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No 1 Hidden Histories Higher Town

Welcome to The Higher Town Trail

This trail rises above Minehead and climbs to the old thatched cottages that line the narrow streets of Higher Town where little has changed in a hundred years. Uncover the scandal surrounding Mother Leaky, find out who is buried in the church yard and where the secret nook called ‘smugglers doom' was located.

The approach to creating these trails is likened to a skimming stone, stopping at several segments of the trails and dropping interesting facts, myths and tales through out.

The walks are designed to read aloud to family and friends and to embellish your experience of this place.

Start this trail at the large sculpture of a metal map which marks the beginning of the South West Coastal Path.

Allow three quarters of an hour at an amble.

These digital trails have been made possible through the Seaside Strategy Fund managed by West Somerset Council, The Minehead development Trust and the Minehead Vision Group.
Chapter one

Welcome to Higher Town Trail

The South West Coast Path is Britain's longest National Trail with 630 miles of diverse coastal scenery. The full length of which has been run in an incredible 14 days, 14 hours and 44 minutes by Mark Townsend and fellow runner Julie Gardener who completed the trail in spring of 2013 averaging 45 miles a day.

However the majority who journey along the trail walk it and take their time, some tackle sections over several years enjoying every footstep and turn of the path.

The South West Coastal Path begins at this very point, leading west to the iconic Lands End where it must double back after rounding the tip of Cornwall. It then heads east along the south coast to finally end at Poole Harbour in Dorset.

The sculpture you see here is by Owen Cunningham and known affectionately by locals as the Iron Giant. Local folklore tells of another giant, The Giant of Grabbist, who resided in the hills by the same name a little to the south of Minehead. Just above Dunster village there is a cutting in the hill-side called Arthur's Seat and according to legend this is where on a Summer Solstice morning he will sit and await the rising sun to bless the health of his sheep herd for the coming year.
Cross the road and stop between the houses opposite where the trail is marked - Path To North Hill. Just past here is where our next chapter will reveal.
Chapter two


The true history of the building of the coastal paths came about through the huge industry of smuggling. The amount of taxes that were avoided when ferrying goods into secluded coves was a big headache for the customs officers. What was needed was a massive network of coastal paths around every inlet in the country regularly patrolled by watchful duty men. The shear cost of the task in man hours alone gives a clue as to how much money was being lost un unpaid duties.

Looking into records from the 1700's onwards it would appear that smuggling was not just a trade for the lower classes but endemic across all from the humblest to the highest. There are even accounts of the Lord Luttrell of Dunster Castle rum running and the court issuing advice 'that he should detract himself from the aforesaid activity immediately.' Interestingly his high position afforded him a degree of immunity from prosecution but the authorities could only look away for so long. Indeed in this instance the over zealous duty officer was replaced rather than the force of the law being properly upheld.
Next we will talk about beach huts, follow the main path until you can step into the small wood on your right, this is where our next chapter will reveal.
Chapter three

Beach huts in Minehead

Bathing huts and bathing machines were employed in seaside towns for some two hundred and fifty years. Bathing machines, which were horse drawn carts with oversized wheels, had a shed like room on top and were wheeled into the water to allow an occupant to de robe and enter the water in relative privacy. Half an hour was often ample with the health benefits being widely broadcasted as the cure all remedy. During the 1900's many of these bathing machines could be spotted on the sands at Minehead. The popularity of sea bathing and its therapeutic benefits had been endorsed over a hundred years earlier by King George III who had given his royal approval by bathing in one in Weymouth to the accompaniment of 'God Save the King'.

Lovers of beach huts come from all walks of life, even our current Queen was said to have been very attached to hers until a fire sadly consumed it in 2003. The art collector Charles Saatchi was not immune to their charms either when he bought Tracey Emin's Whitstable hut for £75,000. It was placed in storage amongst other famous Brit Art pieces and was also consumed by fire in 2004.

Beach huts can be many things to many people, a retreat, a place to change, or even a wedding venue! In 2011 Bournemouth council approved a beach hut as a chapel enabling it to host weddings and civil partnerships on the sand, with large marquees erected for banquets along side if so required.
Step back on to the main path and continue up the hill.
Chapter four

The coffin walk

As we climb out of Quay Town we leave behind us the abode of the famous Whistling Ghost also known as Mother Leaky who lived here in the 1600's.

Legend has it that she was want to 'Whistle up a storm' strong enough to sink a ship whenever one of her sons neared the port. The tale was made famous in Sir Walter Scott's epic poem, Rokeby, written in 1813. But the events on which it is based took place in 1636 when Alexander Leaky, Mother Leaky's son, encountered the apparition of his deceased mother on All Hallows Eve.

