As some of you may already know, despite having lived in London for the past couple of years, I am actually from Somerset, a beautiful county in the South West of England. Although I absolutely loved being in London, a part of me has always felt drawn back to the place where I grew up and I still think of Somerset as my true home.
I read an online article by the Somerset County Gazette a few days ago, which announced that in 2015 we will have the first ever “Somerset Day” – a day to celebrate all that the county has to offer in terms of business, tourism, natural beauty etc. I assume the idea is to make it an annual event from next year onward. I personally think it’s a wonderful idea, because Somerset does have a lot going for it, as a county, and it could be even better, with a bit more investment and promotion. Devon and Cornwall are seen as being the main holiday destinations in the South West, but Somerset, (whilst perhaps not having such high-quality beaches), has some special attractions of its own – the West Somerset Steam Railway and Dunster Castle being just two that spring to mind. In addition, Somerset is well known for its Cheddar cheese and cider, which are world-famous foods.
As it says in the County Gazette article, the public are being asked to vote on which one of four possible dates should be selected to mark Somerset Day. I decided to do a bit of research on the four dates and their associations, because I knew almost nothing about any of them! I have included a brief description of each date and why it is relevant below – and then mentioned my own personal favourite and my reasons for choosing it. Of course, my choice is purely subjective and I’m not trying to suggest that everyone else should vote for the same – in fact, I would be delighted if you would let me know your own opinions in the comments – particularly if you too have lived or are living in Somerset!
Unfortunately, as of today (November 29th), voting has not yet been opened, as the plan has yet to be fully formalised. However, once voting does open (hopefully in a few days), this is apparently the website you will need to go to: http://www.passionforsomerset.co.uk. You can also follow Passion for Somerset on Twitter at @passionsomerset.
The Four Choices:
May 11th – to mark Alfred the Great’s gathering of ‘all the people of Somerset’
May 19th – St Dunstan’s Day
July 6th – Battle of Sedgemoor
October 21st – Apple Day
The first date refers to Alfred the Great’s stand against the Danish invasion of England in the 9th century. The kingdom of Wessex (what we now know as the four counties of Hampshire, Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset) was the last remaining part of England not under Viking control and the invaders were closing in, determined to complete their conquest of England and crush the native people once and for all. King Alfred emerged from his stronghold in the marshes of the Somerset Levels and rallied the people of Somerset to his aid, managing to drive back the Danish and negotiate a peace, thus ensuring that Wessex remained independent and undefeated.
The second date, May 19th, marks the feast day of St Dunstan, who was born in the Somerset village of Baltonsborough around 910. He showed much promise as a young boy and when he grew up, he spent some time at court, before becoming a hermit at Glastonbury Abbey. Later, he was summoned to court by the new king and appointed a minister. After various different monarchs had come and gone, he was finally appointed Archbishop of Canterbury and taught at Canterbury Cathedral School for many years. After his death, he became the most popular saint in England for more than two hundred years.
The Battle of Sedgemoor took place on July 6th, 1685. It was the final battle of the Monmouth Rebellion, which was a doomed attempt by James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, to usurp the crown from King James II. Scott came to England from the Netherlands, landing at Lyme Regis in June. After a series of battles around the south west, culminating in the Battle of Sedgemoor, Scott and his poorly trained army were defeated. The subsequent trials of those who had participated in the rebellion were known as the Bloody Assizes – 500 of these prisoners were sentenced at Taunton Castle by Judge Jeffreys.
Apple Day, on October 21st, is “an annual celebration of apples and orchards”. It was initiated in 1990 by a charity called Common Ground, whose aim is “to explore and the relationship between nature and culture”, particularly in matters of “local distinctiveness” – traditional customs, folklore and practices that are linked to a specific area of the country. The Common Ground group is based in Dorset and the first Apple Day celebration took place at Covent Garden in London, but the Somerset connection is obvious because, as I mentioned earlier, the county is famous for its apple orchards and cider.
Whilst I love the connection to a well-known Somerset food (and drink!), I think that October 21st is far too close to Halloween and Bonfire Night to be a viable option for Somerset Day. In addition, Apple Day is already an annual UK festival and I feel that Somerset Day should be something that is completely separate from any national event, because it’s a local celebration – and one that should ideally focus on more than just apples.
The other three dates are all in the summer, which is great because it means that would (hopefully!) mean there is a better chance of good weather for whatever events take place, plus none of these dates, so far as I am aware, are close to any other annual events – apart from possibly May Day, which in any case isn’t as widely celebrated as it used to be.
With regard to May 19th, I’m not sure how many people have heard of St Dunstan and although he was a very popular saint and it’s great that someone so famous originated from our county, I would guess that hardly anyone would know who he was now – I certainly had no idea until I googled him. I feel that the Somerset connection needs to be a bit more meaningful than the feast-day of a saint who lived several hundred years ago.
The Battle of Sedgemoor is certainly more widely known and the fact that a Somerset location featured so prominently at a decisive point in the history of the monarchy is really interesting. However, this seems to be more of a chance association – after all, the Duke of Monmouth didn’t actually come from Somerset, as far as I know. Moreover, it seems a shame to choose July 6th as a day of celebration when it involved a bloody battle and some (arguably even bloodier) trials that resulted in the death or deportation of hundreds of people, including local Somerset folk.
It would have been interesting to have chosen a day such as the date in 1903 when Cecil Sharp first heard John England singing the Seeds of Love in Charles Marson’s back garden, prompting Sharp to start collecting Somerset folk songs, which would later be published and distributed to every school in the country. But I suppose this perhaps might not be particularly well-known, although I would argue Sharp deserves more recognition for his part in saving valuable cultural history that would otherwise have been completely lost. Having said that, I’m not sure if the exact date for Sharp hearing “The Seeds of Love” is known, thus it would be difficult to have this as an option for Somerset Day!
Personally I think I would vote for May 11th for Somerset Day, partly because everyone has heard of Alfred the Great and it would also link very nicely to the county’s motto “Sumorsǣte ealle”, meaning “all the people of Somerset”, which is taken from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and obviously refers back to Alfred the Great summoning “all the people of Somerset” to help defend Wessex from Viking invaders. This further emphasises the fact that Somerset Day is a chance for the whole county to unite in celebrating the very best that Somerset has to offer and also ties in very nicely with an important piece of ancient local history.
If you agree, disagree, or have any other comments to make, please let me know, I would love to hear your thoughts on this!
EDIT: Voting for Somerset Day is now open from 5-16 January at passionforsomerset.co.uk!