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Much more to Muchelney

PUBLISHED: 16:39 11 October 2013 | UPDATED: 16:40 11 October 2013

Chris Gladstone

Clare Bourke discovers a close community with a whole lot to offer visitors

PHOTOGRAPHY: Chris Gladstone

Just under a year ago the picturesque village of Muchelney hit the headlines when it was completely cut off from the rest of the world.

When the rains came down in November, the River Parrett broke its banks and caused such severe flooding that the only way in and out of the village for more than two weeks was by boat.

But, as difficult as this time was, it also demonstrated how a strong community can pull together to get through tough times and, 11 months on, Muchelney is welcoming visitors back with its quiet charm.

From the farm

Helen and Graham Walker’s family have farmed at School Farm for 140 years and have run a shop on the site for the past 28 years, offering fresh produce as well as traditional cream teas from Easter until the end of October.

On offer are milk, eggs, cheeses, preserves and cider, as well as meat, courtesy of the farm’s Wiltshire Horn sheep and North Devon ruby cattle.

But it was during the floods that the farm shop really came into its own as supplies came by boat to the farm shop and then out to the community.

Helen says: “During the floods we were the hub of activity. We were the only place supplies came into.

“Normally when it floods the tractors can get through so we can get people in and out, but with this latest flood even the bigger tractors couldn’t get through so we were completely cut off.”

“We get a big flood every 10 years but this one was a mega one.”

The only way in and out was by boat or canoe with people leaving the village to fetch orders for themselves and their neighbours.”

As Helen says: “It’s at times like that the community does pull together. We are a small island and when something like that happens you see people you don’t normally see every day and everyone gets together.”

Wedding belles

This year marked the start of a new business in the village with the opening of Almonry Barn wedding venue, with the abbey and church as its backdrop.

The beautifully-restored ancient barn, once part of the abbey across the road, incorporates a civil ceremony room upstairs in the hayloft, main reception room, dance floor and stable bar downstairs, plus terraces and lawns for the all-important wedding photos.

Louise Wilson-Ward, owner and wedding co-ordinator says: “The barn is about 800 years old and is a scheduled ancient monument. It is believed to be the oldest barn of its kind in the country.

“It had not been in use for six years before we took it on. “Structurally the barn was fine but we had to rewire it and restructure parts of it to make it more sympathetic, such as taking down some stud partition walls where there were offices before.

“We opened at the end of January and held our first wedding on 13 July. We are filling up nicely for 2014.”

In 2015 Louise and fiancé Paul Fleet will get to experience it for themselves when they hold their very own wedding at the venue after Paul proposed in the grounds of the abbey.

Pots and pots

John Leach has been making pots in Muchelney for almost 50 years, since moving to the village from Cornwall with wife Lizzie in 1964.

Five decades later and the successful Muchelney Pottery is full to the brim with pots in all stages of creation, from potter’s wheel to gallery.

Along with Master Potters Nick Rees and Mark Melbourne, John ensures his business remains traditional with hand-thrown pots made from local clays and wood-fired in his vast kiln.

He says: “The kiln holds 2,000 pots so we only fire every two months on average. “There are three of us doing all these pots plus my wife in the shop.”

Moving to the village turned out to be the best move John could make with his pottery proving to be sought-after.

“We came here from St Ives and bought this place in 1964. The people here wanted to sell it to us because we were young. Our five children have all been brought up here so they are real locals,” adds John.

“Somerset is traditionally referred to as a ‘through county’, with people coming from the north and heading through to Devon and Cornwall. But Somerset has everything, especially from a topographical point of view with the hills, moors and coastline. It’s a marvellous county.”

As for the floods, John’s was one of the few properties to suffer flooding and it took a couple of months to dry out the house and the kiln after the water got in.

“In Muchelney we are very friendly, accommodating and willing to help. Ironically this time of adversity with the flooding brought everyone together,” he says.

Fun and games

Just outside Muchelney at Thorney Lakes is the site of the renowned Lowland Games, which take place every July. The games, which started in 1984, are due to celebrate their 30th anniversary with the 2014 event, which promises to be as much family and mud covered fun as ever. From the river raft race, mud wrestling and wife carrying to a family dog show, ferret racing and plenty of Somerset cider refreshment, the day is not short on surprises, which is probably why it is billed as ‘a bit of country fun and a lot of mud’.

Abbey days

Dominating the village is Muchelney Abbey, which proudly rises above the Somerset Levels and is the village’s most popular attraction for visitors.

Site manager Stephen Honey says: “We had a slow start to the year but we’re back to about 50 visitors day, more at weekends and bank holidays. We average about 8,000 visitors a season. We are the second oldest and second largest abbey in Somerset, after Glastonbury.”

Although the English Heritage-owned abbey’s main buildings were destroyed by Henry VIII during the dissolution of the monasteries, visitors can still see the foundations of the abbey, the thatched monks’ lavatory – the only thatched two-storey monks’ toilet in England - and the 16th century abbots’ house, which houses displays illustrating monastic life. The abbots’ house was still someone’s home until 1926.

Adjoining the abbey is the Medieval Church of St Peter and St Paul, which includes fascinating architecture of its own and a beautiful ceiling worthy of a closer look.

Stephen, who also helps produce a leaflet about the village, adds: “This is a great community. We all look after each other and all look after the church, which is an architectural feature in its own right. “Everyone pulls together and plays their part – there’s a real sense of community.”

The abbey is open every day 10am-5pm, from April until the end of October.

Don’t miss…

In the heart of the village is the National Trust-owned Priest’s House. Built in 1308 for the parish priest of St Peter & St Paul Church just opposite, the thatched building with delightful garden retains many impressive features including its Gothic doorway and a 15th century stone fireplace. Open 2-5pm, Sundays and Mondays.

Did you know…?

The name Muchelney means ‘Great Island’, so named because of its elevated position surrounded by rivers and marshland.

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