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Walter Bagehot Langport

Langport and its Surroundings

Here we have the chapter on Langport from the now out-of-copyright book 'The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot' by Mrs. Russell Barrington. This was published in London by Longmans, Green and Co. in 1915.

Feel free to contact us if you would like to view an original copy of this great book!

We also have an original 1911 copy of the classic 'Langport and its Church: the story of the Ancient Borough, with references to neighbouring Parishes' by David MELVILLE ROSS should anyone be interested. We aim to put this online as soon as time allows.

Old Pictures of Langport



Walter Bagehot’s birthplace, is a small, ancient town on the river Parret in the centre of that part of England which narrows between the Bristol and the English Channels before it again widens out into Devonshire. Langport is thirteen miles from Taunton, thirteen from Bridgwater, thirteen from Glastonbury, thirteen from Yeovil, thirteen from Crewkerne, and five from Somerton, formerly the capital of Somerset. It is quite unique, unlike any other place in England. It reminds one rather of certain small foreign towns. Viewed as a town it is tiny, and the inhabitants do not now number eight hundred. Yet it cannot be called a village; it has a market. Its importance in history and its commercial prosperity are the results of its being the first ford from the mouth of the river Parrett. It is like a town stopped short in the making, never having expanded beyond restricted limits. For these limitations there are physical causes. Two hills rise out of the moors half a mile apart. The moors mean in Somerset those wide stretches of meadowland, flat as a lake, from which dead level rise the Mendip, the Quantock, and the Black Down Hills. They include the famous Sedgemoor, the scene of the defeat of Monmouth by Marlborough. One of the two hills was formerly covered by the ancient town of Langport, a crowded mass of houses, within fortified walls, interlaced with narrow alleys, and crowned by a grand early perpendicular church built on the site of a yet earlier Norman church. The town was entered on the eastern side through an archway under the Hanging Chapel, built in the latter part of the thirteenth century as the Merchants’ Guild Chapel. These and the church still exist as they were in olden times. The opposite hill, Herd’s Hill, is crowned by groups of huge elm trees, whose rounded masses of foliage rise with stately effect against the western sky.

As a child in arms, little Walter Bagehot was taken up from the Bank House in the town, where his parents lived during the life of his grandfather, to lay the foundation-stone of the existing house on the summit of the hill. Between the two hills runs the present street of Langport which dates from some centuries back. One end is called Bow Street, Bow being the Saxon word for bridge, the other Cheapside. It owes its existence to the Romans who found it necessary to make a causeway over the moors at this point between the two hills when constructing a highway from the West Country to London. They built nine bridges to carry the road and to lift it over the swamps. This viaduct, the work of Roman engineers, was solidly constructed, and houses were gradually erected here and there on each side of it. Eventually these houses formed a street, continuing half way up the hill towards the church. It included the Bank House where Walter Bagehot was born. This is a large, six-windowed, solidly built residence with spacious rooms and wide staircases next door to the Bank. The ancient town on the hill surrounding the church has disappeared with the exception of a trace here and there of a narrow alley or a relic of the old fortification walls embedded in some new structure. Covering the space occupied by the ancient buildings now stands Hill House, the residence first of the ancestors of the Bagehots, and subsequently of the Stuckey family, from about 1750 till ten years ago, together with various smaller residences and gardens.

