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A Place Like No Other: crafty finds worth the cardio in Frome, Somerset

Known and loved for its quirky independent shops and steep and twisting streets, Frome is as beautiful as it is buzzing. We speak to three local business owners about what makes the undulating Somerset town so appealing – and what to do while you’re visiting

Words
Nick Carvell
A Place Like No Other: crafty finds worth the cardio in Frome, Somerset

Frome isn’t a place for those who get short of breath easily. Founded next to the river of the same name in the seventh century, the town grew prosperous from its wool and cloth trade to become one of the largest settlements in Somerset (at the start of the 18th century, its population was larger than Bath’s). As it expanded, its streets sprawled away from the town centre in the river valley, climbing up from 65m above sea level to 135m at some points – all over a relatively short distance.

It means that, today, many of the buzziest streets in the heart of Frome – notably Catherine Hill, Stoney Street and Gentle Street – are pretty steep. These organically curving, cobbled beauties display some of the finest examples of 17th and 18th-century domestic architecture you’ll find anywhere in the country, from grand Georgian townhouses faced in local stone, to little two-storey numbers with gloriously coloured shopfronts. It’s no wonder Frome has the most listed buildings of any settlement in Somerset outside Bath.

Cheap Street, which has never been used for vehicular traffic and hosts a raft of cool cafés and retailers, is still laid out on its original 16th-century land plots. The upper storeys of its timber-framed buildings jut out almost so far as to kiss in the middle. Down the centre of the street there’s an unusual feature: a narrow running stream, or leat, fed by a spring in a corner of St John the Baptist’s churchyard. It’s an unmissable attraction for tourists – though not quite literally. “We get a lot of wet feet coming into our store!” says Polly Markham of French General Trading, based on nearby Church Street.

Today, Frome is filled with myriad makers who have filled the town with artisanal outposts. We’ve spoken to three of them to hear their recommendations for what to see and do on your visit. One thing’s for certain: whether it’s due to the steep inclines, the architecture, or Frome’s blazingly independent spirit, prepare to have your breath taken away in every way possible.

Sophia Elouise, Sophia Elouise

Originally trained in fine art and furniture making, Sophia Elouise is a woodworker, stonemason and sculptor. Born in York, she now lives on Catherine Hill. She specialises in creating homewares from native hardwoods, all crafted at her workshop just a short drive away over the border with Wiltshire, in “a tiny village in the middle of nowhere”.

Tell us about what you do…

“I’m a woodworker, but I trained in fine art and I specialise in sculpture. If it’s a natural material and I can work it with my hands, I’m into it! Woodwork currently is what I really enjoy. I was trained in joinery by the fantastic Temper Studio and have utilised the skills I learned with them to develop my own line of kitchenware, like bowls or pestles and mortars.

“All of my work is made from certified native English hardwoods, such as sycamore. I tend to source locally myself, or seek wood from other furniture makers who have offcuts that would otherwise be burned or chipped. I like to keep my work as low-waste as possible.”

You are originally from York. How did you end up in Frome?

“Totally by accident! After studying at university in Falmouth, I got my first job in Wiltshire. I didn’t really know anything about the area, but I’d heard that Frome was a cool and creative town, so I decided to settle here. It’s the best place I could have chosen. Since the start I’ve been surrounded by different creative people, all full of support. This town is a great example of why sharing should be integral to any community; the people here aren’t afraid to share knowledge, share tools, share ideas.”

What’s your favourite restaurant?

“My partner and I absolutely love Eight Stony Street. The wine list is superb and I’ve never not been blown away with the food. The last time I was there I ordered an absolutely delicious butternut squash, spinach and cream lasagne. However, the best bit is that it’s located right at the bottom of Catherine Hill. When they fling the big glass doors open in the summer, it’s almost like you’re sitting on a piazza in Italy.”

Polly Markham, French General Trading

Across the road from the impressive sculptures of St John’s churchyard sits French General Trading – instantly recognisable from its courtyard of festoon lights and gingham-tableclothed benches. Run by Polly Markham, who has been sourcing French antiques for more than two decades, the shop is a mecca for those who love one-off Continental pieces. But while you might go for the vintage finds, you’ll surely stay for a glass of Provençal rosé – Polly also runs a bar/café in the space.

