Midsomer Norton

Street Map

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Midsomer Norton is a town near the Mendip Hills in Somerset, England, 10 miles (16.1 km) south-west of Bath, 10 miles (16 km) north-east of Wells, 10 miles (16 km) north-west of Frome, and 16 miles (26 km) south-east of Bristol. It has a population of 10,458. Along with Radstock and Westfield it used to be part of the conurbation and large civil parish of Norton Radstock, but is now a town council in its own right. It is also part of the unitary authority of Bath and North East Somerset.

Midsomer Norton is characterised by the River Somer which runs the length of the town centre. It has a long history which can be seen through a number of early churches which remain, but really started to grow and become a transport hub with the development of the Somerset coalfield. For many years the coalmines provided employment for local men until they ceased operations in the 1960s, around the same time that the town’s two railway stations also closed. Afterwards, good employment opportunities still remained for the town with elements of the print industry, and although some of these plants have also now begun to close, overall employment levels in the area remain very high.

Midsomer Norton provides shopping and service industries for the surrounding areas and supports several music venues and bands. The town has four primary schools and two large secondary schools. Midsomer Norton is home to a leisure centre, several sports clubs and provides youth opportunities such as Scouts and Guides.

“Norton” means ‘north enclosure’ from the Old English, while the use of its forename to distinguish it from other ‘Nortons’ is of late origin and not mentioned until 1334. Sources point to the town being situated midway between two branches of the Somer river; the Somer itself and Wellow Brook, which joins the Somer a short distance to the east near Radstock.

Eilert Ekwall wrote that the village “is said to be so called in allusion to the festival held at midsummer on the day of St. John, the patron saint.”

John Wesley wrote of the appalling local road conditions which ensured it was reachable “only in midsummer.” As Simon Winchester notes in his book The Map that Changed the World, “…the roads on this part of Somerset were atrocious, thick with mud and as rough as the surface of the moon”.

In some church records the town is referred to as ‘Norton Canonicorum’ as an alternative to Midsomer Norton, and this may be because of the local Priory’s link to Merton Priory in London until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1546.

The parish was part of the hundred of Chewton.

Following the Norman Conquest William the Conqueror gave large parts of north Somerset, including the manor or Norton to Geoffrey de Montbray, bishop of Coutances, and Norton was held under him by Ulveva. From about 1150 until 1300 the manor was held by Alured de Lincoln. From 1387 the manor was held by the family of Thomas West, 1st Baron West and his descendants.

The Duchy of Cornwall owned most of the mineral rights around Midsomer Norton and various small pits opened around 1750 to exploit these. Coal mining in the Somerset coalfield gave the town and area its impetus as an industrial centre.

Around 1866 an obelisk monument with two marble plaques, was built at the site of St Chad’s well, by mother of Frederick Stukeley Savage for the benefit of the poor. The obelisk was in the grounds of Norton House, however the house has since been demolished.

Midsomer Norton has its own Town Council with an elected Mayor. It is part of the North East Somerset constituency, which elects a Member of Parliament to the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. It is also part of the South West England constituency of the European Parliament.

The Palladian council offices were built in the mid to late 18th century. The Town Hall was built in an Italianate style in 1860 by Thomas Harris Smith.

The main geological feature in this area of the Mendip Hills south of Hallatrow consists of Supra-Pennant Measures which includes the upper coal measures and outcrops of sandstone. The relics of the industrial past are very evident within the area, including the distinct conical shape of the Old Mills batch overlooking the town. Midsomer Norton lies on the River Somer which rises to the west of Chilcompton and on the Wellow Brook which rises near the village of Ston Easton. The town therefore occupies two valleys of the Mendip Hills and these merge west of Radstock. The combined river then flows east reaching the River Avon near Midford, thence to Bath and through Bristol into the Bristol Channel at Avonmouth.

On the southern fringes of the town is the 2 hectares (4.9 acres) Silver Street Local Nature Reserve. It contains a broad-leaf woodland around several ponds and a grassland field. The woodland is leased to the Somerset and Dorset Heritage Railway Trust by Bath and North East Somerset Council and the meadow in the stewardship of Somervale School.

For many years, the centre of Midsomer Norton was prone to flooding. Sometimes several times a year, the Somer rose up during prolonged rainfall and flooded shops, particularly where the high street is at its lowest point in the middle between Martin’s newsagent and the former Palladium cinema.

