A Brief History of Banwell - A Short Tour of the Village by Roy Rice
Banwell lies towards the western end of the Mendip Hills, on their northern flank, about five miles inland from the coast of the Bristol Channel at Weston-super-Mare. Besides the main village it consists of the hamlets of Wint Hill, Yarborough, Whitley Head, Hill End, Knightcott, Wolvershill, Way Wick, Rolstone, Towerhead and part of West Wick.
The settlement may have started on the south side of the Mendip ridge at Wint Hill but finally settled on the north side where there is a fine spring that produces up to 7 million gallons a day in the winter season and is the source of the River Banwell. This spring powered mills from at least Domesday up until the 1920s when the spring was capped and the water used for the ever-expanding Weston-super-Mare. At this time the village also lost the pond that made an excellent frontispiece for the mainly 15th century parish church.
The Domesday Book lists three mills in Banwell - we do not know if they were fed from the pond as it may not have been there then but they were certainly fed by the waters of the spring. Where these mills were we do not know but what we do know is that since the early 18th century there has been a mill near the springhead fed from the pond where the bowling green now is. The buildings of the mill whose wheels stopped turning in 1921 are still there. One of the buildings (that looks like a bungalow with a lawn in front just before the steps down to Church Street) is where the water wheel was that drove the millstones.
To the west side of the grist mill in the 18th & 19th centuries was a paper mill that was turned into a brewery in the 1850s and lasted until 1906. The mills were owned by the Emery family and were run by the Castle family - later the Willet family ran the grist mill.
The Castle family who ran the brewery had various partners which change the name of the products: Thomas Castle, Thomas Castle & Son, Castle & Rogers, Castle, Son & Wood. The brewery owned public houses around the district where it supplied the beer. The old pond site, now a bowling green, and the old mill buildings down to the Brewers Arms public house reside in the ownership of Bristol Water.
Banwell was one of the manors of the Bishops of Bath & Wells who had a residence to the east side of the church which they vacated in the 18th century and which has been used as a private residence ever since. It has been called the Court House and latterly Banwell Abbey, the name that is used to this day. This monastic title seems to have arrived from ancient times when Alfred gave Asser "a monisterium at Banwell" - how big or what they meant by a monisterium we do not know. Around 1874 the house was rebuilt to its present style by Dyer Sympson who built Banwell Castle. The Abbey property was split into four during the 1950s.
The mainly 15th century church has a 100 foot high tower that contains ten bells from the 18th to 20th centuries and a clock dated 1884. The body of the church has a nave with a clerestory, north and south aisles and, it is said, a rather short chancel considering the proportions of the rest of the church. The font dates from the 12th century, the carved stone pulpit from 15th century and the beautiful carved rood screen was built and set up in 1552 and escaped the Reformation. There are also some very early bench pews given to date to the 1480s. The church underwent major restorations in 1812, 1862 and in the mid- 1960s.
It is unfortunate that the five main roads in the village, Church Street, East Street, Castle Hill, High Street and West Street, meet in The Square where once the village cross stood. This cross was moved and rebuilt in the 1754 and removed altogether in around 1798 as it was thought to have "incommoded the traffic". Traffic has been and still is the bane of Banwell life and although a bypass was first pegged out in the 1930s it is still on the drawing board.
Church Street runs north past the old 1874 Chapel of the Free Methodists and later the Baptists, past the church entrance and the sites of the old mill and brewery, wagon works, the gasworks of 1865 -1926 and the poor houses. It then follows the Banwell River to the Moor which contained many large farms with fine houses that brought prosperity to the village, but alas many are now just private houses.
East Street, once called Gay Street, starts at The Bell and goes past the old Non- Conformist Chapel of the 1790s, the Vicarage, the 1887 Fire Station, Banwell Abbey, the old village pound and on to Towerhead where Bishop Godwin built a large house in the 16th century. This house was rebuilt in the 19th century and called Towerhead House.
Just over the parish boundary at Towerhead was Sandford and Banwell railway station, now Sandford Stone, built on the new railway line from Yatton to Shepton Mallet in 1869. It was called the Cheddar Valley line (or locally the Strawberry Line) and was closed in the Beeching cuts of 1964.
Up until 1967 East Street was very narrow with just enough room for a bus to pass, so to help the traffic flow, or so it was thought, the complete terrace of cottages and shops on the south side of the road was pulled down. Sadly this did not help the traffic that much. The demolition of the butchers’ shop opposite the Bell Hotel in the early 1970s lost the shape of Banwell's Square which is now just a junction at the end of the road.