The unsafe moor reaches close up to the backs of the houses, and prevents any expansion of the town behind the street of Langport. Till within the last few years the floods would mount so high that the street itself was invaded, the water rising to the first floor of the houses and turning the street into a Venice-like canal. Means have been found to stop this mischievous invasion of the water into Langport itself, but no steps have been taken to stop the flooding of the moors. The mind of the West countryman is an economical mind. It distinctly has its limitations, and is not hastily progressive. Where economy could be effected, Walter Bagehot pointed out how the Langportians could, on the contrary, be retrogressive. Mr. Hutton writes: “In early days (Langport) returned two Members to Parliament until the burgesses petitioned Edward I. to relieve them of the expense of paying their Members, a quaint piece of economy of which Bagehot frequently made humorous boast”. Long ago means might have been found of draining the moors and preventing their being flooded, had not the native mind been bent another way. These floods are potent fertilisers of the soil, and the farmer, being anxious to fertilise his land without expense, does not desire that the floods should be restrained. To his mind any advantage which might accrue to the neighbourhood from developing industries through extending the town of Langport was problematical and far off; whereas the expenditure which would be necessary in order to manure his land would be a matter of immediate and disagreeable importance to him. These moors give their name to the county, sea-moor-settlers-Somersetee. There is a something curiously soothing and romantic in the feeling which these widespreading lonely lands inspire. Free, far-reaching, and almost uninhabited, like the sea they are absolutely untormented by any innovation of modernity. Rows of pollarded willow trees are planted along the edge of the rough roadways that now and then cross the moors, and by the side of the rhines, ditches which gleam in water tracks among the meadows. Like the olive of the South, their pointed-leaved foliage turns from grey-green to silver as they are swept by “the everlasting wash of air” which rushes over the flat plains from the far-away sea. Growing as luxuriantly as they like, all kinds of lovely things flourish and bloom undisturbed in the water or on the edge of these rhines—bull-rushes, the flowering rush of the delicate pink asphodel-like flower, yellow irises, forget-me-nots, willow weed, loose-strife, and meadow sweet, and countless other rare delights, many of them treasures to botanists. Here and there, at long intervals, a farmstead has found a little rise in the moor whereon to perch itself. There is hardly a view over these stretched-out lands which does not include at least one or two of the beautiful square church towers for which Somerset is famous, rising massively out of clumps of elm trees, or from low-thatched roofs of village cottages nestled around them. They strike the welcome note of an art allied in its quality to all this unspoilt nature. But such incidents are but as a ship on the wide waters of the sea; a spot which only marks more distinctly the contrast between the amount of work done by nature in the scene, and that constructed by human hands.

There are three points from which the characteristic features of this scenery can be most clearly viewed. Two of these are specially associated with Walter Bagehot, and the third, perhaps more particularly in my mind, with his friend, Richard Hutton. Standing by the grave of Walter Bagehot, but a few yards distant from the south side of Langport Church, and looking over the low wall which separates the grave from the steep southern side of the hill, you see the river Parret gliding away towards Muchelney Abbey, the child of the famous Glastonbury Abbey, nestled with its church tower among trees and thatched cottages. Past Muchleney, away stretch the moors with their rows of pollarded willows, with here and there a cluster of elm trees, moor and trees softening from green into a purple middle distance; then they melt into a blue which gets misty and far away before the rising ground is reached, topped by three hills marking the domain of Montacute, the beautiful home of the Phelips family. One of these three hills is verily a Somerset Pentelicus. From its side is quarried the famous Ham Hill stone which for centuries has made beautiful many churches, mansions, and cottages all over this part of the world. Quaintly enough it is now to be found also in Piccadilly! Away past Montacute again the flat land stretches, now a faint silvery mist with here and there a blotch of azure to show it is earth not sky, away till the blue line of the Dorset hills determines the horizon.

On leaving the churchyard and turning to the right, passing Hill House and through the archway surmounted by the thirteenth-century Hanging Chapel, one sees rising straight from the ground one of the great glories of this country-side—the almost unrivalled tower of Huish Episcopi Church, a treasured feature from many points in the grounds of Herd’s Hill. Like Langport Church, it stands on the site of an older Norman edifice. The chief entrance is still through a fine Norman doorway. When Walter Bagehot was young one vicar served the two churches, and the afternoon Sunday services, to which he was taken as a boy by his mother, were held alternately at Langport and at Huish Episcopi. Following a road which rises from Huish on to high ground to the north you look down on Low Ham, its ancient church and the ruined walls of the mansion of romantic traditions, across valleys to the Tor at Glastonbury and to ranges of the Mendip above Wells. After passing again another very fine church, that of High Ham, most notable for the exquisite carving of its old oak screen, the road leads along a ridge to a point of view over the moors called Turn Hill. This is the widest and most extended view which can be got of the moors. It includes the whole of Sedgemoor and, among many other churches, that of Chedzoy, where part of the King’s Army slept before the day of the battle of Sedgemoor. Still to be seen on the porch are the slashes inflicted on the stone where the soldiers whetted their swords before going forth to war.

