A MEDIEVAL CART TRACK WITH TARMAC
The A361 through Glastonbury:
from the beginning of roads to the second world war
A5 paperback, 54 pages
Includes black & white photographs and maps
Published February 2019
Special price for copies bought from this website £4.00
This modest book is very thought-provoking, particularly in the context of further road building proposals around Glastonbury. The medieval cart track in the title refers to the section of the A361 that passes from Havyatt through Coursing Batch and Chilkwell Street. Presumably, the roadworks that repeatedly take place on that section of road are testament to the poor quality of the road. The original road into Glastonbury ran much lower down, nearer the foot of the Tor, through Lower Edgarley and along part of Cinnamon Lane.
There was only one road that led to Glastonbury as it was otherwise an island and a place of pilgrimage. The Isle of Avalon was a destination, not a place to pass through on the way to somewhere else. The entrance to the sacred isle is still marked by the ridge of Ponters Ball out at Havyatt; this is an undated earthwork that could be Iron Age or Bronze Age, and it lies either side of the main road.
During the long period this book covers, the building of roads into Glastonbury is mostly a history of reluctant funding, poor planning and incompetent building. My enjoyment of this book was at times worrying and I recommend it to those who do not have a natural affinity to wearing anoraks, in order to widen your horizons.
Bruce has a blog about the current road building proposals at www.unique-publications.co.uk/newsblog/glastonbury-southern-bypass-proposal, which everyone should be reading. Supporters of a new road are using the results of a very flawed survey in Glastonbury. However, it is doubtful that residents’ opinions will have much influence on the outcome, as the new road proposals are driven by a national road network plan which does not have Glastonbury as a destination, but rather as somewhere to be bypassed. And if the plans go ahead, then we will get to watch more traffic from the top of the Tor, which does not seem a desirable outcome.
Mike Jones, Glastonbury Oracle, March 2019
A MEDIEVAL CART TRACK WITH TARMAC
The A361 has been described by SABRE Roads as “a blessed road. How could it not be, taking in both Avebury and Glastonbury? It is the road to the promised land.” Recently, however, the section through Glastonbury has become the subject of controversy, with arguments over how best to deal with the ever-growing volume of freight traffic travelling through on its way to the M5 motorway.
It struck me that a useful perspective could be given by looking at the history of this road. It turns out to be very interesting, going back to the earliest prehistoric times. Roman engineering works, the medieval Abbey and nineteenth century Turnpike Trusts have all contributed to its development.
This local history of the road is woven in and out of the social history of the country. Medieval fairs, stagecoach travel and the invention of the motor car all happened in the context of the roads that were available in their time. The growth of trade has defined the expansion of the road network. The development of our roads has helped to create our system of local government.
It is a small book, but researched in detail and packed, as best as I can manage, with interesting information. Also included are plenty of photographs, maps and other illustrations. The ‘medieval cart track’ has changed much over the centuries but it is still essentially a country road through very attractive scenery. Its history has been great fun to research and record.
The road from Frome via Shepton Mallet to Glastonbury certainly has its charm, as well as its modern problems. As you approach Glastonbury, the Tor is visible in the distance from just outside Shepton Mallet, and it gradually appears larger as you get closer. Then, reaching Glastonbury from the east, the road passes the Tor, comes quite steeply down Coursing Batch and levels out on its way past the Chalice Well gardens.
It continues along Chilkwell Street before turning left into Bere Lane beside the fourteenth century Abbey Barn, which now serves as part of the Somerset Rural Life Museum. Former doctor, Town Councillor and antiquarian Hugh Sharp described this section – through Coursing Batch and Chilkwell Street – as “a medieval cart track with tarmac”. This describes it very well, especially as it has never been very robustly re-made and it fails to cope with the physical demands of heavy modern freight traffic.
Roads are often as old as civilisation, and many are older still. In Somerset this means especially the ‘ridgeways’ that avoid the once densely wooded and marshy river valleys and keep, where possible, to the ridges of the long hill ranges that cross the county from east to west. Many of these are now converted into modern roads, either trunk roads or local routes. South of Glastonbury and the lower Brue valley, the latter includes the route along the Polden Hills.
After coming past Frome and Shepton Mallet to Glastonbury, the present-day A361 then joins the A39 that arrives from Wells. Shortly before Ashcott the A361 turns off and heads southwest for Taunton, and the A39 joins the local road on the Polden ridge and continues to the M5. The reasons why the main freight route comes this way, through Glastonbury and Street, rather than following the ridge as a branch off the Fosse Way, is something of an accident of history.
Along the Polden ridge was certainly the route for any heavy haulage before the Romans arrived. In Roman times it required substantial engineering works to build a road crossing the narrow stretch of wetland between Glastonbury and a route up onto the Poldens, even though these days it is taken for granted.
Much of this road is very much older than the Romans, however. The route from Frome to Shepton Mallet, for instance, must be very ancient indeed. It follows a natural crossing place over the Mendip hills, coming up past Cheese Hill and Nunney Catch before wandering across the near-level top of the Mendips, past ancient earthworks and expanding modern quarries. As it approaches Shepton Mallet it descends Doulting Hill just above, and more or less parallel to, the nascent River Sheppey; then it is crossed at right angles by the Roman Fosse Way.
From Shepton Mallet to Glastonbury it is similarly ancient, for this was once the only way to reach, on foot, Glastonbury Tor. The road follows an outstretched finger of land that touches what was once an island amidst marshes, floods and rivers (and that sometimes, in wet winters, can still remind us of its famously watery past). The closer one gets to Glastonbury the more the hill ahead dominates the landscape, perhaps rising up out of the morning mists or offset by shadows and evening cloud formations. Beneath its slopes, travellers on the road might sense that here they are approaching the unexpected.