Project development and progress

The motivation for the project arose out of local residents wanting to know more about the buildings of the locality and what caused them to be built. 

The idea

A few individual owners had invested time researching their properties and built up a limited understanding of their homes, but through discussions with Conservation Society contacts, it became clear that the big story of the locality had never really been told. There were snippets about the mills which once operated here and a more substantial piece of research about the upper Darshill mills prepared for developers in 1996 by Nancy & Charles Hollinrake, but little more; certainly there was very little about the people and communities who lived, loved and worked here over the centuries.

Casting further afield, we came across a number of publications by vernacular building research groups into particular localities which encompassed not only the historic buildings which they took an active interest in but also accompanying document research. Some of these projects had Lottery funding and others were locally funded by subscription. Locally, we informally canvassed the idea of funding the initiative ourselves but were discouraged by the willingness of the owners of the larger, more imposing, properties and the relative disinterest of those in smaller dwellings. Also, knowing that there were mills here through the ages, we felt that interest in the story of the locality would spread far beyond its borders to encompass not only the town of Shepton Mallet but also the hinterland beyond.

The crystallising event was a seminar provided by the Lottery for Historic Houses members at which it was explained that grant funding had recently become available to fund local heritage projects that would not only be of interest to the general public, but also might benefit private property owners. At that stage, we were uncertain what the parameters of our potential project might be, but the inclusion of potential benefits to private property meant that we were able to consider a wider range of options than hitherto. The fact that there was the local Darshill & Bowlish Conservation Society (DBCS), a registered charity, meant that we had an existing vehicle from which to make grant applications.

The ideas flowed around for a while and gathered momentum as active local environmentalists put the possibility of surveys of local fauna and flora into the mix – DBCS had been gifted unused development land including a large derelict millpond – and eventually, the kernel of the project emerged. It would include not just architectural surveys and document research, but also archaeological work, a biodiversity survey and an oral history record of residents after WW2. Also included was the exploration of the then cutting-edge idea of developing an enhanced reality ‘fly-through’ of the way the localities would have appeared in the heyday. 

As we developed the idea, we sought and gained the necessary consent from target building owners, began the search for suitably qualified volunteers to help us undertake the work and after numerous blind alleys, found the Somerset Vernacular Building Research Group (SVBRG). After a couple of initial meetings and their internal discussions they decided they were interested in our idea to survey approximately 20 historic buildings in the locality. Also, they mentioned we might approach one of their members who was a university lecturer with document research and archaeological skills, whom we met and she, too, was excited about what we were planning to do. 

The bid

Once we had our idea, we formally set up a three-person steering group – called G3: group of three – to manage the project and within a few months in December 2017, our first funding application to the Heritage Lottery Fund was lodged, following encouraging discussions with their officers. The approximate cost was estimated to be £60k for the two-year project.

Unfortunately, we were up against stiff competition, and our bid was rejected with the advice that we should reduce the overall cost by about half and increase the proportion of funding raised from other sources. Much discussion and balancing of competing priorities followed and in May 2018, we submitted our revised bid, with an overall cost of approximately £30k and decreased the Lottery funding proportion to 65%. We left out the ‘fly-through’, scaled-down the outreach programme and generally screwed-down budgeted costs. The submission was detailed and exhaustive and it provided the much-needed plan for the delivery of our objectives and we referred to it continually.

Darshill and Bowlish residents at the project launch

The first year

In July that year, we heard our bid had been successful and we launched our two-year project at the beginning of September with a community photo.

We had our document researcher and architectural surveyors, to which was shortly added the expert leaders and delivery schedule of the various component parts of the biodiversity surveys (arboriculture, ornithology, botany, lepidopterology, entomology, invertebrates, arachnids, herpetology and mammalogy).

Between them, the SVBRG architectural surveys, document research and biodiversity surveys contributed the majority of the work and outputs of the project. With archaeology, however, we struggled to resource due to illness on the part of our first volunteer and then had a dearth of possible candidates. After several months of inactivity, we decided to go about it in a different way, based on consultations with our archaeology-trained document researcher and a new community resident who had taken an archaeology degree. In essence, our revised methodology involved collating what had already been found, targeted construction material dating, metal detecting and, after some document research had uncovered a tantalising lead, an excavation for which we would seek specialist support.