That battle seemed very remote and out of the scene on the afternoon when Walter’s friend, Richard Hutton, sat with us on the fine close turf of Turn Hill on a day in August, six months after Walter’s death, and gazed over vast stretches of level moor, sunlit air and space all steeped in a dreamland charm. At one point or another, over the Quantock range, some twenty miles away, a faint hint of Welsh mountains could be traced. The Quantocks themselves were but toned sunshine, such a flood of light was over it all! It twinkled here and there into bright distinctness as a sunray caught the glass in a building, glistened on the water in a rhine, or struck a cloud of steam bounding upwards from an express train far away. Great Western expresses rush to and fro all day from Paddington to Plymouth and from Plymouth to Paddington past Bridgwater and Taunton along that far away distance. Viewed from our headland, their volumes of rolling steam were but as clouds floating across the distant landscape; they did not disturb the dream. In the dazzling air high above us skylarks were pouring their full heart in profuse strains of unpremeditated art.

From low down, very far down on the moors, the sound of the lowing of kine was wafted up with a faint echo of farm life—a life in its reality as remote from the feeling inspired by the place that afternoon, as are hints of the like mundane occupations when you come upon them in a verse of Greek poetry. We sat long, drinking in the loveliness of this strange country, Walter Bagehot’s country. These Somerset moors have a strong character of their own. They give you Nature under an aspect very gentle, but very vast. A whiff from the sea, mingling with the delicious velvety softness of West Country air, stimulates the quality of the breezes: it exhilarates while it soothes.

The third notable view of these moors, three miles to the west of Langport, is perhaps the most beautiful of its kind in Somerset. Here they are seen from a headland where stands a landmark prominent and seen from all the country round, the monument erected by Lord Chatham in memory of Sir William Pynsent about the year 1759, after the property was left by Sir William to the statesman in recognition of his public services. On its base Lord Chatham inscribed: "Sacred to the memory of Sir William Pynsent".

Virgil’s lines addressed by Aeneas to the Shade of Marcellus. It was on the top of this column, 150 feet high, that Walter Bagehot performed, as a young man, the rash feats which so terrified his mother. Till quite lately, from the hill where rises this column, half a mile away, a lonely remnant of the great mansion pictured in Collinson’s Somerset could be seen, embedded among great cedar trees; purple-shaded walls of a deserted dwelling built by Lord Chatham as a wing to the older lordly structure. This wing was the only portion of the mansion spared by the creditors when Lady Chatham died and the rest of the building was pulled down for its material! We of this generation owe the magnificence of the timber in the Burton Pynsent Woods to “the prophetic eye of taste” (Chatham’s words about his planting mania), likewise to the extravagant tendencies which led, alas! to the demolition of the great mansion. Still we ought to feel grateful. If he recklessly threw his bread upon the waters, it is we, after many days, in this twentieth century who are still reaping the benefit. In Lord Rosebery’s Life of Lord Chatham is the following account of why and how the hill was planted:

“Pitt, debarred from the sports of the field, had always taken a lively interest in the laying out of land, in planting, in landscape gardening. He had, to use his own felicitous expression, ‘the prophetic eye of taste’. He utilised it freely and indeed extravagantly at his own homes, for in the pursuit of this hobby he disdained all limitations. Once, when Secretary of State, he was staying with a friend near London whose grounds he had undertaken to adorn, and in the evening was summoned suddenly to London. He at once collected all the servants with lanterns, and sallied forth to plant stakes in the different places that he wished to mark for plantations. In later life he ran to still greater extremes. At Burton Pynsent, near Curry Rivel, a bleak hill bounded his view and offended his eye. He ordered it to be instantly planted with cedars and cypresses. ‘Bless me, my Lord,’ said the gardener, ‘all the nurseries in the County would not furnish the hundredth part required.’ ‘No matter; send for them from London.’ And from London they were sent down by land carriage at a vast expense.”