How did you get into the business of sourcing French pieces?

“I started my career as a professional horse rider and had lots of connections in that world. Back in the 1990s, I worked in the marketing department at Hermès in London, specifically on equestrian leather goods – a job that involved going to Paris every couple of weeks, which I loved. I grew up with an antique dealer for a mother, so it was in my blood. Eventually, my passion for vintage things and France came together! Initially I ran it as a part-time thing, but it turns out there was quite a market for what I was doing. I went full-time with my own business, in Edinburgh, in 1999.”

What’s your favourite thing about having a physical space for your wares?

“I’ve got really good customers, who come in every week to have a coffee and a croissant with me. Maybe they’ll buy something, maybe they won’t. I have been in the industry for a long time now and I realise that people aren’t going to go out and buy a mirror every week. It’s why I designed my store to have a bar area. I wanted this to be a space where, even if they’re not buying something, people still feel connected to the business and can come and listen to a few tales about my latest trip to France over a glass of wine.”

What’s one thing a visitor to Frome should make time for?

“Try to come to Frome on the first Sunday of the month – that’s when the Frome Independent market happens. The whole town comes alive and the main streets are filled with crafts, music and food. Most of the shops and cafés are open and everyone’s out. The atmosphere is like that of a bustling French market town.”

Where would you go in Frome for a romantic dinner?

“The first thing to say is that Frome tends to get very busy, so book up in advance, wherever you choose. I would recommend High Pavement on Palmer Street, which is a lovely place that serves Moorish tapas – beautiful small picky plates of North African and Middle Eastern/Spanish-inspired food.”

Grace Haskins, Bramble & Wild

“Some people call it a luxurious shed!” says florist Grace Haskins of her shop, Bramble & Wild. Located on the sloping Catherine Hill, its blue-fronted glass façade will entice any passer-by to explore Grace’s delightfully overstuffed, wood-lined space, which is packed with interesting gifts, terracotta pots and shelves that groan under the weight of fresh flowers. Their sweet scent travels down the street before you even see the shop itself…

How do you source your flowers?

“We have a very strong green ethos – all our packaging is recyclable – so we’re trying to source as locally as possible. I have recently set up two new cutting patches of our own, so we can pick directly from there. This will be our first summer of using our own blooms in our bouquets and arrangements. I’m currently germinating some delphiniums, which I’m really excited about, as well as some sweet peas and pansies, which will be great for buttonholes, come wedding season.”

Where would you recommend someone visiting Frome check out while they’re in town?

“One of my favourite places, which I think is an absolute Frome classic, is Rye Bakery. There used to be an abandoned church there, but it’s been renovated and reopened now as a café-cum-gallery space. We’ve hosted workshops there in the past. Not only is it beautiful, but the food is great – I absolutely adore the vegan za’atar pastry. It also sells incredible freshly made loaves to take away.”

Where would you recommend for a cocktail?

“I’d recommend Flow Bar on Bridge Street. It opened about a year and a half ago and we set them up with their plants, so they named a cocktail after us. If you go, I’d suggest ordering a Wildly Bramble, which is a perfect mix of gin, raspberries and lemon.”

What other shops would you recommend a visitor check out in town?

“There are two. The first is Deadly is the Female, which is right at the crest of Catherine Hill and specialises in vintage, pin-up style clothes. The second is Assembly, which stocks an incredible selection of men’s workwear – Anthony, who runs it, also makes a few pieces himself in the workshop – as well as beautiful blankets and homewares.”

Further reading

If our whistlestop tour of Frome has you yearning for a place more permanent in this sought-after pocket of Britain, check out Shaw House, a grand Georgian manor in Melksham, just half an hour’s drive away. Also 30 minutes away by car is Semington Brook. Offering history of a different flavour, this former mill sits on a tributary to the Avon and has its own fishing rights.

Image credits, from top: Paul Whitbread (3-6); Felicity Millward (7-9)

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