CHAPTER VIII. THE SOMERSET, DEVON AND DORSET BORDERLAND
The great glory of Yeovil is its church, the interior of which is one of the most impressive in Somerset. Its lofty and graceful arches and wonderful windows belong to a period when the Perpendicular style was at its best and purest. The crypt beneath the chancel is of much interest. The single central pillar supports a fine groined roof. The church has few interesting details, but the magnificent lectern with its undecipherable inscription and a couple of brasses will be noticed. There are but few old houses in the centre of the town.
[Ilustration: YEOVIL CHURCH.]
The usual excuse of disastrous fires is offered, and one did occur in 1449 when 117 houses were destroyed, but more probably ruthlessness on the part of eighteenth-century owners is responsible for this dearth. In Middle Street is the George Inn, an old half-timbered house, and, opposite, the still older "Castle," said to have been a chantry house. The Woborne Almshouses were founded about 1476, but no portion of the early buildings remain.
One of the most delightful views in South Somerset is that from Summerhouse Hill, about half a mile away; another, magnificent in its extent, can be had from the Mudford road that runs in a north-easterly direction. The great central plain is spread before one with distant Glastonbury Tor on the horizon. The environs of Yeovil are delightful. One of the best short excursions is to East Coker, the birthplace of William Dampier, two miles to the south. The church and Court are beautifully placed above the old village and a picturesque group of almshouses line the upward way to them.
Five miles north of Yeovil on the Fosse Way, where a branch road leaves the ancient Bath-Exeter highway for Dorchester, stands the old Roman town of Ilchester, or Ivelchester. An unimportant one at that, for the Romans made but little attempt to build in the wild and remote country that was to be the home of an obscure Saxon tribe - the Somersetas. Ilchester to-day is strangely uninteresting and we have to depend entirely upon the imagination for even a plan of the Roman town, of which no vestiges remain. Possibly these disappeared during the Civil War when the town was fortified. The church has an octagonal tower with the rare feature that its sides are the same form from base to parapet. The older portions of the building are Early English, but it has suffered from a good deal of pulling about. This is the only one remaining of the five churches of which Ilchester could once boast. A much maltreated market cross stands in the main street with a sundial stuck on the summit of its shaft. Otherwise there is little to detain the stranger. Roger Bacon, philosopher and scientist, was a native of the town or immediate neighbourhood. At Tintinhull, two miles to the south-west, are some fine old houses, ancient stocks, and an Early English church of much interest. The church's tower is on the north side, an unusual position. Bench-ends, brasses and ancient tiles are among the objects likely to interest the visitor of antiquarian tastes. Montacute, still farther south and on the road from South Petherton to Yeovil, should be visited if possible. Here is a beautiful Elizabethan house, the seat of the Phelipses. Its east front is decorated with an imposing row of heroic statues; its west front is almost as magnificent. Taken altogether it is perhaps the grandest Tudor house in the county. The interior well bears out the sumptuous appearance of the great pile from the outside. A great gallery, one hundred and eighty feet long, extends through the whole length of the building, and the hall is equally grand.
This great house replaces a one-time Cluniac monastery founded in 1102, though in 1407 the establishment abandoned the foreign rule of Cluny and became an ordinary English Priory. All that is left of the ancient buildings is a beautiful gateway with turrets and oriels dating from the fifteenth century. St. Michael's Hill, or "Mons Acutus," is remarkably like Glastonbury in outline, and is the scene of a wonderful legend. Here was found the sacred Rood that was eventually taken in the days of Canute to distant Waltham in Essex, where afterwards there arose the great Abbey of the Holy Cross.
Montacute Church is a building that has seen much legitimate "tinkering," not of the restorer's brand but of the sort that delights the antiquary. The earliest work is very early Norman. This is seen in the chancel arch and then we come down through the various stages of architectural history - Early English transepts, a Decorated window on the south side and, what is almost inevitable for Somerset, the Perpendicular nave. The tower is also "Somerset," and very dignified and beautiful.
From the hill of Hamdon near by we obtain one of those exquisite prospects of this English countryside that few can look upon unmoved. The beautiful hills of Somerset and Dorset, fading into the gentlest tones of soft purple and blue, ring the horizon on every side. Alfred's tower, built to commemorate the victory over the Danes, is far away on the Wiltshire border, but appears startlingly close for some rare moments when winter rain is near. Away to the west are the distant Quantocks and the hills of "dear Dorset," fold after fold, in the south. Close under the steep northern face of Hamdon is Stoke, with a quaint, and delightful inn known as the "Fleur de Lis," and a beautiful old church with a Norman tympanum, an elaborate chancel arch of the same date, and many other gracious and interesting details. If the direct road is taken from Montacute to Yeovil we pass through Preston Pucknell with its small and over-restored Decorated church. Of more interest is the fine tithe-barn close by, and a beautiful old medieval house with delightful porch and elaborate chimney.