A Short History of Cheddar
Some think of Cheddar as cheese without associating it with our village, others know of the large natural feature known as Cheddar Gorge. The latter has been widened in places by small quarries in the past but the gorge is believed to have been formed by the collapse of caverns carved through the rock by underground water courses. A water course comes out of the hillside forming the River Yeo which runs through the village. The natural beauty of the location attracts a great many visitors all year round.
Cheddar’s oldest known inhabitant is a skeleton, dating from the last Ice Age, found in a cave. Interestingly, a DNA link was found between this long dead individual & one of the staff at Kings of Wessex School during investigative DNA tests undertaken on some pupils and staff. The caves are in the lower part of the gorge which is a significant tourist location.
In the garden of the vicarage are the remains of a Roman villa, clearly seen outlined in the lawn from St. Andrew’s Tower, particularly in dry weather. Sadly the tower is not often open to the public. Recently, staff from the University of Bristol identified un-excavated remains of what appears to be a Roman bath house in the woodland part of the vicarage garden. Lead was mined at Charterhouse on top of the Mendips not far from Cheddar and the villa complex may have been part of the mining administration although there is no documentation to support this. Likewise, although no Roman road has been found in the Parish, the refined lead may well have been brought down the gorge towards Cheddar’s small quay on the River Yeo, at Hythe Bow. This quay remained in use through the medieval period.
During the preparation of the site for a Church of England secondary school, remains were found of a large Saxon wooden hall. Following archaeological investigation this hall was identified as a royal site and thus the school was given the name Kings of Wessex. The location of each pillar is now marked by a concrete pad north of the school building. Nearby are the remains of a small stone oratory or chapel known as St. Columbanus. All these ruins are on private land. North Street follows the line of the Saxon Village servicing the palace site. The royal status disappeared with the Norman Conquest.
Cheddar has a medieval market cross in the middle of the shopping area of Cheddar and St. Andrew’s Church, another charming medieval building, is at the other end of Church Street. Throughout the village, and not clustered, there are a number of very old houses which are still used as private homes. Several centuries ago, most of the population of Cheddar was very poor and were assisted by a number of benefactors including Hannah More & Sarah Comer. At one time, there were 13 water mills in the first half mile from the source of the Yeo, but this declined to 7 (3 paper mills & 4 corn mills) in 1791 with 3 corn mills still functioning in 1915. The last, then a shirt factory, closed in the early 1950s.
A railway line was built in the nineteenth century from the main line at Yatton to Wells. Stone from the quarries, cheese from the farms & seasonal strawberries were locally generated traffic, to which one must add, until well into the 20th century, tourists. This line became particularly important for the transport of fresh strawberries from Cheddar to markets in London and Birmingham among other destinations and became known as the ‘Strawberry Line’. Strawberry farming has seriously declined and the railway has been closed but the railway buildings have been ‘recycled’.
Cheddar is a large thriving village on the side of the Mendips with farming, quarrying, tourism, a business park, 3 schools (First, Middle & Senior), significant ingress of retirement population and considerable support businesses. It has 6 churches, many pubs, takeaways, cafes and restaurants, 2 banks, a sub-post office, a building society office, shops, a supermarket, good sports facilities and a population of about 6,000.
Compiled by John Outhwaite
Cheddar Parish Councillor 2003-2007
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