To prevent future deluges, a major flood alleviation tunnel — completed in 1977 – was constructed beneath the high street to remove excess water when the town centre was threatened with flooding. The infrastructure comprises a sluice gate situated at the top of the high street near Somervale School through which the water is carried under the town via a pre-cast concrete culvert several metres in diameter to an outlet further downstream at Rackvernal. Since it began operation, no flooding has occurred to the high street and an Environment Agency report confirms that the relief scheme remains in good condition and continues to serve to its 100 year standard.

Despite the success of the scheme, some outlying areas of the town are now rated at increased risk of flooding from Wellow Brook due to climate change and the increased provision of housing in the vicinity. In 2008 a new monitoring station was installed at nearby Welton through which data on water pressure and flood levels can be collected via metal tubes placed in the river linked to a telemetry box. This facility is now providing the Environment Agency with extremely useful information for use in future assessments of flood risk.

For hundreds of years mining was an important industry for the area, and there were a number of mines in Midsomer Norton.  e.g. Old Mills, Norton Hill, and Welton. However the seams were thin and with the hilly nature around, not easily worked. Generations of miners who worked in the difficult conditions of the local collieries are remembered at the Radstock Museum. The coming of the railways, particularly the Bath extension of the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway (S&D) in 1874, transformed the conveyance of coal out of the area.

The last pit in the town, at Norton Hill, closed in 1966. Despite modernisation in the early 1960s, this final pit lapsed into unprofitability due to local geological difficulties and manpower shortages.

Midsomer Norton traditionally hosted other industries and became a major manufacturing centre for printing and packaging. Some 2,000 people (27% of total employment) work in this industry locally. Following the decline of mining, these companies expanded on local trading estates and in Welton. The sites of the disused collieries in the area have subsequently been developed for light industry.

In recent years some of the larger firms have disappeared or relocated, with poor transport links being cited as a handicap. A large packaging company, Alcan Mardon closed in 2006, although the social club remains. Another extremely important plant, Polestar Purnell, based in nearby Paulton also closed the same year with the loss of 400 jobs. In August 2011, the town’s largest remaining employer, Welton, Bibby & Baron, the largest producer of recyclable paper bags in Europe, announced the closure of its site in Welton, which it occupied for 150 years. The company, known locally as ‘Welton Bag’ plans to move to larger premises at Westbury in Wiltshire, but promises to transfer all 400 jobs to the new site.

The business parks remain busy however, and the town and environs has its share of national trading companies including supermarkets and retail outlets. The town’s High Street has free parking. Many inhabitants commute to Bath and Bristol for employment and shopping.

Dial-a-Ride services for the elderly and handicapped are well used, along with the local Community minibus set up by the local Rotary Club in 1967 under Midsomer Norton & Radstock Community Service Vehicle Trust. This vehicle is for use primarily by organisations in the area serving the disabled and infirm.

The town was previously served by a station on the S&D but this closed in 1966, and by a second station on the Bristol and North Somerset Railway at Welton in the valley. The railways were separate, the S&D being administered by the Midland Railway and the London and South Western Railway companies (later the London Midland and Scottish Railway and the Southern Railway) and the North Somerset being run by and then owned by the Great Western Railway. The stations were both called “Midsomer Norton and Welton” (the B&NSR station was originally called just “Welton”); under British Railways, the S&D station was renamed as Midsomer Norton South after a short period as Midsomer Norton Upper; and is currently being restored with occasional open weekends with engines in steam. The Somerset & Dorset Railway Heritage Trust one day hopes to operate steam trains for a mile up to Chilcompton Tunnel but there remains much to do before this can happen.

Midsomer Norton’s railway station has been memorialised, along with many other stations, in a famous song associated with railway closures, Slow Train, lyrics by Michael Flanders, music by Donald Swann:-

No more will I go to Blandford Forum and Mortehoe, on the slow train from Midsomer Norton and Munby RoadNo churns, no porter, no cat on a seat, at Chorlton-cum-Hardy or Chester-le-Street

We won’t be meeting you, on the slow train …

Children’s author Roald Dahl, prior to his writing fame, used to sell kerosene in Midsomer Norton and the surrounding area in the 1930s. He described the experience vividly in his autobiographical work Boy: Tales of Childhood (published 1984):

My kerosene motor-tanker had a tap at the back and when I rolled into Shepton Mallet or Midsomer Norton or Peasedown St John or Huish Champflower, the old girls and the young maidens would hear the roar of my motor and would come out of their cottages with jugs and buckets to buy a gallon of kerosene for their lamps and their heaters. It is fun for a young man to do that sort of thing. Nobody gets a nervous breakdown or a heart attack from selling kerosene to gentle country folk from the back of a tanker in Somerset on a fine summer’s day.

