The area of Wookey Hole west of the river Axe was within the parish of Wookey until 1856. During the Middle Ages these lands were once part of the Bishop’s estates of Wells. Other areas of land in Wookey Hole, both east and west of the Axe, belonged to the manor of Melsbury and Wookey Hole which was the local estate for the Almshouses of Wells (Bubwith).
In the medieval period the landscape around Wookey Hole would have consisted of meadows close to the Axe, pasture land on the higher reaches of the Mendip ridge, woodland, orchards and open spaces for crops in areas such as Wattles Hill and the gentle slopes around Ebbor. This tradition of farming – the ‘open field system’ - divided arable land into strips for cultivation, each farmer having a regular or random distribution around the village or settlement.
However, this system began to change and from the late Middle Ages to the Enclosures Acts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, land became more enclosed and many more fields were formed. Also in the eighteenth century the balance of power began to shift from the old tradition (Church and Almshouses) to a new group of landowners who would pave the way into the nineteenth century. The Band family, who were to become very important in the area, bought up much of the land around Wookey Hole, including the almshouse leases. At the same time the Tudway family of Wells was also acquiring much property in the village. The Band estate was farmed from Ebbor Hall whilst the Tudways leased Bubwith Farm. Much exchange of land between the two owners and the almshouses took place at this time. In 1795 John Band exchanged some land with the Taylors of Burcott. The marriage of a Taylor heiress brought Wookey Hole land into the estate of Lord Brougham and Vaux.
In 1828 a new farmhouse was built at Hurstbatch by Thomas Baker. There were very few other buildings in Wookey Hole at this time. In the middle of the nineteenth century the village expanded due to the growth of the paper mill and the influence of the Hodgkinson family. The village now started to move away from Wookey parish and became more focused towards St Cuthbert Out (although the area west of the Axe still had representatives on Wookey parish council up until 1933). In 1856 the Trustees of Bubwith almshouse sold the paper mill to W. S. Hodgkinson and in 1900 all 113 acres of their land went to him. In 1856 Revd. C. E. Band sold some outlying land and raised mortgages on other Wookey Hole land in his ownership. In 1893 the mortgage holders, Milletts, foreclosed and the estate was sold with some 195 acres going to a Mr. Gould of Launcherley in 1919.
At the end of the nineteenth century farming in Wookey Hole was almost all dairying with some sheep being kept. Hay and cattle fodder was also grown along with other crops for local consumption. Orchards, for cider making, were also a common feature of the village. Myrtle Cottage in the main street was once a cider producing house with part of the Caves car park forming an orchard.
The 1st World War saw anxiety spreading about food production and its distribution. In 1917 the board of agriculture ordered a survey of uncultivated land. Somerset was required to ensure that another 90,000 acres were placed under cultivation in 1918. Any farmer who did not cultivate grass land when ordered to do so was threatened with a £100 fine.
During the two wars farming was still an important livelihood in Wookey Hole. Mechanisation was slowly increasing e.g. hay elevators and mowers, chaff cutters, tractors etc. were not commonly used here until the 2nd World War. Milking was still done out in the fields and the usual milking breeds were Shorthorns not Friesians which were not seen in this area until 1937.
In 1931 the sale of the Somerset estate of Lord Brougham and Vaux was held. It is alleged that gambling debts were the reason. This event strengthened the village community as many of those who bought the farms and land were already tenants of the estate. Included in the sale were 2524 acres of land comprising the following farms: Milton Farm (now Model Farm), Milton Manor Farm, Upper Milton and Lower Milton farms, Ebbor Farm, Easton Farm, Burcott House Farm, Burcott Farm, Coxley Manor Farm and Meare Manor Farm. Some of these farms are not in Wookey Hole but the ties are there as many of the new owners were related.
World War Two brought about a lasting change in agriculture. In 1939 the first subsidies were brought in to entice farmers to plough up grassland for the war effort. Mechanisation became widespread and the Women’s Land Army and Italian prisoners of war worked on local farms. The post war years saw the disappearance of most of the cider orchards and a reduction in the number of farms in the village as land became consolidated.
The plans shown in the 1931 sale catalogue, reproduced at the end of this book, show the land holdings of the various farms in that year. In the year 2000 the main farms of Wookey Hole; Model Farm, Lower Milton Farm, Myrtle Farm and Ebbor Farm are all still working farms, unusual at this time in a small village, and their lands are still similar to those shown in 1931. Of the other farms in the area Milton Manor Farm has recently been sold by the Gould Family and Marley Grange at Hurstbatch continues to be a working farm run by the Scott family.
Lower Milton Farm, which is owned and run by Mr Lee and his son Nick, has been in the management of the same family (originally Gould) for five generations. The first tenants arrived in 1895. The Gould family is also related to the Creed and Masters families which own farms in the village. The farmhouse itself, although added to and altered over the years, is approximately three hundred years old and still has the wonderful, huge open fireplace with a stone spiral staircase alongside. It would also appear that the house and barn were once thatched. In 1931 when the farm was bought by the family it consisted of 86 acres, 2 roods and 38 perches. Some land has been acquired over the years and the acreage now stands at about 100, supporting a herd of 80 dairy cows. The Lees are now having to diversify as farming becomes economically harder, the farm now offers Bed and Breakfast as well as a small, pleasant camping and caravan site.
Model Farm, owned by the Creed family, was built as a showpiece farm with buildings for milling and grinding. Nowadays the business concentrates on livestock, particularly sheep.
Myrtle Farm was bought in 1931 by Mr Walter Lunnon whose family were originally from London. The house carries a date of 1689, although the commemorative stone is a recent addition, and was originally two thatched cottages. The tenants preceding the Lunnons used the attics for housing turkeys. The kitchen, which was originally the cheese room, still has the drain in the floor and curing hooks in the ceiling. Ted Lunnon, the present farmer, has a small dairy herd and is currently trying to qualify for Countryside Stewardship. This is a Government scheme whereby payments are made to the farmer for practising certain farming methods. For instance, on Myrtle Farm nitrogen fertiliser is no longer used, a seaweed based compound being the preferred alternative.
Dairying is the chief activity practised on Ebbor Farm, owned by Mr W J Masters and Marley Grange, owned by the Scott family.