This article is from the programme of the Axbridge Pageant 2022: Set against the backdrop of the Mendips above the town and the Levels to the fore, Axbridge has been defined by its geography. Lying along an east-west route from Wells to Uphill the town can only expand to the sides with its centre being The Square – where this drama unfolds.
And here in Axbridge Square we gather again for the once in a decade play that depicts aspects of the history of this Somerset town. Or rather due to the Covid-19 crisis instead of ten years as it should have been staged in 2020 it’s 12 years.
In 1963 the Cheddar Valley Railway (popularly known as The Strawberry Line as it took the soft fruits of the area up to Bristol and beyond) was closed after almost a century of use thanks to the Dr Beeching report commissioned by the Government. A technocrat, Beeching was influenced by the rise of the car and the building of motorways and saw no future in the branch line.
At the time Axbridge was a bottleneck for traffic with its narrow streets – a bit like Banwell today. The congestion had been legendary with long tailbacks to Cheddar in one direction and Cross in the other. Crowds would gather outside the Lamb Inn to witness the chaos as lorries and buses backed up in order to squeeze past the houses. In 1967 peace descended as the traffic roared past on the new road that ran along the old railway embankment – and the town was able to breathe a sigh of relief.
To celebrate, the community held a pageant in the Square with hundreds of residents embracing their inner Roman, Tudor and Victorian personas with a pageant that reflected how the town saw its past at the time. A glance at the photographs of the time saw Roman and Ancient Britons, Roundheads and Cavaliers, Georgians and Victorians, while the 20th century was largely absent.
Written by Christine Cowap and partly inspired by The Heart of Mendip by Francis A Knight published in 1915, the script depicted an uneven view of the town’s past although it proved to be a huge success.
With the town enthused by its past it prompted further pageants in 1970, 1980 and 1990 with Anne Griffiths as producer, and in 2000 and 2010 with John Bailey as director. Each time Axbridge Square was turned into a vast arena and stage – to portray the long and extraordinary story of the town through drama, spectacle and pageantry.
Each time the content has been updated with new characters and events depicted although some like the Reverend Gould’s fight scene remain partly due to the fact it happened and its enduring popularity.
And so we gather once again in 2022 to maintain this tradition – which in its own way has also become part of the town’s history.
The next pageant is in 2030. Keep up to date at the FB site at https://www.facebook.com/groups/209118200277392