Axbridge has always changed. From when it was just a Saxon bugh based around the stream that flows under the Square to the Norman French newcomers and later the Tudor wool merchants that gave the town its market charter.
When I was researching the post Victorian era of the town for the 2000 pageant I wanted to include aspects of the 20th century social history to bring the production up to date. Megan Baker (1922-2007) was very helpful in providing anecdotal notes on some of the shops and businesses she could remember reaching back to her childhood in the late 1920s. The only caution I would give is not all memories are exact so some of these memories may not chime exactly with everyone but I am sure 99% are correct.
Megan lived her final years in the flats on Houlgate Way and had been in the town almost all of her life taking part as an enthusiastic member of the Axbridge Players in the 1950s and 1960s. She was a leading figure in the social life of the town for decades with a strong presence in the Guides, the youth club and the Church and thus would have been familiar with all aspects of Axbridge.
She talked me through a walk up the High Street and West Street and back – but in this walk it is The Square that she recalls and the shops and businesses that she knew in her youth.
Beginning at the Cheddar side there was and is the Oak House Hotel which was a restaurant in the 1930s run by Bob Farley and Mr Barrington and was taken over by the British Army in the Second World War.
A coal merchant lived at the bottom of the Church Steps called Fred Pethers and he had a coal yard in Cheddar. The shop was also a chemist for a while around 20 years or more ago. If you check out old photos of the Church Steps you will notice there’s an extra house on the corner. Now gone with just a patch of gravel – before you arrive up the steps at the Church Rooms. Hopefully someone will tell me what was in the house.
Moving anti clockwise Lloyds Bank that was – was also a building society at one time while a Mr Morely Ham, a second coal merchant lived at The Old Angel, now a private home. The Old Angel as it sounds was a pub and dates to around 1550 and has been a shop (and some locals suggest a brothel in the 17th century) although no witnesses have come forward. It enjoyed a busy time in the 1930s when it was frequented by workers constructing the Cheddar Reservoir – many from the then Irish Free State. At the time it had a reputation for singing and late night carousing.
Next along the line was until the 2000s the Seasons Dress and Fashion shop which had previously been a general store and for a time the Co-operative store. When Phil Reaney moved from the butcher’s shop in the High Street it was for a while a butchers and delicatessen – and a much loved store to boot. Then it was a florist and recently has been the salon of Hair on the Square.
Next door with its yellow brick exterior was the George Inn now Ripley’s Antiques and Bistro. Sadly Axbridge is down to one pub and one hotel bar with the closure of the Crown In in St Mary Street. Next door is an estate agents which ajoins the Lamb Inn which is partly on the site of the Guild Hall now all but swallowed up by the Georgian inn with is 1830s frontage.
Megan next takes us past the Corner House that has been used as a shop in the past and was the home of the former town crier Mrs Glover before becoming a café, then an art shop and finally a private house.
King John’s Hunting Lodge is of course the town’s most famous building and is now owned by the National Trust and is run as the town’s museum by the Axbridge and District Museum Trust. Despite its name it has nothing to do with King John (1199-1216) who had long been dead before it was built. Megan recalls it being an ironmonger’s store for a time, and also a café and a music shop. In the last war it was taken over by the British army and used as an office and billet for a time. It was Miss Ripley who bought it and restored it in part before leaving it to the National Trust.
A few more notes on the hunting lodge: dating to at least 1500 and possibly earlier – the building was originally three shops and a pub with living accommodation above. The king’s head carved on the corner of the exterior is likely to have been a symbol of just what it is when it was an ale house and nothing to do with its name sake. However King John wasn’t such a bad king as history suggests as he granted the town a charter and set it on its way to prosperity.
The Co-op is now the town’s main grocery shop but in previous years has been a Spa and a Local Plus store as well as the Axbridge Wine Vaults.
Everyone knows Suman at the Axbridge Chemist over the road but it has only been a pharmacy comparatively recently. Before it was the Spinning Wheel Restaurant for several years and also a gift shop. It is one of the town’s oldest buildings at its core despite its more modern make-over and dates to the early 15th century and has even been a bicycle shop in the past as well as Filers and Warners and also a grocery shop.
Over the road is the Almshouse Tea Shop run by Nicky Frewin but was known as the Bistro before that and was a restaurant. Going back in time it was also an undertakers Megan said called Swearse & Son. The almshouse was as it is called a named a place for the elderly to be housed before the birth of work houses, hospitals, geriatric wards or the modern care homes.
Next door to the town hall Megan said there was a sweet shop. How ridiculous the town no longer has specialist confectioners, undertakers and wine vaults – let alone an iron mongers. Perhaps these retail establishments will return in the future as shopping habits change again.
The Town Hall completed in 1830 replaced the Guild Hall and was a dining hall, an indoor market, a court room and a council chamber – and still performs some of those roles. Megan can recall the building being used as a British Restaurant for troops and others involved in the war effort. A three course meal would set you back 1/6d in 1944. It is worth remembering that D-Day and Victory over the Nazis was partly fuelled by those meals in our own town hall.
Next time we travell up St Mary Street and down Moorland Street with Megan discovering more surprising businesses that are now very expensive private homes but were once shops, garages and even factories.
If any of these notes are incorrect or you have added information then do email me at email@example.com so I can update the article.
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