Sunday, September 27, 2020

Somerton, Somerset

Well marketed

Looking up the dates of Joseph Chamberlain for a recent post that mentioned Birmingham, I noticed that the great Liberal mayor expressed the policy that the city should be, amongst other things, properly ‘marketed’.* Any town should have a proper market, whether it’s a big city like Birmingham or a small place such as Somerton in Somerset. This stone town is fortunate, in that its early builders left a generous area for a market place in the centre, an irregularly shaped space that has housed, in its time the town hall (the building that forms the backdrop in my photograph above), a couple of inns, and this butter cross.

There has been a butter cross – a shelter where dealers in dairy produce can find shelter from the rain and, importantly the sun – at least since 1390, but this striking octagonal one was put up in 1673. Like much of the old town centre, it is built of local grey lias stone, with some elements in Ham stone. Rather than the pantiles that are so common here, the building has a stone roof, supported by a central stone pier, topped with a ball finial, and edged with battlements.

Rainwater is channelled behind the battlements and drains away through eight gargoyles, one at each corner. These are similar to the grotesque carvings one sees on medieval churches, and they’re a small testimony to the old tradition of craftsmanship that produced stone masons who could also carve. You’d not call this round-arches structure a Gothic building, but the skills developed by medieval masons survive, not just ion the walls and roof but also in this ability to carve.† These masons assured that Somerton is indeed well marketed.

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* He was referring not to marketing and PR but to civic facilities – his list of requirements was that the city should be ‘parked, paved, assized, marketed, gas & watered and “improved” .’

† And the tradition continues. Anyone who thinks such skills have died should visit a masons’ yard at one of the nine English cathedrals that still possess one, or read, for example, The Stone Mason: A History of Building Britain by Andrew Ziminski.



Hels said...

I bet the townspeople were also very pleased that a decent area was left for a market place in the centre of town. Yes they would have needed a town hall and this butter cross, but even more importantly, they would have needed inns and a good sized well.

Sally Johnson said...

A note of appreciation for your sending me something interesting, unusual and educational every day. I know it is a labor of love for you ... and although I have nothing significant to offer about 99.9 percent of it, you have enriched my life a lot here in SoCal, homesick for the greenery and history of my mother country. Thank you and keep up the good work.