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Kilve Heritage

Follow the walk to find out about the local sport of Glatting, what's hidden in the crypt of St Mary's church and why you could never swallow Kilve Pill!

Welcome to the Kilve Beach Heritage Hidden History Storywalk along the England Coast Path. This trail is designed to be like a skimming stone of interesting facts, myth, history and tales linked to this location. The walks are designed to be read aloud to family and friends and to embellish your experience of this place.

Route - From the Blessed Virgin Mary's Church in Kilve, West Somerset this trail journeys down to the beach and a stunning vantage point of the Bristol Channel.

To delve deeper into the local history, then please visit the tourist information centres at Watchet and local libraries.

Length - 0.5 miles / 0.7 km total, allow one hour at an amble.
Access - path is flat, gravely and suitable for wheels.
Directions - This trail begins at The Blessed Virgin Mary's Church on Sea Lane in Kilve. TA5 1EG What3words address ///noises.third.dives 51.188295, -3.2223870
Chapter one

The Church of St Mary the Virgin

The parish church of St Mary the Virgin has been in existence for a very long time with a recorded list of rectors dating back as far as 1265. It has had many additions and alterations since it was built with considerable reconstruction of the tower in 1637.

Constructed from soft Blue Lias stone it was initially protected with lime plaster which was removed in Victorian times. This led to the exposed stones deteriorating but thankfully the village rallied together and raised a considerable sum for the repairs which were completed in 2006.

Just outside the chancel door there is a stone sarcophagus standing about 2 ft high, even though the stone is broken into three pieces there is still a legible inscription reading:

Here lyeth the body of Jane Jenckines
the wife of M. Hugh Jenkines
parson of Kilve
who dyed 20th of April
anno domyny

The date might be 1611 or 1618 as it has deteriorated. Which do you think it is?

Inside the church you will find a stone font which dates back to the 12th century, suggesting people have been baptised at it for 800 years.

Further back into the church, in the chancel (this is the part which houses the altar), you will find examples of medieval glass and a medieval wooden panel in the choir stalls, the latter dated to 1687. Above the main doorway sits the Royal Coat of Arms of King Charles II dated 1660 and celebrating the restoration of the monarchy. 

The church has seen many generations come and go with the register of burials dating back to 1530, baptisms to 1591 and marriages to 1632. Records show that between 1578 and 2008 there had been 813 burials and 699 baptisms.
Chapter two

The Lost Crypt

During Christmas 2012 a pipe fractured, spilling some 500 litres of oil. The insurance company put the specialist company RAW on the case to deal with the contamination and brought video probes to see where the oil had gone.

The initial investigations took place on 14th February 2013 and seemed to suggest that the oil had seeped into a void underneath the chancel. On Tuesday 23rd April 2013, the floor was opened up to allow a camera to be inserted so that the void could be investigated further. 

The results had the archaeologist dancing in the aisles as a whole crypt / vault appeared containing four lead coffins; as well as a considerable amount of heating oil on the crypt floor. This void has now been resealed and vented to the outside so that none of the oil vapours can permeate into the church. Unfortunately there was insufficient detail to get any dates from the coffins with a camera, but the pictures do seem to reinforce the notion that there may have been a tunnel between the church and the chantry (the next building on our tour). There may even be more vaults under the nave; but at this stage there is no proof. 
Chapter three

Repairs and the Secret Passages

A local newspaper cutting from the 1930's reads:

'Whilst repairs were being carried out at Kilve church, there opened out on the north east side of the chancel an early English doorway and one and a half arches. They evidently led to or formed part of, the chantry chapel which existed in about 1329. In that year, Sir Simon de Furneaux founded a chantry for five priests to pray for his soul and that of his wife.'

Have a look and see if you can spot where this may have been. Walk up the aisle and look to the left of the choir stalls.

There is a note with this cutting written by local resident John Lock who passed away in 1913 (not to be confused with the venerable Somerset philosopher John Lock 1632–1704).

‘I remember my grandmother Lock telling me about her husband George being present when the above work was being carried out and the doorway mentioned led to a tunnel which ended at the old chantry. She said the arched doorway was behind what are now the choir stalls' (left hand side facing the altar).
Chapter four

Yew Tree

If we go back outside there is a rose bed which was the site of St Mary's yew tree which came down in a storm in the 1950's. Yews are commonly found to be planted in church yards across England and their geographical relationship to the chapel, whether they lie to the east or west, has been linked to the site being identified as Saxon or Christian. 