Our project communications with the DBCS community started in the month of launch with the first of our monthly newsletters and shortly after, we commenced a series of blogs on the project website. The latter were also shown on the Shepton Mallet Community Facebook Page with a membership of over 10k people. The newsletters and blogs can be viewed in the Outputs/Monthly Newsletters and Blog sections.

Local fundraising got off to a flying start with a donation of £5k from the Medlock Charitable Trust towards our total requirement of just over £10k. To secure the rest, we were joined by a community member who had worked as fundraiser for one of the regional universities. He was used to bidding for known funds of considerable size, which was a completely different animal from the unknown funders and unknown amounts he was asked to pursue on behalf of the project. After a slow start as he got to know more about where and how much, funds began to dribble in and by the end of the project’s two years he had raised all that was asked of him. The HP funders not wishing to remain anonymous were:

Heritage Lottery FundTesco Bags of HelpBowlish Arts & Events
Medlock Charitable TrustMendip Hills FundTalks & Walks
Co-Operative Business BankingWessex Watermark AwardThe Jago Family

The group of qualified volunteers we assembled, working or retired professionals in their field, drew up work schedules for the G3 and our role became the monitoring of their progress and keeping the local community and participants informed and happy if they had hosted a visit or supplied information. 

One of our local community was an officer at the Office for National Statistics, and guided us through the drafting of the various project impact surveys we developed. These were then deployed and details of our findings are in the Project Lifecycle/Project Impacts section.

Our first full year – 2019 – was when we planned to commence our schools and broader community outreach work and we started by contacting all primary and secondary schools in the area with our initial ideas for what we might be able to offer them. However, there was a poor response, especially from secondary schools. Primaries were better and one in particular, St Pauls, offered to work with us to craft an offer which fitted in with their curriculum and teaching plans. Essentially, they wanted us to offer a half-day linked to each of the rivers component for Key Stage 3 Geography and the Victorian Industrial Revolution for KS3 History. 

For the Geography syllabus, we produced a large-scale map of the river Sheppey and identified all of the woollen mill sites and other key buildings and for History, we moved closer in time to talk about the 19th century production of silk cloth in the town. Both half-days built substantially on the research we had done through the project, supplemented by visits to Trowbridge Museum and Whitchurch Silk Mill to borrow realia, and involved a considerable number of additional locally recruited volunteers.

Students at St Paul’s Primary School

We also had a positive reaction from Croscombe Primary and Bowlish Infants and we staged similar half-days there too.

Other schools became interested and dates were pencilled in. However, Covid happened and interrupted our plans.

Broader community outreach work commenced with a garden party for the local residents held in August 2019 at which prizes were awarded for photographs and other art/craft works produced on a local heritage theme. 

Sue Caunt; Brian Allen; Sue Dickerson; Paul Williams

That autumn, following document research, we held a community archaeological dig at Primrose Hill, Bowlish, supervised by a specialist consultancy whom we had interested in our project and recruited at zero cost. 

Dave Brown; Alan Marter; Richard McConnell (Context One Heritage &
Archaeology); Dr Cheryl Green (Context One); John Yeo; Alan Griffiths;
Chris Costelloe

Also that autumn, we came across a 1642 poem and set up a group to explore how we might use its particular focus on the town and the activities of the (then) population. The group decided on the idea of staging a pageant celebrating the life of the town and our locality in particular as it was around 400 years ago. Such was the power of the idea, that G3 decided that the pageant should be the celebration we had been looking for at the conclusion of the project in the summer of 2020.

However, it was not to be due to Covid.

Courtesy of the National Library

Making use of the large-scale map of the river mentioned above, we mounted a stand at the annual town fete, Collet Day, in the spring of 2019.

Caroline Crowley, Alan Griffiths; Amanda Hirst; Fay Rogers

In the summer and autumn of 2019, we gave talks to external groups: Shepton Mallet U3A, Trowbridge Traditional Society, SVBRG and two heritage talks as part of Somerset Art Weeks.

