-By Diane Newland, Darwin Bookseller

The Darwin Rare Books Room, our wonderfully atmospheric room within the Bookbarn, is located in the ancient county of Somerset. So when I spied this green cloth-bound book with its gilt embossed cover, entitled “The Story of Somersetshire” it seemed fitting to give it some attention.

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This little jewel of a book is highly illustrated with over ninety illustrations, and it’s aim is to illustrate the close connection the county of Somerset has, with “nearly every leading event in the history of the kingdom..”

It takes us through the British and Roman period, King Alfred, the Normans and Plantagenets, Tudor times, the Armada, the Civil War, the Battle of Sedgemoor, and the story of ‘modern’ Bath. It also includes some of the poetry, architecture and notable historical people, or “the worthies of Somerset.” It even explains the story of Little Jack Horner.

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I have lived in Somerset for twenty-five years now, and although I have visited several historic sites and attractions, I would love to be more gemmed up on this beautiful county that I have made my permanent home, so this book is the perfect next read.

In his introduction, Richmond talks of the Somerset plains, all the low lands bordering the Channel from the Mendips to the Quantocks, and how these were formerly sea flats covered at high tide, with the heights of Glastonbury Tor becoming an island.

I had an astonishing visual impression of just this when I walked up the Tor on a beautiful sunny but misty December morning. I emerged out of the thick, freezing cold mist about three-quarters of the way up, into a whole different micro-climate of sun and midges flying about. The dense sea of blue-grey mist stretched out below me, as far as the eye could see, completely surrounding the top of Glastonbury Tor. I was suddenly on a magical island; a sun-glazed heaven. Incredibly beautiful and (forgive the pun) mystical, it was the perfect way to experience Glastonbury Tor, so steeped as it is, in legendary and spiritual significance.

Glastonbury Tor, used to be called “The Glassy Isle” due to the herb ‘glast’ with whose juice the natives stained their bodies, apparently, and Glastonbury, was known as Avalon, which means “The Isle of Apples.” Very appropriate given the amount of orchards that used to exist in the surrounding area, and the amount of cider long produced in Somerset.

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This little book details the many other industries that parts of Somerset were famed for too, a few being; Cheddar cheese made in Wedmore, bacon-curing in Highbridge, poultry-keeping on the rich marsh lands in north somerset, teasels grown around Taunton for the county’s woollen trade, gloves in Yeovil, Chard lace, woollen and silk goods at Frome and Taunton, brushes at Wells, boots and shoes at Street, the Wookey paper mills, and more.

Richmond also talks of the close link that Glastonbury has with the myth of King Arthur, of the mingling of history and legend relating to him, and quotes King Arthur from Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King” when he sets off;

“To the island-valley of Avilion,

Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow,

Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies

Deep-meadow’d, happy, fair with orchard-lawns,

And bowery hollows crown’d with summer sea,

Where I will heal me of my grievous wound.”

Not only is fable and fact entangled in relation to King Arthur. The original Somersetshire myth of Bladud, recorded as actual history by one ancient historian, also alludes to King Lear and his three daughters. Bladud is credited with the making of the hot springs at Bath “through magic skill.” A newer myth credits the Avon for curing Bladud and his swine of  leprosy, he then built Bath on the edge of the healing waters in gratitude of his recovery.

As Richmond beautifully states, “A myth...is like a halo of romance gleaming over the trackless wastes of an unknown age.” He does, however, also go into great and fascinating historical detail of the kings and battles over early Britain, including King Alfred, and the wars with the pagan Viking invaders, in and around our county. The mention of local places that I know and recognise, is an enticing way for someone like me, not too hot on history, to slip pleasurably into historical waters.

Richmond also describes the growth of Christianity and the building of religious buildings, against this historical background. Somersetshire is a county of noble churches as well as, of course, the highly majestic cathedral of Wells. History is always a rocky road however, and churches were destroyed and rebuilt, and the clergy re-arranged, after William became the first Norman King of England from 1066. And this only continued as the battles for power continued.

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The fortunes, misfortunes, and rise and fall of Bath as a city are also detailed, and in a letter of 1632 it says;

“The streets are dunghills, slaughter houses and pigsties...The baths are bear-gardens where passers by pelt the bathers with dead cats and dogs even human creatures are hurled over the rails into the water.”

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I am so glad to say that things have improved greatly. My recent visit to the Thermae Bath Spa was nothing but languid luxury. No cadavers in sight.

This book is bursting with history embedded in our local and familiar name-places. If you live in Somerset, you owe it to our beautiful county to read this book!

As this volume proves, we have a choice selection of  antique local interest books, which can reveal some far more eclectic details than your usual guide book. So come and browse our Darwin shelves, here in the ancient, throbbing heart of Somersetshire.

 


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