‘They be all strangers around here now’, is a lament of older Merriott people I have often heard. There is some justification for this, for there is no doubt that in recent years many newcomers have arrived in the village. Gone, I’m told, is the close-knit rural community of yesterday when the population numbered about 1000 people and no one was a stranger. They don’t even talk like we do.
You have to imagine those remarks, if you will, being delivered in a rich Somerset accent: you can still hear it in the village on occasion even today. In my young days though it was very much in evidence and many older people also spoke in an old-English dialect that had survived in that particular locality from Saxon times. My father, for example, still used words such as ‘thee’, ‘thic’ and ‘canst’ as a matter of course. When the two, accent and dialect, were combined, the result was a language that sounded quite foreign to the unaccustomed ear.
Another feature of the village was the predominance of certain surnames; in particular Pattemore, Mitchell, Osborne, Lawrence, Wills, Hooper and French and, to a lesser extent my own name, Gibbs. There were so many people having some of these surnames that people were known solely by a nickname. For instance, my cousin, Laura Gibbs, married a local man called William Wills who was known to everyone as Willie Winkle. Another Wills was known as Sammy Nameldish, an Osborne as Sammy Duchy, another Osborne as Billy Utchem and a Lawrence as Lizzie Partridge.
At one time, even to some extent when I was growing up, the village was considered somewhat ‘rough’. The men of the village had a reputation for being belligerent. Apparently they relished a fight, particularly with strangers and especially when they had a drop too much cider to drink. Such a trait is more commonly associated with Irishmen and indeed the village was once known as ‘Little Ireland’. But there appears to be a possible explanation. A local aristocrat, Nicholas Fitzharding, had connections with the Earl of Pembroke, who invaded Ireland on behalf of Henry II around 1166. Consequently, Fitzharding was able to obtain plenty of cheap Irish labour for his various projects such as building a manor house in the village, quarrying stone and land reclamation work. There were probably so many Irishmen working in Merriott at that time that Irish blood was introduced into the local Anglo-Saxon stock.
Geographically the village is quite large. It isn’t a one-street village; it’s more D-shaped. To see it all you must walk or drive around it rather than through it, a distance of some one and half miles. In my young days it was spacious too. The centre, once common land, was pasture or arable land, crisscrossed with footpaths and tracks. Now it’s a sea of houses.
Place names were, and still are, a delight: Knapp, Tinker’s Lodge, Boozer Pit, Sandy Hoe, Bowood Lane, Half Acre Lane, Clapperhay, Gapper’s Pool, Monkhouse Farm, Bakehouse Corner.
Southern entrance to the village, circa 1950. It’s barely recognisable from this
I rather suspect that the village that l grew up in was very much the way it had been for many, many years. Changes were occurring but the pace of change had yet to gather momentum. It was still essentially an agricultural community. There were at least eighteen farms or small holdings. Two water-powered mills were still grinding corn from time to time. Horses were still very much in evidence although l can remember very well when the first Fordson and John Dere tractors, provided by the Americans as part of the war effort, arrived in the village in the early 1940s.
There were also two small factories. One of these was originally a water-powered weaving mill where, it is claimed, the sails
The second factory was much smaller and specialised in weaving webbing that was used principally for edging coconut matting. The looms were powered by a diesel engine. Production finally stopped in the 1970s, thus ending the village’s connection with the weaving trade that had once been so prominent in the West Country.
Tail Mill circa 1900
Two other establishments that provided work for local people was Terry Arnold Ltd, a wholesale stationer and printer, and
Commercially, the village until at least the end of the 1950s was still quite self-contained. It lacked a natural centre but scattered around there was a post office, four general stores, three butchers, two bakers, a fishmonger who delivered door to door by motor cycle and sidecar, two cobblers, a saddler, two barber shops, two sweet shops, and a wool shop. There were three carpenters, two of which also provided an undertaking service. Two people delivered newspapers, one on weekdays by pony and trap that l often used to ride in, the other on Sundays using a heavily laden bicycle. By the mid-1950s there was even a fish and chip shop. And there were also two small garages-cum-filling stations, but there were not many cars about. l remember as a small boy sitting on our cottage steps collecting car numbers but the list was never very long. A strange car appearing was quite an exciting occurrence.
