Reprinted from Newsletter 94, dated 2000 February

Tor entrances, footpaths and pointing to be tackled

Jan Morland

Adrian Woodhall, guest speaker after the AGM in October, has been responsible for three years as countryside manager for the National Trust, covering an area of 2,000 acres from Sand Point to Glastonbury from his base at Winscombe. Although the Tor consists of only 80 acres, this site takes up a lot of his time.

The Tor, the distinctive conical hill with the remains of St Michael’s tower, is an international symbol signifying Somerset. It was acquired in 1933 by the National Trust, which gradually added other small fields nearby. This land will never be built on. The trust has been asking people what is important about this site, and in the main the views of the trust and of visitors overlap.

A map of 1860 shows four distinct orchards circling the Tor. The field called Elephante was planted in the late 19th century (and was recently replanted by the Conservation Society). Under the Countryside Stewardship, with money from the ministry of agriculture, hedgerows and orchards can be replanted, and £3,000 this year is being spent on renewing fences. Sheep are eating the bottom of hedgerows and will eventually debark the hedge, so these have now been fenced.

The present entrance to the footpath is a mishmash of fences and gates which the trust would like to replace with easier access for wheelchairs. Any such plans will be published locally. The problem is how to accommodate up to 3,000 people, the sort of numbers that came for the August eclipse — a well behaved group of people of all ages enjoyed the occasion. The path made in the 1970s is fairly robust, but the trust hopes to provide passing places. An archaeologist will be involved in this. The southwest needs repair. The trust would like to expand the grass on the top of the hill with mesh reinforcement but must protect the footings of the tower.

The 25-acre field around the Tor consists of unimproved grassland with ladies bedstraw and 15 species of butterflies. Somerset Wildlife Trust assesses it as wildlife status, though not a site of special scientific interest (SSI). It is impossible to mow and must be grazed by cattle or sheep, but sheep are vulnerable to dogs. Between May and July there was no grazier and rank grass grew, but the new grazier has introduced dry dairy cows, which will eat this. Thistles are spot-sprayed (though the public objects) and rabbits are shot to avoid erosion.

This year two climbers, Kit Henry and Alison Cheshire, who are experienced surveyors working on ancient churches, used an airgun to put a small line over the top of the tower. They took stereo photographs leading to detailed drawings, so that the trust can keep a close watch on virtually every stone. Cracks were discovered on the top lintel, where the Victorians used cast iron, and there will be a programme of repair and repointing. The statues proved to be in amazingly good condition.

Plans are to improve entrances and interpretation in 2000, footpaths and apron in 2001, and repoint the tower in 2003, which will involve scaffolding. The problem is that most visitors come between mid-June and the end of September, but there must not be frost when using lime mortar. This last repair will involve great expense and a major appeal. It is hoped that many businesses who use the Tor as their symbol will contribute.

Among questions after the talk and slides, Paul Branson asked about parking, which Corfe Castle had solved successfully. Mr Woodhall replied that the trust does not want any buildings near the Tor; a visitor centre could be sited in the town with a good park-and-ride system. It might be possible to institute one-way traffic for the lanes near the Tor. He said there have been 35 separate camping incidents where people brought their kit in the back of a van, parking in the lane and cutting down trees for firewood. During big occasions like the solstice, three or four wardens are needed, and six people at Glastonbury help. Jan Morland said she has a slide showing John Brunsdon silhouetted through the open arch of the Tor, with his litter-picker and sack.

Martin Blake, chairman of the Wells and District local association of the National Trust, wished to encourage membership of the trust. The group has 400 members with a programme of six lectures in Croscombe village hall during winter and expeditions in summer. Members also raise money and gave £3,500 to the trust during 1999. Mr Woodhall added that the Wells association is very supportive, and Weston and Bristol also have local groups.

Millennium celebrations included Serena Roney-Dougal’s idea of planting 700 flares to outline the Tor, sponsored by the public at £5 each. Each flare lasted up to four hours, and the spectacle was stunning up to five miles away.