Our February earthquake and our tsunami 400 years ago
Glastonbury felt a sudden thud on Saturday February 17, like a pile-driver at work next door or a big lorry going over a kerb, or a sonic boom.
The radio news reported that it was a small earthquake, magnitude 4.2, at 14:31 GMT, centred about five miles underground near Swansea. People noticed it as far away as Blackpool, London and Cornwall. No damage worse than rattling crockery was mentioned.
Four centuries ago, however, a tsunami — as we would call it now — a 15-foot wall of water moving at 30 miles an hour — crashed into Somerset and killed thousands of people.
More of that story was told in Newsletter 134. The water came up as far as the chancel of St Benedict’s church in Glastonbury.
(The Richter scale for measuring earthquakes is logarithmic, which means, for example, that magnitude 5 is ten times stronger than magnitude 4. Thus Japan’s 2011 quake of magnitude 9, one of the worst ever recorded, was 100,000 times stronger than the Swansea thud of magnitude 4 on February 17.)
Tribunal markers almost lost to asphalt
The granite setts marking the Tribunal’s ancient boundary disappeared when workmen blanketed St John’s carpark with new asphalt in the autumn, but the county council almost immediately replaced the stones when the Conservation Society pointed out the blunder.
The markers had been taken out, not just covered over, during the resurfacing work, said John Brunsdon, the society’s president as well as a town and district councillor. “The replacements, though, look very much like the originals.” He gave due thanks to the council portfolio holder for putting it right so quickly.
“Involving English Heritage, as we did, turned out well,” said John. “It increased their interest in the Tribunal, and unearthed some details about backfill that was done when the carpark was set up. It also revealed bits and pieces dating back to the replacement of the church tower [about 1475]. They got all excited about it.”
Background: In the late 1960s the owners of all these gardens behind the High Street donated them to the old Glastonbury Borough Council to become free parking for the good of the town.
But in 1973 the borough council was abolished when the government reorganized all local authorities and set up Mendip district council. The borough’s paperwork was unfortunately lost in a flood at Mendip’s temporary offices, and Mendip imposed the same parking charges as in its other towns. Glastonbury folk with long memories have been sore ever since.
The canopy from Glastonbury’s old railway station was moved and reassembled in the carpark in 1983 by the Conservation Society, originally the idea of Martin Godfrey when he was a member of the society’s committee. The project won a Pride of Place award from the Civic Trust. The dozen or so trees in St John’s carpark were planted by the Conservation Society at about the same time.
Editorial: And in this writer’s opinion, this asphalt desert in the heart of Glastonbury needs a lot more trees!
Furthermore, the town and the planning authorities need a vision to make this area worthy of the grand name they gave it: “St John’s Square”. Wouldn’t it be fine if any new construction at the rear of High Street properties would harmonize into a unified townscape rather than a haphazard lot of piecemeal rear ends.
At the top end of town, the motleyness of backsides facing the Butt Close carpark is even more disgraceful. And Silver Street, where High Street posteriors face the Abbey: how sad.
Bruce Garrard’s latest book, The River, helps deepen our sense of wonder of the ecology of central Somerset with its distinctive natural and engineered landscape. He gently peels away the layers of time to reveal a much more meandering River Brue that wound its way past the island chapels of saints — a landscape of special significance, their names listed with Glastonbury in King Edgar’s charter, as islands that had a privileged status that exempted them from the ordinary laws of the land — the Isles of Avalon, Beckery, Godney, Martinsea, Panborough and Andrewsea.
The Brue once connected them all. But it has become a disconnected river: the engineering work by the medieval monks effectively cut it in half. The Brue and the Axe were once the same river. It took Bruce a lot of hard work to retrace the original path.
