On St David’s Day, March 1st 1894, there was great excitement in Parliament. A new Local Government Bill was being debated in the Commons; and there were eight hundred amendments. The Prime Minister was Mr Gladstone. He was eighty four years of age and it was his last speech in Parliament. Two days later he resigned. On March 5th 1894 the Local Government Act was passed and the new civil Parish of Out St Cuthbert was conceived.
The roots of the Parish, however, went back a thousand years. In Saxon times Somerset became prosperous and played a significant role in English history. Edgar was crowned first King of England in Bath in 973 by Dunstan, Abbot of Glastonbury and subsequently Archbishop of Canterbury. The See of Wells was founded and the Diocese became conterminal with the County of Somerset, the Sheriff becoming the Kings chief officer in the County.
St Cuthbert was a great English saint who became Bishop of Lindisfarne in Northumberland and was buried, eventually, in what later became Durham Cathedral. The first church in Wells was dedicated to this Saint. Long after the town received its Royal Charter in 1201 it became customary to refer to the countryside outside the City as out St Cuthbert, to distinguish it from the town proper, which could be deemed to be in St Cuthbert.
The freemen of a vill formed themselves into groups of ten, called tithings, which later became sub units of the Parish. In the case of Out St Cuthbert earlier settlements such as Coxley, Dulcote and Milton are now well known, but the tithings of Chilcote, Whitnell and Worminster are perhaps less so. The site of the present village of Wookey Hole was divided by the River Axe, with the east bank being in the Milton tithing. The west bank was in a different Parish altogether; that of Wookey. Dinder, at that time, was also a separate Parish.
During the reign of the Tudor monarchs the growth of trade, the improvements in farming and the dissolution of the monasteries created administrative problems well beyond the powers and ability of the Sheriff and the courts. The Parish, under the watchful eye of the Justices of the Peace, became responsible under the 1555 Act for the maintenance of the highways in the Parish, and by the 1601 Act to help the poor. To pay for this work the Parish was able to levy highway rates and poor rates as well as Church rates.
In Victorian times the population of Somerset more than doubled, and the settlements around Wells became villages. The villagers built their own places of worship: Coxley, Easton, Horrington and finally Wookey Hole in 1876. Dinder being an ancient village had its own Medieval church. Apart from Dinder, St Cuthbert was the Parish Church of the other villages.
The Parish, which had both church and civil duties, was administered by the Vestry. All ratepayers were entitled to attend meetings of the Vestry, but in practice a select few tended to play leading roles. Various officers were appointed including Overseers of the Poor, two Waywardens, three members of the Burial Board and the Chapel Wardens. There was no mention, however, in the Out St Cuthbert Vestry Meeting Minutes of that delightful Dickensian character, the Beedle.
In 1893 Rev. John Beresford was Chairman of the Vestry and Mr W.S. Hodgkinson was elected Chapel Warden of St Mary Magdalene, Wookey Hole. Mr Hodgkinson’s brother Thomas was appointed by the Crown a Justice of the Peace.
To handle this growing population and the social changes the Victorian governments reorganised local administration. The Local Government Act of 1888 created County Boroughs like Bristol, making Somerset predominantly a rural County. The 1894 Act set up Urban and Rural Districts, Wookey Hole becoming part of Wells Rural District. At the same time the civil and religious roles of the Parish were separated. For the parish a new epoch had started.
Following this split it may now seem a little confusing to have the (Anglican Church) Parish of St Cuthbert, Wells, with its ruling body, the Parochial Church Council; and the Civil Parish of Out St Cuthbert (later St Cuthbert out) with its own Parish Council. After 1895 both existed as entirely different organisations.
The first meeting of the new Civil Parish was held in the St Cuthbert Church Room (now demolished) on 4th January 1895 and elected Mr W.S. Hodgkinson as Chairman. Among the new councillors present was Mr William Lunnon representing the new north ward (Easton, Milton, Walcombe and Eastwater Tithings). For over a century there was nearly always a Lunnon on the Parish Council. To date the family have produced five Councillors, including Mr W.A. Lunnon who became Chairman in 1940.
Mr Michael Chamberlain, the Assistant Editor of the Wells Journal, also has a long association with the Parish. He was a Councillor in 1962 and still serves the village as a Reader at the Church of St Mary Magdalene. Another long serving record is held by the late Mr Bill Warner, the Clerk to the Council from 1963 - 97. The present Clerk, who succeeded Mr Warner, is Mr David Selvidge; and the Chairman of the Parish Council is Mrs Sandra Ford, the first lady to grace the office. The electorate of both Mendip District Councillor Christopher Inge and Somerset County Councillor Brian Livings includes the village of Wookey Hole; and both are frequent visitors to Parish Council meetings.
Today, the people of Wookey Hole still play a useful role in the Parish; with one of its two Councillors being Chairman of the Planning Applications Committee and the second, Mr Norman Baddeley, being the Chairman of the Joint (with Wells) Burial Board.
The bounds of the Parish today are not too unlike those of 1894. In the past century, however, there have been three important changes. In 1932 the west bank of the River Axe was transferred from Wookey Parish; all of Wookey Hole then coming within the Parish of St Cuthbert Out. Also in that year and again in 1986 there were two enlargements of the City of Wells, at the expense of St Cuthbert Out. And finally, again in 1986, the people of Dinder voted to join St Cuthbert Out.
