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A brief history of Somerset

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Find out more about Somerset, the seventh largest county in England by area. A place full of history, mystery, myths and legends.

Joseph of Arimathea, for example, is said to have visited Glastonbury with the young Jesus. Legend also has it that he planted his walking staff on Wearyall Hill where it miraculously took root and flowered into a tree that is now known as the Holy Thorn. Each year a sprig or cutting is sent to the Queen as decoration for her Christmas table. Another legend claims that King Arthur and Queen Guinevere were laid to rest at Glastonbury when it was known as the Isle of Avalon. And Alfred the Great is said to have burnt the cakes at Athelney.

Somerset is home to two cities – Bath and Wells – along with more than 400 villages, some with names like Beardly Batch, Beer Crocombe, Compton Pauncefoot, Nempnett Thrubwell, Preston Plucknett and Vobster. There are also thirty small towns, hamlets galore and even seaside resorts. Bath has been a spa destination since the Romans built their famous baths in AD 70 using water from underground springs, the only hot springs in the country. The Romans called Bath Aquae Sulis, Aquae meeting water and Sulis being the name of the Goddess of the hot springs.

Bathing in the baths used to be a common sight but it is no longer allowed. The travel writer Celia Fiennes who travelled alone through every county in England on horseback in the 17th century wrote: “The ladies go into the bath with garments made of fine yellow canvas, which is stiff and made large with great sleeves like a parson’s gown; the water fills it up so that it is borne off so that your shape may not be seen.”

In 2018 the local council gave permission for heat exchangers to be installed in the Roman Baths to convert heat from the springs into renewable energy. The energy recovered from the water is being used to provide underfloor heating for Bath Abbey and some of the surrounding buildings. It was on the site of the present Bath Abbey that King Edgar was crowned King of All England in AD 973. His coronation service was devised by Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury. The order of Dunstan’s service has formed the basis for all coronations in England ever since.

The 40-mile coastline of the Bristol Channel and Severn Estuary also forms part of the north-west and south-west borders of Somerset providing the county with a number of seaside resorts. The pier at Clevedon made international headlines in 1970 when the two end spans of its pier collapsed into the Bristol Channel during safety checks for insurance purposes. Remarkably, the pier had withstood the raging 42-foot high tides of the Bristol Channel for more than a century.The future of the pier literally hung in the balance until the government held a public inquiry in 1980 which lasted three days. The Minister for the Environment eventually decided that the pier should be restored.

In 2001 the pier was upgraded from a Grade 11* listed structure to Grade 1. The poet John Betjeman once said that Clevedon would not be a complete town if it ever lost its pier. Further along the coast the Grand Pier at Weston-super-Mare was also making headlines in 2008 when fire completely destroyed the pavilion. The blaze was so big that eighty-five firefighters were called in to tackle it. Black smoke could be seen more than ten miles away. The pier 1,201 feet long was rebuilt at a staggering cost of £39 million. Repairs took two years and the Grand Pier was formally re-opened by the Princess Royal, Princess Anne.

For those who love statistics about the seaside it might be worth noting that Burnham-on-Sea has the shortest pier in the country at just 117 feet long.

I couldn’t write a book about Somerset without mentioning Glastonbury Festival. Farmer Michael Eavis could never have envisaged that the two-day long Pilton Pop, Blues and Folk Festival he staged on his farm in 1970 would grow into the UK’s biggest festival - Glastonbury Festival. One thousand five hundred people attended Mr. Eavis’s first event paying £1 each for a ticket. Free milk from local farmers was included in the ticket price. Today a ticket for Glastonbury Festival costs more than £200 and more than 200,000 people attend.

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