I love old ephemera, all those bits of paper stuff that people throw away. I don’t go round picking up litter and hoarding it, but I’m drawn to flea markets and junk shops like iron filings to a magnet. I seek out battered suitcases and gaping box-files of old paperwork, relishing a few minutes plundering the contents, dipping into the history of a person, a family, a place.
At a flea market in Glastonbury Town Hall a few days ago, I came across a battered copy of The Somerset Yearbook for 1928, published by the Society of Somerset Folk.
Within this slim annual’s orange paper covers lie several articles written in dialect (‘Thick Motor-cycle Zhow’ begins: Taint offen the missus an’ oi goes to Lunnun; but Martha wur zaying as how zhe wernt vury wull up in the vashons…’) – and plenty of other gems written in English.
These include a history of Stuckey’s Bank, the text of a Lantern Lecture on North Somerset, and the tale of The Wonderful Cheese of West Pennard.
West Pennard straddles the road between Glastonbury and Shepton Mallet, not far from Pilton and the site of the Glastonbury Festival. In 1839, over a century before Michael Eavis put that particular part of Somerset on the map, the farmers of West Pennard got together to produce a gigantic cheese to present to Queen Victoria.
An octagonal ‘follower’ or mould was made from Spanish mahogany five inches thick, with the Royal arms, encircled by a wreath of oak and laurel leaves, impressed into it.
On June 28th, 1839, seven of the largest cheese-tubs in West Pennard were borrowed, and the best dairymaid in the parish was selected to make the cheese at the farm of Mr George Naish. The milk of 700 cows went into the making of a cheese designed to astound the young Queen.
The pressing of the cheese began, amid the ringing of the village bells and the firing of cannon. For days, the whole village waited with baited breath for the giant to be ready.
But oh dear! When it was time to take the cheese from the mould, it stuck to the mahogany and wouldn’t come out. Broken up, the cheese was treated again, rubbed with dry cloths, and returned to the mould.
The second time, it worked, and the West Pennard cheese was turned out of its eight-sided mould: over 37 inches across and 22 inches high, it weighed half a ton.
A deputation of local farmers accompanied it to Buckingham Palace, but Queen Victoria declared she preferred her cheese old, not new, and sent them away. Could they bring it back when it had matured a little longer?
While they waited for the giant cheese to age sufficiently, the farmers put it on show at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly – which got them into trouble. The Vice-Chancellor complained that it was meant as a present for Her Majesty, not as a way of raising income for the little party of farmers looking after it! A costly law suit followed, and the West Pennard delegation headed home in disgrace.
Exhibited throughout Somerset on its journey back, the cheese might have earned its guardians a lot from ticket sales – if they hadn’t squandered most of the money before they got home.
After its ignominious return, the giant cheese was kept at a farm at Sticklinch, near Pilton, eventually ending up at the Old Down Inn, a pub that’s still in business to this day.
Did the Giant Cheese of West Pennard taste any good? Apparently not. “Its greatest friends,” says the author of the article, “after tasting it, could not conscientiously pronounce it to be first rate. It went the way of all giants, leviathans, mammoths and nine-days’ wonders…it was given to the pigs.”
How are the mighty fallen! Now, if I hadn’t wandered into Glastonbury Town Hall last week and found that year book, I wouldn’t have known any of that! And neither would you!