The 1972 Local Government Act abolished Rural and Urban Districts and created new larger Districts, of which Mendip was one; making St Cuthbert Out the largest parish in Mendip District. Both the new District and the Parish survived the 1992 Government Review, but the administrative County of Somerset underwent some drastic surgery, with the loss of the two northern districts.
The Parish Council has a continuous dialogue with Somerset County Council and its highway agent W.S. Atkins, principally about the state of the roads and plans for improvements; including currently, a safe route from Wookey Hole to Wells for pedestrians, horse riders and cyclists. Likewise with Mendip District Council, mostly about planning applications, including recently, the conversion of Bubwith Farm into seven dwellings. Also with Wells City Council concerning the Joint Burial Board and other common matters, such as the Wells Relief Road; the section between Portway and Dulcote being shared almost equally between the two Parishes.
The Parish Council is sometimes successful in its attempts to improve conditions: on occasions the issues drag on for years, and sometimes it fails completely. In 1989, for example, the Council opposed the upgrading of Dursdon Drove from a public footpath and bridleway to a public right of way with vehicular rights. After a public inquiry in 1993 the Drove was redesignated a ‘Byway Open to All Traffic’ (BOAT). The arguments for the advocates was that in the early 19th Century wheeled traffic had used it and that there had never been a formal closure issued.
Being in a rural area, the St Cuthbert Out Parish Council has always been involved in country matters, whether it is employment, education, housing, roads and paths, quarrying or postal services. It supports the conservation of landscape, vegetation and wildlife; the apparent, often superficial, conflict between farming and leisure pursuits always being present.
One mammoth task required by the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act of 1949 was the mapping of all the rights of way in the Parish. Over 100 routes were identified and numbered and are recorded on the Definitive Map, a copy of which is held by Mendip District Council. As ramblers over Mendip will know, thanks to the diligence of the District’s Rights Of Way Officers a number of stiles, gates, signposts and waymarks have recently been replaced. The Act also asked for nominations for favoured ‘Parish Open Country’. Arthur’s Point, Ebbor Gorge, Rookham and Deer Leap were proposed. This lead eventually to part of the Mendip Hills, including that immediately above Wookey Hole, being designated an ‘Area of Outstanding National Beauty’ (AONB) in 1972.
The Easton Village Green was registered in 1992 as ‘Common Land’. The villagers of Wookey Hole appear to own no such space. They are, however, fortunate in being able to enjoy the use of the large grassy parkland running down from Titlands lane to the River Axe, including the children’s favourite Trouts Bend; the land being owned and maintained by Wookey Hole Caves Ltd. Does the village, then, need a playground? The provision of playgrounds, often necessary in urban areas, is becoming increasingly problematic, owing to the need for supervision, the required insurance cover and the high cost of maintenance. In Wookey Hole there is the added problem: where should it be sited? Mr Gerard Hodgkinson offered the small triangular piece of ground in the village adjoining the school. The offer was refused reluctantly due to the extreme steepness of the land.
The Parish owns the Coxley playground, recently refurbished. It also owns the allotments in Wookey Hole. Previous to the 1914 World War there were a number of allotments either owned by, or leased to the Parish. Now there is only one; which was started in 1953 and funded by an eighty year loan of £600, for the land and fences.
All Parish Councils in rural areas have been saddened by the closure of so many village schools and post offices, during the second half of the 20th Century, the loss involving a social dimension often forgotten. Previously, there were six post offices in the Parish of St Cuthbert Out. Now only that in Wookey Hole remains, happily in good hands; but unhappily the local school closed in 1988.
There was a big change in 1974 when the new Mendip District Council asked the Parish Councils to make observations on all applications for Planning Consent relevant to the Parish. The Parishes had no powers to grant consents, but could and do give positive and negative recommendations. These recommendations are carefully considered by the District’s Planning Department, particularly if they differ from those of the professional staff. A representative from the Parish Council is now invited to attend the Area Boards and can ask to speak on local applications. The Planning Applications Committee of St Cuthbert Out P.C meet about once a month to examine the majority of applications. Some received in between these meetings are brought before the full Council. An average of twenty are presented to each PAC Meeting. Most of these are for extensions and alterations to houses, farms and occasionally to commercial buildings and licensed premises. Sometimes the applications relate to a new building or group of buildings, such as the recent Merlin Drive development off the Wookey Hole Road.
Many helpful guides have been issued by the District Council and the Department of the Environment, both on general principles and on details of good design and neighbourliness. The Parish Council favours new buildings and conversions which maintain the character of a village, farm, countryside, or the parent building in the case of conversions; and show proper understanding of form, materials and the surroundings, but need not necessarily be slavish repeats of what exists: also that no undue traffic problems are created and that the drainage system is not overloaded.
The spacing between buildings, and the way groups of buildings relate to each other is deemed to be important. Innovation, certainly, is not discouraged, but the introduction of alien materials is regarded with caution. Above all the Parish Council wants to keep separate the identities of the eight villages in the Parish, and not allow them to become suburbs of Wells. The City is the geographical, social and educational centre of St Cuthbert Out, and the villagers are fond of Wells. It is believed, nevertheless, that the green belt around the City is just as important to the citizens as it is to the villagers and farming communities.
John Parsons, Vice Chairman of St Cuthbert Out Parish Council.
This is an update of a talk given to the Wookey Hole Ladies Club on St David’s Day 1995.