Neolithic or New Stone Age people were in the region from about 4000-2000BC, these early settlers were supplemented by a migrant population from Continental Europe (c. 2500BC) introducing their farming and metal working skills; these were the “Beaker People”, named by archaeologists after their distinctive pottery. The pottery was likely used for drinking the alcoholic liquor, mead, which they introduced to Britain. The earliest evidence of Horton’s existence comes in an archaeological survey in 2009 which records human habitation (burnt flints and farming ditches) dating from the Late Bronze Age (1100-750BC) around Hort Bridge on the outskirts of Ilminster. Although some 2 miles from present day Horton (shown as Higher Horton on some maps) such beginnings make better sense of the pre-1986 Parish name of “Ilminster Without”. The “muddy/slimy
settlement” of our place name seems more fitting given these origins alongside the river Isle.
The decision to select the Hort Bridge site was probably driven by a change from a previously warm dry climate to a progressively wetter one into the latter part of the Bronze Age. As a result people were forced down from the easily defended sites in the hills and into the fertile valleys. The higher rainfall brought about a blanket of peat as well as an increase in oak, ash and beech trees which made the upper farming grounds untenable. Farming settlements of this period are described as being single homesteads or hamlets, already into “mixed farming” - crops and livestock - which provided almost everything that was needed by way of food, clothing and waterproof materials. This would have been supplemented by woodlands (wild food, hunting and timber for building. Any geological deposits would be an added bonus). Put those requirements into a flattish meadow alongside a flowing river (the Isle) where a crossing could be made, where tracks were combining to form a nodal point; add the proximity of the woodlands and woodland pastures of the Blackdown Hills to use for foraging and summer pasture; extraction of marl, sandstone and chert and it’s pretty obvious what attracted those early settlers. Present day Horton would have been well inside this rather wild and sparsely settled area, later to become “Neroche Forest”, a royal hunting preserve or “forest” in Saxon times which, according to the local historian James Street, makes Higher Horton’s origins “far more romantic” than any of the other local parishes.
The attractions of this site for settlement are so strong that it hardly needs the dig report to go on to say “that during the Roman-British and even into the post medieval period, the main activity on the site was agricultural” so we can be assured that early Horton existed even as other local sites throughout that time: Iron Age Hill forts, the Fosse Way (or at least its vicinal paths); Silver Streets in this area are Roman directions “to the woods” (L. silva). Not only do we have to thank the Anglo-Saxons for our current place name, it is during this period that it first appears in written form, being in a document dated 725AD which records the “Horton tithing” as one of 5 such making up the 20 hides of land called “Yleminstre” given by Yny (Ine) King of the West Saxons to the Benedictine monks of Muchelney Abbey; a“tithing” being a land division of roughly 10 households plus an appointed “tithing” man with legal responsibilities. Ilminster (and thus Horton) being by then the principal of 25 settlements in the Abdick Hundred, itself a subdivision of the Saxon shire or administrative district. The boundary marker in this deed which Street believes to refer to Horton translates as “the rough lea”; in the sense of “woody not cleared of trees” which may be indicative of just how close to the forest edge early Horton was.
Horton is mentioned again in another charter, dated 995, in the reign of Ethelred the Unready (979-1016) which restores these same 5 tithings of “ile mynifter” to Muchelney “which at another date, in the term of three heirs had foolishly been taken away from the monastery”. We then finally arrive at the beginning of the medieval period, the Norman Conquest and the great Domesday Book survey of the realm in 1086 which confirms the Muchelney ownership of Ilminster (incorporating the Horton tithing). Three unnamed mills are quoted as being alongside the river Isle one of which later scholarship concludes to be Hortbridge Mill used variously for the textile industry and corn grinding during its life.
To be continued...