21 Somerset secrets that you may not know about

PUBLISHED: 00:00 10 July 2020

The dramatic Limestone Cliffs of Brean Down (c) steved_np3/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The dramatic Limestone Cliffs of Brean Down (c) steved_np3/Getty Images/iStockphoto

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Author Mike Dean reveals some of the lesser-known Somerset secrets that appear in his latest book - did you know them?

1. There are people living in the Cheddar area today whose DNA matches that of Cheddar Man, who lived in the region 10,000 years ago.

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2. The Somerset Levels is home to what is believed to be the oldest trackway (ancient roadway) in Europe, dating from around 4,000 BC.

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3. The county has one of the largest Iron Age hillforts in Britain at Ham Hill, covering an area of about 210 acres.

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4. In 2009, during excavations for a ‘Park and Ride’ site at Taunton, the remains of one of Britain’s largest known Iron Age roundhouses was discovered.

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5. A Roman amulet found in 1990 near Shepton Mallet, and thought to be one of the earliest examples of Christian art in Britain, subsequently proved to be a fake.

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6. In the 17th century. Somerset had its own ‘Witchfinder General’.

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7. The first actor to receive a knighthood, Sir Henry Irving, was born in Somerset in 1838.

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8. In Wells, many people visited the shrine of a former Bishop in the hope of finding a cure for toothache.

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9. In 1862, a donkey was hoisted to the top of the newly-restored tower of St Mary Magdalene Church, Taunton.

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10. During the Great Storm of 1702, the then Bishop of Bath and Wells was killed in his bed by a falling chimney.

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11. While they were living in Somerset, William and Dorothy Wordsworth were suspected by some locals of being spies for the French.

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12. The Gibbs family, who built Tyntesfield House, made their fortune from importing guano (bird droppings).

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13. Somerset has the longest independent heritage railway in the country, which runs between Taunton and Minehead.

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14. Thanks to an aviation pioneer named John Stringfellow, the town of Chard has a claim to be the birthplace of powered flight.

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15. During World War Two, a ‘decoy city’, modelled on Bristol, was built on the Blackdown Hills in an attempt to confuse enemy bombers.

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16. Glastonbury was the last English abbey to be closed at the Dissolution, when its abbot was executed on Glastonbury Tor in 1539.

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17. The character of Amyas Leigh in Kingsley’s novel Westward Ho! is based on Sir Amyas Preston, a real-life privateer who was born at Cricket St Thomas.

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18. A huge tidal surge in 1607 caused floods in North Somerset, which it’s thought may have cost the lives of as many as 3,000 people.

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19. The first wireless communication over open sea took place in 1897, between Brean Down and South Wales.

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20. One of the heroes of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, made famous in the film Zulu, is buried in the churchyard of St John’s in the village of Hatch Beauchamp.

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21. In 1962 Acker Bilk, a former Somerset blacksmith became the first British artist to have a single at number one in the US music charts.

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The little history of Somerset by Mike Dean

More than 400 million years ago, the oldest rocks in Somerset were formed. On those rocks, a county was built over thousands of years; from prehistoric man and Roman invasion, through a Pitchfork Rebellion and two world wars to where we are today. Revolution, wassailing, Templars and alchemists – all can be found in this friendly guide to Somerset’s colourful history.

Available from all good bookshops and online retailers.

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