This month’s walk is an urban one covering a distance of 1.75 miles – all on pavements, it avoids the muddy tracks that can be encountered in December. The walk traces ghost signs in the back streets of Frome, and is therefore a stroll with an appropriate seasonal feel, says Andrew Swift.
Christmas is the time for ghost stories, so this month’s walk takes us on a stroll through the back streets of Frome in search of ghost signs – those faded advertisements for long-defunct businesses on the walls of old buildings, summoning up echoes of times past.
It isn’t just forgotten businesses you’ll encounter. Tucked away in the steep and narrow streets are a host of independent shops and galleries, so there’s also the chance for a spot of Christmas shopping, and when you tire of that, there are cafés, pubs and craft beer bars aplenty.
If you time your visit right, you can also take in one of the most eclectic street markets in the country. On the first Sunday of the month, from March to December, the Marketplace and surrounding streets are closed to traffic and given over to the Frome Independent. More than just a market, this monthly celebration of contemporary craft, independent retail and community spirit brings together local food and drink producers, artists and designers, retro, vintage, collectables and street entertainment. A short walk away, in the Cheese & Grain Hall (where Paul McCartney played earlier this year), you can also find the monthly Magpie Market, which features vintage and contemporary gifts, jewellery and home-made crafts and produce.
It is by the Market Cross in the Market Place that our walk starts, however, before diving into the narrow confines of Cheap Street. No ghost signs here, although Cheap Street does boast some of the oldest buildings in town and, in true medieval style, has a leat running down the middle.
Turn right at the end and, when you come to a T-junction, turn right. After 275m, when you come to a mini-roundabout, look right to see the first ghost sign – MINTY – below an oriel window. Minty’s Nursery is nearby, but the connection with it is unclear.
Carry on along the main road, and, just after crossing the end of Victoria Road, look back at the side of the old post office to see a sign dating from 1926, when the International Stores opened a branch here.
Cross the main road and start heading back. Although the ornate building on the corner of Portway Gardens doesn’t have any ghost signs, it has a carved sign – and a creepy gargoyle – courtesy of Joseph Chapman, a monumental mason who established his Marble Works here in the early 19th century.
Continue along the main road – looking out for gorillas in a pond on the opposite side. A little further on, just past a turnpike marker in the wall on your left, cross when the pavement ends and carry on in the same direction. When you come to the old Lamb Brewery (with a Heritage Trail No 7 plaque) turn right down Gentle Street.
At St John’s Church, turn left through the gates, cross the road and head into Palmer Street. A faded set of signs 50m along on the left marks the site of Weaver & Sons, who sold paint, glass, wallpaper, etc here from around 1922 to 1970. Carry on, keeping left to continue along High Pavement and Paul Street before heading up Catherine Hill. After this it becomes Catherine Street; look up as you pass No 50 to see a recently discovered sign, of which only the first four letters – FRAN – and parts of four more have been revealed.
At the top of Catherine Street, Edwardian tiling at No 23 reveals that Bistro Lotte was once a Grocery and Provision Stores. Two doors further on, at 6a Badcox, Bar Lotte has a superb collection of ghost signs dating from the early 1900s, when Samuel Pont opened a grocer’s here. They were revealed three years ago, but since then the stonework appears to have been cleaned, as the signs, although still visible, are much fainter.
Next door but one is the first of a series of carved heads representing Mirth, Peace and Plenty and the seasons. At the end, carry on round the corner into Castle Street to see a ghost sign on the back wall of the former HODDER’S CHEMIST’S, also dating from the early 1900s.
Over the doorway of the shop on the opposite corner of Castle Street is a much earlier sign, for H BEAUCHAMP who established a baker’s here around 1859.
Carry on along Vallis Way, and, just after crossing the end of Selwood Road, look up to the left to see a repainted sign from 1697 – TIME TRIETH TROTH. Not exactly a ghost sign but a remarkable survival nonetheless.
Turn to head along Selwood Road, and, after passing THE SELWOOD PRINTING WORKS, with its name still proudly carved on the facade – along with a monogram incorporating the initials B and T for Butler and Tanner – turn right into Trinity Street. Turn left downhill by the Lamb & Fountain, and take a right turn at the bottom (by Nut House) along Whittox Lane. At the end, turn left down Catherine Hill, continue downhill and, when you reach the Market Place, turn right and walk along to the bottom of Bath Street … where the best ghost signs in Frome have been saved till last.
On the left-hand corner are two signs dating from around 1920, when Aldhelm Ashby established a photographic business here. As well as selling – and developing and printing – Kodak film, he also published picture postcards of the town for almost 40 years. If you look carefully at the sign around the corner, you will see that, as the paint has faded, an earlier sign underneath has become visible – creating something known by ghost-sign aficionados as a palimpsest.
Further up, above the second-floor windows, is some much earlier lettering, not all of which is legible: CHINA & GLASS SHOWROOMS – DINNER SERVICE – TOILET SETS, VASES, STATUARY, …. RES, PORTMANTEAUS, TEA … Bath Street was built in 1810, and, judging by the style of lettering and the products advertised, this sign may well have been commissioned by the shop’s first occupant, which would make it the oldest ghost sign in town by some margin.
Finally, across the road are some even more eye-catching signs, which were revealed only last year. These too are palimpsests, with signs for York’s Motor Works – which was here from around 1922 to 1962 – overpainted by signs for Yeovil Tractors Ltd, who leased the premises for about three years after that. Not only are they both clearly visible, but, if you look at the sign around the corner, you will see that an even earlier sign, for a ‘hot and cold water fitter’ can just be made out.