Interestingly yew trees are poisonous to livestock, and are perhaps a simple way to stop locals grazing their animals over consecrated ground.

A yew tree in Fortingall, Perthshire, Scotland is reputably to be 2000 years old making it the oldest known living tree in Europe, although the Somerset village of Ashbrittle claims their yew to be around 3000 years old! Both claims are widely contested as many trees have a tendency to be broken or blown down and then sprout fresh again from the root. These then become fully grown new trees which are genetically identical to the former, making the task of aging the tree almost impossible.

In Shakespeare, Hamlet's uncle poisoned the King (his father) by pouring yew sap into his ear as he slept. The ghost of the King spoke to Hamlet:

Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment;
Chapter five

The Wheel Wrights

Before we head to the chantry, there is an opportunity to see the image above of Kilve's wheel wright workshop. This image would have taken 15 minutes to expose on the photographic plate, which means that the figures you see had to remain still for that duration of time for them to be captured. 

The building was located on the A39 in the main part of the village although demolished many years ago. It is a fascinating insight into an essential craft of a past era.
Continue down the road to the remains of The Chantry and Manor house.
Chapter six

Smugglers at the Chantry

In November 1848 the remains of the chantry building you now see standing here was gutted by fire. Local legend has it that it had been used to store barrels of smuggled brandy which was the reason the fire burned so fiercely.

The first chantry in Kilve was founded by Sir Simon de Furneaux in 1329, to enable five priests to pray for the souls of his wife, father and grandfather 'in the church of Kilve in perpetuity'. The chantry of this era fell into disuse in 1411, many years before the dissolution of the monasteries. The actual chantry at that time would probably have been a building either attached to the manor house or to the church.

These impressive ruins were likely to have been the ruins of the de Furneaux family manor throughout the 14th century even though they are referred to as the chantry today.
Chapter seven

Fishy Days

The manor fish pond close to these ruins was on the other side of the road where the weeping willow tree now stands and would have been stocked with carp. This would provide food for the household, as would the dovecote at the rear of the building. Young pigeons called squabs would have been eaten all year round and their feathers used for pillows and mattresses.

In medieval times the term ‘fish' was used as a generic name for anything not considered a proper land-living animal. This included marine mammals such as seals, whales and porpoises and even included beavers (perhaps due to their scaly tails and the considerable time they spent in water.) All such ‘fish' foods were interestingly also considered appropriate for fast days.

The chantry building we see today is a scheduled ancient monument. The iron frame which now supports the south wall was erected around 2005 and is on English Heritage's ‘Heritage at Risk Register' with the highest possible priority ratings of 'A' and 'very bad'.

Continue down the road towards the top of the car park for the next chapter to reveal.
Chapter eight

The Stream

The stream alongside the car park is the River Holford which rises 7 kilometres south in the Quantock Hills. It would have been used in the past to power various water mills along its length. The trees lining the stream include alder, poplar, willow and oak, all of which would have been used in various ways from house construction to barrel making. It would also have been used to make charcoal which is essential for smelting, smithing and iron working.

More information about the ecology and biodiversity of the area can be found in the accompanying natural history Storywalk.
Walk along the grass of the car park with the stream to your left, the next stop is beneath an oak tree.
Chapter nine

In the Footsteps of Coleridge and Wordsworth

On the last day of 1796 the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge moved his family into a tiny cottage in Nether Stowey. Over the following three years, in a frenzy of night walks and moorland tramps he, along with Dorothy and William Wordsworth, began to create a new style of poetry born from the landscape itself.

Their unusual nocturnal activities alerted the authorities who dispatched an operative to see if they were scouting out possible landing places for a French invasion! Before living in Nether Stowey, Coleridge had spoken out about the abolition of slavery in Bristol and was very much in favour of the ideologies behind the recent French revolution.
Continue further down the car park for the next chapter to reveal.
Chapter ten

Wordsworth - Anecdote for Fathers

First published in the famous 'Lyrical Ballads' 1789 which he co-wrote with Coleridge, he references 'Kilve's delightful shore' as this snippet shows.

Anecdote for Fathers

I have a Boy of five years old;
His face is fair and fresh to see;
His limbs are cast in beauty's mould,
And dearly he loves me.

One morn we strolled on our dry walk,
Our quiet home all full in view,
And held such intermitted talk
As we are wont to do.

