Frome – Somewhere special in Somerset

What makes a Fromie?  a trip to Frome, Somerset to find out:

With a Family from Somerset I was particularly interested to find out more about this quirky part of the West Country.  Once upon a time, Frome in Somerset was an important centre for cloth making. Between around 1550 and 1750, the town was famous for production of pils cloth and a major regional employer. Of course, that in part explains why Frome has more listed buildings than any other town in Somerset.  It’s pretty, but not in the chintzy, Jane Austin style of nearby Bath.  Somehow it feels sturdier and built to last.  And you can’t imagine a Fromie parent ever considering, as Jane did that:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife

Their sons and daughters would be far too busy making their own fortunes, or just enjoying life.

Somerset Frome St Catherine Hill

More significantly as our guide Neil Howlett explained, the cloth industry laid the cultural foundations for Frome’s ‘can do’ attitude. At a time in History when much of England was feudal, Frome had no Lord of the Manor. The clothiers were independent, the capitalists of their time. And, their independence and entrepreneurial spirit lives on in Frome today. And, so Frome town council, eager to share their special town, invited a few food and travel writers to visit.

Frome Wool Drying House

Remnants of the old clothier’s industry – a wool drying house

Arrive in the main town car park and you’ll spot a curious candy striped building. A good example, so we heard, of the way the people of Frome grasp opportunities. At one time the council had 8 public toilets in the town. All are apparently now closed and have been for around ten years. But, crowd sourced funding provided the start-up capital for Katy Duke to turn the loos in the car-park into a thriving café and tiny art gallery (each ‘cubicle’ houses the work of a different local artist). And, don’t worry, if you need relief, the people of Frome have organised a ‘voluntary’ public loo scheme with local businesses. Just look for the sign in the windows of shops and cafes to find where visitors ARE – or download the app, which lists every community loo in Frome!

Frome Cafe and Art Gallery in the Loo

Katy’s Cafe and Art Gallery in the Public Loos – Frome

Historically, the independent spirit of the people of Frome led to a large number of non-conformist chapels. The main church is high Christian, and even has a ‘Via Crucis’ leading up to the entrance, something far more commonly seen in Catholic churches. It was built over the original medieval church which in its turn was probably built over a Pagan place of worship over a spring, and is gothic/medieval revival in style, with a Burne Jones window. But, as the Clothiers and people of Frome found their main church becoming increasingly ‘High’ they built chapels. The wealth of pubs (many still operational) was due to the fact that for the most part water was not drinkable and was brewed into beer in order to create something safe to consume.

Frome church

St John’s Church and the Via Crucix – Frome

Many of the street and place names in Frome still reflect its heritage. Cheap (or cheep) street, the main shopping street comes from the medieval word for goods or property. Which finally makes sense for me of that phrase ‘cheap at half the price’. Gentle Street would have been where the gentlefolk lived, a road running close to the church up the hill. And, the Blind House was originally a prison, so named because it has no windows.

Frome Somerset - Rook Lane Chapel

Rook Lane Chapel

Perhaps because of its entrepreneurial heritage, Frome is now a vibrant community, although ten years ago, most of the major industries that had supported the town were closing and like many rural communities, Frome was becoming something of a ghost town. But, then things changed. The Fromies took over. Various people had their own theory for the origin of the Frome phenomenon. Some thought it was that prices of property (be that shops, workshops and office space or housing) in Bath had just got too high. Others thought it was the Babington House effect, that people came to Babington house from London to relax and then just bought into the local lifestyle. There seemed to be a disproportionate number of people who had moved to Frome because they’d been to a party.

Frome Resident

The People of Frome

This quintessentially English market town really doesn’t have the feel of a rave centre. There IS a very supportive local community and the Super Market held on the first Sunday of every month helps to encourage that entrepreneurial spirit and build artisan businesses by providing a co-ordinated venue for local people to showcase their produce. There’s also a community bank, so that local people can borrow to build their own businesses.

Kate More standing on the staircase she built - Silk Mill Frome

Kate More standing on the staircase she built – Silk Mill Frome

Then there’s a thriving Arts community, fostered by the remarkable transformation of the Silk Mill by Damon and Kate Moore. During the 18th and 19th Century, a major local employer, weaving imported silk, the mill fell into decline after the collapse of the silk weaving industry and by the time Damon and Kate bought it, was derelict. Most of the cost of the renovation was funded by the new owners themselves, who learned how to turn wood, reslate roofs and lay floors in an effort to keep to budget! And of course the people of Frome turned out to help. Now it’s a major venue for the Frome Festival with an exhibition and concert space and 21 studios for local businesses. And it’s been shortlisted for an English Heritage Angel award.

