Losing a sheepskin mitten, the imminent arrival at the start of February of St Brigid’s Day / the Celtic Festival of Imbolc / Candlemass , and rediscovering some photos from the 70s and 80s are the seemingly random reasons behind writing this linked set of posts about Glastonbury and the surrounding area. The process has been reinforced by the inability to travel beyond my “local area” (splendid though it is) and my constant impulse to put words and images together, especially in all this suspended time and wearying weather.
So these factors have propelled me back to an especially satisfying day’s visit to Glastonbury three years ago, followed swiftly by memories of other visits made to this patch of Somerset over several decades, and for a variety of reasons, from the prosaic – such as taking my Mum to B&Q, to the co(s)mic – attending the Harmonic Convergence at dawn on the Tor!
Glastonbury (and the surrounding “Isle of Avalon”) is such a particular place and one that has an enduring attraction for many, myself included – despite some ambivalence to its crystal-gazing hippy qualities. And it’s so well known it really doesn’t need any more written about it, but it seems I had to! However, these posts don’t aspire to be a comprehensive profile of or or guide to the town, or an analysis of all those legends our kids loved about King Arthur, the Lady of the Lake, the Grail and Joseph of Arimathea (after one visit to Glastonbury our kids named a new goldfish ‘Arimathea’!), they’re simply about my experiences of going there and being there – with family, friends or on my own, and, with a bit of history thrown in. It’s a sequence of minor stories – a series of encounters with place. With pictures. It might amuse, distract or intrigue even if we can’t go there at the moment. Happy drifting!
It’s an area I got to know over the 25 years when my parents (non-natives of Somerset) lived in a village a few miles from Glastonbury. After driving over the Mendips on visits to them from our Bristol home the Tor, all 518 feet of it, would come into sight (always a good moment – who will spot it first!), floating on the almost sea-level, green and watery plain, remaining in view as a guiding beacon for much of the remaining journey.
Through the enchanting, tiny City of Wells, and on towards Glastonbury itself where I’d skirt the centre of the town, pass the Rural Life Museum – once a dairy farm and located in a Tithe Barn set in an orchard with grazing sheep – then drop down the few, but significant, feet that takes the road across South Moor.
In spring swans nest in the glittering rhynes (drainage ditches, or ‘wet fences’) that run beside the slightly elevated road and thread long and often straight – their steep banks punctuated with willows – through flat pastures dotted with cattle in summer, or water-sheeted in winter. This distinctive spread is laid out beneath the slumbering form of the Tor. Then the road rises up a few feet to join the beech-clad Polden ridge where last glimpses of the Tor can be seen fleetingly through the trees before the road veers away towards the village where my parents lived.
We’d often explore the area with them and our children on our visits, seeing the osier beds and remaining willow weaving companies, the peat digging on the black moors, some to later become wildlife reserves – always a thrill to hear the bitterns booming there; and every September for many years all three generations of us would go to pick apples and buy apple-blossom honey at West Bradley Orchards. Wherever we went we would catch sight of the Tor – often in an unexpected direction! Through this kind of regular exposure over the years and seasons I developed a kind of “intimate tourist” view of what seemed a predominantly rural area.
Shops, shoes, sheep
After my father died and Mum gradually became more frail, I’d often visit her on my own and take her shopping, something that seldom happened before. We sometimes went to Glastonbury, but avoided the High Street where the incense and candle merchants dwelt – she despised the hippies, despite her tolerance, decades before, of her only child’s beatnik aspirations in the teen years! But there was a useful small supermarket, greengrocers, and on the outskirts – essential for my practical Mum – a B&Q and a garden centre overlooked by the Tor. The particular draw of the town though was the record shop where she could fulfill her classical music CD habit. Thus, my experiences of the town in that period were fairly pragmatic.
There were times when, as I was passing on my way to or from Mum’s, I’d occasionally find myself responding to my latent bohemian and drift briefly into a candle boutique or the Gothic Image bookshop, but generally I found the mystical marketing and spiritual questings pretty indigestible.
As a complete contrast to this ‘ambience’ I had a different kind of insight into the working world of the area in the late 1970s when I’d assisted with photographing the nearby Clarks factory interior and showroom for a set of leaflets and brochures (see below).
Two brothers from the Quaker Clarks family set up their sheepskin rug-making business in Street in 1825 and moved on to the production of slippers, shoes and boots not long after; and they’re still there, although I understand that the Clarks company recently ceased to be a family run concern. The Quaker ethos meant employees (and the town itself) were treated well, but everyone was expected to be teetotal – there were no pubs in the village. In the 1970s when I worked briefly on this assignment, the company employed thousands of people and as well as making shoes they developed, produced and sold innovative shoe-making machinery across the globe. The little town was Clarks, and benefited.
Street is a couple of miles from Glastonbury but from Clarks main office was the archetypal view of the Tor that many people will recognise from their well-known trademark. You can see from the photo above that they promoted their shoes as TOR shoes and have identified C & J Clark Ltd Street as “The Tor Brand”. The trademark was registered in 1879 and is still in use today, and as you can see from the leaflets below (to which I contributed some of the photographs – not the graphics), Clarks continued to fully embrace the image of the Tor in a variety of styles, even making it the pinnacle of the company’s hierarchy! Perhaps they felt they owned it!
