Oakhill Brewery development sparks history investigation
VILLAGE archivists are helping developers piece together the history of the landmark Oakhill Brewery Malthouse site near Shepton Mallet currently being converted into 25 new homes.
Local enthusiasts have uncovered traces of the long lost railway which linked the once flourishing brewery business with the Somerset and Dorset railway at Binegar. They have also tracked down eyewitness accounts of the day to day operations which kept supplies of Oakhill’s staple Invalid Stout flowing all over the country.
Historians are hoping to incorporate much of the brewery’s past into a full blown study of the area. They have appealed to local people with photographs or artefacts from the brewery to come forward.
Work is currently underway on the first phase of the ambitious development, creating a range of new home types from four-bed luxury penthouses to one or two bedroom apartments on a site which has lain derelict for years.
Local archivists Percy Lambert, Tony Parker and Terry Ashton from the Oakhill and Ashwick Local History Group are researching a book on the parish and are hoping that the current building work will reignite interest in the famous site.
Percy said: “There are still some people in the village who actually worked in the malt houses when they were operating and there is hardly a family in the village which doesn’t have strong connections to the place.
“Oakhill brewery was a highly successful business and the operators were recognised across the Mendips as good employers responsible for introducing a range of utilities and services we take for granted today.
“We are determined that the interest being generated by the development work is maintained so future generations can better connect with their own village history.”
Situated in the very heart of the village just off the A367 Shepton Mallet to Radstock road, the brewery’s distinctive stone façade has been a Mendips landmark for decades.
Founded in 1767, the brewery reached its peak around the turn of the 19th century when 2,500 barrels of its trademark Invalid Stout were being produced every week.
But the increasing output was placing a strain on the environment as the steam powered waggons which carried the beer to the nearest railhead at Binegar were damaging the road surface.
The brewery’s operators, well known for their enthusiastic take-up of radical new technologies – decided they needed their own light railway.
The narrow gauge link installed in 1904 was the only brewery line of its kind in the country – but the exact whereabouts of the two and a half mile track have been largely forgotten.
Percy Lambert is especially keen on the railway’s history as his late father Harry used to drive the engine during and just after the First World War.
Percy has spent years researching parish records and has pieced together the railway’s route through a combination of photographic records and exploratory walks in the surrounding fields.
He said: “There are very few traces left of the old track bed. But it’s clear from the photographic record that the engine drivers like my father had to cope with a series of obstacles including steep gradients, bogs not to mention crossing the main Bristol road.”
The brewery appointed its own engineer, a Mr Hamblin, to design and oversee construction.
The railway is believed to have left the brewery and turned sharply right, crossing the fields to reach the A37 somewhere in the vicinity of Batts Farm. Crossing the main road it then ran alongside the A37, passing the Mendip Inn crossroads and turning sharply left to follow a lane and crossing the swampy Binegar Bottom by a viaduct.
Percy said: “Although the structure has gone you can still see the abutment which supported the viaduct.”
Two engines, Mendip and Oakhill, were used singly or in conjunction to shift the loaded waggons up the steep gradient to Binegar and return with a load of empty barrels.
“Sadly the First World War sounded the death knell for the brewery as it was and the railway line was pulled up in 1921 with one of the engines transferred to the cement works at Penarth,” said Percy.
The railway tracks ran between the main malt house buildings from the engine sheds down to the brewery situated in the centre of Oakhill.
Now, the original malthouses and other buildings are being converted into 25 new homes complete with their own swimming pool and gym.
Percy Lambert feels the original malt house and brewery operators would have approved of the ambitious renovation project.
He said: “The brewery operators enjoyed a reputation for looking after their workers and the wider community. They introduced a range of services including gas which was used for lighting both the premises and the local streets, as well as providing stables for the dray horses, offices and a sewerage system for both the brewery and the local housing.
“As well as its own light railway the brewery installed its own water supply connecting to springs to the south of the site which carried water not only to the brewery but also to many homes in the area.”
The brewery itself generated considerable income for its proprietors and managers but also provided terraces of houses for its workers. The owners also gave land for the construction of a chapel and distributed free coal in the winter to those who needed it.
It burned down in 1925 and a small brewery business was started in 1984 in part of the original premises. This moved into the Malthouses in 1993.
Percy said: “I remember going to dances in the malt house after the last war and know there are people in the village who have memories of working there before that.
“We would love to hear from villagers with memories or artefacts of the Oakhill Brewery site – especially any photographs of the gasometers – so we can build a full picture of the site as it is being restored to its former glory and rightful place as the focal point of the village.”
The Oakhill Brewery development will be built over three phases with the first phase consisting of five units expected to be completed in the spring of 2014.
Centrepiece of the development is the four/five-bedroom luxury restored Malthouse
A computer generated 3D fly-through, which has been posted on the internet, shows viewers how one of the most ambitious residential makeovers in Somerset will look when it is completed and takes them on a simulated journey through the exclusive homes, apartments, swimming pool and gym taking shape at the site.
The fly-through can be viewed at www.oakhillbrewery.com or can be seen at the development marketing office in High Street, Oakhill.