The Yew Tree in Ashbrittle - probably the oldest tree in UK. Some 4000 years old
Still community activity in Ashbrittle - what a shame that we had to go home and that we missed it!
A library in a telephone box - never see such a thing before. How wonderful!
We had a wonderful holiday in Topsham, near Exeter, South Devon in early July 2015, and on the day we came back we stopped off in Somerset, and had an amazing day.
The whole day was something else, in fact! We had decided to stop off at Somerset anyway, but whilst we were driving on the motorway (the M5) I suddenly, for some bizarre reason, decided to look on the map to see just where the village of Ashbrittle was. Now, why did I do that? Well, my second cousin Sue recently told me that our great grandfather lived there. I never knew this before. But it had not been something that was uppermost in my mind on the holiday. Yet, for some reason it just came flashing into my mind whilst we were on this motorway. Looking at the map, I found to my amazement that we were just passing the turn-off that would take us to Ashbrittle. So, well – we turned off. How could we not? But it did not turn out to be that easy. We found ourselves driving along tiny, narrow, windy roads that went up and down. It was beautiful countryside but also quite scary. What if we met something coming the other way? Well, luckily we didn’t! Ashbrittle was not at all well sign-posted either so we found ourselves going round in circles a bit, but finally we got there.
Yes, we went to the village of Ashbrittle in Somerset. I subsequently found that that was where my great grandfather, Charles Palmer Vickery, was born, in 1853. Prior to this, I knew nothing at all about it! To be honest, I thought that both of my great grandparents came from Cornwall. Talk about Chinese whispers and ‘going off course’.
Following on from this, I have found out that my great grandfather was the youngest of 10 children. There were 8 boys and 2 girls, so there are probably still lots of Vickery's around - which was something that I had not considered before. There are lots of girls in my more immediate family, so the Vickery name there is therefore fading somewhat. But now I see a much wider picture and there are almost bound to be quite a lot of people with the actual name of ‘Vickery’ (in my family) out there!
What about Ashbrittle the village then? Well, Ashbrittle is a tiny village in Somerset, and there are now only about 225 residents in it. It also has one of the oldest trees in the UK (if not the oldest), and the Yew tree in the church graveyard there is thought to be some 4000 years old. There is some concern though that the tree might be dying - let's hope that is not the case. At one time, there was a pub, a bakers, a post office and a doctor’s surgery in the village but now there is only the church and this Yew Tree and the Village Hall (well, and the phone box!). This all hit the press earlier in the year. It was reported in the Daily Telegraph on 2nd May 2015, by Tom Rowley. Rowley also says that the tree could have been used for pagan rituals at one time. The tree stands next to a spring, and apparently it could have been planted there as a symbol of everlasting life. With other parts of the community folding (such as the pub) there is now concern for both the church and Yew tree. Charles Doble is quoted in the Daily Telegraph article saying:
"When my fellow churchwarden and I come out of the church, we look up at the tree and say: Which is going to succumb first, the rural church or the Ashbrittle yew?"
Yet, thankfully, as Rowley points out, the villagers still care for the village. There is a monthly ladies' lunch club, for one thing, and the church tower will be providing superfast broadband to the homes around it. And we saw a notice about 8 Ashbrittle gardens being open to the public when we were there (see photo) and there is the book/library resource in the telephone box (picture above). We were astonished to discover that. Yes, a red telephone box in the village, which was - full of books! Astonishing! Apparently, it is a community resource and is well-used! I have never, ever seen anything like that before. And me being a librarian, an’ all!
We went for a walk on a footpath, across a field, and we were very fortunate in that we found ourselves climbing a steep hill and from there could take some photos looking back down at the whole village.
