As a heritage destination, Frome keeps a low profile, and yet it has 371 listed buildings – more than any other town in Somerset. Andrew Swift explores the town’s independent shops and historic buildings and its rich pub heritage
Frome’s glory days arrived in the mid-17th century when it became a boom town for the weaving trade. When Daniel Defoe visited in about 1725, he found it “prodigiously increased” and “now reckoned to have more inhabitants than the city of Bath”. Around 80% of these were nonconformists – mainly Baptists and Congregationalists – who built an extraordinary number of chapels. They must also have been thirsty, as they opened an astonishing number of pubs.
The weaving trade eventually collapsed in the 19th century, but many weavers’ cottages and grand clothiers’ houses still survive, along with the pubs and chapels. This is not just because they were well-built; it is also the result of local residents’ determination to resist their destruction.
This determination manifests itself in other ways. Frome’s streets are lined with independent shops, its town council consists entirely of independent councillors, and once a month a street market, known as The Frome Independent, takes over the town.
All this makes Frome a fascinating and vibrant place to explore on foot. This walk starts at the station, where the first historic building greets you as you step off the train. Opened in 1850, Frome Station was built of wood, with an overall roof. The GWR built dozens of similar stations, but this is the only one in use today.
Leaving the station, head along the approach road and turn right. The building across the road is College Place, built about 1790. Cross at the traffic lights and carry on under the railway bridge. After 200m, just after crossing the River Frome, turn left along a footpath. The old building across
the river, now converted to housing, is a surviving fragment of Wallbridge Woollen Mills.
Carry on under two railway bridges, and after 150m bear left into Rodden Meadow. At the end, follow a path under the railway and along Willow Vale, lined with cottages, clothiers’ houses and former textile mills.
At the end, turn left across Town Bridge, built in 1821. The Blue House on your left was built in 1724 as an almshouse and charity school.
After passing the Blue Boar Inn (1691), you enter the Market Place. The Archangel (originally the Angel) on the left, is even older, with a history going back to 1665.
Take the second left along Cheap Street, with water coursing along it and some of the oldest buildings in Frome. No 11, now called Amica, is mid-16th century, and has Tudor roses carved into its beams.
Turn right at the end and head up steps past Old Church House. Carry on up Gentle Street, once a main route into town, and now surely one of the loveliest streets in England. Argyll House, on the right, was built for a clothier called Mary Jesser in 1766.
Further up, the Chantry and the Hermitage, built in the late 16th century, were once one property – the townhouse of the Marquess of Bath. Next door is the former Wagon & Horses, open by 1568 but closed in 1959.
As you turn right at the top past the former Lamb Brewery, you can see the imposing Wesley Methodist Church of 1810 across the road. After turning right downhill past the Cornerhouse, look across to see an even more impressive building. Rook Lane Congregational Chapel, built in 1707, had a thousand-strong congregation by 1717. Closed in 1968, it now houses offices and an arts centre. The cottages below it, shaded by tall trees, are 17th century.
After crossing at the pedestrian lights, carry on down Bath Street. Look out for the early 20th-century Devon House butcher’s on the left, and, across the road at the bottom, two sets of ghost signs – for a photographer’s and a china and glass showrooms.
Across the road is The George, a coaching inn dating from 1650. The Nat West bank next door was built around 1820 with assembly rooms for The George upstairs, and open arches for a covered market below.
A left turn up Stony Street leads into the heart of Frome’s independent shopping district, with Just Ales, Frome’s first micropub, on the right. Turn right up Catherine Hill, and after 100m, opposite Frome Hardware, turn left up steps and through an archway into Sheppard’s Barton. The Sheppards, once Frome’s biggest employers, built these houses for their workers in the 18th and 19th centuries. At the end, turn left and follow the road as it curves right along South Parade, passing a former Baptist chapel on the right and a converted textile mill at the end.
Turn right and right again into Wine Street. Follow the street round and head back along Sheppard’s Barton to continue up Catherine Hill and on into Catherine Street. The Greek Revival facade on the left dates from 1813, and was the entrance to another Baptist chapel. The Sun Inn beyond it is 17th century.
At the end, The Artisan – which was once called The Ship – was open by 1633. As you bear right, look up to see, on 6a Badcox, a superb collection of recently revealed ghost signs. Carry on along the pavement as it curves away from the main road, and after 130m when you come to the corner of Selwood Road, look ahead to see a row of 17th-century houses, one of them bearing the inscription ‘Time Trieth Troth June ye 3 JD 1697’.
Turning right along Selwood Road, enter the Trinity area, which was developed in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and is one of the earliest examples of industrial housing in the country. Towards the end is the former print works of Butler & Tanner, which was constructed between 1866 and 1876.
Just before the print works, turn left along York Street, and left again along Naish’s Street, passing another former Baptist chapel. Turn right at the end and second right along Gould’s Ground. Turn right at the end and left along an alleyway to Holy Trinity church, designed by H.E. Goodridge of Bath and built in 1838.
A right turn leads along Trinity Street, originally known as Trooper Street after the Trooper Inn at No 11. There were once three more pubs along here – The Crown & Sceptre at No 38, the Bell at Nos 7–8 and the King’s Head at No 1.
Carry on past the print works and turn left at the end past the Lamb & Fountain, open by 1753 and one of the most unspoilt pubs in town. At the bottom, turn right along Whittox Lane, passing Melrose House, which was built about 1690, on the left. Beyond it is a Congregational chapel of 1810, given an Italianate facade in 1888. Turn left down the alleyway between them and right along Cork Street at the bottom.
At right angles to the road, you’ll see that 18th-century Monmouth House has a side door leading into Brewed Boy, Frome’s other micropub. Next door is Monmouth Chambers, where the Duke of Monmouth lodged in June 1685. If you plan to stop for refreshments at this stage, bear in mind that you should allow at least 25 minutes – possibly more – to walk back to the station, which is two-thirds of a mile away.
To get there, cross the Market Place and turn into King Street by The Archangel. Follow the road as it curves uphill past the 16th-century Three Swans and swings left. Turn right at the T-junction and after 275m, when you come to the main road, carry straight on. After another 300m, cross at the traffic lights, continue in the same direction, and after passing the petrol station, bear right to the station.
Andrew Swift is the author of On Foot in Bath: Fifteen Walks Around a World Heritage City and co-author, with Kirsten Elliot, of Ghost Signs of Bath