Blagdon Then and Now part 1
AGM PRESENTATION 2021
by
Sheila Johnson

Blagdon ‘Then and Now’ looked at the changes that had occurred in the village over the last 150 years or so, and some of the agents of these changes.

The talk began looking at views of old

Coombe Lodge which was demolished

in 1928 to make way for the building

we see today.  William Henry Wills

bought Coombe Lodge with about

300 acres in 1880 and over the next

30 years he acquired more land and

property until he owned nearly 3,000

acres by the time he died in 1911. 

He became a baronet in 1894 and

was raised to the peerage in 1906 when he chose the title Lord Winterstoke.

The non-conformist Congregational background of the Wills family underpinned their sense of responsibility to those less fortunate than themselves.

 

 In 1896 The Bristol Mercury reported that the two roomed hovels have given way to neat cottages, each with three rooms upstairs.  These dwellings which would be worth six or seven shillings a week in Bristol were let to labourers at eighteen pence and there is a serviceable strip of garden land attached to each.  Sixteen or seventeen years ago wages in the district stood at eleven shillings; Sir William increased them to fifteen shillings and his example has been followed by other landlords …

Evidence of this rebuilding can be seen in the High Street entering the village from the west - Clanders Cottages, High Street Cottages (1), Orchard Cottages, the butcher’s shop and adjoining buildings (2) were all built by W H Wills with the assistance of his architect cousin Frank Wills who favoured the half timbered style still evident today. 

 

The Village Club (3) opened in 1901 was also built by Wills on the site of a thatched cottage.  Its purpose was, “to afford means of social intercourse, mutual helpfulness and mental and moral improvement.”  The function room on the ground floor was originally two large rooms--these were the reading room and the library--in keeping with the desire to aid ‘improvement.’  The rear of the Club was an orchard; now the site is occupied by the Fire station which opened in 1971 and the car park developed in 1975.

 

The Lake View restaurant replaced a shop and opened c1905. It had rooms to let and was run by Viv Harris.  The business wasn’t a success and it closed in the 1920s.  While Coombe Lodge was being rebuilt the premises were used to collect rents for the estate–hence its current name The Rent House.  American soldiers who were stationed in Blagdon Court in 1944 recalled the occupiers George and Bertha Addicott bringing them hot drinks when they were on guard duty.

 

W H Wills believed farms should be in the order of 100 acres to be sufficient to sustain a decent living.  Farmhouses such as Dipland Grove and Rhodyate Hill were newly built and some were doubled in size such as Yew Tree Farm behind the Fire station. 

 

The next major change that came to the village was brought by the Bristol Water Company and the Great Western Railway–Lord Winterstoke was a director of both.  The reservoir was built to supply Bristol with water and the railway provided a passenger service and brought coal to the pumping station.  Work on the reservoir started in 1891 and in 1899 a grand ceremony was held when the directors of Bristol Water Company closed the outlet valves and the lake began to fill.  The Inspectors’ (or Inspection) House was built to accommodate the Waterworks Directors who came to oversee the works and was used for annual meetings.  Work on the railway started in 1898 and it opened for passengers on 4th December 1901. 

 

Workers were housed in eight temporary huts in the valley and in rented rooms in the surrounding villages.  Some were accompanied by their families and the number of children attending the village school had risen to 184 pupils by 1898.  The village was full of strangers; drunken navvies disturbed the peace and the roads were ruined by the passage of traction engines and other heavy transport.  Reports appeared in the local press describing ruts as big as ditches, hard to navigate by pedestrians.   The surface of the roads compacted by steam rollers became slippery and dangerous for horses–horse transport was still prevalent in Blagdon until the 1920s.

 

When Bristol Waterworks Co constructed the reservoir there were no plans for fishing.   The idea came from Robert Neville Grenville of Butleigh Court, Glastonbury.   A man of extraordinary energy and talent, he had graduated from Cambridge University with one of the first applied science degrees in 1868.   His proposals that Blagdon reservoir should be stocked with trout from his hatchery in order to yield revenue, was at first scorned but later accepted.  He owned a fleet of steam rollers which were used all over Somerset laying the county’s roads.  He was keenly interested in agriculture and from 1893 to 1904 he carried out cider experiments with Frank Talbot in laboratories at Butleigh Court which led to the formation of the Cider Institute at Long Ashton (closed in 2003).  He felt the crude sedimented cider produced on farms could be replaced by a clear drinkable cider.