Over the coming months many members of the family reported seeing Mother Leaky but it was Alexander's wife who seemed to bear the brunt of the apparitions. Allegedly she challenged the ghost and asked it what it wanted, Old Mother Leaky then gave her two tasks.

Firstly to go and see a sister about a gold necklace and secondly to pass on a mysterious message to her brother in law Dr John Atherton who was also the Bishop of Waterford and married to Mother Leaky‘s daughter Joan. The story now takes on a deeper more serious tone, as Dr John Atherton was a pivotal figure in ecclesiastical politics, reasserting the church in Ireland in the form of Anglicanism, as preferred by King Charles I and Archbishop William Laud. Suffice to say he was an important figure and old Mother Leaky's hidden message may well have brought scandal his way, to ascertain the truth the King sent three privy council members including the Bishop of Bath and Wells who reported the following:

'...examined the business of the apparition, and certainly it is a fiction and a practice, but to what end cannot be discovered. And the younger woman, at that part of the examination, stood still to it that she had a charge not to utter to any but to Dr Atherton…..If she come over into Ireland (as she says she will) it may be that and more be fished out of her, but a cunning woman I hear she is, and her husband in decay. And therefore, I doubt it may be some money business'
Now continue up Church Path to find out more about Mother Leaky.
Chapter five

Dr Atherton

Some stories of Mother Leaky fade out here, but that is not the end of this tale as Alexander's wife does indeed go to Ireland to see Dr Atherton and her secret message seems to be about an alleged affair with his wife's sister Susan Leaky. In that time not only was this adultery but also considered as incest to have an affair with your sister in law.

A couple of years later Bishop Dr Atherton was accused of sodomy with a man servant, a capital offence in the 17th century and in December 1640 he became the first and only Anglican Bishop to be executed by hanging.

So whether this was an attempt at blackmail on the hands of Alexander and his wife which didn't play out as planned, the truth will never be known, but it is said that Old Mother Leaky did indeed get her revenge as the family's merchant shipping business floundered over the following years.

Ghost stories are often conjured up as a ruse to keep the general public off the streets so that smugglers could swiftly relocate their contraband. This story has slipped into legend and there are still many locals who walk this path in fear of hearing the whistling ghost and what may befall them if they do.
Continue up Church Path
Chapter six

Lady Rosemary Baring

The image you see here was taken in 1931 and depicts Lady Rosemary Baring blessing the town's new reservoir by pouring Champagne into the new drain - it is said that the bubbles have never stopped flowing from the taps of Minehead and that some who visit are blighted by uncontrollable giggling fits.

What's in a name?

It may surprise you to know that there has never been a mine at Minehead as its name may suggest. The nearby mineral railway transported ore mined from the Brendon Hills to Watchet Harbour along the coast but never to or from Minehead. So the puzzle of Minehead's name would suggest a different genus and if you cast your eye over the Bristol Channel you will see that in nautical terms Wales is close by. In fact in days gone by links via water were in many ways far easier than those on land and sailors from Minehead would be just as at home here as in the ports of Ireland, Wales or even Africa and the West Indies.
Continue up the coffin path, the trail turns to the right here and climbs further.
Chapter seven

Greebleigh Farm

Our path is a little more straight forward here as we journey up towards St Michael's Church but if you were to head around the hill here, onto the seaward side of Culvercliff, you would find yourself on a multitude of paths mapped out for the pleasure of Victorian visitors to the area. A little further onwards still and you would eventually arrive at Greenleigh Farm where the guidebooks of the early 20th century would recommend you enjoy a cream tea ‘at a very reasonable price.' Now is it jam first or cream first when serving a Somerset cream tea?
Chapter eight

Smugglers Doom

Over the centuries Greenleigh Farm was conveniently located for smugglers, it was just shy of the Excise Officer in Minehead and short boats could be put off close to the beach or barrels placed in the water if astute to the tides. The goods were then hidden in a little cave since blocked up called Smugglers Doom, which is described here in Larter's Sea Board of Exmoor (1902)

‘A passage four feet wide leads immediately to a hollow chamber about six feet in diameter, a delightfully cool place to sit with a book on a hot day with a beautiful view of the sea framed by the ragged edges of the rocky entrance. The floor is covered by rocky pebbles. ‘

Court records recount evidence of alcohol being buried in a potato field at the farm where customs officers, getting wind of the contraband, sought it out and dug it up. It was common that the duty officers would work on tip-offs and inside information to seek out goods, which had not arrived via the proper channels. According to the articles it would seem that everyone including the excise officers themselves were smuggling to some degree so to find others moving elicit goods without their 'charge' would be quickly acted upon.
Chapter nine

Elgin Towers

The Towers were built in 1887 to the order of Kennedy Cooke, a wealthy Scottish confectioner, and are believed to be a copy of Elgin Towers in Scotland. In this extract from the Somerset County Gazette dated 2010, the then owner Jennifer Dagworthy enlightens us with a little more of the properties history.