Besides this planting, Lord Chatham erected small temples in the Renaissance style of architecture along a wide grass terrace which he made on the hillside, leading from the house to the Monument. A lordly revelling went on under his reign, and the place is still haunted by a feeling of the grandeur and reckless magnificence of the past. This extravagance brought the property eventually into the possession of Walter Bagehot’s cousin, the daughter of the last Vincent Stuckey. It was recently sold again, and the deserted wing erected by Lord Chatham was added to and restored by the present owner, Mrs. Crossley, who purchased the property. There exists an important fact in Walter Bagehot’s family history which links him to the Chatham reign at Burton Pynsent. His uncle, a notable personage, Vincent Stuckey of Hill House, started his singularly successful career in life through the patronage of Lady Chatham, who, after Lord Chatham’s death, much favoured the Stuckey family. As a youth Vincent Stuckey asked her for an introduction to her son, the great Pitt. She willingly gave it, and this introduction obtained for him a clerkship in the Treasury and the post of Private Secretary to Pitt. This official life he deserted in order to found the famous Stuckey Bank.

On a midsummer evening it is good to linger into the twilight hours seated on the fine turf, embroidered with many-coloured tiny blossoms, on the foremost point below the Monument jutting out over the moors, and watch, as it were from the prow of a ship, all the wonders of light and colour that creep over the moors as the sun sinks behind the faint line of Devonshire hills in the west. This particular point is sentinelled by a group of seven wind-blown Scotch firs, clinging on with naked, claw-like roots to the precipitous fall of the hillside. Sweeping backwards, and rising from the moors in undulating folds, slopes covered by masses of the magnificent timber of Lord Chatham’s planting, roll away towards the west, past the Vale of Taunton, into Devonshire. On one distinct promontory far away rises the Wellington Monument above the town of Wellington. These lesser spurs of the Brendons are surmounted on the horizon by the Blackdown and Dartmoor heights—the country of Lorna Doone; to the right, in the distance, these are joined to the heights of Exmoor and the Quantocks, the whole forming one vast amphitheatre of hills sweeping down into the widely spread basin of the moors. As we watch the sun sinking, a dazzling mist, a sort of sky repeated on the earth, divides the far distant moor from the rise of the Devonshire hills. With a delicate gradation the glow of fiery gold intensifies as it creeps along, touching with a yet more vivid hue each incident of the landscape as it travels forward, till the Burton Monument is reached. Then the full glory of colour and light bursts forth over the foreground, turning to scarlet the stems of the Scotch firs close by, and to brilliant orange the gravelly hill-side from which they spring. Fierce, fiery light burns into everything for a space, then subsiding into a carmine glow, loses itself in a sheen of dove-breast silver and pink, fading into silent shade as the curtain of night begins to fall. As a thought of Pentelicus is suggested by the quarried hill of Montacute, so the Roman Campagna, as seen from the Albano hills, is recalled here in the heart of rural Somerset from the heights of Burton Pynsent. There is something that associates the dignity of a classic world with these West Country scenes, the dignity arising, maybe, from a feeling that all this vast unspoilt nature is the ruling spirit presiding nobly over mundane matters. The great spaces of uninterrupted air and sky make these ordinary sunset effects uncommon and impressive. Certain it is that from childhood it was on no ordinary views of English landscape that Walter Bagehot’s eye was fed. A pathos doubtless, no less than a romantic delight, is attached to these typical scenes of his native country. To the few inhabitants who dwell on the moors, these wide expanses of sky and field must feel at times solitary and lonely. A corresponding pathos existed also in his life. Though the joys of genius were very generously allotted to him, the anxious family trouble caused by his mother’s illness, about which a certain reserve had to be maintained, proved an ever-present cloud hanging over his life.