My thoughts on former pleasures ran;
I thought of Kilve's delightful shore,
Our pleasant home, when Spring began,
A long, long year before.
Continue to the Oil Retort, the brick tower at the foot of the car park.
Chapter eleven

The Oil Retort

In the early 1920's a Dr Forbes Leslie proposed that the shale on and under Kilve beach could be refined for oil extraction and in 1923 the retort was built. The large building to the side originally stored lime and was later converted to house the machinery required for the process.

The proposal was to make petrol, fuel oil, paraffin and lubricating oil from the shale and utilise the shale residue to make cement, tiles and bricks (the latter when mixed with clay). A rail link to Bridgwater from Kilve was also suggested to carry the products.

It was estimated that 40 gallons of oil could be extracted from just 1 ton of shale. In fact only 5.2 gallons were ever extracted and in 1935, aged 70, Forbes Leslie was sent to prison for two years for fraud.

One of the local Kilve residents remembers having a small bottle of that first 5.2 gallons which he buried to keep safe, though he now cannot recollect where he put it!

Perhaps this treasure will re emerge from a garden in the near future.

Before you move on, please place a small pebble on the ledge of the information board. This is the simplest way to gauge how many people are truly walking and reading the trail.
Take the road to the right (east) of the Oil Retort building and walk to the lime kilns in the woods.
Chapter twelve

The Lime Kiln

These enigmatic ruins in the woods were lime kilns. Built between 1840 and 1871 they replaced earlier kilns at the head of the creek around 1769. They were constructed to burn limestone using coal shipped over from Wales. The lime produced was spread on the fields to improve the growth of the crops. 

Chapter thirteen

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

This is a short extract from a novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame. This book is set in west Somerset during the Monmouth rebellions of 1685 and describes the coastline of Kilve and west Somerset which he knew well. The novel called 'Micah Clarke' was titled after the main protagonist of this fictional tale and was published in 1889.

'Near Combwich, Covenant [his horse] cast a shoe, and two hours were wasted before I found a smithy in the town and had the matter set right. It was not until evening that I at last came out upon the banks of the Bristol Channel, at a place called Shurton Bars, where the muddy Parret makes its way into the sea. At this point the channel is so broad that the Welsh mountains can scarcely be distinguished. The shore is flat and black and oozy, flecked over with white patches of sea- birds, but further to the east there rises a line of hills, very wild and rugged, rising in places into steep precipices.

These clifts run out into the sea, and numerous little harbours and bays are formed in their broken surface, which are dry half the day, but can float a good-sized boat at half-tide. The road wound over these bleak and rocky hills, which are sparsely inhabited by a wild race of fishermen, or shepherds, who came to their cabin doors on hearing the clatter of my horse's hoofs, and shot some rough West-country jest at me as I passed. As the night drew in the country became bleaker and more deserted. An occasional light twinkling in the distance from some lonely hillside cottage was the only sign of the presence of man. The rough track still skirted the sea, and, high as it was, the spray from the breakers drifted across it.'
You have two choices to walk to your next location. Either continue along this path and down to the beach then cross the mouth of the stream, bearing in mind it is not always possible to cross the mouth of the river. Alternatively you can retrace your steps and take the path to the west of the Oil Retort and then journey down to the beach on the westerly side of the wood and river. Both routes will lead to the same location.
Chapter fourteen

Kilve Pill

Kilve Pill, where the stream from Holford runs into the sea, was once a tiny port, used for importing culm, an inferior type of coal for use in the lime kilns. It is still possible to make out the remains of a stone jetty. In 1558 Kilve Pill, a 'creek for small boats', was condemned by the port commissioners for being too dangerous, which would probably be in part due to the strong tides here.
Chapter fifteen


Glatting refers to the hunting of conger eels (Conger conger) with dogs at Kilve beach. A glatt is the local name for the conger eel. Organised by a local gamekeeper, glatting was pursued by groups of men in the autumn when the lowest tides of the year reveal the greatest expanse of mud on the foreshore. 'Fish dogs' such as spaniels, which did not require special training, identified the rocks under which the conger eels were concealed and using staffs made of ash saplings the men would lever up the embedded rocks. They would then pursue the seaward fleeing eels and manoeuvre them into wheat sacks with their sticks.