Frome - Raggedy at the Silk Mill

Upcycled clothing from Raggedy – Silk Mill Frome

Even the town council is independent, apparently, so local councillor Mel Usher told us because of a chance discussion after a few beers in the pub one night where a few friends decided to try and shake things up a bit

‘After a hilarious campaign we were away. The lunatics had taken over the asylum and some predicted that within 6 months we would implode, instead we have an ambitious programme based on a few principles, one of which is ‘keep Frome weird’. We are independents – watermelons. Green on the outside and red on the middle’.

Frome - Mel

An Independent Town Council – Frome

Where next for Frome then? Investors like Gavin Eddy who is championing the Super Market and encouraging entrepreneurial spirit provide commercial support while creative spaces like the Silk Mill are coming into their own as renovation reaches completion.

Gavin Eddy

Gavin Eddy, local Entrepreneur and Super Market Founder

Frome is easily accessible from London by road or train and there is plenty of accommodation for visitors. From the ultra chic Merchant’s House with just two bedrooms to the Archangel which was first recorded as an Inn in 1311 and now offers luxurious rooms in the grade II listed building, or the charming Cornerhouse, where you can enjoy a tradition Somerset Cider or real Ale before retiring to your room, there’s a good range of options for visitors. Artisan shops showcase the work of talented locals and there’s a real feast of local produce, from cheddar cheese through to wines and foraged preserves and pickles on sale at the Super Market on the first Sunday of each month.

So maybe, just maybe Frome has a chance.  Let’s not forget that whatever it is, that chance is owned by the people of Frome.

5 / 5 stars     
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Comments

  1. Neil Howlett says:

    Glad you enjoyed your visit but Loop de Loop (the stripy toilet cafe cum art gallery) was set up by Katy Duke.
    On Super Market mornings you can find Helen Frame’s Claud (Butler coffee shop in a vintage French van) nearby. Frome’s complicated!

  2. Pamela Morse says:

    The history in this town is driving me wild. The architecture is so cute and British. I will soon be in Somerset, PA..and since they generally named the place over here after the place over there..I will see if that was the case.

  3. Knave Nielson says:

    Can you stop publishing articles like this please? We don’t want none of you big city folk coming down here with your fancy ways. We clearly need a bypass that takes traffic from the A303 directly to Babbers.

    • While I have some sympathy with the idea that you might not want the area swamped with second home owners I suspect local businesses do need the trade that tourists bring to the area. It’s a question of balance. One of the reason I tried to emphasis the character of the people who live in Frome now is that I believe you as a community are strong and will be able to ensure your town isn’t spoilt.

      As for ‘big city folk’ while I might live in London at the moment, my own family come from Somerset, my great grandad was a tenant farmer in the Quantocks and I still have aunts and uncles and a lot of second cousins living all around the area (my great grandad had 13 kids!). And I was brought up in a remote part of Norfolk, where the nearest railway station was 18 miles away…so, With a heritage from Somerset, I hope I CAN visit…if only to see my relatives! And, I’m sure a lot of people who now live in LOndon have a similar background.

      • I originally moved here in the late 70s, having met some people at a free festival and invited to come and squat in the heart of what is now the conservation area. I played a small part in its revival back in the 80s. I have seen it at its worst and now I get to see it at its best yet.
        We Fromies don’t like all this publicity, tempting big city folk with their cosmopolitan , middle class ways. You all hang out in London because you think everywhere else is crap.
        We have done all the work and you think you can all drive down here and price us out of our town.
        Leave us alone with our already plentiful cafe culture, art and music.
        We may issue you with a visa for the Frome festival, it will however never be extended for longer.
        Just because you have relatives in the area doesn’t give you citizenship.
        I hear Stoke Newington is very nice this time of year!

      • Knave Nielson says:

        It was a tongue-in-cheek comment! Although one of the great things about Frome is its reasonably diverse demographic – for example reflected in its many different pubs. It would be a shame to tip the balance in either direction and homogenise this place as an influx of achingly hip Londoners (or Bristolians, Mancunians, wherever etc) might. Man cannot live on pan-fried ocelots’ gizzards alone (yes, I know, not _all_ Londoners are like that).

        However, I don’t think there is any danger of Frome being overrun by SW11’s finest searching for second homes – thankfully it is far too functional and not half twee enough for that nonsense. Still, a vastly more informed article than the utter cobblers in The Times last week that suggested we’re all Pearl “Who?” Lowe’s best mate – thank you.

        • whew! I was actually really worried – I was trying to write a sensitive article and, although *I* knew what I meant, your comment made me think perhaps I’d missed the mark:) So glad I won’t get pilloried if I come back…

    • It is too late, they have already taken over, just sit back and try to spot a Somerset accent. We must however do our best to remove the money from their pockets and place it in ours.