Southwards from the square is the former “Banwell Rhoddy”, now called Castle Hill that leads of course past the Castle built in 1847 as a private residence and then on to Winscombe, the next village. If you bear right before the Castle and right again you will go past the Roman/Medieval site at Wint Hill.
To the west of The Square is High Street which confuses many visitors that venture up it hoping to find the main street but find a narrow winding hill with cottages on either side. Until the 20th century this road was called Harding's lane, why is not known, although a Harding's Barn is to be found in Harding's Lane on an 18th century estate map. On the first steep part of High Street you pass two former pubs, The George and The White Hart. Near the top of the hill you pass the old school of 1867, then two paths to Banwell Hill, Rock Path and Hill path. Continue through the "narrows" with cottages on either side and you find on the right hand site the Jubilee Well of 1887 which is a 76 feet deep.
High Street then follows the north side of Banwell Hill past mainly modern buildings inter-dispersed with restored old cottages. At the western end of High street is situated the Caves house, once the residence of Bishop Law. Under this house are the Bone and Stalactite Caves. Further to the west is Hill End where a "shadow factory" was built during the war for aeroplane building. The factory site is now Elborough Village.
The fifth street off The Square is West Street, the main street. It starts at what was once The Ship Hotel, a coaching Inn, past the War Memorial where the village lock-up stood in the 1830s and where nearby a German bomb fell in 1940, past the Methodist Chapel built in 1862 and "Pruens Lane" on the right, the entrance to Ten Acres, the field behind the shops that was used for Banwell Horse Show and where the remains of Roman buildings were found in 1967. A short lane next the last of the shops leads to the Malt House that once belonged to the brewery. Here the flats next to the Malt House and the flats next to the car park are replacements for houses also bombed in 1940. Opposite the car park is the New School built in 1926. Next to the car park is The Grange, once the home of the Emery family which in years gone by had a Tan Yard behind it.
Wolvershill road turns right off West Street and runs to Worle passing Stonebridge and West Wick on the way. West Street carries on past the Wolvershill Road turning to the Recreation Ground where it becomes Knightcott Road.
Banwell thrived from the mid-19th century with more than its share of shops and businesses. Many families of the gentry resided here which brought trade and employment but with the rise of Weston-super-Mare and the ongoing traffic problems Banwell has declined so that at the turn of the 21st century we were down to eight shops from the 26 or so of the 1940/50s.
Banwell had two fairs in January and July. The January fair has survived in an extremely small way. This fair was for cattle and sheep; the whole of East Street where it was held was shuttered up from The Square to the Abbey gates. The fair had all the trappings with sideshow entertainers and traders selling all kind of wares. Also open on fair days was the fire station that adjoins the Abbey estate in East Street. We still open the Fire station on fair day but it is more of a museum now as the County fire service was withdrawn from here in the 1980's.
The Fire station was the gift of Miss Fazakerley of Chorley in Lancashire who came to the Abbey in 1883 for her health. In 1887 she supplied an up to date fire engine for the fire station with equipment and uniforms for the crew. Miss Fazakerley also supplied instruments and uniforms for a village band.
There has been a Wesleyan church in Banwell since the 1790s, the first just off The Square in East Street, two doors along from the vicarage which I believed caused some problems. It is said that their windows were broken by the church people. This chapel was replaced by one in West Street in 1862. The old chapel became for want of a better word a village hall called the Literary Institute where most village functions were held. It later became a builder’s and undertaker’s workshop and is now a private residence. There is also an old chapel in Church Street started by the Free Methodists in 1872. The chapel was eventually sold to the Baptist Church in the 1940s, then became the church hall in the 1950s and is now a private business premises.
There are now only two pubs in the village, the Brewers Arms next to the River Banwell below the old brewery and The Bell Inn in The Square (recently reopened following refurbishment). The Whistling Duck on Knightcott Road on the way to Weston was on the site of an earlier pub, The Smiths Arms, and closed several years ago. The Bell is an ancient inn that had stables off an entrance in Church Street. In the 18th century it belonged to the Tuckey family, two of whom were Parish Clerks and whose beautiful writing can be seen in the old Churchwarden’s account books which date from 1519 to the present day. The Tuckeys were also stone carvers and a masterpiece can be seen in The Bell’s front bar, a royal coat of arms by Edward Tuckey dated 1764. Nearby opposite The Bell was another ancient large inn called The Ship which sadly went out of business in the 1990s, but was thankfully very nicely restored to business office accommodation.
There has been a school in the village since the end of the 18th century including one associated with Hannah More. One of the schools in High Street was converted from a Temperance Hall in 1867 and was used until the 1950s in conjunction with the current school of 1926 in West Street.
