The quiet place that was loved by a poet
John Morrish looks around the unspoilt village of East Coker, which was immortalised in a poem by TS Eliot.
East Coker is only a couple of miles from bustling Yeovil in Somerset, but so peaceful that you can understand why in recent years the locals have fought against new development.
Perhaps the loveliest spot is the slope up to St Michael's church, with Coker Court, the old manor house, beside it. The church is so close, in fact, that when it replaced its central tower in 1791 it had to build the new one at the east end, rather than the usual west, because there was no room for it. Just down from the church is a terrace of almshouses, built in 1640 for 11 women and a man, and still in use. A plaque in front of a large tree marks the site of a "plague pit", where 70 villagers were buried in 1645.
The village's sense of the past appealed to the poet TS Eliot, whose great 1940 poem "East Coker" is a long rumination on mortality and the inevitable decay of all things" including pretty hamstone villages. In the 17th century; the poet's ancestor Andrew Eliot had left East Coker to settle in New England.
TS Eliot, who moved to England in 1914, visited the village in 1937, took photographs, and wrote the poem.
“In my beginning is my end,” it begins, and after his death Eliot ensured that phrase took on a personal resonance by arranging to have his ashes interred in the church where his ancestor was baptised in 1627.
St Michael's is an appealing small church, built first in the 13th century and then enlarged in the 15th by the addition of a north aisle. Winter light floods in through the clear, south windows: only fragments of early stained glass remain, the rest having been, destroyed during the Cromwell era. The memorial to Eliot is modest - an oval stone plaque bearing the first and last lines of the poem. The church also has a brass plaque to another celebrated son of the village. William Dampier; was born in Hymerford House in North Coker, within the East Coker parish, in 1651. At 16, he was orphaned and went to sea where he became a pirate, adventurer and explorer. In 1688, he landed in Western Australia, the first Englishman to walk on the continent, 100 years before the arrival of the first fleet in Botany Bay.
Later, he was responsible both for leaving Alexander Selkirk on an island and then rescuing him: Selkirk, of course, was the model for Robinson Crusoe. Dampier died in obscurity in 1715, but not before publishing a series of books that showed him to have been anything but your average cut-throat. Intensely curious, he made detailed observations on everything from weather and navigation to American Indian customs and the effects of marijuana. He also introduced no fewer than 1,000 words into English, including posse, avocado, barbecue, chopsticks and sea-lion.
But Dampier is not East Coker's only nautical connection. The area grew flax, which was woven into sailcloth in the village: it supposedly supplied sails for Nelson's ships. Hemp was another crop. Rope was made locally until recently: legend has it East Coker rope assisted in the ascent of Everest.
These cottage industries made the village prosperous in the 18th and 19th centuries. Although there was a Roman villa locally, the first mention of a village comes just before the Norman conquest, when it belonged to the mother of King Harold II who would die at Hastings. A.' Norman family; the de Mandevilles, then held it until the beginning of the 14th century when one of their number was outlawed and his property seized. The new owners, the de Courteney family; held it for 300 years. Then, in 1616, it was sold to the Helyar family; who owned it until late in the 20th century. Effectively, the manor had two owners in 600 years.
The listed manor house, Coker Court, dates from the 15th century; with the most recent wing only added at the start of the 20th. In the 1970s, it was divided up into individual homes and is now in private ownership.
East Coker today is a mixed community of about 1400 people, including retired people, young families and commuters. "It's a convenient village for Yeovil," says John Sugg, chairman of the East Coker Society, a lively heritage group, “but it’s also right out in the country.” Spread out along a quiet road, it includes a number of smaller settlements, such as North Coker and Coker Marsh.
In the older part are cottages, some single-storey, with deep thatched roofs, dating back to the 16th century. Larger farmhouses stand back from the road.
There are still a number of working farms in the village, one with a farm shop. The main village shop is at North Coker, along with the primary school and a small industrial estate where trades include engineering for the aircraft industry, building, sign-writing, wood-working and motor-cycle painting.
In 2001, the Yeovil company Screwfix planned a large distribution centre – later built instead in Stoke-on-Trent – on former farmland between East Coker and the town.
Then a government planning inspector proposed accommodating a huge amount of new housing and business on agricultural land in the same general area. As a result the village held an ingenious referendum aimed at protecting its farmland against change of use for the next 15 years: 96 per cent were in favour. It is not binding on the planners but it makes a point. "It was a protest done sensibly," says Sugg.
“We do recognise that we need development, but it needs to go in the right areas. This would have been a blot on the landscape." People in East Coker like living in a village: they don't want to be merged with Yeovil. They support the institutions of village life, from its two pubs – the 17th century Helyar Arms has won numerous awards for its food – to the gardening club, WI, Scouts, poetry group, amateur dramatics, wine circle and so on. The parish council has just conducted a survey of villagers. Many; especially newcomers, praised the friendly community spirit, says parish councillor Margaret O'Neill, who is analysing the results. “And an awful lot of people have said how much they like seeing the stars at night."
This year, the village will celebrate the 60th anniversary of VE and VJ day, while raising funds for a new sports pavilion. Well over £100,000 is required, but the villagers recently got a nice surprise: a £5,000 donation from Old Possum's Practical Trust, the charity established by TS Eliot's widow.
The church and the poetry group also received donations. Even 40 years after his death, the poet's connection with the village is strong.