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The village while I was growing up

Image Copyright Rebecca Bosson 2021: Montacute Fete fancy dress competiton, around the old water fountain in the Borough c. 1973

Growing up in Montacute

Although the days of piecework gloving were coming to an end, when I was growing up in the 60’s many Montacute homes still smelt of leather; it was not unusual to see treadle sewing machines by living-room windows, with string-tied bundles of cut leather beside them, and the made-up gloves ready for collection. In South Street the houses had sand-bags by their front doors in preparation for the winter floods, and a stream ran through the back garden of the (then) Post Office on the south side of the Borough. The rooflines of the houses on its west side sagged like washing lines, and in Middle Street the smell of fresh bread wafted from Baker the Baker’s while their daughter greeted passers-by from her upstairs window. Baker’s loaves were a sensory delight, delivered still warm, soft to the touch and wrapped in a sheet of tissue paper; more delicious than anything I’ve tasted since. In those days you would see milk churns left by the side of the road on their raised concrete platforms, ready for collection by the St Ivel dairy carts. Bottled and pasteurised, the milk was then sent to our village milkman’s cold-store; he delivered daily, along with fresh eggs from his smallholding which he candled and graded before sale. The fields around were full of apple trees and blackcurrant bushes and local housewives doing seasonal work. I was not yet a teenager so I was too young for the dangers of the apple harvest - no balancing boxes of Bramleys or Coxs on precarious ladders for me - but I vividly remember the astringent, citrussy reek of blackcurrants after a day of picking in the scorching sun.

I grew up with the patchwork of pseudo-historical hand-me-down prejudice masquerading as knowledge, that came from having a mother with local maternal and paternal ancestors. For example, Martock inhabitants were looked down on as  ‘new money’.  According to my Great Aunt, the family were displeased with my Grandmother’s choice of husband; he grew up on ‘the wrong side of the hill’. My Grandmother grew up on the south-west side of Ham Hill in the pretty hamstone village of Norton-sub-hamdon, and for 5 generations back her family was from the Merriott area, 7 miles south-west of the hill. However, my Grandfather was born and bred on the north-west side of Ham Hill in the pretty hamstone village of Stoke-sub-hamdon; his ancestors may have come from as far away as Barrington, 10 miles north-west of the hill. Although – dare I say it - I wonder if ‘wrong side of the hill’ might have been a euphemism, similar to ‘wrong side of the sheets’?

Montacute VC primary school was Victorian in many ways and like generations before us, after school we stopped at the rec. The swings, slides and roundabout had steel rails burnished bronze from decades of grubby hands. Last time I looked the metal benches were unchanged since I played there 50 years ago, but the cricket pavilion and massive cast-iron pitch roller had gone, along with one of the six monumental cedars of Lebanon. Up in the Tower field we would hunt for newts in the dew ponds and get our wellies sucked into the marshy meadow. Occasionally we would slog up the steep fields to St Michael’s Hill, scrabbling up the ‘dog track’ or taking the more leisurely route to the Tower. Once there we peered through unbarred windows to contemplate the dangers of the external steps onto the roof. As we got older the woods were the site of adventures with our Dad’s ‘Pilot’s Survival Guide’, although we were seriously hampered by not having a parachute.  

Other escapades were along the disused railway line, and I remember the dismantling of Montacute’s railway station with its picture-postcard Victorian picket-fence eaves. Past the primrose bank, slippery slip and ‘tumbledown’ bridge, we lit fires on the scalpings and baked foil-wrapped potatoes in the ashes, taking them out every few seconds to see if they were cooked and giving up after 5 minutes or so. No mobiles in those days, Mum called us in for tea from half a mile away. Once in double digits my sister and I cycled the lanes. The dogs at Gaundle Farm weren’t too bad but our hearts were in our mouths as we approached one particular farmyard near Tintinhull. We always stopped beforehand to recce the place, crept as close as we could, then pedalled like fury to get past before barking dogs dashed from the yard and chased us down the road. On the return route we were always nervous going past the gypsy camp but we never met anyone there, and although there were many more noisy dogs, at least they were chained up.

Sundays my sister and I were bundled off to sing in the Church choir while mum stayed home to cook the Sunday roast. There was a peculiar consensus amongst the congregation that all hymns should be sung half a beat behind the organist. Bored rigid through services, my eyes traced the carvings on pew ends and patterns on inlaid encaustic tiles; although I haven’t heard plainsong psalms in years I always enjoyed singing them, as much for the absurdity of the musical concept as for their musicality. I was vaguely aware of a hierarchy of respect amongst the villagers with anyone to do with the Church held in surprisingly high regard; the Vicar was the pinnacle of propriety, and his beneficence sited the annual fete on his vicarage lawns. Hoopla and tombola, cups of tea and orange squash; the steam-organ merry-go-round provided the soundtrack as the May Queen arrived to the Entrance of the Gladiators. Kids guessed how many sweets were in the jar while mums estimated weights of fruit cakes; wooden balls were shied at coconuts and wet sponges were lobbed at mugs in stocks. And it never rained?

The village seemed very self-contained but as we moved into the 70’s our horizons slowly expanded. Hutchings and Cornelius’s brown and cream buses ran regularly from South Petherton to ‘town’ (Yeovil),  and although this was only a 15 minute journey I remember visits to Denners department store as quite an outing; my first experience of lifts, I remember the stomach-dropping novelty being too much for my sister! About this time gentrification arrived in Montacute. My sister and I, barely in our teens, served cream teas in cafés competing for the purses of visitors to the House - on slow Saturdays I was tasked with de-stalking and de-seeding raisins for fruit scones while waiting for customers. Not long after, an up-market restaurant also provided employment for our younger brother as a washer-upper.

Pubs had restricted opening times in the 70’s, 11am to 3pm then 6pm to 11pm, with shorter hours on Sundays. But on the two market days each week the pubs near the cattle market in town were open all afternoon, clearly indicating the need to drink all afternoon on Wednesdays and Fridays. In my college years a half of CV (cider and Vimto) was affordable and went down easily enough. Motorbikes were the cheaper transport option for students and low-paid workers, and the Phelips in Montacute became a frequent watering hole for bikers.

Some anachronistic nonsense by the Phelips c. 1980 (copyright Rebecca Bosson 2021):

I found this fab post recalling an event from the mid 1980's, about the same the picture above was taken:

Montacute Tower, by R.K., 2019. 

I remember many years back a bunch of us went up the Tower at night all merrily pissed. It was very dark steep and real spooky, up the wee steps inside we all went to squat upstairs and suck down more booze. Suddenly Mr T.D. jumps up and slides outah the tiny window opening and somehows hauls himself right up on top of the bloody tower! Scared the crap outah me, I thought we would never see him alive again. He did return back through the window like a giant ninja🙂. Then on the way back down I remember getting all tangled up in a barb wire fence and Sir P.C. rescued me from that mess. Just another peaceful night out with the lads.😉

In case anyone wants to try this, the windows have since been barred and a handrail has been put on the external stone steps and around the summit of the tower.

Next you might want to check out Montacute snippets for my notes on Montacute and its history.

If you scroll to the bottom of the homepage you will find the gallery containing some pictures of the village.