'The couple who spent seven years restoring a Grade II listed castle in Minehead as a 'labour of love' are looking for new owners to take over the property. Jennifer Dagworthy, 58, and Nigel Dagworthy, 57 moved in to Elgin Towers when it was in disrepair, which had been on the market for three years. Jennifer said: 'It has had a chequered history and the guy that built it never actually got to move in. It was used by a London insurance company, it was a private girls' school and then it was a hotel. It was then bought by somebody from Barbados who went bankrupt and squatters moved in.'

Can you see the water spouts from the tower which look like cannons?

The towers were the first building to bridge the gap between Quay Town and Higher Town with the plots of land below and behind featuring in an advertisement in a pamphlet around 1910 targeted at new visitors holidaying here.

Interestingly enough the population of Minehead in 1801 was just 1168, this has now swollen ten fold to just shy of 12,000 today.
Follow the sign St Michaels Road, and also North Hill (Scenic Route) You may be able to glimpse the Church tower from here through the tree canopy.
Chapter ten


According to the Doomsday Book, Ælgar Earl of Mercia held the town and the harbour, he was dispossessed of his lands by William the Conqueror, who gifted the town to William de Mohun of Dunster. It has been suggested that his name gave rise to the name of Minehead – a contraction of Mohun and Saxon ‘heved'. The name, however, is variously written Manheve, Munheved and Minheved in early documents relating to the town. It may be that the local Welsh connection is by far the most natural solution as the Welsh or Cymru word for mountain is Mynydd and its corruption into Minehead is easy to discern.
Continue along St Michaels Road.
Chapter eleven

Burgundy Chapel

To the West of Minehead lies North Hill, a fabulous asset of secret moorland only accessible via Minehead's old town, which is where we are now heading. On its northerly coastal flanks lies a combe, the local word for valley, where the ruins of Burgundy Chapel lie a little to the west of Greenleigh Farm. Located in a remote and secluded ravine, the site was excavated in both 1940 and 1985 though is little more than the footprint of two rooms. The chapel still retains a doorway with solid lintel and would have been used as a hermitage.

Records are few and far between although details of payment expenses accrued and paid by the Luttrell estate do still exist. In 1405 it is referenced as Bircombe Chapel rather than Burgundy Chapel and then a little later in 1420 payment of £6 13s 4d for chaplain is mentioned.

This remote little chapel may well have provided Coleridge with inspiration when writing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Coleridge, Wordsworth and Southey all tramped these hills in the late 17th Century and it is widely acknowledged that Coleridge's fictional doomed vessel set sail from nearby Watchet.

Extract from Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Part VII

This Hermit good lives in that wood
Which slopes down to the sea.
How loudly his sweet voice he rears!
He loves to talk with marineres
That come from a far countree.
Chapter twelve

Yeoman camp

The Yeoman infantry were camped at Bratton in this image preparing for World War I. Today the image is common once again at festivals with those who like to camp under canvas and will pay for others to do the simple labour of pitching. Interestingly though I doubt the Yeoman were glamping!
Continue along St Michaels Road.
Chapter thirteen

The Chime Children

Locally the term ‘The Ball' is a reference to a location which is positioned above a steep ascent where paths conjoin, but it is also known to be the place where spirits can wander after dark, where smiles are stolen from babies' faces and dogs whimper and chase unseen spectres.

The legend of the seventh son of the seventh son being gifted with second sight is well documented throughout England, but in Somerset those born between the hours of midnight on a Friday night and cock crow on a Saturday morning were gifted in a special manner. They were called the Chime Children for they were born during the Chime Hours.

'those born to a strange heritage, and live out their lives with a foot in each of the worlds, seen and unseen'

This testament comes from those who were old at the turn of the 19th century and is a curious folklore particular only to Somerset.

'They must be born between Friday and cock crow on a Saturday, as I am told I was - both these days being regarded as full of unseen danger among some villagers. This was all explained to me before I was five.'

Old rhyme.

They that be born of a Friday's Chime
Be masters of musick and finders of rhyme
And every beast will do what they say
And every her that they do grow in clay
They do see what they see and they hear what they hear
But never do tell in a hundred year.