But although the village was very much a self-sufficient community, it was far from being cut off from the outside world, thanks to the local bus services provided by the Southern National Bus Company based in Yeovil and Safeway Services based in South Petherton. There were frequent services to and from Yeovil, via Crewkerne and the surrounding villages, from early morning until late at night. Today the services still exist but operate to a much reduced timetable.
The spiritual needs of the community were met by five places of worship. They were All Saints’ church and four chapels: Methodist, Congregational, Elim Four Square and the Gospel Hall. The Methodist church is now a private residence. The Congregational was extended in an incredibly ugly way and is now a squash club. The Elim Four Square was demolished in 1999 and the site used for house building. Of the chapels, only the Gospel Hall continues in use, albeit with a very small congregation.
All Saints church, which is 14th Century, stands on the northern periphery of the village. By Somerset standards, a county with many fine churches, it is not considered to be of particular architectural note. But it is where a steady flow of folk from old Merriott families were baptised, married and eventually laid to rest in the surrounding churchyard and consequently is a very special place to the many people the world over who can trace their ancestors back to the village. When I walk in the churchyard today and read the names on the gravestones of the many villagers I once knew, it is like walking down a street called yesterday.
Close by the church is an ancient tithe barn. When l was young it was used for all sorts of activities such as dances, concerts, wedding receptions and so on I believe it continues to serve the community in much the same way. But its most interesting role in its very long history must surely be that of a mess for some of the American soldiers who were camped in the village recreation ground prior to D-Day. Their food was cooked in a Nissan-type cookhouse which stood in the orchard next to the barn. After the war the cookhouse became a scout hut and it was not until 2000 that a remaining extension to the cookhouse was eventually pulled down and the old orchard became the site of yet more houses and a small car park.
Also close to the church are the two school buildings, which we knew simply as ‘little’ school and ‘big’ school. They were built in the late 1800s. The original buildings are quite visually attractive but sadly the big school has been somewhat spoilt by the addition of a new building in the middle of what used to be the boys’ playground. You can see photographs of the schools in another article in this series.
Outside the little school there is a large kidney-shaped rock, known as the ‘pebble’. I once asked my father who was a boy in the late 1880s, how it got there. He had no idea but he could not remember a time when it wasn’t, so it has been there for well over a hundred years. It provided a natural meeting place, particularly for young boys. I remember how you could stand on it, reach over and grab the curved wall bordering the churchyard, place your foot in a well-worn recess in the hamstone wall and heave yourself over. Children were not supposed to set foot in the churchyard without permission, and to run, or walk on a grave, was strictly forbidden. Perhaps that explains why clambering over the wall was such mischievous fun. I always glance at the pebble whenever I drive by, just to make sure that it is still there. And the other day l stopped and looked to see if the recess was still in the wall. It is, and still in use it seems.
Soldiers from a British Regiment
In Lower Street there is the village lockup, adjoining a farmhouse. Many an errant villager will have slept off the effects of too much cider in its dank interior in years gone by. Today, as you can see from this recent photograph, it seems rather neglected.
Village Lock up
Another building worthy of mention is Moorlands House. Once a handsome Victorian country residence it is now split into two dwellings, but its original grandeur is not completely lost. During the Spanish Civil War it was the home of a group of refugees. During World War II it was taken over by the Air Ministry.
Spanish Refugees at Moorlands House, 1938
But the village is not what it used to be. When I walk around it today I do so with a degree of sadness. Many of the old cottages have gone. The village streets that were once so free of traffic are now cluttered with parked cars. A roundabout and ugly chicanes to control speeding have been built in the main thoroughfare – an old Roman road incidentally. There are far fewer shops. The fields and the footpaths in the centre have all but disappeared under a sea of houses. Few of the small farms remain. Some of the old farm yards are now full of houses and the outbuildings have been converted to homes or pulled down to make way for even more houses. Sadly, it is now a dense, crowded village and it is likelier to become even more so as the seemingly relentless rate of house building continues. It all seems such a pity.
© David Gibbs 2003