The Waugh family connection with Midsomer Norton began when Dr Alexander Waugh, father of Arthur Waugh and grandfather of Evelyn Waugh and Alec Waugh moved to Island House, which had been built in the early 18th century, in The Island in the centre of the town in 1865. The family later moved to a house in Silver Street. As a boy, Evelyn Waugh spent his summer holidays in Midsomer Norton with his maiden aunts. He later described his visits there: “I suppose that in fact I never spent longer than two months there in any year, but the place captivated my imagination as my true home never did”.

The Palladium cinema was opened as the Empire in 1913 in a building which had previously been a brewery. It closed in 1993 and attempts have been made to turn it into a club and shops.

Midsomer Norton hosts the only unofficial carnival on the West Country Carnival circuit, usually on the second Thursday in November. At one time, floats travelled through the main High Street but road improvements put paid to the larger vehicles. Nowadays, the procession is held on the main Fosseway through Westfield.

The local University of the Third Age was founded in the 1990s. Regular Speaker Meetings are held in the Somer Centre. There are a number of interest groups who also arrange outings to shows and the occasional continental holiday.

The town’s free newspaper is the Midsomer Norton, Radstock & District Journal.

Midsomer Norton’s main live music venue is The Wunderbar. It is a small bar located in the cellar of an estate agency on the High Street, which has been open since October 1994 and hosts regular concerts by local bands and regional touring acts as well as ‘open mic’ events. It plays host to is own internet radio station that specialises in playing local underground rock and punk music. Some of the memorable performances of recent years have been by Grizwald and the Bo Ties, Blueneck, Thirteen Senses, The Heys, Left Side Brain, The Big and Patchway Theft, The Volt and Cole Ford at The Wunderbar’s first Love Music Hate Racism benefit gig.

Regular concerts and events are held in the town and local leisure centres. Choir concerts (male voices in particular) command a local following and the Lions club is a promoter of such attractions usually held in the Methodist or Parish churches.

There are a number of thriving local brass bands. In 2006 Midsomer Norton hosted the European Open Marching and Show Band Championship which saw many bands from all over Europe visit the town.

Anthony Horowitz, the original writer of Midsomer Murders, borrowed part of the name of the town when he adapted Caroline Graham’s Chief Inspector Barnaby series for television in 1997. Although the series itself is primarily filmed in picturesque villages in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, Horowitz chose the name after looking at a map of Somerset, believing that it sounded quintessentially English.

Although no filming has ever taken place in Midsomer Norton or the surrounding parishes, some names of other nearby locations have been used by the producers in creating their fictional county of Midsomer, including Midsomer Wellow (Wellow), Midsomer Magna (Chew Magna), Midsomer Morton and the main settlement of Causton (Corston).

Despite some occasional confusion, there is no other link between Midsomer Norton and the television series.

The old Priory, which is now a hotel and restaurant, dates from the early to mid 17th century. Another old building is the Catholic Church of the Holy Ghost, which is a 15th century tithe barn converted by the famous architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. It is a grade II* listed building. The local Catholic community are served by Benedictine monks from nearby Downside Abbey, coming under the Diocese of Clifton.

The Anglican Church of St John the Baptist has a tower dating from the 15th century, although the upper stages are from the 17th century, but the rest was rebuilt in Gothic style by John Pinch the younger in 1830–1831 and was extended in the 20th century with new chancel and lady chapel. It is a grade II* listed building. The churchyard includes a memorial to the 12 miners killed in 1839 when their rope was severed. St. John’s is part of the Diocese of Bath and Wells. The Patronage vests in Christ Church, Oxford.

The Methodist Church in the town’s High Street celebrated its 150th Anniversary in 2009. In 1746, John Wesley’s travelling preachers, based in Bristol were invited in the mid 1700s to support the local society, the man himself first coming in 1767. By the middle of the 1800s, the congregation had outgrown the original chapel erected in 1775 in Rackvernal Road (now demolished). In the 1990s, the present church building and adjoining hall were totally refurbished and linked, the facilities being well used by the local community. Local Methodists are part of the Bristol District of the Methodist Church and in the North East Somerset & Bath Circuit.

Note: this page is partly based on a Wikipedia page. Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. Where possible, text is being updated to original, fully referenced research. ‘Our photos’ means we took the photographs. The Street View and street map visuals are courtesy of Google.

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