 

Donald Carr was the first Chief Ranger of Blagdon Lake, a position he held for 35 years.  He built the hatcheries on the site of Ubley Mill in 1903.  He was supported by popular gillies his son Samuel Carr, Jim and Laurie Williamson, Jim Murdoch and Angus McClaughlan.  The lake opened for fishing at Easter 1904; record catches were reported and trout fishing at Blagdon became world famous.

Fishing was a pursuit of the wealthy and brought tourists to the village, a demand for accommodation and revenue for Bristol Waterworks.  Charlie Simkin offered teas and accommodation in his premises near the station, he also ran a pony and trap taking passengers and luggage from the station to the village. 

 

The Mendip Bungalow hotel opened c1910, West End House operated as a hotel and tea garden and Glen Shean opposite the Seymour Arms opened as a Guest House.  Local pubs and inns offered rooms to let, teas were served in the Village Club and local shops flourished.

The Crazy Gang and Will Fyffe (famous for I belong to Glasgow) were regular visitors.   When they were performing in local theatres, they would come out to Blagdon during the day to relax.  They used to perform on the grass in the front of the fishing lodge.  After a good day’s fishing the mantelpiece in the lodge was covered with bottles of gin and whisky.  Frankie Vaughan and Lord Baden Powell came fishing and stayed at the Seymour Arms.   In 1928 an aeroplane (De Havilland Moth) landed at Holt Farm bringing two fishermen from Croydon airport.

The pumping station was completed in 1905 and was visited by parties of scientists and engineers to see the mighty beam engines, a triumph of Victorian engineering, maintained by local employees.

Rebuilding had not ceased–in 1902 Lord Winterstoke provided a new peal of bells for the Parish church and in 1908/9 he financed the rebuilding of the nave, designed by Frank Wills.

In April 1909 the Havyat Lodge Estate came up for sale and Wills bought four lots including the common lands of Burrington Ham and Blackdown, Ellick House, Middle Ellick Farm and a cottage in Burrington. 

 

He was concerned about the indiscriminate quarrying in Burrington Combe and the damage done to the commons by the increasing number of day trippers, some of whom lit fires.  He set wheels in motion to regulate the commons and a public meeting was held in Langford Inn in December 1909.  Regulation meant ascertaining the persons who were entitled to rights over the commons under the 1876 Commons Act and creating a body of Conservators with the duty to look after them.

The Act regulating the commons was passed in 1911, shortly after the death of Lord Winterstoke.  It allowed people to enjoy the beauties of Burrington Ham while protecting it from damage.  Quarrying in Burrington Combe was controlled and rights to take bracken for bedding for livestock were formalized.  The rabbits were to be controlled to improve the pasturage.  Nevertheless thousands of rabbits could be seen at night in Burrington Combe until c1953, when the population was decimated by the deadly virus myxomatosis.  By the 1970s, without munching rabbits, the Ham and Combe were being covered by trees, scrub and bracken.

Aerial views of Score Lane and Station Road show other changes in landscape.  There were a great many orchards–cider apples were widely grown and several local farms and inns produced their own cider. 

Before the 1950s local shops did not sell vegetables but large gardens and smallholdings provided fresh local produce.  Yew Tree Farm grew soft fruit and vegetables for market and provided employment for local pickers.  Carriers took produce to the markets in Bristol.  Gradually these orchards began to make way for housing in the post-WW2 housing boom led by local builder Cecil Payne–he employed nearly 100 men at its peak.  Street End Lane, where several houses were built on the site of the village quarry, was devoid of trees in photographs from the early 1900s.  Now small cottages have expanded and there are numerous trees and shrubs.   The avenue of beech trees lining the Rectory drive [now The Old Rectory] dominated the landscape until they were removed in the 1970s.

Perhaps the change in housing is best illustrated by the statistics from the 1911 and 2011 census.

1911

2011

Population                   915

Population              1116

Total households          233

Total households    499

 

In 2011 847 cars were recorded.  The arrival of motor transport had brought the need for petrol pumps and garages.  Carriers replaced their horse-drawn vehicles with motor vehicles and charabancs were used for outings--this will be described in Blagdon Then and Now, part 2 .