  4. Emily Quinney says:

    Great article. Frome absolutely needs to be talked about, written about and enjoyed locally, nationally and beyond. A good many of the people who live here have arrived from elsewhere (whether it be ten years ago, or last week) and are now contributing very significantly to its status as rising star, with their bags of creativity and energy. If ‘locals’ want to naval gaze, there are plenty of inward looking, struggling towns facing economic collapse and social decline in the environs of Frome in which to do it. Frome is a very special place because it’s in the heart of the most stunning countryside, but it seems to resist parochial collective mentality. Long may it continue.

  5. Sounds like a lovely place to visit. Good for Kate and Damon Moore.

    • One of the amazing thing about Frome is that the place seems to be full of people like Kate and Damon More. Whether it’s crowd funding the conversion of derelict public loos to an art gallery and cafe, setting up a foraged food business or restoring a silk mill! I could have written twice as much again.

  6. A charming town in close proximity to London that is inhabited by creative eccentrics who are innovative, hardworking and community oriented! Yes Please! Your images are absolutely beautiful! I would love to explore the churches and to see the Silk Mill and fabulous circular wool drying house for myself! a

    • Doesn’t it raise a real challenge for tourism though? How to enable the local community to exist peacefully, while encouraging visitors who can contribute to the economy without destroying the infrastructure.

  7. We moved to Frome from Bristol 12 years ago. Our son goes to a local school in walking distance and I work part time in one of the independent shops on Catherine Hill; Millie Moon Haberdashery Boutique. Which has blossomed so well, it now has 2 sister shops, one in Wells and one soon to open in Keynsham. My husband commutes to Chippenham daily.
    Our son’s childhood is much the same as our own in the 1970’s in Cornwall and Ireland respectively. He gets to play out with friends and they are in and out of each others houses all day long. We have a great network of true friends- born and bred Fromies and blow ins alike! and that whole materialistic attitude you hear about in the playgrounds amongst parents and children just doesn’t seem to feature.
    As long as newcomers really involve themselves in the place in which they live, and contribute positively to it, that can only be a good thing. I know how it feels to be priced out of housing in your own home county, I am Cornish, born and bred. What has happened there, with entire villages being second homes and ghost towns out of season, and whole towns becoming “Little London” (Rock, Padstein, sorry Padstow!) Just would n’t happen here, the infrastructure and proximity to other places for work, not to mention cultural pulls all year round, will ensure that. BUT born and bred locals must not become alienated in their home town. Affordable housing and key worker housing must be provided as a percentage of all new build projects. And any second home owners should have to pay Council Tax for 12 months of the year.
    We love living in Frome and are pleased to think of our son growing up here!

    • I think what is remarkable about Frome is that the people of the town seem to be willing to ‘own’ issues. And do something about them before they cause a real problem.

      Your comment about Cornwall really rang true for me, I visit each year for the food festival at Boscastle because I have a friend there. And, I have been going there for about 20 years. So I’ve seen how it’s changed.

      Somehow, I get the feeling Frome won’t ever go down that route. The local people (both newcomers and born and bred) are far too aware and conscious that they have something special. And that they want to make that better. Good luck to Frome!

    • Victoria,,
      You might be interested to know that in Mendip, at least, Second Home owners now have to pay exactly the same Council Tax as everyone else.

  8. what a great place… the history.. the lovely weather and great place to spend some time

  9. Sounds like such a great place! People truly do make the history and the feel of a town, and the locals sound like a great bunch.

  10. ROSS THOMAS says:

    HARUMPH…..We are sharpening our pitchforks and loading the dung slings as you type.
    We have a truly deadly weapon of mass destruction awaiting any who stray off the M4 or A303.
    The Wurzels entire back catalogue played on huge speakers at over 1000 dbls. It will make you bleed from the ears……we are immune, we don’t even hear them anymore!

  11. I must take issue with your comment “Frome is easily accessible from London by road or train…” The direct train service to/from London comprises one (yes, ONE) train a day. Most long-distance trains actually by-pass the station completely! The town’s tourist trade would be helped enormously if a better service was introduced.

    • Having travelled to Cheltenham by train from London recently (where there is NO direct line), I think Frome is a lot better served than much of the west country. At least there is a train service and if you don’t want to pay the taxi fare from Westbury, there’s a reasonable chance of you getting there by train whether you have to change at Westbury or not

      • We’ll agree to differ on what constitutes “easily accessible”! But I do hope your piece brings a few more visitors into the town. It’s a little gem waiting to be discovered and those independent shops and cafés could always do with more business, I’m sure.

