Shepton Mallet: Looking to the future

The 15th century Market Cross in the Market square (c) Neville Stanikk Photography

The 15th century Market Cross in the Market square (c) Neville Stanikk Photography - Credit: sub

Shepton Mallet is brimming with community-minded initiatives. Andrea Cowan chats to the locals to find out what’s in store for the rest of 2017

The Rock Flock by Jeff Body, a nod to the town's wool trade heritage (c) Neville Stanikk Photography

The Rock Flock by Jeff Body, a nod to the town's wool trade heritage (c) Neville Stanikk Photography - Credit: sub

Shepton Mallet has a rich and colourful history dating back 3,000 years. For 2017, there is a sense of a new energy, with spirited local people keen to ensure that their home town is relevant and vibrant for the 21st century.

A trip to the Tourist Information Centre (TIC) is the obvious first stop to find out more. So often it has lost its place in the high street – but not in Shepton. Here it is the hub of the community, visited by locals and tourists alike.

“We should probably just be called the Information Centre,” says director, Lorraine Pratten. “There is such a community spirit in Shepton. I am always adding new events to the calendar or selling tickets for something that has been organised locally.”

A clue to one of the town’s most important trades over the centuries is its name, derived from the Anglo-Saxon name ‘sceaptun’ or ‘sheep fold’. It was the wealth of the wool trade that led to Shepton Mallet’s prosperity as a market town. For centuries, every Friday morning there has been a local market in the town square, and it still runs today. Although not the biggest market I’ve visited, it has the essentials: a butcher, baker, fruit and veg and cheese, as well as a smattering of other interesting stalls.

The beautiful Collett Park (c) Neville Stanikk Photography

The beautiful Collett Park (c) Neville Stanikk Photography - Credit: sub

Helen Reader, owner of newly opened The Fairy Godmother shop in the high street, started by selling her quirky products from a suitcase on Fridays.

She says: “The market is such an important way to bring people to the high street; it’s quite a social day and part of the fabric of the week for many.”

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Spearheaded by Helen, and after several months of negotiation, an additional market has been agreed for the third Sunday in each month.

“We had more than 60 traders at the last market, and feedback has been fantastic.”

Market day in the town square (c) Neville Stanikk Photography

Market day in the town square (c) Neville Stanikk Photography - Credit: sub

The market square might be familiar to television viewers from its appearance on BBC’s Turn Back Time – The High Street in 2010; a social experiment that put the town centre under the spotlight, looking at shopping habits over the past 140 years. Seven years on, some of the shops have disappeared but, with all the spirit that I’ve come to expect from the town, even empty premises are a target for a community venture.

Local shop owner Amanda Stone-Outten has organised a meeting to discuss how empty spaces could be put to use.

“We’ve had some great suggestions of what would be really beneficial to locals, and also complement the high street,” says Amanda. “The stand-out ones include a Shepton Share Shop where people can come to borrow items such as drills and sewing machines, or perhaps a Job Shop for advice on CVs and job applications.”

Meanwhile, the Shepton Shop Window Project, begun by retired teacher Sheenna Brook, encourages groups, charities and artists to decorate empty shop windows. It may just be coincidence but Sheena says of the 10 properties decorated, six have now been let.

Another recent successful community project for Shepton is the first Snowdrop Festival which took place in February. Initiated by local Christina Kennedy, it was to celebrate the memory of James Allen (1830 - 1906) who lived in the town and was the first person to hybridise snowdrops from wild varieties.

A massive 60,000 snowdrop bulbs were planted around the town by the Shepton Mallet Horticultural Society. The Festival was opened by the Lord Lieutenant of Somerset, Mrs Annie Maw, and included a well-attended celebratory walk to plant snowdrops on the grave of James Allen at the Cemetery.

Back to the TIC for another local initiative currently underway. There was a queue outside the door early one morning in April, with locals hoping to be one of the lucky few to get a place on a Ghost Walk organised by Town Crier Andy Neale.

A celebration of the town’s heritage, with plenty of ghostly, gruesome material, this one and a half hour tour promises to be a theatrical, dramatic experience. It will hopefully become a regular fixture on Shepton’s calendar of events.

I, for one, will be booking a place as soon as they become available.

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Shepton Mallet Prison

Established in 1610, this was the oldest working prison in Britain until the great doors slammed shut for the last time in 2013. It has a brutal history, from a debtor’s prison to a military prison, with many former inmates lying in unmarked graves throughout the grounds.

Within the imposing stone walls there are four wings and 189 cells, due to be redeveloped into homes later this year. But until then, Joel Campbell has been given permission to run tours through his company Jailhouse Tours. He says: “I really wanted to buy and preserve the prison. But, as that can’t happen now, this really is the last chance to see it in all its glory, learn its history and appreciate the heritage of this incredible building.”

There will be guided and self-guided tours, educational visits from schools, and for those looking for the ultimate experiential day-out, there’s Escape Room; you’ll be treated like a prisoner, dressed in the clothing, locked in a cell and given two hours to escape.

Collett Park

Collett Park was gifted to the town of Shepton Mallet by John Kyte Collett in 1906. As a schoolboy John was evicted from the privately owned land behind what is now St Paul’s Junior School. He vowed that one day he would ensure local children had somewhere to play. I can only imagine how proud he’d be to see it now: it’s a beautiful space, comprising a play area, bandstand, sports field, landscaped planting and a large attractive pond teeming with wildlife.

There is a lovely family run café by the children’s playground and music is played regularly throughout the summer.

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