Conger eels are fierce and often large creatures and can easily take a bite out of your hand. In medieval times the eel was accused of spreading the plague. The sport flourished in the lean years between the world wars but had died out by the 1950's.
Walk west (with the sea on your right) up along the cliff, the next stop is half way up the bank.
Chapter sixteen

Slavery along the Bristol Channel

Around the 1600 and 1700's the seas all around the coast were treacherous, not just with natural dangers but man-made too, as pirates from North Africa and the coast of Algiers would routinely come raiding in the Bristol channel.

One young boy, from along the coast at Minehead, was stolen by pirates and sold into slavery, but remarkably survived this ordeal and was able to return to the town. The journey to Algiers was in itself a trial. He would have been chained to a 15ft oar for 10 hours a day whilst lashed and beaten with a pizzle. Once in Algiers the boy was put to work harbour dredging and stone cutting, very heavy tasks that often killed the slaves. But slaves were cheap and easily replaced; the value of a slave was the same as a single onion!

Professor Davis notes that “all slaves who lived in the Bagnos and survived to write of their experiences stressed the endemic cruelty and violence practiced there.”

As the slaves were of christian faith it made them not only the property of their owner but viewed as infidels and so brutal punishment was often exhorted. The best hope for a captive to survive and lessen the burden of slavery was to “take the turban” and convert to Islam. This exempted a man from service in the galleys, heavy construction and a few other indignities unworthy of a son of the prophet, even if it did not release him from slavery itself. 

It was through this process that our Minehead boy managed to lift himself out of his situation and chance it all by escaping back to England and finally to home and family. But if you thought that this was the end of his story you will be very wrong for he had now returned a ‘Mohammedan and Infidel' in christian eyes!

A special service was held in the parish church of St Michael in Minehead on 16th March for the “re-admission of a Relapsed into our Church.” In this unique ceremony the boy now a man, stood before the congregation in his Muslim clothes while Dr Byam declaimed an appropriately momentous oration. By the end of the service, having cast off his wanton faith and garments he was restored to the church. However, it is also recorded that he continued to wear the clothes from his slaving days and did not renounce Islam completely.
Chapter seventeen

The Tsunami

On 30 January 1607, around noon, the coasts of the Bristol Channel suffered from unexpectedly high flooding that broke the coastal defences in several places. Low-lying places in Devon, Somerset and Gloucestershire were flooded. The devastation was particularly severe on the Welsh side, extending from Laugharne in Carmarthenshire to above Chepstow in Monmouthshire. Cardiff was the most badly affected town, with the foundations of St Mary's church destroyed.

It is estimated some 2,000 or more people were drowned, houses and villages were swept away, and an estimated 200 square miles of farmland flooded and livestock destroyed.

The coast of Devon and the Somerset Levels as far inland as Glastonbury Tor (14 miles from the coast) were also affected. Thirty villages in Somerset were affected, including Brean which was "swallowed up" with seven out of the nine houses destroyed and 26 of the inhabitants dying. For ten days the Church of All Saints at Kingston Seymour, near Weston-super-Mare, was filled with water to a depth of 5 feet and a chiselled mark remains to this day showing that the maximum height of the water was 7.74 metres above sea level. It is not known how much damage was caused in Kilve.

Whether the flood was a rare storm surge or Tsunami is highly debated, though all experts agree it is an important reminder of why we should carefully plan builds in low lying areas. Some scientists now forecast the sea level could be over 1m higher by the end of the 21st century which would have serious implications for the Kilve Beach area.

Image from a London pamphlet or chapbook printed 1607 raising awareness of the flood in the west at the time.
Continue up to the bench marked What a wonderful World.
Chapter eighteen

The Bristol Channel

From here there is an excellent view across the Bristol Channel to the South Wales Glamorganshire coast which, if you ever visit, looks strangely familiar to the Somerset coast as it shares the same geological rock structure creating similar cliff and beach profiles. 10,000 years ago, during the last ice age the channel would have been a vast river valley lined with coniferous forests. At other more muddy places along the coast timbers and stumps from these ancient forest have been preserved in the sediment and are exposed at low tide.

Until recently the channel would have been far busier with ships travelling up, down and between the English and Welsh sides carrying coal, limestone and other goods. Today the commonest type of shipping you might see is vast container ships travelling to and from Avonmouth Docks near Bristol.