But besides the Roman Campagna-like tracts of land, where “Nature has its way” freely and unrestrainedly, corresponding to the happy and wholesome spirit in Walter Bagehot’s nature, the surroundings of Langport abound in delightful rural and domestic spots, the Chaucer-like element in English scenery. Out-of-the-way villages, such as Muchelney, Aller, Pitney, Othery, Middlezoy, Weston Zoyland, Long Sutton, Drayton, all these and many others belong to the rural picturesque England of olden times, cosy villages nestled round beautiful churches, for the most part grand, imposing structures. Farmsteads and cottages, lovable in their old-world fashion, are met with at every turn of the road and lanes. Modest manor houses of yore, still retaining much architectural charm, are now used as farm-houses, being perhaps the more attractive, to the artist at least, owing to the transformation. The beautiful remnant of the once great Abbey of Muchelney is now inhabited by a farm labourer. The damp in the atmosphere of these parts gives a softened intensity to the colouring of everything. This is a distinct beautifier. The homeliest dwelling, the most insignificant feature in the landscape, is made notable to those who love colour when coming under its spell. Twigs of trees in winter, elsewhere grey or black, put on in these parts a juicy pink and a raisin purple. The arbutus, decorated at Christmas-tide alike with fruit and flower, and the leaves of the bay and myrtle trees that grow happily in the West Country, recall the quality of jewelled enamel, so brilliant is the green of their foliage when seen against the deep blue of the atmosphere. In stormy weather, when the sun burns hot between the showers, the hills will seem to draw quite close and appear like walls of pure lapis lazuli, intensely blue against golden inlets that break a light through the storm-clouds in the sky. The colouring of flowers, the apples in the orchards, all growth is beautified by this soft damp which saturates the air. It tones the amber Ham-Hill stone with broideries of gorgeous orange moss and full-tinted lichen; it gives to the thatch of cottage roofs a peculiarly pleasant raw-umber and purple hue. In the wunderschonen Monat Mai, when in shaded orchards gay apple blossoms sprinkle the boughs with a lively sparkle of pink and white; when bushes of lilac, that love this damp, and grow abundantly in it, toss their festive plumes up against the purple-brown of a thatched roof; when the juicy amber of young leaves on walnut trees contrasts with the full azure blue of moorland and hill, and every cottage garden is bedecked with bright spring flowers, all the world in this sweet country in the west seems to be revelling in a sport of colour, and to have become the stage for an ideal May Day Festival.

Such is the land in which Walter Bagehot was born and bred, and died—the land he pined for when a boy student at the Bristol College, and still pined for when a youth at University College in London; the country he rode about, hunted over, and loved; the world of sweet natural beauty that early tuned his eager imagination to the inspirations of Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats.

This beauty in nature was the world outside Langport; but inside the minute old borough was a world which tuned his mind to many other matters, matters that were treated with vigour and enterprise in this quaint little town, and which fed his mind with food of quite another sort. Those who knew Walter Bagehot in his home, among his own surroundings, cannot fail to find at every turn in his early writings allusions reminding them of the influence these surroundings had on his nature. He begins his essay on Cowper: “We are the English of the present day. We have cows and calves, corn and cotton; we hate the Russians; we know where the Crimea is; we believe in Manchester the great. A large expanse is around us; a fertile land of corn and orchards, and pleasant hedgerows, and rising trees, and noble prospects, and large black woods, and old church towers. The din of great cities comes mellowed from afar. The green fields, the half-hidden hamlets, the gentle leaves, soothe us with ‘a sweet inland murmur’. We have before us a vast seat of interest, and toil, and beauty, and power, and this our own. Here is our home. The use of foreign literature is like the use of foreign travel. It imprints in early and susceptible years a deep impression of great, and strange, and noble objects; but we cannot live with these. They do not resemble our familiar life; they do not bind themselves to our intimate affection; they are picturesque and striking, like strangers and wayfarers, but they are not of our home, or homely; they cannot speak to our ‘business and bosoms’; they cannot touch the hearth of the soul.”


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