I come across the 10th-century church of St Peter and St Paul. Take a peep inside and look up you wont be disappointed. Theres a splendid wagon ceiling some say the best example in the country with 350 individual carved oak panels.
Right next door to the church is the Academy theatre. Formerly known as the Amulet, the 20th-century building has rumbled through a life of controversy, not least because of its location sandwiched between the church and the market cross. However, it was a gift of Francis Showering and is now the base for a successful musical theatre school.
Built in about 1500, the market cross is very fine and dedicated to Walter and Agnes Buckland. It is here that the wool would have been sold and, occasionally (apparently), the odd wife. Following the Monmouth Rebellion, Judge Jeffreys held a bloody assize in the town and 12 of the unfortunate losers were hung, drawn and quartered in the market square. Heading west, you find the domineering Victorian structure of the Anglo Bavarian Brewery. Now a trading estate, it is claimed that this is where the very first lager in Britain was made. During the First World War the Bavarian element of the title was dropped to satisfy the anti-German sentiment and the business closed in the 1920s.
Lorraine Pratten, Manager and Director of the Tourist Information and Heritage Centre, explains what Shepton means to her: I like the sense of community, the fact that people help each other out; local people are amazingly supportive. I think people value the shops that they have and they try to use the facilities on their doorstep.
Theyre very proud of the town. Even though were not a tourist place, we are in a way. I think people like it because its a pleasant and friendly place. People look out for each other and I think you cant really buy that. But maybe Somerset is like that anyway.
Then in addition to the quirky assemblage of historic buildings that make up Shepton Mallet, close by you have the East Somerset Railway at Cranmore and, always threatening to come into the town, the Bath and West Showground, and of course the Pilton Festival site much nearer to Shepton than Glastonbury.