The gifts of a Chime Child include but are not limited to the seeing of the dead and fairies and to speak with them but come to no harm, although it is specified that such encounters must never be sought. Secondly Chime Children were said to have immunity from all ill-wishing in much the same way as many of the clergy do. Thirdly Chime Children are natural animal handlers and their natural persuasion often turns them to become herdsmen or veterinary surgeons. Finally they are said to have an in-depth knowledge of herbs and an easy way of healing others.

Tell me, are any in your party born in these hours?
Take the road to the right and walk towards the Church.
Chapter fourteen

St Michaels Church

The image above is of two labourers setting the cobbles that you now stand on, It would appear that their craftsmanship has certainly stood the test of time. The caption reads: J.A. Watson Esq, LLD, BSc. Barrister-at-law who presumably can be seen in the lower image.

St Micheal's Church sits in an imposing position high on the hill overlooking the vale of Minehead, one of the windows on the stairs to service the rood screen (the elaborate wooden shutter which runs from left to right inside the church) was supposedly lit to guide sailors home from their voyage but its inland location would suggest this would only be useful for those approaching from Bristol. Perhaps it is more likely that the candle was placed to guide the souls of those lost at sea.
Chapter fifteen

A Keel full of Weapons

The Church itself is constructed from blue lias limestone as well as red Jurassic sandstone with the latter likely being quarried quite locally. Quarries in Alcombe and Selworthy yielded similar stone, as well as the hill behind the church itself, although the blue lias may have been sourced from further afield due to the town's maritime heritage.

Stone was often loaded into the keel of a ship as ballast to help it handle better whilst at sea. Ballast from Italy and Spain was specifically requested to be balks of yew, considered superior to English yew specifically required for archery bows. It would appear from contemporary records that the Italian authorities were not aware that this timber would be used in this manner.

Move along now into the Churchyard.
Chapter sixteen

The Chained Bible

Interestingly Ellen Stephenson is buried here in the graveyard, she was the third wife of George Stephenson of 'Stepehnson's Rocket' fame, founding father and pioneer of the railways. They were only married for 6 months and she outlived him some seventeen years. George Stephenson himself was buried with his second wife in Holy Trinity Church in Chesterfield.

This extract is from a guide published in 1879 called A Guide to Minehead by L.M & B Bond May 1879 and adds a little mystery to the current contents of the stone monument; there appears to be no other reference to the scientific curiosity within

It reads.

'St Michaels Church (sits) amongst the straggling streets beside the vicarage and schools. Inside (the) two principle bodies (of the church) are separated by an arcade of eight arches rising from plain octagonal pillars which at present decline fearfully from the perpendicular.'

Later on it continues.

'At the most easterly is the supposed monument of Henry de Bracton the celebrated Lawyer with robed effigy holding a chalice. The late Dr Ball opened this monument and found it contained a human skull with two perfect rows of upper teeth, one within the other.'
Chapter seventeen

Jack the Hammer

If possible it would be good to venture inside the Church at this point to see the ‘Jack the Hammer' and the Chained Bibles.

Residing on the rood screen within the church and plainly seen is a character known as ‘Jack the Hammer'. On pulling the rope his hammer knocks the bell and rings out the sound. Jack frost and Spring Heeled Jack are common folk story characters, but little is know about Jack the Hammer, perhaps you know a tale about him?

The Church is very fortunate and rather unique in having chained bibles, one of which dates back to 1639. It is referred to as a Black letter Bible due to its format and is on display in the rear of the church in a glass cabinet. Another rare illuminated manuscript being the Missal of Fitzjames resides in a purpose built wall safe and proudly exclaims the date 1320 in its brass surround. These incredible books are well worth viewing; it is rare for such a simple church to have such an exquisite and valuable collection.
Looking over the wall from the main door of the Church you will see a cobbled path called Church Steps snaking down hill. It is at the bottom of these where our penultimate stop will be.
Chapter eighteen

Church Steps

This is one of the most photographed locations in Minehead; in years gone by a visit to Minehead was not complete without a ‘hobble on the cobbles.' Why not carry on the tradition and take a photograph of your group here.

Turn around and look back up the steps, the building to your left became a workhouse in 1731, which was financed by the local parishioners through the 'poor rate' which was a fee levied on local businesses to provide alms for the needy. Thirty years previous there were 30 individuals registered receiving alms in Minehead. But grumblings in the parish pronounced the fees too high and that there was a more economical way to provide for the needy. It is interesting to note that today's news is as dominated by solving similar issues, benefit, welfare and health care.

The solution back then was a singular workhouse, which would bring many of these problematic strands together; it would also be cheaper on those being taxed and a more efficient use of the money levied. So in 1731 this building was rented to be used as a workhouse at £6 5s 0d for a year. Accounts for the twenty weeks prior to this tenancy are quite interesting, with bills amounting to a total of £71, half of which included medical care, clothing and funeral charges. The rest were payments to individuals and with a workhouse the community would feel those relying on this money to exist could be put to use to earn more.

