Somerton: The archetypal Somerset town?
PUBLISHED: 11:40 08 October 2019
It's all change in Somerton, which is becoming one of the most creative, contemporary and forward-thinking towns in the county
High on a hill overlooking the heart of Somerset, it is easy to see why Somerton is the town that gave the county its name. The 'ancient royal town of Wessex' has Roman and Saxon origins and retains a feeling of old-world charm, with its terracotta roof tiles and honey-coloured stone, but that chocolate-box appearance doesn't tell the whole story. It's easy to look no further than the pleasant market square, with an arched medieval buttercross facing 15th-century coaching inn the White Hart, or the old town hall, almshouses and the building that was once the town's courthouse. But behind this handsome historic facade the town is undergoing something of a transformation.
The former courthouse building on West Street is at the centre of the development of the town's new artistic quarter in collaboration with local charity Arts Care Education (ACE), and after substantial and sympathetic redevelopment over the past few years the retail units are occupied and the retirement apartments known as Courthouse Mews are all but finished, as are the new homes to the rear of the property.
The town's ethos is social inclusivity and support. A good example of this is the town's new Dementia Action Alliance (DAA), which works with local shops and businesses, as well as with the arts community, to make them more accessible to people with dementia. Together with ACE's gallery space ACEArts in the old town hall on Market Place, Somerton's DAA recently supplied creative activity packs to families of those suffering with dementia, containing all the materials and resources needed to create items such as collage photo frames together - a thoughtful idea that nurtures the importance of memory. The alliance also launched a Safe Places scheme, another way to heighten awareness of the plight of vulnerable people in the town and making it a dementia-friendly place to live.
The latest in a long line of exciting arts-based attractions, ACEArts plans to create an artistic trail across the town for visitors to follow from the gallery and including the nearby White Hart and Shakspeare Glass in Langport.
The gallery already has a varied programme of exhibitions include Your Art Here3, featuring affordable postcard-sized works donated by amateur and professional artists to support the charity's outreach programme, as well as a collection of drawing, ceramics, sculpture, painting and printmaking entitled Fingerprint. Rewild features work by the winner of the British Wildlife Open 2018 and Wasted is an exploration of the wastage of the Earth's natural resources by the South West Textile Group at the end of the year.
Given the variety of its programme of exhibitions, and the charity's sterling outreach work and inclusive ethos, it's no surprise that manager Nina Gronw-Lewis won an award from Somerton Council for promoting art in the town recently.
Another charitable event enjoying success in Somerton is Made in Somerset. Its new event held at the White Hart in May showcased original artisan arts and crafts from across the county and raised more than £900 for charity. There were more than 30 stallholders selling stylish ceramics and hand crafted jewellery, luxurious embroidered leather and textiles to delicious food and seasonal plants.
The money raised from Made in Somerset will go to two farming communities: Etatu, which supports the education of children in Msambweni, a fishing and farming village on the Southern Kenyan Coast and The Addington Fund, a UK farming charity which provides emergency funds for farmers on the Somerset Levels still affected by the floods. After this year's success, it is hoped Made in Somerset will become an annual event.
Somerton now has its own Vintage Market too, which congregates at the Buttercross on the third Friday of every month. It is always popular, with people coming from far and wide to pick up rare, unusual and one-off items of clothing or furniture with retro allure or timeless appeal.
A new restaurant promises to be just as popular a fixture in town. Ex-Soho House director Ben Crofton's new gastronomic venture opens this autumn in a group of Grade II listed buildings in the centre of the town. The restaurant, called 28 Market Place, will be his first solo project, which he will run with his wife Vanessa. Alongside the restaurant, the development will offer the Market Bakery, which will supply the restaurant's baked goods, Somerton Wines, stocking a selection of around 150 varieties and an artisan ice- cream shop.
Great British Menu finalist Dan Fletcher has been appointed head chef and has been tasked with creating the restaurant's modern British-European menu, with a focus on quality produce sourced from the surrounding Somerset countryside.
And with the White Hart's chef Maya Hendy runner up at the National Breakfast Awards (and best in the South West), and the Lynch Country House also serving fine morning fayre, Somerton's residents and visitors look like they will be spoilt for great places to eat morning, noon and night.
In fact Somerton's White Hart is very much a microcosm of the town as a whole - behind it's ancient, time-worn frontage lies a contemporary place that marries elements of tradition and insightful innovation, a combination that's key to both their ongoing success.