The sea-water in the channel is usually muddy brown, caused by millions of tons of fine sediment washed down from the River Severn and other rivers such as the Parrett and the Brue, which empty into Bridgwater Bay a few miles to the east. Although perhaps not aesthetically pleasing, this nutrient rich silt is teaming with microscopic algae and animals which in turn support vast fish and bird populations. The mud-flats of Bridgwater Bay and the adjacent Steart Marshes are a National Nature Reserve, in part for their important wader and wildfowl populations. There are also several other International layers of conservation protection status on top of this.
Chapter nineteen

Energy Generation

The channel with its high tidal range which is the second highest in the world – up to nearly 13 metres in height on Spring tides at Kilve and its fast current has much potential for renewable energy generation using tidal lagoons and tidal barrages, as well as being a possible site for off-shore wind farms. Various schemes have been proposed in the past, but none have yet got past the planning stage. 

Directly opposite Kilve, on a clear day, you can make out Aberthaw Coal-fired Power Station which mirrors the Nuclear Power Plants just along the Somerset coast at Hinkley. Both Aberthaw, Hinkley B and in time Hinkley C which is under construction, use water from the Bristol Channel to cool their turbines. This means that heated water is discharged back into the sea artificially raising temperatures in the location of the outlet pipes. This can adversely affect marine life that need cooler water but also boosts the growth rates of some species. The effect is very localised and soon dissipated by the vast volumes of water moving down the channel. Using seawater to cool power station turbines undoubtedly has a far greater impact on fish, which can get sucked into the cooling pipes. Hinkley B does monitor this and designs the inlet pipes to minimise the damage, but it is still not clear how important the level of ‘fish kill' might be. 

There is no easy solution to the energy generation dilemmas facing us, but it is likely more hard decisions will need to be made soon which may impact the Bristol Channel – aesthetically and ecologically. Organisations like Somerset Wildlife Trust and the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust will continue to monitor new developments and make sure the balance between human need and wildlife conservation is considered.
Chapter twenty

The Rocky Shore

The rocky limestone ledges that stretch out below the shingle ridge provide an excellent seashore habitat for a wide variety of marine animals and seaweeds. If you are able to carefully negotiate the loose boulders and jagged rocks it is worth exploring the rock pools, cracks, crevices and rock surfaces of the beach. Turning over loose stones is also worth doing but please make sure you carefully turn them back the right way afterwards. The diversity of rocky shore species can be just as great as you would get on shores in Devon or Cornwall further up the Bristol Channel.
Chapter twenty-one

Stone Time

The section of cliff just a little further along the coast path is also important to geologists as it has been adopted as a GSSP (Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point) marker, an internationally agreed reference point on a stratigraphic section which defines the lower boundary of a stage on the geological time scale, in this case, the Sinemurian.

In simple terms, it is Greenwich Mean Time for geologists.

There is good access to this rock face via a metal staircase a little way along the cliff path here and is well worth the amble.
Chapter twenty-two

The End

Thank you for reading this Kilve heritage trail, the sister Storywalk here, about Kilve's natural history starts at the Oil Retort.

Alternatively there are more Hidden History Storywalk trails along the Somerset Coast Path from Minehead to Brean Down England Coast Path.
Chapter twenty-three


The images are from a series of sources

Images : Somerset Heritage Centre, The Welcome Collection / Science Museum London, The British Library and local archives.

1 The Church of St Mary the Virgin - Kilve Community Archives

2 The Lost Crypt - Courtesy of RAW

3 The Wheel Wrights - Somerset Heritage Trust, A/DWH/28/1999/20

4 The Chantry Illustration - Kilve Community Archives

5 The Chantry Photograph - Somerset Heritage Trust, A/DWH/28/1999/30

6 Coleridge Journal - The British Library

7 The Oil Retort - Kilve Community Archives

8 Lilstock Pier - Somerset Heritage Trust, A/DWH/28/1999/316

9 Glatting - Somerset Heritage Trust, DD/X/SOM/117/3/1

10 Tsunami - Woodcut from 1606 Chapbook

11 Group in front of bedrock - Somerset Heritage Trust, A/DWH/28/1999/17

12 Stone strata - Wooley

Content written by Pat Woolley of Kilve Parish Community, Mark Ward of Somerset Wildlife Trust and Christopher Jelley of Storywalks.

These trails have been devised by Christopher Jelley, Kilve Parish Council and Somerset Wildlife Trust ‘Somerset's Brilliant Coast' project which is funded by Hinkley C Community Impact Mitigation Fund, The Somerset Wildlife Trust and the National Trust.
Retrace your steps back to the car park or perhaps continue along the cliff a short distance to the metal steps, these will lower you onto the beach to reveal the strata of rock which the geologists get very excited about.
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