48 Hours in... Frome
PUBLISHED: 14:17 30 December 2007 | UPDATED: 14:58 20 February 2013
Frome spreads across limestone foothills near the Wiltshire border, plugging a lowland gap between the Mendip Hills and Salisbury Plain, a gateway to Somerset for travellers approaching from the north-east. Though it's the largest town in Mendip, ...
Where the town once attracted religious fervour, including the devout and health-stricken King Edred of England who died here in 955, today it attracts creative fervour. A magnet for artists and craftspeople, Frome offers contemporary creativity combined with a rich architectural heritage. The old part of town is a honeycomb of artists, musicians and writers. Saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, a founding father of funk with James Brown, folk diva Cara Dillon and Whitbread prize-winning author Lindsay Clarke live here, as did the late Lois Maxwell, who played lovelorn Miss Moneypenny in the early James Bond films. Every July, the community celebrates its talents with an arts festival of national standing.
Hit the downtown
Frome has the most Listed buildings of any town in Somerset. The architecture spans several centuries, from the Tudor intimacy of its narrow cobbled streets to the sandstone manor houses built by wealthy clothiers in the 17th and 18th centuries.
A good place to start is St John's Church. In the far corner of the graveyard is an old blindhouse, or lock-up, built in 1798, with a small barrel opening in the roof. Steps leading down from the church reveal one of the town's rare treasures, a carved Via Crucis, depicting the final stages of Christ's crucifixion. Following the carved friezes leads to the top of Cheap Street. The leat running down the centre of the street is fed by a natural spring.
Cheap Street leads into Market Square, with its restored buildings. Cross the road and wander up cobbled Catherine Hill. From here you can explore the town's conservation area, Trinity, which includes some of the earliest industrial housing in England.
Back in the town centre, look for the oak door at 3 Cork Street, down from Barclays Bank. The Duke of Monmouth stayed here shortly before his defeat at the Battle of Sedgemoor in 1685.
Up Bath Street, past a row of 17th-century cottages, is Grade I Listed Rook Lane Chapel , built by the Nonconformist movement in 1707. The main hall is used as an exhibition space.
Stroll back down the hill to the River Frome. Town Bridge, built in 1667, is one of only a few examples left in England of a bridge with buildings on it. The buildings date from 1821. Standing on a small island opposite is the Grade I Listed Blue House, built in 1726 as an almshouse and a charity school for boys.
Back on Bath Street, the former Literary and Scientific Institute, built in 1868, is now home to Frome Museum . Next door is Black Swan Arts, a creative centre with a café and cluster of art studios that lead to Frome Tourist Information Centre, housed in a restored wool-drying round tower.
Eating and sleeping
Start your day with a pastry and a cup of coffee at La Strada café (tel 01373 454454) in Cheap Street. Apparently their coffee machine is one of only three in the UK, the other two being in London. The café also has a gallery upstairs.
Visitors are spoilt for places to lunch. The wholefood café at Black Swan Arts (tel 01373 473980) in Bridge Street and the vegetarian Garden Café (tel 01373 454178) in Stony Street are amongst the most popular. For a good sandwich, try Sagebury Cheese (tel 01373 462543), which supports the Slow Food Movement and stocks a range of local and organic foods.
Friday and Saturday evenings at The Settle Restaurant (tel 01373 465975) in Cheap Street sees chef Jonathan Atkinson produce the most inventive dinner menu in town. It also opens during the daytime for lunch and snacks.
La Bisalta (tel 01373 464238) in Vicarage Street is probably the town's longest-running restaurant. Chef Luigi Violini has served traditional Italian food six evenings a week for the past 17 years. The Old Bath Arms (tel 01373 465045) in Bath Street also has a good reputation for food.
Frome has a shortage of places to stay in the centre but the outskirts and surrounding villages offer many alternatives. The most central is The George Hotel (tel 01373 462584), with a lively bar area at weekends, while the newly refurbished Lamb Inn (tel 01749 880038) does B&B.
Further a field is The George Inn (tel 01373 834224) at Norton St Philip, a historic coaching inn with bags of character and four-poster bedrooms.
Modernists may prefer the co-ordinated style of The Place To Stay (tel 01373 836266) at Trudoxhill, while Fleur Kelly's smallholding at Claveys Farm (tel 01373 814651), Mells, is full of down-to-earth charm and chattering livestock.
Things to take home
For shoppers, Frome is an emporium of curious and retro chic. Fun places to browse for gifts include The Golden Goose, Black and White, /ik'sentrik, Amica, Nova and Bea & Evie. Dore & Rees Auctioneers, The Pipe Shop, and Raves From The Grave music shop are also recommended viewing.
For an edible treat, the savoury Frome Bobbin made by The Old Bakehouse (tel 01373 455456) makes a delicious souvenir lunch that cannot be eaten anywhere else on the planet. Those with a sweet tooth should head to Bracends sweetshop in Cheap Street. Their Somerset Mint Shrimps have been made since the 1850s and are probably the oldest sweet still in production.
Explore the area
Frome has three main performance venues. The Merlin Theatre in Bath Road concentrates on contemporary performing arts. The Memorial Theatre in Christchurch Street West is home to Frome Amateur Operatic Society and features musicals, tribute bands and theatre productions. Frome Cheese & Grain in Market Yard is the town's main music venue and hosts a range of modern and retro acts.
Outside Frome, Longleat Safari Park and Brokerswood Park make ideal family destinations. Open throughout the winter, Longleat House is one of the best surviving Elizabethan manor houses in the UK. Home to the 7th Marquess of Bath, it lies in 900 acres of parkland designed by Capability Brown. Close encounters with the wild animals won't be possible until mid-February though, when the safari park reopens.
Brokerswood Country Park, winner of six David Bellamy Gold Conservation Awards, is part of the last remaining corner of the original Selwood Forest, which once covered 20,000 acres along the Somerset, Wiltshire and Dorset borders.
Two of the best gardens to visit near Frome are Stourhead to the south and the Peto Garden at Iford Manor (tel 01225 863146) on the road to Bath, which is open April-October.
Frome TIC stocks excellent trail guides for surroundings villages. Two worth exploring are Nunney, with its ruined castle, and Mells, a pretty Ham stone village, where the poet Siegfried Sassoon is buried.
24 March: Mells Daffodil Festival. Mells, 11am-5pm
4-13 July: Frome Festival. Tel 01373 453889, www.fromefestival.co.uk
2 August: Nunney Street Fayre. Nunney, 10am-5.30pm
13 September: Frome Cheese Show. Bunns Lane Showfield, West Woodlands. Tel 01373 463600, www.fromecheeseshow.co.uk
20 September: Frome Carnival. Town centre, from 7pm. Tel 01373 461625
Frome TIC: tel 01373 467271, www.frometouristinfo.co.uk
BY STEPHEN TATE. PHOTOS BY TONY HOWELL