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Painting the pageant and going over (and under) the hills

The book Somerset Hills in Watercolours: On Higher Ground celebrates the ups and ups of the landscape of the county and the Strawberry Line District. With words by Howard Smith beautiful watercolour illustrations by his wife Rosie Teresa Smith we’ve chosen a couple of extracts that cover the district

The Winscombe Drove. From Winterhead, the Winscombe Drove ascends and descends to meet the A38 at a stony platform ridge known as Shute Shelve from where the trees of King’s Wood rise to fill the eastern slopes of Wavering Down. Due west, a narrow road, Winscombe Hill, winds down to the older part of Winscombe - the village was dragged eastwards towards its hamlet of Woodborough by the arrival of the railway in 1869. The beautiful Church of St. James (the Great!) stands high on a bluff with its great yew tree and Perpendicular tower addressing the village below. The church is famed for its light-capturing medieval and Victorian (Pre-Raphaelite) windows.

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4 Strawberry Line Times May 2013

Shute Shelve. Known locally as Shute Shelf - ‘shute’ is an old word for a channel or cutting and ‘shelve’ is a rocky ledge. It carried the old Bristol to Bridgwater turnpike road. It was also a place of public execution; men were brought here to be hanged following the Battle of Sedgemoor in 1685. In 1609, two men and a woman from Worle were executed and ‘hung in irons’ for the murder of the woman’s husband.

Lost Woodborough. On discovering there was another Woodborough in Wiltshire, the railway company decided to change the station’s name to Winscombe. Soon after, travellers were surprised to arrive at a station with its sign upside down - it turned out the railway’s carpenter, who

fixed the signboard, couldn’t read.

Sidcot. Sidcot, which bestrides the A38 on the eastern edge of Winscombe, is well-known for its Quaker School and the Somerset historian Francis Knight who once taught and lived there. Running beneath the road at the Shute Shelve junction is the railway tunnel that once carried the Strawberry Line between Yatton and Wells. Much of the former line has been converted into a cycle-way which, from here, curves round the south side of Callow Hill to the ancient town of Axbridge.

Axbridge. Although losing its railway in 1964 was sad, for Axbridge it came Strawberry Line Times

May 2013

with the 1967 blessing of the rail-track being replaced with a by-pass road. My generation still recalls the tortuous jams in its narrow streets; ridding the town of traffic returned the community to itself. How Banwell must cast an envious eye! The railway station buildings are still there beside the by-pass and it’s now possible to meander (almost) down West Street and the High Street where a feast of old houses and doorways front directly onto the pavement. Many are medieval with ‘new’ 17th and 18th century frontages. The High Street opens out onto The Square; a splendid, sunny, open space with an intriguing variety of buildings loftily surmounted by the Church of St. John the Baptist lording it from the top of a wide, stone staircase.

King John’s Hunting Lodge. The Square below captures a genuine medieval scene highlighted by the dramatic, three-tiered, wood-framed King John’s Hunting Lodge. Saved from collapse by Miss K. Ripley who bought it and donated it to the National Trust. Fully restored in 1971, it now serves as the town’s museum.

Axbridge Pageant. The town celebrated the opening of its by-pass with a tableau pageant in The Square. Its great success, involving the participation of hundreds of local people portraying the town’s story, led to further pageants, every ten years, between 1970 and 2010. We were fortunate to get tickets for one of the 2010 performances and the weather was kind. All 20th and 21st century intrusions were hidden away and The Square covered in sand. Directed by John Bailey, it was a brilliant and moving show, fantastically costumed with intimate dramas being played out alongside the major themes.

Somerset Hills in Watercolours: On Higher Ground by Howard Smith and Rosie Teresa Smith is available in hardback £18.99 and paperback £14.99 from local book shops, WHSmiths and online from Garret Press. Visit for more details.


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