Most of the early buildings in the main village are on the north sides of East Street and West Street, and both sides of Church Street. There are many other ancient buildings, mainly farmhouses scattered around the outlying hamlets and farms. There also seem to have been quite a few large houses for the gentry built or rebuilt in the 19th century.
In September 1940 a stray stick of bombs fell on the village killing five people and destroying four early terraced cottages in lower West Street and the post office and general store at the top end of West Street towards The Square. Sadly all these were rebuilt in the 1950s to the poor designs of that time.
In the 1950s a council estate was built to house local people and families that had been displaced by the war and were residing in squatter camps at Hill End and Summer Lane. The word ‘squatters’ was not used then as a derogatory term as it is today. The council estate was enlarged through the 1960s and infill around this estate continued with private bungalows and houses which attracted a lot of retired people from the Midlands. Later development has carried on westwards on both sides of the road towards Knightcott.
After trying for sixty odd years, Banwell finally built a village hall near the Westfield estate on part of the recreation field left to the village by Robert Day in the 1902. The rest of this field is still used for recreation and is the site for the village carnival in July. The field was in the past also used for the Harvest Home and the fun fairs that went with it.
At the back of West Street is another field called Ten Acres that belonged to the brewery. The Banwell Horse show was held here from the 1880s to 1930s although it did sometimes alternate with the Abbey ground on the other side of the river below the Abbey. Luckily, Ten Acres has not been developed as it might have been, for in 1967 a pipe track dug near to the river revealed 4th or 5th century Roman buildings with mosaic floors. A small excavation was made of the site but the full extent of the building is not known. The site is now scheduled so will not be built on but sadly it may never be fully excavated. In 2012 Bristol Water again needed to cross Ten Acres with another water main, lower down in the field. With today’s stricter rules an archaeological survey was needed before work could commence but oddly nothing was found in Ten Acres this time. Luckily for Banwell however, the fields to the east and west of Ten Acres that were also excavated produced many unexpected finds. These included three inhumation burials with complete skeletons, remains of Roman buildings, many Roman artefacts and a timber structure provisionally dated to the Iron Age or Bronze Age. At the time of writing the finds are being assessed.
To the west side of Ten Acres where the Scout Hut and Children’s Centre stand was the site of the Banwell sewage works closed in the 1970s. The car park above this area off West Street was created by pulling down one of the ancient cottages that partly survived the 1940s bombing.
To the east of the village is Banwell Wood with a knoll that was an Iron Age fort where the ramparts can still be seen. To the west of this fort is a low earth and stone bank in a cruciform shape surrounded by a rectangular bank, the whole likened to a rabbit warren. When it was put there or for what reason is not known although some have suggested it has an association with Saint Patrick who, they allege, may have been born in Banwell.
Nearby is the Victorian Banwell Castle built in 1847 by a London solicitor as his home. It is now a hotel and restaurant. To the west the Castle on the south side of the hill is Wint Hill where roman and medieval occupation was found during excavations in the 1960s. One of the important finds here was a roman glass bowl engraved with hunting scenes and a verse "Vivas Cum Tvis Pies" translated I am told as "Long Life to You and Yours, Drink and You will Live". The bowl is now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
Follow the south side of the hill westwards past Whitley Head and we come to the Bone and the Stalactite Caves. The latter was discovered by miners in the 17th century but then lost. In the 1830s the land on which the Cave was thought to be came into the ownership of the Bishop of Bath & Wells, George Henry Law (1824-1845). At this time the lost Stalactite Cave was found again and opened up. In trying to find a better entrance to the Stalactite Cave another cave was found containing a great number of bones of amongst other things bison, wolf, large brown bear, reindeer, red fox and arctic fox, hence its name.
The buildings around the caves were gradually extended into a mansion with all the grounds set out as ornamental gardens with various follies and buildings such as a small museum to house some of the finds from the Bone Cave. On the hill behind the mansion the Bishop built a 50 foot high tower with a balcony at the top where you can enjoy a fine uninterrupted view in every direction of the surrounding countryside. The whole estate gradually fell into disrepair in the mid-20th century but with the new owners of the house in the 1980s and the help of the farmer of the estate lands the whole area is being brought back to life and restored. The Bone Cave and tower are open now at certain times of the year, but the Stalactite Cave is restricted to those with caving ability.
Sadly many people see Banwell as a village with a traffic jam but you will see from the above that if you wander around on foot you will see Banwell in a different light.
The above information has come from my own and many other sources including articles by various authors in Search, the journal of Banwell Society of Archaeology. I have endeavoured to give the correct information but if you know anything written to be incorrect please contact me. I hope to update these pages from time to time.
Roy Rice (01934 823298)
(Last reviewed May 2013)