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