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The Medieval Burgh of Axbridge

by Tracy Kramer

Church of St. John AxbridgeIt would be easy to miss the tiny town of Axbridge. But if while traveling down the A371 toward Cheddar and Wells you find your interest snagged by a sign pointing the way to a "Medieval Square" you would do well to follow it. The intrigued traveler who follows the sign will be carried into the heart of a historical treasure of a town.

The known history of Axbridge stretches as far back as that of the geological wonder of Cheddar Gorge down the road. There is evidence of people living in caves in the Mendip Hills, at the edge of which Axbridge is situated, and the Romans settled and mined in the area. However, it is with the medieval period that Axbridge is most closely associated.

The town stocks may have been removed and relegated to the local museum, but the Square is still the centre of things in Axbridge. Over the centuries, it has been the site of markets and fairs, proclamations and punishments. References in the Domesday Book and elsewhere suggest that the town became an active centre of commerce in the 10th century. By the 14th century, the town had become an important player in the wool trade. However, the town's prominence declined along with the cloth trade in the 17th century. The Square still has the feel of a marketplace today. There are shops and places to eat and drink dotted around and, if you are lucky, your visit to Axbridge might coincide with the monthly farmers' market.

One of the most eye-catching buildings on the Square is the timber-framed house known as King John's Hunting Lodge. The name is a little misleading, though. It was unlikely to have really been a hunting lodge. And as for it belonging to King John? Well, he died three centuries before it was built. To ease your puzzlement, step inside. The building houses the excellent local history museum (free to enter), where three floors of exhibits and many original architectural features illuminate the history of the building and of the town. The steep stairs and sloping floors you encounter as you explore are a reminder of the building's great age.

King John's Hunting LodgeThe building was originally a wool merchant's house dating from around 1500. Its present name first appeared in a 1915 publication, "The Heart of Mendip" by Francis Knight, when it was being run as a saddler's shop. The royal part of the name may have come from the fact that a carved king's head was found nearby, but whether this represented John or another king is not known. The head is now attached to one corner of the exterior. The hunting lodge identity probably arose from a bit of fanciful tale-telling. (King John's Hunting Lodge is open daily from 1:00 to 4:00 pm between Easter and the end of September. At other times of year it is sometimes open on Saturday and Sunday mornings.)

Radiating off from the Square are several winding streets, which remain remarkably medieval in character. The brightly painted houses that line the narrow high street have many original features, such as sash windows and studded doors. Some houses have Georgian or Victorian facades, which were added to the fronts of the earlier buildings. Other original buildings that remain include the town hall and the almshouse, which was founded in 1480 and is today a bistro.

From one corner of the Square you can take a flight of steps up to St. John the Baptist Church. Parts of the church date back to the 13th century but most of the present structure is 15th-century. It is an impressive structure built of Mendip limestone with a lofty tower and intricate exterior. Architecturally and artistically, there is much to see inside as well. The nave ceiling, constructed in 1636, bears beautiful plasterwork against a blue background. Over the south door is the bread box from which loaves of bread were once distributed to the poor of the parish. Another noteworthy detail is the 15th-century carved stone font, which has an interesting history. It was not until a sexton happened to chip some of the plaster off the font that the stone decoration was revealed. This had been plastered over during the Commonwealth when such ornamentation was out of favor.

Church of St. John AxbridgeJust below the church are the original public wells, which were in use from the Middle Ages up to the 18th century. It is rare to find town wells like these still complete, in place, and full of water. A notice nearby explains that during the 16th and 17th centuries, town laws forbade the dumping of rubbish in or near these wells. This would have been for the prevention of disease.

Axbridge was never developed during the Industrial Revolution, which helped to preserve its architecture and layout. It was only linked up by rail for a short time, via the Yatton-to-Wells line, between 1869 and 1963. Where this railway, known as The Strawberry Line, once ran there is now a footpath and cycleway linking Axbridge with Cheddar and other towns along the line.

Axbridge is a designated conservation area. This protection of the town's heritage makes it an interesting place to visit and a very pretty home for its residents. But this town is not merely a relic; it is far from mummified. It is a colorful, characterful, vibrant locality that manages to hold onto elements of its past in an otherwise fast-changing world.

Axbridge is located just off the A371, around 2.5 miles west of Cheddar. There is parking in the town. Axbridge can also be reached by bus. Cycle paths link the town to Cheddar and other nearby towns.

More Information:

Axbridge Town official website

King John's Hunting Lodge

History of St John the Baptist Church

A brief history of Axbridge

Tracy Kramer, a native of Tucson, Arizona, studied English at Kenyon College in Ohio. She now lives and works in Bristol, England, where she enjoys writing about organic growing, sustainable living and the British countryside.
Article and photos © 2006 Tracy Kramer


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