Chard, Somerset: 'The birthplace of powered flight'
PUBLISHED: 14:45 13 December 2018 | UPDATED: 16:00 13 December 2018
The town which boasts being the birthplace of modern flight is still aiming high discovers Laurence McJannet
Often overlooked due to its proximity to its more illustrious neighbours Ilminster and Axminster near the borders of Dorset and Devon, Chard has an appeal all of its own, and a few surprises to boot. This southernmost of Somerset’s towns, and one of its highest too, has a particular claim to fame that at first is hard to believe.
As you approach the town, you will come across a sign welcoming you to ‘the birthplace of powered flight’. But surely this isn’t where those magnificent men the Wright Brothers made history in their famous flying machine? (Indeed, that was in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina). In fact Chard’s most famous son, John Stringfellow, beat them to it by some half a century when he invented the first aircraft to fly under its own power – a winged steam engine that was tested in a hangar but never really got off the ground, so to speak.
If that seems like a somewhat tenuous claim to fame, then Chard has other things to shout about, most notably an ambitious regeneration scheme that could begin as early as next year and which proposes to transform the derelict Boden Mill site in the centre of town into a mixture of housing and commercial developments, as well as a new leisure centre and swimming pool – a plan warmly welcomed by the town’s residents.
For a town that has seen little investment in recent years this regeneration project could be just what Chard needs. That’s not to say there is little to attract visitors to the town today. Unsurprisingly for a market town with a manufacturing history in wool and lace, there are handsome old buildings by the handful. At the heart of the town is a perfect example – the Grade II-listed Guildhall. As well as being Chard’s civic centre, this former corn exchange dating from 1837 hosts a varied programme of public and social events, such as the Meeting Voices community choir, a community church and one of the longest running indoor antiques fairs in the country. Every Thursday morning the hall becomes a hive of activity as visitors delve through the wealth of antiques, crafts and vintage items for sale from knowledgeable stallholders.
The Guildhall is also home to Cinechard, an independent pop-up cinema screening a variety of classics and new releases. Every second Friday of the month an eager audience turns up to experience the unique and intimate atmosphere (and at £5 a ticket, excellent value too) that no chain cinema can compete with. If you are after fine food and craft items then again the Guildhall is the place to come – with the Farmers Market each Saturday morning and the Craft and Food Fair Market every fourth Saturday until 2pm.
If you plan to stay a while there are some characterful B&Bs and holiday lets to choose from, including a converted chapel and circular tollhouse, but for comfort and quality you can’t beat the Lordleaze Hotel. This 18th farmhouse has been transformed into a luxury country hotel in the heart of town. A winner last year of the Taste of the West gold award for service, food quality and use of local produce, Chard’s only three-star hotel is the perfect place to stay as you explore the area.
Just north of the town is the splendid Hornsbury Mill, a four-star hotel and restaurant set in five acres of peaceful, landscaped water gardens. This charming 19th-century watermill cleverly combines beautiful original features and traditional character with luxury contemporary comforts. You can enjoy a delightful lunch or candlelit dinner in the Mill Restaurant as the original waterwheel turns beside you. The restaurant offers modern English cuisine and ingredients are sourced from local suppliers and farms, including organic vegetables, local beef, trout and Somerset cheeses.
Just a stone’s throw from town is the Ferne Animal Sanctuary, set among 50 acres of tranquil countryside and woodlands. Ferne cares for unwanted, abandoned and neglected animals and you’ll see many of them grazing contentedly as you wander among the wildlife ponds and meadows and soak up the stunning views of the Blackdown Hills. The sanctuary offers trails, activities and events throughout the year and a lovely café that is worth a visit alone. Other eateries worth the short trek are the Potting Shed in Chard Garden Centre and Barleymow’s Farm Shop on Snowdon Hill Farm, both of which do a fine line in delicious, locally sourced food. For wonderful all-day breakfasts head to the Secret Garden on Hollyrood St.
Forde Abbey Gardens is another idyllic spot for an autumnal stroll. At this time of year its 30 acres of beautiful gardens, featuring a rockery, bog garden and arboretum, are a riot of warm natural hues. Forde Abbey itself is one of the oldest inhabited houses in England that is open to the public, and makes the gardens well worth a visit, even on the most inclement of days.
Any town worth its salt needs a decent pub, and Chard and its outskirts have plenty. Most central is the Golden Fleece on Perry Street. With a reputation for good, hearty food and a lively atmosphere it’s the perfect place to pop into while wandering through town. For slightly more refined dining and drinking try the Green Dragon in nearby Combe St Nicholas, the Windwhistle Inn on Windwhistle Hill, the Cotley Inn in Wambrook or the Candlelight Inn in Bishopswood. Each is nestled in a peaceful village location within walking distance of Chard, and the Candlelight Inn in particular is worth a visit just to sample its wonderful array of artisan gins.
Back in town and the place to go for an insight into Chard past and present is the charming local museum and heritage centre. It has six interesting exhibition areas, charting Chard’s history from its first charter in 1235 to the present day, and including a converted skittle alley bedecked with tools and equipment from the former forge at Tintinhull which illustrates how local blacksmiths and wheelwrights would have worked. It’s a genuinely enlightening place, and one that you’ll leave feeling you know the real Chard a little better.