By the mid 1980s we’d had two children and when they were young, we’d combine a visit to their grandparents with bargain shoe buying in the Clark’s seconds’ shops in Street, graduating from first baby shoes, through the classic summer sandals to clumpy school shoes! We’d sometimes go for a swim in the lovely little open-air swimming pool in the middle of the town, Greenbank (top right in the middle photo above), built with support from Clarks.
When some of Clarks manufacturing went overseas in the early 1990s, part of the factory site became the (ghastly, in my opinion) Clarks Outlet Village. It’s undoubtedly brought more benefits but it made the town feel a very different place and when school shoes were no longer needed we stopped visiting the town.
However, we inadvertently re-entered the world of locally produced leather goods on the more recent trip mentioned at the beginning of the post, when we’d gone to climb the Tor on a bright cold day at the end of January; this is where the sheepskin mittens come in! In search of a parking place (never such of a problem in the past!) we spotted a sign in the yard behind a slightly tired looking 1930s factory called Draper. It offered £2 parking for the Chalice Well and the Tor, was close to the footpaths and invited visitors to view their sheepskin wares, it seemed a fair offer.
After trekking up the Tor (more of that in this post) we returned to the car but instead of going straight home we succumbed to Draper’s solicitation to view their showroom; there was nothing (we thought) that we needed but curiosity won. After walking up the external staircase and through a frosted glass sliding door we found we’d re-entered the 1970s and the 1930s simultaneously. The factory had the wide windows characteristic of early modern box-frame buildings with the shallow panes and narrow leading giving an expansive but oddly segmented view across the residual flooding on South Moor. But from where we stood, the foreground to this panorama was a shelf of sheepskin slippers and racks and crates of well worn shoe lasts. Behind the racks, the factory floor was illuminated by the windows. This was where they made “1000 pairs of sheepskin slippers and sheepskin boots a week”.
It was a Saturday which may explain why most of the industrial sewing machines were idle and only a couple of blokes could be seen tinkering with things, but behind us laid out on tables and glass shelves was evidence of their weekday work – shoes, slippers and sheepskins – in designs that might mostly appeal to octogenarians, or maybe retro fans, with printed testimonies and framed newspaper cuttings featuring the factory hanging on the wall
But here, in the shadow of the Tor were (possibly) the last vestiges of a local industry that owes its once prolific output and success to moor-draining monks from nearby monasteries (eg Glastonbury, Muchelney). In the early middle ages large areas of this low-lying, watery land were drained through diverting rivers and creating new water channels that created suitable grazing for sheep (subsequent improvements were made in the 18thC when many of the long straight rhynes were constructed). This procedure ultimately generated a handsome profit for the Abbot of Glastonbury from the cloth made with their wool – in the 13thC the Abbot owned 7000 sheep and his wealth and that of subsequent Abbots allowed the building of the opulent Abbey in the centre of the town.
The Black Death in 1347- 48, in which a third of the population died, indirectly resulted in an increase in sheep numbers; the quote below is from a history of the glove industry in Yeovil , 17 miles south, but the same would have applied across Somerset:
“…one effect of the Black Death was the change from arable farming to less labour-intensive sheep farming. By the end of the 14th century, the county was producing about a quarter of English woolens and it was a time of great local prosperity as the town [Yeovil] concentrated on the production of woolen cloth”… but significantly, “competition in the cloth industry led to an increase in leather production…”
A tannery, built by a far-sighted early Abbot, existed in Glastonbury from at least the mid 13thC, and many more followed in the area over the centuries. There’s no tannery in Glastonbury now, and there are few left in the UK. (There is a fascinating tannery in Bristol, Thomas Ware and Sons, but I believe it only produces leather from cattle hides, not sheepskin). The last sheepskin tannery in the southwest, Morlands, was once the largest in Europe, but closed over 20 years ago. It was an extensive factory on the road between Glastonbury and Street and something of a landmark; we’d pass its sprawl of buildings and the saw-tooth roof when it was still functioning in the 1980s on our way to my folks. It faces the lower flanks of Wearyall Hill, grazed by sheep whose ancestors may well have been ‘processed’ in the factory over the road!
Morlands (a family related to the Clarks) was set up here in the 19thC because the fine quality of the water from the River Brue – used in the tanning process – made excellent sheepskins. The site is now part enterprise park, a clone Travelodge hotel and part arts and community space with some of the old buildings retained. The area is known as Beckery and in the 19thC was the industrial sector of Glastonbury. It also hosts the sewage works, but more interestingly the site of an ancient chapel dedicated to St Brigid – more of that to follow.
Meanwhile, back inside Drapers factory we’d experienced an intriguing, if small, insight into an aspect of this very long-established local industry – one of converting the coats of once local Ovis aries into useful, comforting or luxury items. The factory that they’ve occupied for 80 years has recently been considerably reduced in scale with part of the site sold for housing. Only a small proportion of their sheepskins now come from the UK (Devon – the bulk of them are from Europe), nevertheless, Draper’s, ‘the oldest sheepskin footwear manufacturer in the UK’, is still there producing quality footwear for a niche, global market.
I was pleased to buy, for a tenner, a pair (now sadly one widow!) of ‘lower grade’ black sheepskin mittens made from offcuts, regrettably there was nothing else we could persuade ourselves to want. The place seemed both admirable and a little forlorn, but there was a sense that the function of the factory (just) retained a thread of the centuries old connection and relationship with its surrounding landscape, and felt several worlds away from the crystal peddlers at the other end of the town.