An illustrated tale of utter incompetence, set in a Glastonbury carpark.
Workmen recently dug up a load of old cobbles in St John’s car park in the centre of Glastonbury. It was while they were carrying out resurfacing work for Mendip District Council. It’s even rumoured that having dug up the old cobbles they were offering them for sale.
You might like to go an take a look in St John’s Car park, out the back of the Tribunal building. You will no doubt see the plaque on the wall which reads:
“The Tribunal, Glastonbury. The granite setts to the North of this wall mark the original extent of the garden. The holding, including the house, is known as a burgage tenement. It would have been a common feature of the medieval town layout”
‘Setts’ is another word for cobbles. Look directly underneath the plaque and you will see a line of these cobbles, which form a large rectangle going out into the carpark. I went to have a look myself. Turning my back to the plaque there were lots of pedestrian barriers and some workmen re-laying the cobbles which had, only a few days before, been dug up.
It’s no big deal I guess, digging up some old cobbles, even if they did illustrate an important feature of Glastonbury’s medieval history. And of course they were put back, at least after they had been bought back from wherever they had ended up. (Or do I mean brought back? I’m always getting confused by that).
The Tribunal is the earliest surviving building on Glastonbury’s High St. The present house is 15th Century, but excavations show it is on the site of a 12th century timber building. It’s officially scheduled as an Ancient Monument and is one of the places in the town where you can really get a sense of Glastonbury’s history.
So what is a burgage plot, and why it was considered significant enough to be mentioned on a plaque? The owner of a burgage plot was a burgess, originally this was a freeman but later came to mean an official, or the representative of a borough in the House of Commons. Burgage plots were congregated around the marketplace and main streets of medieval towns, where space at the front was at a premium. For this reason the plots were long and narrow. The Tribunal, whether it served as the Abbey courtroom or not (which is in some doubt) was however a significant building and home to a significant person. Nowadays it serves as an important link to Glastonbury’s Medieval past, or at least whoever put up the plaque though so.
Fortunately for the workmen who dug the cobbles up, the setts in the car park were not included in the scheduling of the Tribunal as an Ancient Monument, had it been otherwise they would have been in Big Trouble. Also, it seems likely that the cobbles, being granite and therefore from some great distance away, were not actually medieval, and were laid down after archaeological excavations to mark the boundary.
So, it’s not as if history was being destroyed in the digging up, just ignored. Mendip have a department called the Heritage Conservation section, it’s a shame they don’t appear to talk to the Car Parks Department.
Of course, resurfacing a carpark doesn’t just involve laying tarmac and digging up inconvenient cobbles, the job is only complete when the white lines are reinstated and locals and visitors can once more pay their £5.60 into Mendip District Council’s coffers for a day’s parking. You’d imagine they’d want to ensure as many cars as possible got to park.
After the railway line to Glastonbury closed down, Glastonbury Conservation society arranged for the station’s old railway canopy to be reassembled at the top of St John’s car park. It’s an attractive structure and serves to keep the sun off of dogs and dozing elderly relatives, should you decide to leave them in the car while fetching a pasty from the town on a sunny afternoon.
The canopy stands upon ten square metal legs. Prior to the resurfacing the white lines were painted so as to form 4 parking spaces in between each of the sets of legs, enabling 16 cars to be parked under the canopy in total. Someone from Mendip came out to chalk the lines and obviously realised that the space under the canopy was sufficient to park 20 cars! The lines were chalked and then painted (despite the protestations of a business owner adjacent to the car park).
It is indeed now possible to park 20 cars under the canopy, providing that 6 of the cars are only four feet long or less so they can be accommodated in the spaces in which the legs stand. As four foot long cars are uncommon it’s now possible to fit only 14 cars in a space that happily accommodated 16 before.
I’d advise caution when parking under the canopy. The metal bollards are at a height which renders them invisible when inside your vehicle, they are helpfully painted black too. With the new layout it is possible to find yourself, having parked with space around you, to be hemmed in by later arrivals, unable to leave without passing through a bollard. Sadly this combination of unstoppable force versus immovable object inevitably results in a large dent.
It’s rather unfortunate that the bollards weren’t removed rather than the cobbles, they’ve caused thousands of pounds worth of damage to vehicles over the years and don’t appear to serve any useful purpose whatsoever.
Walking a little further down the car park you might notice a thick black line, this was pointed out to me by the traffic warden and shows where two sets of spaces were painted in, facing each other. Sadly the line in-between hadn’t been measured, creating one set of very long, and one set of very short spaces.
Having realised their mistake the offending white line was blacked out and another one painted in. As a car was parked over the line at the time a space is left on the tarmac.
I am not putting all of the blame on the workmen for this. Many levels of management would have been involved in giving the orders. In the late 1980’s I worked for a London Council and saw how, when inefficiency, waste and poor decision making is endemic in an organisation, those carrying out the work realise that questioning orders, even those that defy all logic, does not lead to thanks but tends to make you unpopular. I had hoped things had changed, this car park debacle makes me wonder.
I hope no one thinks I’m being too critical, after all, it’s easy to make mistakes, and I’m sure it won’t cost MDC too many thousands of pounds to put it all right again. Perhaps we could have a whip round and buy them a tape measure. Not sure what we can do about the lack of common sense though, as far as I’m aware you can’t buy it from a shop, and if you can I don’t imagine many Glastonbury shops would stock it.
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All photos and text copyright Vicki Steward, if you are a journalist reading this I’m sure you’ll find it useful that I’ve done much of the research already, so feel free to credit me if you sell the story on.