With a background in environmental activism and a healthy scepticism of the purely academic, Bruce would never have been content locking himself away in the antiquarian library or poring over the archives of the Somerset Drainage Boards. Throwing a rucksack over his shoulders he got out into the landscape with all its nettles, barbed wire, railway lines, rhynes, weather and landowners and walked, over five days, from the Brue’s source at Brewham to its original mouth at Uphill, just south of Weston-super-Mare. But more than that, he made friends with it. He kayaked and swam in the river, sat on its banks and listened to its changing sounds. He observed the deforestation in its upper reaches as it tumbles towards Bruton and the accumulation of algae pollution in its slow flow near its present-day mouth at Highbridge.
He was inspired by a Glastonbury screening of the film Aluna last year, where the Kogi people of Colombia, isolated for centuries, relay an urgent message to the materialist modern world: “You don’t have to abandon your lives, but you must protect the rivers.” Bruce made a commitment to explore the Brue.
The first quarter of the 258-page book recounts his pilgrimage along its banks. Then he reflects on the Brue’s past: from prehistory, through the iron age, Roman occupation, Celtic Christianity, King Alfred, St Dunstan, the medieval Abbey, through to the current debate about the future of our wetland ecology in a world dominated by economic growth. (The Environment Secretary visiting Somerset in the 2014 floods when asked “What is the purpose of a river?” replied “To get rid of water” — as if our rivers are giant gutters to be straightened and dredged.)
A remarkable graph in the book shows the relationship between woodland and river discharge. The greater the tree cover in the catchment area, the greater the absorption of heavy rain. Government research reached the astonishing result that “water sinks into the soil under trees at 67 times the rate at which it sinks into the soil under grass”.
I believe that Bruce, as a writer, is contributing to an emerging body of immersive, experiential writing about nature that encourages us to reconnect with the land around us. Writers like Robert Macfarlane, Philip Marsden, Glastonbury’s own Patrick Whitefield [who died in 2015], and Roger Deakin, who wrote the groundbreaking Waterlog, can help deepen our appreciation of the spirit of place.
The River offers us an opportunity to remember the Brue, to appreciate its history and its displacement. Bruce deserves our deepest thanks for giving witness to its remarkable story.
• The River is available at £12.95 from local bookshops, or by post from Unique Publications or at a discount direct from the author.
[2018 update: Bruce no longer has his office at the Old Clinic, 10 St John’s Square; you will have to track him down at home.]
Walter Tully, Glastonbury’s pioneer photographer
Glastonbury Conservation Society’s annual general meeting in November 2015 saw a collection of photos taken in town between 150 and 90 years ago by Walter Tully.
Plying his trade in the early days of photography, Tully had a state-of-the-art studio with fine skylights at 19 High Street (the building that now houses the Dilliway & Dilliway shop selling crafts from India) until he retired in 1920.
Andrew Boatswain showed the meeting slides of a number of Tully's photos that he collected — studio portraits, views of local events, book illustrations and picture postcards. They give interesting insights into Glastonbury and its residents over those six decades.
Frustratingly, however, many of the pictures remain anonymous — such as the two puzzling ones shown here. Can you give any clues?
‘Article 4’ of planning law is now in effect to give Conservation Area more protection
New rules covering buildings in Glastonbury’s designated Conservation Area — unlisted buildings as well as listed ones — came into effect on August 2 in 2012.
Mendip District Council mailed a pack to all property owners in the Conservation Area giving details. On the day — despite rain and impossibility of holding an umbrella while tying string — conservation officers fixed official notices on lampposts throughout the Conservation Area.
Owners now require planning permission to make any change to the front of their property that will affect the character of the neighbourhood.
Article 4 is part of the Town and Country Planning Act, dating back to 1990. Bringing it into effect in Glastonbury was one of the recommendations of the formal Appraisal of the town’s Conservation Area carried out last year. The Appraisal would have been cancelled in the council’s budget cuts, but a £1,000 grant from the Conservation Society enabled it to go ahead. The Conservation Society at its inception 40 years ago was the moving force that led to the designation of the Conservation Area to begin with, back in 1976.
Wells is so far the only other area in Mendip where Article 4 is in effect; others are under consideration. South Somerset has Article 4 directions at Wincanton, Bruton and Castle Cary.