Ian Keys and students of St Aldhelm’s Primary School at Shepton

Second year

By February 2020, we had refined our project outreach activities for the final nine months of the project from those listed in our HLF bid taking into account what we had uncovered so far. The planned events were:

  • Recreate Police Court spring 2020. One-off event building wider community participation with dressing up and raucous behaviour
  • Darshill, Ham & Bowlish Heritage Trail Launch Fair summer 2020. Open gardens, refreshments in Millmaster’s House garden, tours of houses, guided tour around the locality, other stalls (inc plant stall) with children’s products 
  • Children’s competitions, spring/summer 2020 – results and display at Launch Fair
  • Repeat/follow-on activities for primary schools already visited 
  • Half-day events at new schools. Oakhill Primary and Doulting Primary 
  • Milfield School.  Using our heritage project as backdrop to ‘keeping employment options flexible’ for years 10 & 11 
  • Progress legacy lesson plans and other hints and tips for teachers 

Regrettably, despite each of these activities having volunteer leaders from our community, a willing group of helpers and enthusiastic support from the schools and others involved, all of them had to be dropped when Covid hit. Such a pity.

However, despite the lockdowns and many of our active people essentially shielding, the work of our qualified volunteers continued, albeit at a slower pace with architectural and biodiversity surveys, and with bereavements affecting our document research. 

We approached HLF for a series of extensions and finally we all agreed we would complete the project a year late, in August 2021. The success of the Covid vaccination programme and the prospect of a relatively social summer persuaded us to mount just two outreach events, a Darshill, Ham and Bowlish Fair with open houses and gardens not usually available to the public and a ‘thank you’ to our group of willing volunteers. 

Wanting to make best use of the work we had done, we thought in detail about how we might leave the most impactful legacy in addition to the commitments we made at the commencement of the project.


Heritage Trail

Development work on the Heritage Trail started in 2019, based on the plan in the HLF bid that it would be information-board based and we got so far as deciding that the trail would be based largely on the defunct mills of the locality. We also secured agreement from all the relevant property owners to mount the Trail’s boards on their walls or land. 

Also in the bid was that we would seek to link with the Town Centre heritage trail and discussions took place with the Town Council as to what this would mean. As those discussions progressed, it became clear that the Town Centre trail was in need of a complete overhaul and that they wished to make use of the fact that technology had moved on and base it upon the smartphone. This boiled down to their deciding upon a series of walking audio trails around the whole town which would embrace a number of themes – e.g. cloth-making, brewing, religion, education etc – and the G3 decided it would be best that we change our plans and participated accordingly. This implied a short delay beyond the revised completion date of the HLF project to the launch of the town’s new heritage trails in August 2021. 

Eager to put what we had learnt about the vital contribution of our locality, we decided to divert the money we would have spent on the information board trail into the new town trail.


Early in the project (see above), we set up a simple website to take the blogs we wrote about the locality, its industry and people. In more than 50 episodes we outlined the stages in the production of both woollen and silk cloth and the impact the manufacture of each had on the local community, as well as some of the property reports and other interesting snippets. The blogs we wrote reached a circulation of more than 10,000 people through our own site and the community Facebook page and can be seen in the Blogs section.

Later, as the project progressed, G3 began to think about the final website to contain all of what we had found. In the autumn/winter of 2019/20, we took account of our proposals to HLF and what we had found thus far, and produced the structure of this site which you’re seeing today.

Schools kit

Working with the committed teachers at St Paul’s Junior School, see above, we produced costumes and a variety of hands-on materials and equipment including large-scale maps, individual hand-looms, dyeing baths, teasel combs, silk cucoons, smocks, caps, pinafores, and slide shows. We are keen these should be available to be used with successor cohorts of children in similar ½ day events run by the schools themselves. In this way, we hope that the initiative to help youngsters understand the history and heritage of the town they live in will not be lost.

St Paul’s School will store the materials for future use.


It has always been the project’s intention to collate what we have learned into not only a website, but also into the form of a freely downloadable book or book chapters. The chapters are listed in the Outputs/The Book section of this site.

Project Impacts – Surveys

In our original proposals, we committed ourselves actively to monitor the impact of the project via a number of surveys and other means such as the volume of media coverage. However, due to the impact of the pandemic, we were unable to obtain much useful data.

Full details including the questionnaires we designed appear in the Project Lifecycle/Project Impacts section of this website.


Despite the unforeseen delays and difficulties caused by the Covid pandemic, we are delighted we managed to complete the project, albeit with a year’s delay and the profound regret of having to drop a significant number of year two outreach events.