1 March 2010

From the West Country - The Mendip Fringe, 2

Chew Magna lives up to its name, and once upon a time it must have been magnificent, if the size and style of some of its buildings is anything to go by.  There’s a third storey to some of the eighteenth century houses that would have been home to quite a few servants, and there are outhouses and stables and walls and gates and ornaments and decorations and a degree of opulence not found in every village.  Harford House is one such dwelling.  Another is The Firs, which boasts 16 chimney pots.   Hence the name, “Magna,” and that’s the way it still feels.  Though I am not quite sure who is building what out of breezeblocks right in the centre of town, near the triangular village green with its ancient thorn tree.

The village has history – you can feel it.  It is the largest village in the area, and was already important in Saxon times.  It was a thriving centre for the wool trade in the middle ages, and the Bishop of Bath and Wells built a palace here near St Andrew’s church, some of which survives as Chew Court.  The church itself is notable for its 15th century tower, embellished by pinnacles, and inside has a Norman font and rood screen.  Also from the 15th century is the Church House, now called the Old Schoolroom, which has a beautiful fa├žade with an ornate doorway and five windows giving onto the village green.  Much of the manor house was rebuilt in 1656. A house called “The Rectory” (though surely not the original?) was built on the main road south in 1672.  Many wealthy businessmen from Bath and Bristol have chosen to live here over the years, possibly to live quieter and healthier lives, possibly to enjoy retirement, but they have endowed Chew Magna and created a harmonious and elegant town.  There are three pubs, the Queen’s Arms, the Pelican and the Bear and Swan (a fine building from 1886, with something Victorian in its wooden furniture), and three nearby farms provide bed and breakfast for those who would like to prolong their visit.

Chew takes its name from the river Chew, which rises at Chewton Mendip and flows seventeen miles to join the Avon at Keynsham.  This also gives its name to Chew Lake, which was created in 1956 to provide water for Bristol.  I walk down the Chew Valley, under the watchful eye of Chota Castle and its potent black guard dog, and survey the bright expanse of water from the dam.  This is a shallow lake, averaging fourteen feet deep, but it covers over twelve hundred acres when full.  Many farms and houses were lost when the valley was flooded, but roads and hedges reappear in times of drought, and tree stumps can clearly be seen at the shallow end.  It is very popular for fishing (mainly fly fishing for trout, though pike of over thirty pounds have also been landed) and sailing, and is well managed as a recreational facility.  The lake recently hosted the World Fly Fishing Championships, and fishermen can make use of Woodford Lodge, a custom-built clubhouse, while other visitors can find refreshment at Chew Valley Lake Tea Shop.  There are also Nature Trails to follow and bird watching is also popular:  over 260 species of birds have been recorded here.

The fishing season does not start until late March, (for information call the Bristol Water Fishing Hotline, 09066802288, 25p per minute) and I have an appointment in Blagdon so must make tracks.  My route takes me through Chew Stoke, something of a poor relation to Magna, but a pretty and thriving village nonetheless.  The architecture is more vernacular and the pubs (The Yew Tree Inn and The Stoke Inn) possibly more rustic and homely.  There are some quaint touches, such as a neat little two-arched bridge over the brook where Pilgrim’s Way meets The Street.  Quite a few of the buildings date from the eighteenth century and there are many farms close by, some with names that tell something of their origin or the past (Fairseat farm, Pagan’s Hill Farm). 

I take a rather indirect route over to Blagdon, to sample the air at the summit of Gravel Hill, which reaches some one hundred and thirty metres above sea level, and from where there are superb views around the surrounding countryside.  I drop down Pit Lane, with the local names becoming more intriguing the further I go (Dewdown Lodge, Pixey Hole).  Eventually I reach the tail of Blagdon Lake, just below Ubley.  With time pressing I decide on skirting the Lake, informed by locals that I risk the wrath of the Bailiff if found without a permit.  Unfortunately there is no information about where such a permit may be found, though I would be more than happy to pay the £2 requested as a contribution to the well being of the local wild life.  The lake is stunning in the winter sunshine, and I hardly see a soul all the way round.  The birds, from heron to teal, are happily making the most of the off-season, however, and, had I had time to linger and make use of the hides, I could have observed the shimmering light and the flickering birds to my heart’s content.

This lake is almost one hundred years old now, and is stocked with trout, like Chew, by Bristol Water.  It is about 440 acres of watery heaven, nuzzling the Mendip foothills, skirted by mature woods, 42 feet deep at its deepest, and known to aficionados as the birth place of still water trout fishing.  Boats (rowing or electric motor only) can be hired from Blagdon Fishing Lodge, where permits are also obtainable in the season, or enthusiasts may perch themselves almost anywhere on the seven-mile perimeter.  There are supposed to be about two hundred thousand trout in this lake, and some catches have weighed in at over three and a half pounds, so there’s plenty for all!  There are facilities for other visitors, too, however, and you do not have to speak the language of small flies and nymphs, buzzers and diawl bachs, to enjoy these surroundings.  On Sunday afternoons, from May 27th until September 30th, the Blagdon Pumping Station and Visitor Centre is open, with a still functioning beam engine as well as many exhibits and hands-on displays, and there is plenty of space for picnics and a nature trail as well.  

I manage to reach the track that leads up towards Blagdon Church without the pleasure of the Bailiff’s company, however, and make it to my destination slightly out of breath at the last climb, but exhilarated.  The view back over the lake and the countryside from the garden of the New Inn is wonderful, something you would not expect just ten miles southwest of Bristol city centre (as the crow flies!)  And the log fire, ale and vittles inside the pub is worth the trip as well!

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