Set on the eastern edge of the Mendip Hills, Frome is built on steep handsome hills around the river. Frome means ‘brisk-flowing water’ and the early town and its Market Place grew around springs which to this day provide continuous supplies of fresh clean water. This can be seen in Cheap Street, one of the best preserved medieval streets in Europe, where the leat winds its way down the centre of the pavement.
The town dates from around the 7th century when the Abbot of Malmesbury, St Aldhelm, founded a monastery here. The monastery has long since disappeared but interesting religious buildings continue to dominate the skyline including St John’s Church with its unusual Via Crucis and Rook Lane Congregational Church built in 1707, now an arts centre.
Frome is a stunning market town with a beautiful heart. There are distinct areas of historic buildings connected by sinuous streets, elevated walkways and alleys winding up and down the hillside and providing ever changing views of the townscape. Along the way interesting shops nestle within one of the largest collections of listed buildings in Somerset. Frome’s town centre is largely unaffected by redevelopment with some central streets still cobbled and many of the buildings dating from the 1700s.
Frome was an acclaimed centre for cloth production from c.1475 to 1790. John Leland (1542) describes a town of “fayre stone howsys” built on the proceeds of the cloth trade and the markets. Cloth from Frome was sold through London and exported to Europe. According to Daniel Defoe, in 1720 Frome was larger than Bath, but after the cloth trade went into decline, Frome survived as a market town for the agricultural area around.
The legacy of earlier industry and trade in Frome can still be seen reflected in the architecture you see today. That architecture includes the beautiful Silk Mill in Merchant’s Barton. The building started its life as a mill constructed by the Ward family, silk throwsters of Evercreech, Bruton and Shepton Mallet in the closing years of the 1700s. It is now a thriving art space, rescued by local people and lovingly brought back to life.
The Cheese and Grain building, the frontage of which has recently been restored, provides a key link to Frome’s history as a market town. A market has existed in Frome since before the Norman Conquest and its presence has helped form the town’s cultural identity. One of the defining events was the completion of the New Market Hall in 1875 with a siding from the Radstock branch railway completed in 1854 and the opening of the building for sales of cheese and grain which give the building its name today. The tradition of markets continues at the Cheese & Grain but it is also a popular music venue and business hub.
Throughout history, Frome was not dominated by a local aristocrat or a borough government but by the local clothier families, many of whom were non-conformist. The weavers & other cloth workers were also often literate and independently minded, a tradition and sentiment that continues today amongst the engaged population of Frome.