Shepton Mallet is built on wool. Not literally of course – but this sleepy little market town grew prosperous in the Middle Ages as a centre for woollen cloth, with some thirty mills lining the banks of the River Sheppey which flows through the town. It is still famous as an agricultural centre today, and is home to the Royal Bath and West Show, the biggest livestock event in the South West.
After the advent of the railways, Shepton Mallet also became a centre for brewing – for good or ill, the Anglo-Bavarian Brewery was the first place in the country to brew lager! Locals remember Shepton Mallet for another beverage however, the sparkling perry known as Babycham invented by local brewer Francis Showering. The family have brewed in the town since 1658 and although the Babycham brand has been sold, the Showerings are still part of the local brewing scene and cider is still brewed here at the brewery in Kilver Street.
For the walker it’s a well-placed and laid back market town with a reasonable range of facilities, pubs, restaurants and shops and all without the obvious tourist trappings of places like Cheddar and Wells. This is a proud local’s town and as such a different type of Somerset experience for the overnight visitor.
The hexagonal market cross in the town centre was rebuilt in 1841 and in the market place here you can see The Shambles, a medieval market stall where butchers once displayed their wares. Markets are still a regular event in the town’s marketplace. The church of St Peter and St Pauls in the centre of the town is worth seeking out; its beautiful interior has a magnificent 16th century intricate wooden wagon roof, made up of 350 different oak panels.
On the edge of Shepton Mallet alongside the Mendip Way are Kilver Court Gardens, underneath the impressive Charlton viaduct. Small but beautifully formed, the three and a half acre gardens were originally designed as a recreation space for workers at the adjoining lace-making factory. The mill's grounds also had a pub, the Ship Inn, vegetable plots for workers to grow their own food and a school house for the children of the workers to attend! The school house is now a factory outlet shop but the gardens are a little gem of a place and worth seeking out.
And – as a footnote – the town should really be famous for another event – the world-famous music festival which takes place just three miles down the road at Worthy Farm, Pilton. Instead of Shepton Mallet Festival the event is known, of course, as ‘Glastonbury Festival’ – even though Glastonbury is four miles farther way from Pilton than Shepton Mallet!