On the way back from our walk across the fields (where we crossed a stream which we later found out was the boundary between Devon and Somerset) we passed a man (we only passed 2 people the whole time we were there!). We asked him a question about the village. To our amazement, he said that his brother has written a book about Ashbrittle and he kindly gave us his email address. How surprising was that! When we came home, I contacted the man, Charles Doble, and purchased the book from him. The book is entitled 'Ashbrittle: who, what, where, when at the Millennium'. It is published by Ashbrittle Arts, ISBN 0 9540993 0 3. It is quite a large book (not just a pamphlet) and has lots of nice pictures in it. Charles Doble signed it with these words - "For Ruth, As a 'Vickery' you are an Honorary citizen of Ashbrittle! Yours ever, Charles Doble". Thanks Charles! Charles Doble also has access to the Parish registers, and he was able to inform me that the earliest Vickery entry they have in their register goes back to 1662. How amazing! Also, that my great grandfather is, indeed, in the register, born 1853, son of James Palmer Vickery, a carpenter and Susan. Sue subsequently told me that she knew that Charles Palmer Vickery came from Ashbrittle because she has in her possession the cover of a book that he won as a prize from Sunday School in Ashbrittle. How about that! So, the jigsaw is starting to fit together.
Charles Doble’s ancestors have been looking after the parish for at least 500 years apparently, serving as rectors and paying out money for public works in Ashbrittle. He also has a water company in the village, called 'Green and Carter'.
On leaving Asbrittle we decided to visit the nearest nearby small town – Wellington, which was about 4 miles away. We went into the small museum there and got talking to a local historian there, but that’s another story for another day!
We took lots of photos and these are on this blog.
In regard to the Ashbrittle book itself, at first glance there didn’t seem to be anything about the Vickery’s in it at all, to my disappointment. There were no significant written paragraphs about them. But on a closer read I found lots of references to them. How exciting! I discovered that the Vickery’s had various trades, skills, and crafts. The information had been gathered from Kelly’s Directory for the book, which listed the various trades that had been in Ashbrittle from 1861. The Vickery’s were inn keepers and carpenters and farmers and boot makers and sawmill workers. Wow! I also discovered that one William Vickery was killed by accident at Tracebridge at the age of just 30 years, on 1901, and that this might well have been whilst he was working at the sawmill. Thoughts of George Eliot’s wonderful classic novel ‘The Mill on the Floss’ came to mind. The Vickery’s (James Palmer Vickery and then Richard Palmer Vickery) also owned a lovely large house called ‘Tracebridge House’ from 1887-1914. There is a picture of this house in the book along with its current owner.
I have always been proud of my great grandparents and how they came to be qualified teachers towards the end of the 19th century. This was around the same time as the 1870 Education Act was passed, of course, providing state education for all in England and Wales. So, they were at the forefront of all of this and doing something very worthwhile. They met at Teacher Training College in Truro, Cornwall. But up to a few weeks ago I thought that was where they both came from. But no – my great grandmother did indeed come from Cornwall but my great grandfather came from Somerset. Without Sue, perhaps I would have gone to my grave in ignorance of these facts. So, thanks so much Sue. Neither could I quite understand how my great grandparents (the Vickery’s) came to be qualified teachers – a big step, particularly in those days. But as my great grandfather came from this skilled, artisan family background, it now all makes a bit more sense. Even so, he must have been very bright at school and it must have taken a lot of courage for him to move from this tiny village to Truro and at such a young age (late teens).
So, I have found some important roots to my family (along with the roots of the Yew tree!), and I am really delighted. My great grandmother’s family goes back to 1700 in Cornwall too, so perhaps that is something to explore further on another occasion.
For now, we have another episode in the history of my family and another piece of the jigsaw has been completed.
Books in the telephone box!
The Ashbrittle Village Hall (it was a school at one time)
Bench in Ashbrittle church grounds, where the Yew Tree is.
Main Ashbrittle road
Walk across the fields in Ashbrittle
Stream that acts as a border line between Somerset and Devon
4 pictures above - views of Ashbrittle from the hill
Bridge over the stream that acts as a border line between Devon and Somerset