Around a county in 40 facts: A (very) brief history of Somerset

A West Country academic has retired, leaving unfinished a 22-volume history of his county that he has been working on for 40 years. We gave Amol Rajan 40 minutes to assemble his own no-nonsense version


1 In 1967, Somerset County Council appointed Robert Dunning, a PhD student at Bristol University, to compile a comprehensive history of the county. Forty years later, with only nine of his projected 22 volumes completed, Dr Dunning has abandoned the work, and passed it on to another researcher. Paid up to £38,000 a year for his work, he has conducted more than 50,000 hours of research, visited 380 churches and chapels, and examined 200 stately homes. If his successor continues at the same pace, the project may reach completion around 2050. This collection of facts is addressed to readers who cannot wait that long.

2 With an area of 4,171 sq km and a population of about 508,000, Somerset is England's seventh-biggest county by area but only the 22nd-biggest by population.

3 The Old English word from which Somerset is derived meant "people living at or dependent on Somerton". The market town of Somerton in south Somerset is still thriving today, but is no longer the county's most important town.

4 There are more than 400 villages in Somerset, including Beardly Batch, Beer Crocombe, Charlton Mackrell, Chedzoy, Clapton in Gordano, Compton Pauncefoot, Huish Episcopi, Keinton Mandeville, Nempnett Thrubwell, Preston Plucknett and Vobster.

5 On the authority of the future emperor Vespasian, the Second Legion Augusta invaded Somerset from the southeast in AD47. The county remained part of the Roman Empire until around AD409.

6 Somerset has 11,500 listed buildings, 523 ancient monuments, 192 conservation areas, 41 parks and gardens, 36 English Heritage sites and 19 National Trust sites.

7 The county also has a rich literary heritage. Evelyn Waugh spent his last years in the village of Combe Florey, while the ashes of T S Eliot are in East Coker. Jane Austen set much of her work in Bath. Henry Fielding was born near Walton. And William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge lived for a while in Nether Stowey, Alfoxden and Porlock.

8 Other famous sons and daughters of Somerset include Acker Bilk, Jenson Button, John Cleese, Jill Dando, Terry Pratchett, Joe Strummer, Adge Cutler (of the Wurzels) and - allegedly - King Arthur, whose "Camelot" may have been based at Cadbury.

9 Arthur is said to be buried in Avalon, the mystical land around Glastonbury, whose Abbey is said to be the oldest "above-ground" church in the world.

10 According to legend, Joseph of Arimethea, who donated his tomb for the burial of Jesus,came to Britain and asked that the first British church be built by the Glastonbury Tor, a nearby hill, around 30 years after Jesus's death.

11 The Glastonbury Festival, now the world's largest performing arts festival, was launched by the dairy farmer Michael Eavis in 1970.

12 On average, men who work full time in Somerset earn £450 a week at an hourly rate of £10.26; women who work full time earn £356 a week at an hourly rate of £9.30.

13 The game of skittles, from which American ten-pin bowling derives, originates in Somerset. Most pubs in the county still have a skittle alley. Natives play with nine wooden pins instead of 10.

14 The Sweet Track, considered by many archaeologists to be one of the oldest engineered roads discovered anywhere in the world (and named after the peat-cutter who found it), is an ancient causeway in the Somerset Levels. Its building has been dated very precisely to between 3807 and 3806BC.

15 Somerset County Cricket Club has made important contributions to English cricket, including the 2005 Ashes hero Marcus Trescothick, and Ian Botham, perhaps the greatest-ever English all-rounder.

16 In 1947, however, Somerset CCC recorded the lowest ever score by a county cricket club, when they were bowled out for 25 by Gloucestershire.

17 12.4 per cent of adults in Somerset work in administration or as secretaries.

18 Only one cheese-maker remains in the village of Cheddar, where the cheese of that name originated.

19 On average, people in Somerset produce 604kg of waste each year - much higher than the UK average of 500kg.

20 There are more than 20,000 people in the county for whom tourism is the sole source of income.

21 Seventy-seven per cent of Somerset's population describe themselves as Christians.

22 John Cleese, star of Fawlty Towers and Monty Python, was born in Weston Super-Mare in October 1939. His father's name was originally Reginald Cheese. The village of Cheddar is just over 10 miles from Weston Super-Mare.

23 The town of Shepton Mallet, just south of the Mendip Hills, contains England's oldest civilian prison. It was open from 1610 to 1930, and seven executions took place within its walls between 1889 and 1926.

24 There are 32 farms in Somerset devoted specifically to the production of cider. Blackthorn cider is produced in Taunton and Shepton Mallet, home of the biggest cider plant in Europe. The term "scrumpy", which gives rise to Scrumpy Jack, is from local dialect meaning a small or withered apple.

25 A total of 4.4 per cent of Somerset's population classify themselves as ethnic minorities.

26 Wells is England's smallest city.

27 Wells cathedral is famous for its clock, which was probably in place by 1390. When the clock strikes every quarter, jousting knights rush round above the clock and a Quarter Jack bangs the quarter hours with his heels.

28 After the Monmouth rebellion of 1685, which centred on Taunton, no member of the Royal Family visited Somerset for 300 years. It is said that Queen Victoria was so ashamed by events there that when she took the train through Somerset she pulled her blind down as she passed the town.

29 According to legend, the village of Wookey Hole, close to Wells, was once home to a famous witch, who cursed a man from Glastonbury who was betrothed to a girl from Wookey; the man unsuccessfully sought revenge. Some believe that she continues to haunt relationships in the village today.

30 It snows more in Somerset than anywhere else in England.

31 The diverse bird population of Somerset is declining rapidly. In the past 35 years, numbers of tawny owls have declined by 33 per cent, lapwing by 40 per cent, skylark by 52 per cent and house sparrow by 64 per cent.

32 In 1987, the record for the greatest number of people in a hot air balloon was broken by the Somerset Willow Company, whose double-decker construction carried 50 people across the county.

33 The average house price in Somerset is £214, 397 - up 11.6 per cent on last year. Seventy-five per cent of houses in Somerset are owner-occupied.

34 Minehead, West Somerset, is famous for the annual ritual in which, on the night before 1st May, a "hobby horse", a symbol of fertility, begins a journey through town accompanied by drummers and musicians. Dancing through the street, it will trap bystanders in the street and butt them, asking for contributions. In front of women, it may dip its head and tap them with its feather. Anybody who doesn't give money receives a lashing from the tail.

35 In the view of many of its inhabitants, Somerset is contracting. That's because though the river Avon was traditionally the northern border of the county, the expansion of Bristol has pushed the administrative border gradually southwards.

36 Since the 1960s, there have been several sightings of an alleged Beast of Exmoor. It is thought this may be a cougar or a black leopard which escaped from captivity.

37 In a 1980 episode of Doctor Who, the fourth doctor (played by Tom Baker), says that walking through the Time Vortex "is a little trick I learnt from a space-time mystic in the Quantocks".

38 Literary scholars disagree as to whether or not Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of The Canterbury Tales, took a post as deputy forester at the royal forest in North Petherton, on the eastern foothills of the Quantock Hills, in 1391. It does seem, however, that the forest was administered by the Constable of Windsor, where Chaucer worked as clerk of the works; and it is possible that Chaucer may have asked the constable for the job because he had heard that the forest was enchanted.

39 Adelard of Bath, a 12th-century Somerset scholar, is credited with having helped to introduce many important mathematical concepts into Western thought, including the Arabic idea of zero.

40 A mere 1.3 per cent of Somerset's adult population claimed unemployment benefit last year, which is just over half of the national average of 2.5 per cent.

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