A Short History of Stratton on the Fosse

Stratton-on-the-Fosse is situated in one of the most fertile and pleasant parts of the Mendips.The village straddles the A367 in a ribbon development and lies between the Roman City of Bath and the town of Shepton Mallet, where a large Roman settlement was excavated by Birmingham University in 1990. The modern road follows much the line of the old Roman Road, The Fosse, which was the main Roman road linking Lincoln and Exeter. Stratton means flat stone, possibly from the large flat stones laid by the Romans as the base for their road.

Within the boundaries of the parish are the hamlets of Benter, Nettlebridge and Pitcote and on its Southern boundary the old village of Fernhill, now deserted.

There is evidence of early man having occupied the parish. In 1905, Father Ethelbert Horne, a monk at Downside Abbey in Stratton-on-the-Fosse, led the excavations of a cave at Nettlebridge in the south of the Parish. (Grid Reference ST 646495). The skeletons of a male and a female were discovered, along with Bronze Age pottery. A second and lower cave at the same location was excavated in 1947 by the Downside Archaeological Society. This revealed more human bones together with those of deer, ox, goat, wild cat, small horse and Mendip Hare. Late Neolithic grooved ware pottery and flint implements were also discovered. A Neolithic/Bronze Age site has also been identified on the eastern ridge of a valley running approximately North to South from the centre of the village. Concentrations of worked flint, flint implements and a scattering of arrowheads and scrapers give evidence of habitation within both the Neolithic and Bronze Age, some of the tools having been re-touched at a later date. (Five Arches, Issue 16, Spring, 1993).

Just outside the parish boundary at Fairy Cave, Stoke Lane, close to Fernhill, Iron Age potsherds (broken fragments of pottery) were discovered in 1888 (Grid Reference ST 658476). Quarrying has since destroyed the cave.

Blacker’s Hill, an Iron Age Camp (Grid Reference ST 636498) is thought to have been invaded and occupied by the Belgae in the later Iron Age. The Romans later occupied the Camp.

Evidence of the Roman occupation and subsequent settlement in the Parish are numerous. The Fosse, the Roman Road, has been excavated at Ashwick and within the village and has been uncovered on a number of occasions during routine works for essential services. Roman remains were found (c.1892) at ‘Killings Knap’ (Grid Reference ST 662519), where a skeleton was found in a shallow grave cut out of the superficial layers of lias.This is thought to originate from the Roman period.The bones were re-interred at the same location.

Quarrying at Killings Knap revealed over a quarter of a hundred-weight of finds, including a stone quern, a piece of decorated Samian (bearing potter’s marks TAVRIANVS and ALBVCI-OF), a blue glass bead and bronze coins of Constantine the Great (Proceedings of Downside Archaeological Soc., vol.1. no.2). In 1993, indications of a former building were found at Linkmead, a location between the village and Killings Knap Farm. Excavations in subsequent years showed this to be from the Romano/British period. Finds confirmed a third to fourth century date for its final phase of occupation. A Geophysical Survey of Linkmead shows the possible existence of other buildings on the site. The one excavated building was seen to be in an enclosure surrounded by about seven similar enclosures, some possibly with buildings.There is evidence of ‘squatter’ use of the excavated building and certainly some of the walls were robbed for building stone for use in other buildings at a later date. However, there is little archaeological evidence so far of the life of those in the parish after the break-up of the Roman Empire.

At some time during the reign of King Edgar (957-975 AD), the Manor and lands of the Parish were given to the Abbey of Glastonbury and during the time of Edward the Confessor (1042-1066 AD) were let to a tenant named Alwold, a Saxon Thane. The Manor was included among the lands of the Abbey of which William the Conqueror (1066) deprived the Abbey. William bestowed the Manor on his favourite prelate and assistant, the Bishop of Coutance and this is recorded in Doomsday.

The Parish Church was rebuilt in Norman times and dedicated to St. Vigor, a Norman Saint of the Sixth Century. There is only one other church dedicated to this Saint in England and that is at Fulbourne, near Cambridge. It is a strange coincidence that centuries later, Philip de Caveril, Abbot of St Vedast’s at Arras in France was the friend and benefactor to the ancestors of the present English Benedictine Community at Downside and built their first monastery in 1611 at Douai, France.

The doorway on the South side of the present parish church is Norman.The tower arch is probably of Norman date as is the font, which is quite plain and round in shape and shows the marks of the workman’s tools.The elegant stone pulpit of the church was made about 1400. The Manor was next held by Thomas de Sancta Vigore, who died in 1294. A Thomas de Gourney subsequently became Lord of the Manor, but owing to the part he had taken in the murder of Edward II after the downfall of Isobella and Mortimer, he was obliged to flee the country. His lands were confiscated and became a possession of the Crown, subsequently becoming annexed to the Duchy of Cornwall.

The Duchy is the oldest of English Duchies and, with the brief exception of the interregnum during the Commonwealth (1649-1660), has existed continuously.The Duchy is still one of the major landowners in the parish, along with Downside Abbey.

Although farming was always the core of existence in times past, the parish was a highly important centre for the coal industry until the middle of the Twentieth Century. It was a well-established industry by the Fifteenth Century and there is little doubt that the existence of coal was known in Roman times. The coal pits first took the form of surface mining, the remains of which are visible in the fields to the South of the Parish to this day. No enclosed land was broken for mining until the beginning of the Seventeenth Century, when a licence from the Lord of the Manor, to enter leasehold properties, had to be obtained. The underground seams of coal were always narrow and sandwiched with hard rock making it difficult to mine. The Pits were also prone to flooding.The last working pit to close in the parish was at New Rock, where a total of four seams had been worked.

In 1821 the Parish had seventy-four inhabited houses with a total population of three hundred and seventeen. Twenty-four of these occupants were employed in agriculture.Today agriculture is still a major influence on the Parish, but employs few people.

The major influence on the growth of the village in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries has been the community of English Benedictine monks who settled at Mount Pleasant in 1814 and built their home and a school for Catholic boys there. This school has now an international reputation and employs many people from the area. Monks from the Abbey serve many of the local Catholic parishes and have had an influence on Catholicism in many countries.

The first school for village children was organised in 1825 and soon over one hundred children were in attendance. The first purpose-built school, together with a schoolhouse and church for the Roman Catholic Parishioners, was commenced in 1854. A second village school was built in 1850 by the National Society. Both of these schools are now closed, although the buildings still remain.

Today the villagers of Stratton-on-the-Fosse look to the nearby towns of Midsomer Norton,Radstock and Shepton Mallet and to Bath and Bristol for much of their everyday needs. The village is now a dormitory for these larger conurbation’s and for destinations as far as London.

A new slice of History has just been put on the Stratton on the Fosse website. In 1956, Sheila Smith was a trainee teacher at Bath College and the account of her three weeks In Stratton, which makes fascinating reading, can be found by clicking here.