Somerton: The archetypal Somerset town?
PUBLISHED: 10:40 11 September 2018 | UPDATED: 10:40 11 September 2018
A wander through Somerton’s streets reveals a perfectly preserved rural Somerset town, discovers Laurence McJannet
Conjure up an image of an archetypal Somerset town, and it would be built from local stone, with terracotta roof tiles, a patchwork of houses from different centuries, and lingering traces of bygone industry. Perhaps a river meandering through it, and narrow lanes with high hedgerows, or a local cider maker staying true to traditional methods.
That is a perfect description of Somerton. This ancient royal town of wessex built on the banks of the River Cary has hardly changed in a century. A walk through town feels like stepping back in time, to a simple, pastoral place unyielding to modernity. It is no surprise that Somerton is the embodiment of an old Somerset town as it supposedly gave the county its name. Everywhere you look are reminders of its illustrious past – Coronation Fountain on Cow Square, erected in 1902 for the coronation of Edward VII and overlooked by splendid houses from the 17th and 18th centuries; or nearby Donisthorpe House, with high railings to prevent livestock being sold in the market from destroying the garden.
There is the Old Town Hall which dates back to 1278, when Edward I came to the town on his way to Glastonbury. Then it served as the County Hall and the Court of Assizes. Now it has been sympathetically converted into a gallery and workshop venue managed by ACEArts. Close Care Homes, the company behind ACEArts, is at the forefront of efforts to preserve and enhance the town and as well as converting the old town hall and sponsoring the exhibitions there, it is also transforming the old Courthouse Gallery into luxury retirement properties and artisan shops.
The Market Square is the historic heart of Somerton, and it is here you will find the Church of St Michael and All Angels, with its rare octagonal tower and wonderful carved nave ceiling dating from 1450. Nearby is the lovely Buttercross dating from 1673, the typical symbol of an old English market town.
The main thoroughfare, Broad Street, is lined with finely proportioned houses and buildings with bow windows that once were shopfronts. The street is aptly named; it was made this wide so livestock could be kept in pens on either side on market day. Trees were planted in their place in 1863 to commemorate the wedding of Edward VII to Alexandra, and many of the original ones remain.
On Broad Street is Collar Cottage, evidence of the old shirt and collar factory, Welsh and Clark’s, that stood next door and was an important industry for the town. The Red Lion Inn was another mainstay of Somerton, and although now redeveloped, its facia and the arms of Lord Ilchester remain. Built in 1768 to replace Lord Ilchester’s original building, this was one of the most popular coaching inns in the town. The Red Lion shut down in the 1990s, and only two inns remain, The White Hart and The Globe – both typically friendly Somerset pubs with inviting garden and patio areas for al fresco summer dining. In the 18th century, when Somerton was a thriving coaching centre on the route to London, Exeter, Bath and Dorchester, it had some 16 inns, mostly surrounding the market place. Both The White Hart and The Globe were among them.
Other handsome buildings to look out for include the 15th century Leaver’s Court and the 17th century Hext Almshouses where North Street meets Behind Berry. From here there is a beautiful view of the valley. The century-old viaduct crosses the river in spectacular fashion, with five 50ft arches. In its shadow is the Viaduct Fishery, with six well-stocked lakes luring anglers from far and wide to fish for trout, eel, perch and tench. It is a peaceful and beautiful spot and a haven for wildlife, most notably kingfishers.
With traditional cider manufacturer Harry’s just down the road on a family farm in Long Sutton, Somerton is indeed the distillation of all that makes a wonderful rural Somerset town.