Situated on a slope just above the harbour, St. Bartholomew’s has been part and parcel of Weyport life for centuries, witnessing the baptisms, marriages and deaths and all manner of ecclesiastical events of those who have populated this delightful little English port. Even so, as important to Weyport as the church undoubtedly is, it is the fascinating parcel of land adjacent to it that has probably engrained itself into the collective psyche of Weyportians in an even more significant way. Known as St.Bartholomew’s Strip, the area forms a natural barrier between the Church and the sea and was originally a combination of pastures and marsh. The upper part was known as Bartholomew’s field, while the lower was referred to as Weyport marshes but over time the marshes were reclaimed and, because the land was owned by the Church, the whole area renamed Bartholomew’s Strip.
The date in which St. Bartholomew’s handed over the land to the emerging town of Weyport occurred sometime around 1511 and was a direct result of Henry VIII’s Act concerning ‘Shooting in Long Bows’. Over the previous centuries, English Kings made it a priority that there were enough men trained to use the longbow, especially as the weapon had ensured Henry V’s victory at Agincourt and Henry VIII was no exception. Land near a village that was open and not earmarked for development was much sought after and after a forthright discussion between the Kings commissioners and the incumbent of the Church, a nervous man by all accounts, the land was handed over to the burghers of Weyport for a nominal annual rent; a rent which incidentally seems never to have been paid. However, rather than improving their archery skills, the men of Weyport used the Strip for the playing of games such as football and so in 1541 the law was expanded again by ‘An Act for the Maintenance of Artillery and debarring unlawful games’. Interesting to note, however, was that these restrictions did not apply to the aristocracy as they tended to become knights, not archers, and assumed they had a God-given right to play games if they liked.
Gradually, the need for archers in the Kingdom diminished and the Strip returned to a place where ‘the people of Weyport would pass their time of leisure in walking, bowling and other pleasant pastimes’. (Julian Prescott, Vicar 1632 -1681). Closely aligned to the pursuit of pleasure for Weyportians it was from here, for example, that spectators viewed Weyport’s first regatta in 1827. It proved to be a spectacular success and four years later, its continued presence in Weyport’s life was sealed when Weyport’s Royal Regatta Club was formed under the patronage of Lord Sanderson, an eminent landowner. Still flourishing today, the regatta is Weyport’s annual week of mayhem and entertainment, and spectators still gather on the Strip to watch tug-of war, greasy-pole climbing, dancing, fishing, leaping from boat to boat in fancy dress and a cider race.
Horse racing began in 1828 when an annual meeting was moved here after being staged for three years on Squire Bentley’s estate. People came from all around, as much for the stalls and fairground atmosphere as for the racing itself, which was principally the domain of the local gentry. Unfortunately, it was closed ten years later after numerous incidents of drunkenness and violent behaviour; a great deal of it attributed to the cheapness of Bartholomew’s mead.
Nevertheless, Bartholomew’s Strip carried on entertaining the people of Weyport, although it became more sedate as the Victorian era rolled in and promenading came into fashion. ‘There are few more pleasant methods of spending a spare hour than by taking a saunter on Bartholomew’s Strip on a fine summer afternoon. The liveliness of the scene is caused by the assemblage of hundreds of persons of both sexes and from the most fashionable classes of society’. (Weyport Gazette, 1864.) It also became a place to take pleasure in swimming and in the 1870’s lady bathers were such a great attraction on the Strip that police assistance was often required to control the crowds. In fact you can still make out the dip which provided the beach they used and the unmistakable sight of a beached trawler that has deteriorated over time to a shell of its original self. A favourite perch for curious cormorants, the Sea Maiden trawler ran aground during some terrible winter gales of the 1890’s and stuck fast in the sand and silt of the Wey, and it’s hard to imagine that she used to be an integral part of Weyport’s once thriving fishing industry.
Besides leisure and recreation, Bartholomew’s Strip was used by the home guard during the Second World War. From the top of the Church tower you can see most of Weyport and during the war the home guard had regular sentries on the lookout for enemy activity. Indeed on a clear day you can see the town of Bridmouth. The Strip also had a long history of producing the now legendary Bartholomew’s mead. Bartholomew is the patron saint of beekeepers and honey-makers and for this reason it was traditional in England for the honey crop to be gathered on August 24th, St. Bartholomew’s Day. Since the main ingredient in the alcoholic drink mead is honey, the Blessing of the Mead was also observed on the day. It’s therefore not surprising to learn that bee hives were kept on the northern part of the Strip by a long line of custodians up until the late lamented Arnold Carmichael. He kept the tradition of Bartholomew’s mead going until the 1960’s but regrettably due to its phenomenal strength and the effect it was having on the working population of Weyport, the Church called a halt to its production. One can only hope that maybe in the future, someone in the Church will allow mead to be made once again, perhaps as a way of supporting funding for St.Bartolomew’s. After all, the monks of Buckfast Abbey in Devon have had great success with their Buckfast and Tonic wine.