Next time you’re on top of Uphill’s watch-tower, see if you can count the seventeen church towers that are said to be visible on a clear day.
Even if you can’t spot them all, you’re enjoying one of Somerset’s best views: along Brean Down between Weston and Bridgwater Bays; across to Quantock and Exmoor; inland over the Levels to Purn Hill, Brent Knoll, Mendip and Glastonbury; over the Bristol Channel to Steep Holm, Flat Holm, the Welsh coast and the Brecons.
The gas fired beacon alongside you was installed to mark the Second Millennium, maintaining a long tradition of hill top beacon fires. In March 1863, villagers made a grid of iron rods across the hollow tower and piled brushwood on it. To celebrate the wedding of the future King Edward VII, a lad, one Oliver Counsell, was borne up a ladder reared up against the side of the pile and set it alight.
We don’t know who built the first tower, or when, but in 1256 William de Chricheston handed over a mill at Uphill. A 16th century map of “The Coste of England upon Severne” shows a blockhouse with two cannon just south of old St Nicholas church. A building was mapped there in 1872 when an antiquarian described it as a “relatively modern” ruined windmill, perhaps built on the site of an old lighthouse for Uphill’s port. Windmill, blockhouse, lighthouse,: it could have been all three.
Most Uphill villagers worked on the land. They needed a mill, and steady winds made their hilltop an ideal place. A Royal Exchange fire insurance policy dated August 11th 1789 describes “a windmill situated on an eminence near the church in Uphill aforesaid and known by the name of Uphill Mill,” valuing it at £100. The policy names the mill’s owner as “Mr John Marchant of Uphill and the Co. of Somerset Yeomen”.
An account in 1829 described the tower as
"walls of a windmill … The truncated tower of this windmill is now used as an observation platform, its exposed site giving good views over Weston Bay and the Bristol Channel. The parallel-sided tower is built of random coursed limestone blocks, 17′ high to the present parapet level, with an inside diameter of 12′ 4″ and 2′ 6″ thick walls.This mill was derelict by 1829."
The collapse of a windmill in forty years from insurance to dereliction reflects a fundamental change in the local economy. This was a consequence of the Enclosure Acts which put medieval common land into private ownership, transforming agricultural systems from basic sustenance to profitable investment, and workers from peasants to hired hands.
That was “progress”; and as Queen Victoria’s British Empire progressed round the globe, villagers climbed their ruined tower to watch an ever-growing stream of cargo ships bringing the world’s trade up the Channel to Bristol. They heard the noise of gunfire on 25th June 1864 when American Federal and Confederate ships fought a sea battle in the English Channel, 120 miles away. At night, people looked up into clear skies to see brilliant displays of stars, meteors and comets. In 1870 they saw an unusually fine aurora borealis to the north. For 20 minutes the whole horizon was lit with masses of colour, with streamers of white, suddenly changing to pink and carmine, with a deep purple corona that slowly melted into a pillar of pale light.
The old tower was rescued from ruin in the 1930s. The doorway and window were raised and arched and the top was castellated.
Mr B.S Counsell of Uphill – any relation of the Oliver who lit the beacon? – wrote:
"My father, who was born in Uphill in 1900, recalled that, prior to the rebuilding of the ruined tower, about 1930, the two mill stones and much of the machinery were still in situ, and were subsequently buried beneath the floor, where they must still be. He told me that in his youth he spoke to an elderly gentleman who had actually seen the mill working and was able to point out where large heaps of husk were to be seen and wagons of grain unloading. …"
Uphill tower was manned during World War 2 by the Home Guard. Every night, two men climbed an iron ladder up the outside to stand on watch, while the others tried to sleep inside the tower where they had a paraffin stove for warmth and candles for light. That was when they could get paraffin and candles. On September 7th 1940 they watched searchlights criss-crossing the night sky, enemy aircraft flying overhead and explosions of guns and bombs in Wales and Bristol. Just after midnight, Sergeant Palk the village butcher ordered a stand-to following a secret signal that the German invasion had started. From the evening of Saturday 7th until the morning of Monday 9th September, Uphill’s men kept armed watch. It turned out to be a false alarm and at daybreak they walked wearily down from the tower for a wash and breakfast before going to work as usual. In 1942, the Royal Observer Corps joined them in the tower, reporting all aircraft movements to the RAF. Their field telephone wire led into the quarry, where it remained for years after the war.
In the eighties, Weston Civic Society and the Village Society saved Uphill’s tower again, installing an internal staircase and information boards. There may be no more merchant fleets to watch, no sparkling night skies, no gunfire to hear, but the tower's beacon continues to be lit to see in every new year and on Royal and other national occasions and those seventeen church towers should still be there.