The barred windows were added later and date from the building being used as a mint; it is interesting to note they are still in place today.
Walk along Vicarage Road to the next junction. This is our final destination.
Chapter nineteen

Ringing the Bells

Minehead was enthusiastically Parliamentarian during the Civil War and there are records of the ringing of the bells in joyful commemoration of various parliamentary victories.

1645 paid the ringers 3 shillings when Bristol was taken and delivered up by Prince Rupert.

1646 paid 4 shillings and 8 pence to celebrate the yielding of Dunster Castle

1648 paid 4 shillings for ringing of the bells on surrender of Colchester to the Parliament.

Our last stop on this trail is this simple gate where many remember the donkeys being kept in the 1960's; it was also where six men were executed by hanging during the civil war.

Named Hangman's Yard the story goes in the year 1685, when the Duke of Monmouth led a revolt against King James II, many men from Minehead rallied to his side. However after his defeat, six of the captured rebels were brought back to Minehead and hanged from this beam.

I wonder if the church bells rang for justice on that day?
Chapter twenty

The Donkeys

Only more recently has the location become a domestic residence as Mrs Webber used to keep her donkeys and ponies here during the 1960's, one of which was regularly ridden on the beach and the other used to pull the trap.

This is the end of our walk and I would like to both thank you for your time and also make you aware of the other five trails in the town, two of which are Hidden Histories just like this one.

But before you descend you many find there are some great little alleyways to explore up here.

To get back into town retrace your steps to the foot of Church steps then turn right and walk down Church lane.

At the foot of Church Lane bear left and down wards to eventually come out at Blenheim Gardens.
Chapter twenty-one

Research references

Research references

The images and sources for these trails have been wide and varied, there are many who have added just a little to the whole some of these were chance encounters in Minehead others I sought out. Those associated to Minehead Museum and the University of the Third Age should have a special thank you along with the Minehead Vision Team without whom this project would not have seen the light of day.

Somerset Heritage Trust was invaluable in guidance support and for first-rate reference throughout. Of their collections a special thanks should go to the family of Hilary Binding who granted permission for images drawn from her works to be published here. The Heritage Centre reference numbers from images are listed below.

Stephen Hooper and Daniel Cross whose trust and support has been solid throughout.

Julian Luke for guidance on postcard collection and also Chris Lenon-Wood and Cherry Temple.

Research relating to the a portion of material in the Quay Town Trail was collected by Alex Simson with Sea Shanty by Tom and Barbara Brown in connection with Halsway Manor.

Images of the Beatles by H Hole provided by A & C Elle of Dunster

Daphne McCutcheon should have a special mention as her website was a constant source of reference to whether my details were correct.

Banner image crown copyright OS 1938 – 611351 – T912,423
Chapter twenty-two



Binding, Hilary Book of Minehead with Alcombe ISBN: 1303223595

Tongue, Ruth L. Chime child, or, Somerset singers ISBN: 30105001793653

Palmer, Kingsley Folklore of Somerset ISBN: 30105002541416

Underwood, Peter Ghosts of Somerset ISBN: 1307897231

Guide to Minehead and its neighbourhood ISBN: 30105006396098

Larter, C.E. Kille, H.W Minehead, Porlock and Dunster ISBN: 30105006396569

Binding, Hilary Old Minehead and around: Minehead-Dunster-Selworthy ISBN: 30105011623981

Clarke, L. A. The Minehead United Turnpike Trust ISBN: 0953353966

Patten, Robert William Exmoor custom and song ISBN: 0900131144

Sellick, Roger The West Somerset mineral railway ISBN: 0715349619

L.M. & B. Bond, A guide to Minehead and its neighbourhood 1879 ISBN: GRN0194598

Jeff Cox West Somerset in the News ISBN: 9781906551094

John Gilman Sue Lloyd, From Curragh to Ketch ISBN: 7980954904357

Web References include Minehead Wiki pages, West Somerset Gazette, The Exmoor Magazine, The Guardian.

Image references – Somerset Heritage Trust
Ref – A/AGC/38/5 (Hilary Binding Albums)
Ref – A/DRY/13/54
Ref – A/DRY/13/49
Ref – A/DRY/13/39
Ref – A/DRY/13/9

Editing by D Jelley

Attention should also be drawn to the funding badges below which has enabled these trails to be created and delivered with out advertisement.

All details were correct at publication – March 2015

All rights reserved by Storywalks - C Jelley
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