Monday 11 January 2010

Winter Carnival At Shearwater


G. Curtis has contacted us with a query which ties in with the current snow and frozen conditions we are witnessing. He says: "I'm sure that years ago when the winters were so harsh, they used to hold events on the frozen ice of Shearwater and these included roasting oxen and sheep as a way of feeding the hundreds of people who attended. I was telling a neighbour this and he would like to know if anyone can confirm this."

Danny Howell replies: "Yes, you are quite correct. In the 1990s I published a leaflet about Shearwater and my notes referred to one of the winter carnivals held there, in 1891. The leaflet is now out of print but I have added it here so that you, your neighbour and others can share the information."


Shearwater, the lake on the Longleat Estate, at the western end of the village of Crockerton, was made in 1791-1792 when the Marquis of Bath was responsible for damming the Shearwater stream.

Covering nearly 40 acres and nearly a mile in length, the lake takes its name, it is generally believed, from the area's use for sheep shearing prior to 1791. In those days there were numerous ponds here from which clay had been dug. One of these ponds was used by the people of the neighbourhood for washing their sheep before shearing.

Shearwater was constructed according to the design and recommendation of Francis, Duke of Bridgewater, the Canal celebrity, who was a frequent visitor to Longleat and an intimate friend of Thomas, Lord Viscount Weymouth and the first Marquis of Bath.

A description of Shearwater in 1881 notes: "The grand expanse of lake with its varied colour, its magnificent surroundings, its beautiful walks, and its most infinite variety of picturesque effects, cannot fail to arouse in the visitor some expression or feeling of admiration for the beauties which nature so lavishly displays. But when it is remembered that the forests of trees with which the banks are lined were planted by mortal hands, that the abundant variety of flowers and foliage is due to the care and cultivation of man, that the pleasant walks have all been planted by the ingenuity and formed by the skill of human beings like ourselves, - and when in addition to all this we remember that even the noble lake itself owes its origin to mechanical contrivance, we can hardly restrain a feeling of wonder at the vastness of what has thus been achieved, and of thankfulness to those by whom it has been undertaken, completed, and given up for public enjoyment. A public drive extends nearly all round the lake, and numerous seats are provided for the comfort of pedestrians, who will also find many delightful shaded walks which are impractible to the wheeled conveyance."

During the harsh winters of the 19th century Shearwater would freeze over with solid ice, sufficient for ox-roasts to be held on the lake itself.

During January 1891, following eight weeks of frost, a carnival was held at Shearwater with over a thousand people on the lake! An open range was built on the ice, surrounded by sheets of corrugated zinc, and a sheep was roasted whole. The roasting commenced at 3.30 p.m., and the meat was carved and distributed at 8.00 p.m. The boathouse keeper got a leg, the bargate keeper got a shoulder, and the Carnival Committee got the other shoulder. The remainder was distributed to the rest of the first-comers, with bread and 36 gallons of beer. A brass band played and there was skating, followed by a torchlight procession. The carnival ended at 10.00 p.m.

A thatched boathouse on the north side of the lake was destroyed by fire at Whitsun 1938. Lord Weymouth assisted Warminster Fire Brigade in trying to douse the flames. Crowds of people gathered to watch the blaze. The fire occurred only a month after the old boathouse keeper, Mr. A. Trollope, passed away after being at the boathouse for over 50 years.

Another building, to the side of the boathouse, also met with destruction by fire. Wilfred Middlebrook remembered: "It was a huge rustic structure with a deeply-thatched roof in the Dutch style and was once used as a stable. It caught fire in July 1944 but nobody did anything about it for a long time because those who saw the smoke thought it was waste wood being burned by workmen from the Longleat Estate. When Warminster Fire Brigade eventually arrived the place was well alight, and the firemen were hampered still more by wasps that had been nesting in the thatch. That was the end of the old stables."

Today, a modern boathouse can be seen on the north side of Shearwater. This is all a far cry from the time when during the 1920s and 1930s Shearwater was the haunt of university oarsmen but the lake is currently the home of the Shearwater Sailing Club who were responsible for the building of the pavilion near the north-east corner in the early 1960s.

In more recent years the lake has provided a home for waterfowl and was briefly visited during the spring and autumn seasons in the late 1970s by an osprey during his flights to and from his breeding ground in Scotland. Herons can often be seen in the Shearwater area.

Bargate Cottage, to the south-east, is now a tea room and restaurant, following many years use as a tea room and cafe. Mrs Bessie Stockley, who celebrated her 100th birthday in 1982, had fond memories of Bargate Cottage where her parents lived for many years. When she was growing up there she was told by local people how they used to tend allotment gardens on the slopes of the valley before the lake was formed.

In 1981 it was noticed that Shearwater was leaking through a nine inch hole in one of the lake's original sluice gates. This was remedied with sandbags and cement being placed in situ by a team of divers from Bristol.

Repairs to the sluices and work on the banks so as to comply with E.E.C. regulations, meant the draining of Shearwater in October and November 1988. Fish were removed from the lake. Pike were temporarily transferred to Broadlands at Romsey, other big fish were moved to the lake adjacent Longleat House, and small fish to the Mill Pond at Horningsham.

The lack of water in the lake resulted in an array of finds being discovered, including live ammunition (mortar bombs and shells) and firearms abandoned during the Second World War, not to mention an assortment of old bicycles and other junk.

Now restored, Shearwater continues to provide enjoyment for many sightseers and users of the lake. It is particularly colourful during early summer when the rhododendrons and azaleas are in flower. Autumn, with its colourful hues, is another ideal time for visiting this lovely place.

Danny Howell.