Edmund Bealby-Wright discovers the pleasures of the historic spa town's unfashionable country relation, Frome
The chief pleasure to be had in Frome is walking around its maze of characterful streets. But it is a pleasure mixed with a degree of pain in the shins, since none of these streets is level. They have retained their medieval pattern and their medieval names. Cheap Street has even retained its medieval drainage, with a channel of spring water running down the middle of the road, over which children play endless games of "Mummy-I've-wet-my-trainers." Gentle Street belies its name as one of the steepest. And when you get to the top you find yourself almost alone. It seems there are more people on the top of Mount Everest.

It is appropriate that Frome should be hard work for the visitor, because it has always been bloody hard work for its inhabitants. Through the wool trade the town became the richest in Somerset. Then the industrious Fromeins had to watch the galling spectacle of their insignificant neighbour, Bath, growing into a fashionable town on nothing more than water. There was plenty of water in Frome, of course, but typically this water was made to work, driving the milling machinery.

Eventually, a local hero came to redress these wrongs. Thomas Bunn wanted people to think of "Bath, near Frome." Ironically, his love for his home town was manifested by a burning desire to demolish it. He envisioned the narrow streets cleared to make way for a Grecian crescent and a grand vista. Luckily, all that stands of his plans are a cedar tree, a single gatepost and Bath Street, cut through what Bunn described as tanneries and dunghills. Its name is misleading, since it doesn't lead towards Bath. Any Regency beau who strayed into Frome on the way to the spa was liable to end up in Shepton Mallet. Perhaps this was Thomas Bunn's revenge.

Bunn's misguided zeal is soon to be commemorated, if the latest scheme for improvement is approved. This is a proposed funicular railway running up one of the steepest hills, carrying shoppers to the top of the town where retailers are eagerly awaiting them. It will be powered by the once hard-working water that has for too long been frittering its energy in capsizing ducks and flooding car-parks.

The locals hope the Thomas Bunn Railway will give Frome a lift in more ways than one. At the moment tourists are an unfamiliar sight, which is strange for a town that contains more listed buildings than anywhere in Somerset. Predictably, most of these buildings are associated with work; workmen's cottages, early industrial buildings and rich clothiers' houses.

Even the town's ballroom was made to work: the ground floor doubled as a market hall. A farmer might, with equal pride, bring his calves to market in the morning and daughters to a ball in the evening, the fine scent of manure mingling with the odour of perfume. While I was gazing up at this pungent building, which is now a NatWest bank, someone asked me if I was lost. Was I looking for the cashpoint? I explained that the lost expression on my face was the gawp of the tourist. They will soon learn to recognise it and stop offering to help.

Frome has yet to be absorbed by the heritage racket, giving pioneering visitors the feeling that they are in a real place. The signs, however, are that the situation will not last: the local tourist office, which used to be housed in a hut, now occupies another of the town's 500 listed buildings - a converted wool-drying stove. Inside there are a handful of helpful ladies in smart uniforms preparing for the rush.

If you choose to rush over to Frome today, you will find the town given over to pleasure, with carousels in the marketplace, and no market stalls in sight. Wednesdays have been quieter since the departure of the weekly cattle market, which has been transplanted to open fields where it thrives and grows. Some people miss the sound of lorries slipping a gear while 40 calves are reversed down a one-in-eight incline, but most enjoy the peace and parking spaces.

Today will be particularly quiet, though. Everyone will be at the Frome Cheese Show, which used to obstruct the crowded pavements with great heaps of cheese, but now spreads itself over 32 acres just outside the town.

The idea of cheese spread over 32 acres will seem indigestible to most people but, as with pizza, the vacant areas are just an excuse for adding lots of other ingredients. Butter, eggs, dogs, sheep, goats, bulls and horses all compete for prizes in a series of beauty pageants. In the animal nursery tent there are young animals for children to stroke. Classic cars and even a town-crier for the deaf are provided to include as many people as possible in the fun.

Despite the rival attractions, everyone will feel obliged to visit the cheese tent. It has been described as a "wonderful display," but I should warn you that competitive cheese-making is not a recommended spectator sport. Even when the tension is at its height the cheeses merely squat impassively on their trestle tables awaiting the judge's verdict. The winning cheese accepts its triumph modestly, and the runners-up show no signs of rancour. We could learn a lot about sportsmanship from these cheddars.

It is real country entertainment, unlike some country fairs which have as much to do with agriculture as Marie Antoinette's ormolu milking stool. For the time being, city slickers and tourists are still classified as rare breeds, but with more visitors every year Frome must hang on to that precious sense of being a real place. Once lost, you just can't fake it.

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