  12. Good to see and hear a bit more about Frome – it is somewhere I’d like to visit as a) it’s meant to be a foodie town and b) after a talk down here by a couple of Frome Councillors we set up Open Liskeard and stormed the elections in May with a new independent Open Liskeard majority – all thanks to Frome.

    What bit of the post was meant to be controversial? Probably being dense again.

    • I think the whole thing! Some of the Fromies are not sure about publicising the town (we had a Times journalist with us on the trip), on the basis that it will change what is a very dynamic and supportive community.

      • Ahh, OK. That makes sense. Publicity can certainly be a double edged sword and if it becomes too popular, house prices will certainly go up.

  13. Do come. Come for the weekend or an autumn break midweek. Shops include vintage clothes, Deadlier than the Female (should you want to stock up on Nigella Lawson’s choice dresses) Hunting Raven: independent bookshop, Raves from the Grave: wonderful collection of vinyl records (jazz, classic pop as well as classical music) cds etc, art galleries, exhibitions at Black Swan arts, visit Holy Trinity Church to see the Burne-Jones designed windows William Morris’s companny made, book an evening at one of the two theatres (Memorial theatre and the Merlin) fill your larder for the week at the farmers market as well as checking out the first of the month flea market for bargains. Walk to Mells and back 7ish miles or catch the local bus and lunch at The Talbot or The Walled Garden (buy a bunch of flowers ora plant to take home), check out nearby Stourhead or Longleat; climb Cley Hill (iron age hill fort – National Trust) take the river walk to Great Elm and check out the jewel of a church, walk the Collier Way and enjoy the surrounding countryside, designated an area of outstanding natural beauty and help to keep Frome vibrant. Do come – we would love to see you.
    P.S. If you come by train, do check out the station, listed, one of only two through shed style stations still in use.

  14. I really do think that Somerset is – hands down – the most beautiful part of Britain. Frome in particular is a lovely, lovely place. I was lucky enough to do a cooking course nearby about 8 years ago at a place called The Grange. There was lots of cooking with local produce, and lots of cider consumption!
    I had no idea it was so big in cloth. Every day’s a school day though!
    Your lovely post has certainly inspired me to return. Especially as anywhere with a ‘voluntary’ public loo scheme is surely a very progressive place…

    • It’s stunning isn’t it. More listed buildings than Bath;)

      • Andy Foyle says:

        I love Frome…but the idea that it has more listed buildings than Bath is becoming urban myth. Bath has about 2135 listed buildings, Frome 370. It may rival Bath for concentration of historic buildings in the centre. :-)

        • If it’s a myth it’s one spread by Frome town council themselves. Their story was that Bath had ‘larger’ listed buildings, they had a wealth of small cottages. Perhaps someone from English Heritage should correct them if it is not fact.

  15. Fiona
    Very nice article that you have written. I am currently undertaking a project for college and building a website on Frome, do you mind if I put a link to this article on it?

    Thanks

    Andy

  16. locallad (Tim) says:

    Having lived in Frome most of my life (56 now) i have seen it change recently for the worse.

    I comment on the Frome standard website frequently,The 2nd Home owners/C list celbs have Blitzed the place,These Horrendous ‘cobbles’were put down some 10 years ago (i know many disabled/elderly folk will not even walk down them in the rain/ice).

    Frome used to be industrial/manufacturing.

    Over the last 15-20 years we have lost over 3,000 jobs with the closure of Wallington westons Cupronols,Butler and tanner (soon to close) venture carpets and many other Factories/Units-now replaced with eyesores like this horrendous Loop de loop, art gallerie,s freaky bells and dangling bead rattling shops and cafes, places that would not look out of place in ‘Happy weed city glastonbury’

    Yes the leftist Bead rattling flares and sandles brigade have created a universe of ‘catherine spaced out hill’and tried to force their ill gotton gains on the rest of us working class folk.

    Local services have closed down,The police in Frome are ‘homeless’ social services have emigrated to Shepton mallet,magistrates court shut down so for local justice Yeovil is the answer,God forbid if you get taken ill on an evening/weekend or bank holiday,the 111 service send you to Yeovil A and E 28 miles away.

    I challenge you lot to wander around some of the very rough Estates we have in frome,where drink/drugs are RIFE.
    Dorset close (badcox)
    Welshmill (trinity area)
    The Mount (Austin close,feltham drive,where the riot vans often frequaint on a sat night)
    Woodland road
    Singers knoll

    Oh and the ever popular FOOD BANK gets very popular at Selwood road Cafe in Welshmill on a Mon-Thurs

    Most of these areas are the poorest in Mendip Council area.

    So you outsiders.

    Do not be Hoodwinked into what a lovely,cool,quaint,tranquil place Frome is after only visiting a few streets in the town centre.

    Save your money and invest somewhere else if i was you..

    Cheers now

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