Farewell to Keith Miller, fourth generation at hardware shop
Keith Miller died in June 2012 at the age of 82, five years after he retired and sold the family hardware shop in Benedict Street because he was due for major heart surgery.
Keith began working in the family shop when he was 17 and eventually took over from his father, George Miller Jr. It was Glastonbury’s oldest shop: his great-grandfather founded G. Miller & Son in 1872.
Articles about Keith and Miller’s Hardware from past newsletters have been republished on this website.
The Chronicles of John Cannon
Both volumes of The Chronicles of John Cannon are out now (£55 and £65, oup.co.uk). Adrian Pearse, a Conservation Society committee member, is probably Cannon's nearest descendant. He reviews the publication in Newsletter 134.
Cannon was born at West Lydford, near Glastonbury, in 1684. He worked as an exciseman (tax officer) and then as a scrivener (solicitor’s clerk) and Glastonbury town schoolmaster. Throughout his life he kept a meticulous diary, and it contains fascinating detail of people, places and customs that no one else of that period recorded. Cannon has been called “the poor man’s Pepys”.
About the society
It is somewhat startling to calculate that the Conservation Society has been doing its bit for more than 10% of the tercentenary that Glastonbury as a town recently celebrated: 40 years out of the 300.
The society was formed in haste in 1971 in order to save the Crown Hotel in the central Market Place from being pulled down, as had several interesting medieval buildings nearby; swift spot-listing saved a number of other sites too. Today the Crown thrives as the Backpackers Inn. Another project was to rescue some of Glastonbury’s pre-Beeching heritage: the canopy from the railway station, by relocating it (ironically?) amid parked cars in the main central carpark, where it sometimes shelters market stalls and always makes two acres of asphalt easier on the eye. The trees in the carparks are the society’s work too.
Today, Glastonbury Conservation Society
obtains copies of all planning applications and exercises the right to comment
plants trees in town and 10 miles around: 45,000 trees in 40 years!
hears interesting talks from experts on various aspects of our environment
publishes a newsletter (approx quarterly).
The membership subscription is only £7.50* a year (and dare i say it, the newsletter alone is worth that much); members are of course free to give more. Glastonbury Conservation Society is a registered charity (number 264036).
You can download the form for membership and annual standing order here (PDF).
* The annual subscription fee increased modestly in 2015, from £5.
Civic Voice is the national body set up in 2010 as an umbrella group for local societies promoting civic pride all over Britain.
These are some of the current Civic Voice campaigns:
• Alliance of cathedral cities and historic towns
• Big Conservation Conversation
• Civic Day
• Local Heritage List
• Save our high streets
• Street clutter
• War memorials. A previous campaign challenged the government’s proposals to loosen the planning process in favour of developers.
Civic Sense is the online newsletter published monthly by Civic Voice, with links to civic societies around the country and what they’re doing.
(Glastonbury Conservation Society has not yet joined Civic Voice.)
Also on this website
Eric King’s memories of the High Street in the 1940s (four-part series published in newsletters 95–99)
55 years in Glastonbury: John Brunsdon looks back over his time here
This is the full text of a talk John gave recently, updated from reminiscences he wrote down 10 years earlier.
How did Kiwi pioneers come to keep Glastonbury time?
Robin Huggins, touring New Zealand after a wedding, discovered a longcase clock with “R. Woollan, Glastonbury” inscribed on its face, at The Elms, a historic mission house built in 1847 amid warring Maori tribes.
Mr Huggins and his wife founded Becket’s Inn in Glastonbury High Street (in a building that was the town surgery for 250 years); they now live in France.
Update 2013-12-01: The surname was wrongly given as “Huggett” — corrected now.
Memories of childhood in Somers Square
David Orchard grew up in the 1950s in a forgotten square near the top of the High Street. His schoolboy painting of it won him a scholarship. Somers Square was flattened to become a garage and eventually the Co-op supermarket. Now that too has been demolished and new cottages and flats have gone up; the developer called it Avalon Mews. Click here for a fuller version of David Orchard’s piece, from Newsletter 115.
Links to some affiliated and like-minded organizations