Charterhouse

What do the following have in common?

A public school near Godalming and a mining area on the Mendips?   If your answer is that they both are called Charterhouse, then you are absolutely right. But why Charterhouse?

The name originates from the word ‘Chartreuse’, the world-famous liqueur made by the monks of the French monastery. The connection? The monks who make Chartreuse follow the Carthusian order. And the monks who settled at Charterhouse were also Carthusian.

The monks of the Carthusian order habitually occupy remote places, far away from human habitation and the further away the better. To be in a remote place is a great way to make you concentrate on more important things. Like God.

But there is another connection as well. When the first King Henry was murdered at Canterbury Cathedral, to atone for their sins, the killers were ordered to go to Charterhouse in the Mendip Hills. There, they were to set up a sub-set of the Monastery at Witham Abbey, near Frome. They later settled at Woodspring Abbey, close to Weston-super-Mare, presumably still reflecting on their wickedness. That Abbey is now open to the Public. Charterhouse is always open, being moorland.

But there’s an even older connection than that. Mining has been going on in the area of Charterhouse for thousands of years. Lead and silver mining particular, at Charterhouse goes far back beyond Roman times. People have always known that the Mendips contained lead. Silver as well, as a by-product of the lead. So, when the Romans landed, the only reason they came to mist-shrouded Britain was to get at the lead mines. As a bonus, they might pick up some silver, on the way.

Rome was full of pipes, feeding the hot baths, which the Romans used to relax and luxuriated in. In fact, to the Romans, having a hot bath was today’s equivalent of owning a top-of-the-range motor car. Now we take hot baths for granted.   But, there was a price to be paid. To the Romans that meant laying miles and miles of lead piping. But there was no lead in Rome. It all had to be imported from Britain. From Charterhouse.

When the Romans came to Britain, one of the first things they did was to set up baths in Bath. They called the place Bath, or Acqua Sulis in Latin, to mark what the place was for. Lead for the piping came from the Mendips, just up the hill from Bath.

Very neat it was, and just a short journey from the lead mines. No wonder the Romans came to Charterhouse. These guys weren’t stupid.

In just a few years the Second Legion had built a fort at the place and established a Military presence so no-one could argue that the place really did belong to the Romans.  The remains of that fort are still traceable on the ground, opposite the Outdoor Centre.

The strength of a typical Roman Legion was about five and a half thousand men, though judging by the size of the Fort, the legion must have been split, at least, in half. They left lots of other traces of their 400 years or so in Charterhouse.

Like a sports stadium, up at the top of Raines Batch, up towards the two modern masts. If the Romans couldn’t actually live in Rome, the next best thing was to bring Rome to the Mendip Hills and this they did on a very grand scale indeed. You only have to visit Bath to look at what they did to the place.

When you go to Charterhouse, you will be getting there by Roman Roads, straight as a die, which lead eventually to Southampton. We do indeed have a lot to thank the Romans for, if driving in a straight line is your bag.

But the story doesn’t end there. The demand for lead continued unabated, even up to relatively modern times. So, what the Romans left behind, the Victorians reworked. Traces of that reworking are still there, at Charterhouse, even to this day. Because the Romans were pretty inefficient, by today’s standards, they left behind lots of valuable lead. There are still traces of what the Victorians left behind. All that black obsidian slag up at Charterhouse and down Velvet Bottom is the remains of the reworking of the lead that the Romans left behind and the Victorians reworked.

The Victorians appointed an ex-military man as Mine Captain and we know what his name was; he was Captain Harpur. We also know where he lived. He lived at Bleak House and the outline walls of Bleak House are still there, to this day. Bleak House has its secrets and its mysteries, even now.

And another thing, if you use a bit of imagination, you can work out how Captain Harpur would have reached Bleak House after a long day’s work at the mines. The path, the path to be, up to Bleak House is still there, traceable up the hill all the way up.

There are lots of other remains of the lead industry at Charterhouse. There are the huge scars on the hillside on Ubley Warren, just beyond Bleak House. There was even a light railway from Charterhouse, down to Bristol, where the lead was sold. Does anyone know where that horse drawn railway went?   I’d love to know. In those days, horses used to pull the laden wagons down to Bristol: but here’s another puzzle, where did they graze the horses? It can’t have been near Charterhouse because the ground will have been contaminated with lead.

Even now, you will never see cattle or sheep in Velvet Bottom or at Charterhouse. The ground is still too heavily poisoned for that to be possible. If you don’t believe, then all I can suggest is that you experiment. I promise you there are no cattle or sheep to be seen. True, there’s the occasional Rabbit but Rabbits are not affected by the lead poisining.

There was once a chimney stack at Charterhouse, and you can still the flues, which at one time, boys and girls used to creep up, to retrieve the lead off the roofs, following the smoke that went up the flues. The scraping was done by little boys and girls from the orphanage in Cheddar. That lead killed the little boys and girls. But not before the work had been done.

Incidentally, some 5000 people used to work at Charterhouse and another 5000, just around the corner at Priddy Ponds. This was once known as one of the centres of Britain’s industrial might in the Nineteenth Century. Now you can walk through the area around Charterhouse or Priddy Ponds and you’d be lucky to meet a single soul. Maybe a reed-warbler singing his excitable song but otherwise the place would be deserted. Not a soul to be seen and, in the case of Priddy Ponds, only the hill-top barrows to keep you company.

There is yet another reason for coming to Charterhouse and that is to visit the remarkable St. Hugh’s Church which is right opposite and the other side of the road from the Outdoor Centre. St. Hugh’s is a unique church and well worth a visit, if only for the woodcarving, which adorns the inside.  St Hugh’s church is a once in a life time experience and not to be missed. The keys St Hugh’s Church is Blagdon Church.

St. Hugh’s wasn’t always a church. Up till 1908, it was an open field, or arguably a Social hall, though there is a little bit of doubt about this. At that point, enter two characters. One was a London based architect called W D Caroe, the son of a Danish corn merchant. The other was a churchman and curate to the Rector of Cheddar.

This was long after the days when Orphan boys and girls used to scrape the lead off the flues. His name was Prebendary M Lambrick.  Between them they managed to transform the nascent St Hugh’s into one of the foremost Arts and Crafts churches in the whole of Great Britain. To see a comparable one, look at Partisloe in the Brecon Beacons or a similar church, also in the Brecon Beacons, called Llanfilo.  The church is a little masterpiece well worth the trouble of a visit. There are so many questions. For example, who was St. Hugh? Actually he was probably French speaking and later became Bishop of Lincoln. He was canonised after his death in 1200.

Charterhouse is a fascinating place to visit; there’s so much to see and it’s just on our doorstep, so go there and enjoy yourself.

(The nearest pub is The Castle of Comfort, which is not very far away, by Roman road, of course and that should set you up for nicely for exploring Charterhouse in the afternoon.)

APRIL 2009

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