We take a look over Bristol’s Clifton Suspension Bridge and along the Portishead road into the historic North Somerset village of Abbots Leigh.
Regular users of the busy A369 will be well acquainted with the George Inn, a coaching house which dates back to the 18th century or even earlier, but there is a lot more to the village than this.The "leigh" part of the village’s name simply means "meadow" in Old English, but the "abbots" is perhaps more puzzling. It came about after wealthy merchant Robert FitzHarding, who founded St Augustine’s Abbey in Bristol (it’s currently the cathedral), gave the lands to the monks.
The abbots no doubt enjoyed many centuries of peaceful times here, crossing over to Somerset from Bristol via the ancient Rownham ferry (where the Cumberland Basin flyover is today).
It’s been suggested, somewhat fancifully perhaps, that when Henry VIII shut down the monastery in 1538, the monks’ treasure, rather than being surrendered to the crown, was brought here and thrown into the Abbots Pool, a well known, and recently restored, village beauty spot. Paul Bush, the 1st bishop of Bristol, inherited the village and, on his death, the king gave it to the Norton family who lived here, in a picturesque seven-gabled Tudor mansion, for some 250 years.
As the wife of a rich Bristol merchant and lord of the manor, Lady Norton founded several charities for the benefit of the villagers.
It was at Leigh Court that George Norton sheltered the disguised Charles Stuart as he fled to France, and exile, after the Battle of Worcester in 1651. After the restoration of the monarchy, King Charles rewarded Norton’s loyalty with a knighthood. The court later passed into the hands of the Miles family, who had made a fortune from their West Indian sugar plantations. They would live here for some 100 years. They decided to pull down the old-fashioned manor house and replace it – just 100 yards away – with the grand neoclassical one we see today, all massive Bath stone and Ionic pillars. That was in 1814.
The grounds, stretching steeply down through Paradise Bottom to the river and including a viewpoint and grotto, were laid out by Sir Humphrey Repton. Sir Philip Miles, reputedly Bristol’s 1st millionaire, became an MP and the family entertained the Prince of Wales, later to become King Edward VII, in 1884. In 1915, on the death of Sir Henry, the whole estate was sold off. Some of the land (including Leigh Woods) went to the Wills tobacco family, but Leigh Court became one of the Rev Burden’s institutes for people with learning and social difficulties.
In 1948, the institute, which housed hundreds of people, became part of the NHS, but has, in the last 15 years or so, been converted into business units, regional offices and the like. You can, however, get married and have your reception there, with the 200-year-old Miles mansion making a great backdrop for those all-important marriage photos.
The 18th century manor house was, for 43 years, the home of Sir Egbert Cadbury, the managing director of Fry’s, the Bristol cocoa manufacturer, as well as Cadbury’s. It later became a management training centre for the DRG group, and is currently a nursing home. Other historic properties you can see on a walk around the village are The Chantry, originally a modest mansion house belonging to the Bright family who traded in slaves and cotton, and The Priory, built in 1831, and for many years the home of Janet Elizabeth Fry, a gifted church embroiderer and another relative of the wealthy chocolate family.
Memorials to the Nortons, the Miles and the Brights can be found in the 800-year-old parish church of The Holy Trinity, which is well worth having a look around if you have time.
Like many other villages, Abbots Leigh has suffered, in this generation, the loss of its shop and post office (1980) as well as its school (1986). But the community has, in recent years, gained a fine children’s play area, and the George Inn, once the "Church House", where ale was brewed and sold to raise money for the church’s fabric, still thrives.
Being so rural, but so close to the city, Abbots Leigh remains a very popular, but increasingly expensive, place to live.