Coombe Down and the story of Bath Stone

Last week Steve the leader of our walk in the past  walking group asked us to meet at the Museum of Bath Stone. in Coombe Down to the east of Bath.  I have to admit my heart sank.  After all quarries are not the most exciting subject. When I was growing up much of Bath was covered in soot from coal fires and steam trains and I always thought that Bath stone made the buildings look dreary. However when Bath was in its heyday in the late 18th century the honey coloured stone must have gleamed in the sunshine. Nowadays planning officials still insist that all building in the centre of town is made from the local stone.

The Coombe Down museum of Bath Stone 

I arrived early and  was able to take the time to look round the small free museum.  Visitors were watching a short film about the Coombe Down stabilization project.   Bath Stone is an oolitic limestone that formed the bed of a shallow sea in the Jurassic period. Surface stone can be used for dry stone walls but building material is found at a depth of a few feet. It has probably been used for local buildings since Roman times as it can be easily worked.

Ralph Allen who built the nearby Prior Park was one of the early quarry owners in Coombe Down. He developed the idea of quarrying stone and then using the flat bed of the quarry to build cottages for his workers. This was fine and some of his early cottages were built by John Wood who also designed the Royal Crescent.  He built rails to send carts laden with stone down the hill now known as Ralph Allen Drive where they could be unloaded onto barges and the stone taken into the centre of Bath.

However later quarry owners decided to extract stone from underground tunnels and build the houses on top. In the 1980’s people living in the expensive houses with views over the Bath sky line found cracks starting to appear in their homes and they were unable to sell them. A survey was carried out and found that many of the pillars that were supporting the roof of the quarries were unsafe. Surveyors estimated that about 500 houses were at risk.

Eventually it was decided to fill the quarries with concrete at a cost of over £150 million . A colony of rare horseshoe bats were found to be living in one of the quarries and an extra six million pounds was provided to save their cave and now they are even provided with heating.  The concrete foam used would have covered a football pitch to a depth of ninety metres.

Walking through the woods
Our walking group. I am fifth from the left.

We  walked round Coombe Down and admired the houses that had been saved. Our group also  rambled through the fields and bluebell woods enjoying the bird song and spring flowers.

We were able to find the cottage where Harry Patch was born in in 1898. His father and grandfather were stone masons in Coombe Down and when he died in 2009 at the age of 111 he was the last fighting Tommy from world war one. We walked down to the nearby village of Monkton Coombe to find his grave in the churchyard.

The grave of Harry Patch with poppy wreath
The grave of Harry Patch in Monkton Combe churchyard.

William Smith and the first geological map.

One of the early quarry owners was a man named William Smith. He was a blacksmith’s son from Churchill in  Oxfordshire who had spent time surveying the route of the local canal and also helping the local coal mine owners find good places to sink mine shafts. He noticed that the rock was in different strata and that fossils appeared in different layers. His work took him all over England and he used the information he had obtained to produce the first geological map of England which is remarkably similar to a modern map.

A plaque marking the cottage where William Smith lived.
Memorial on William Smith’s cottage.

Unfortunately his quarry was not a success and he spent some time in prison for debt His life has been commemorated by Simon Winchester in his book  “the map that changed the world” and by a museum which he designed himself the rotunda in Scarborough.

This post will be added to a link party for blogging grandmother’s. This week I was lucky enough to be the subject of a meet the grandmother blogger so if you want to find out more about me click here.

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Glastonbury more than just a music festival

A lilac and yellow shop. Fairyland aromatics which sells essential oils.

In a few weeks time, thousands of music lovers will again be descending on the small Somerset town of Glastonbury for the music festival. Local rumour has it that Paul McCartney might take to the pyramid stage this year. For a few days a huge tented city will appear and ageing hippies and others will be able to escape their everyday lives.

However today I am going to introduce you to the town of Glastonbury rather than Michael Eavis’s farm. Tickets to the festival sold out long ago and you can no longer gain entry to Worthy farm by climbing the fence.

People climbing to the top of the Tor
The church tower at the top of Glastonbury Tor. photo W.J. Fraser

Glastonbury is situated on the Somerset levels a few miles from Wells. A round grass covered outcrop of sandstone known as Glastonbury tor rises to over 500 feet nearby and is visible for miles around. people have lived in the area since Neolithic times and  one of the oldest roads ever discovered is close by. It is known as the sweet track after Ray Sweet who discovered it in the 1970’s.    Tree trunks which were laid to provide a track over nearby marshes have been dated by dendrochronology to   3,800 BC. The peat soil preserved the wood.

Glastonbury abbey is the earliest Christian monastic site in Britain and by Domesday it was the wealthiest abbey in England. One of its abbots St. Dunstan devised the coronation service that is still used today including that for Queen Elizabeth 11. It featured in Mathew Paris’s map of the world of 1250 and continues to attract visitors from around the globe.

Glastonbury, Myths and Legends

A sign showing where the tombs of Arthur and Guivivere were found
The monks of Glastonbury claimed to have discovered the tombs of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere.

According to local folklore the nearby camp at Cadbury was the Camelot of Arthurian legend. When Cadbury camp was excavated archaeologists found evidence  that it had indeed once housed an important person. Glastonbury itself has been associated with Avalon where Arthur is said to have fought his last battle.

Monks at Glastonbury abbey claimed to have found the coffins of Arthur and Guinevere in the 12th century. However this was shortly after a fire at the abbey and the more cynical among us might think that they saw it as a good way to raise funds for the restoration.  Part of the myth is that Arthur is still sleeping and that if England is in danger he will awake to save the day. There was renewed interest in this during the second world war.

Another legend about Glastonbury is that Joseph of Arimathea the man who looked after Christ’s  body after the crucifixion visited Glastonbury and where he touched the ground with his walking stick a holy tree grew.

A blooming Hawthorne in the grounds of Glastonbury abbey said to be a descendent of the original Glastonbury thorn
A Glastonbury thorn in the grounds of Glastonbury abbey

The Glastonbury thorn is a hybrid Hawthorne tree and there is a specimen in the abbey grounds.

Not your average high street

A lady offering tarot readings
A tarot reader had set up stall outside the church

Nowadays Glastonbury is a strange mixture of Christian and Pagan. You can still visit the ruins of Glastonbury abbey and say a quiet prayer in St. Patrick’s chapel. But  in the high street, shops sell crystals and magic potions. When we were there this week a group of men dressed as Morris dancers were parading through the town carrying a tree trunk which was destined to become the new maypole. Many of the female onlookers had colourful long skirts, embroidered blouses and flowers in their hair and the men had long hair and beards. We climbed up the Tor and were accompanied by a group performing some sort of eastern meditation to the sound of a single drum.

The cat and Cauldron.
Supplies for any visiting witches
A narrow shopping arcade
The viaduct shopping passage

May day is an important date in the pagan calendar and I felt Harry Potter and friends would have felt at home.

If you want to find out more I recommend this website Normal for Glastonbury

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