Exploring Epworth

Words by:
Glynis Fox
Featured in:
January 2013

Quaint and characterful, this Isle of Axholme town has more than a few surprises up its sleeve – so why not take time out and go exploring?
Mention the name Epworth and the Wesley family and Methodism are likely to spring to mind but, while there is a wealth of history to explore on this front, there are also other attractions that make this destination worthy of a closer look.

In addition to the town’s fascinating mix of buildings, smart shopping options can be found at the heart of Epworth and it also has great leisure facilities.

Set in the midst of a large agricultural landscape, Epworth is home to about 4,000 people, including generations of the same family and newcomers who love the town’s ambience and the fact that it boasts a lively community spirit.

It is also well located for families who want to enjoy the intimacy of living in a place which has plenty of interest groups and good schooling – provided by the Epworth Primary School and South Axholme Academy – while being within easy commuting distance of major centres, such as Scunthorpe and Doncaster.

Epworth Town Council chairman, Councillor Donald Stewart MBE said: “I think Epworth is the jewel in the crown in an area with a twenty to thirty mile radius.

“We still have a good mix of family businesses, a petrol station and a Co-operative store and few empty units. There are also two industrial sites – The Old Station and the Sandtoft Industrial Estate – and Epworth Rectory is a great tourist attraction.”

Councillor Stewart is proud of being instrumental in helping to form groups which have campaigned and raised funds to ensure that Epworth has its own swimming pool and a separate leisure centre – both close to the South Axholme Academy.

Epworth Leisure Centre in Burnham Road has been a feature of the town since the 1980s, but it was recently taken over by the South Axholme Academy. The facility includes a large gym, squash courts, a sports hall and outdoor floodlit multi-use area.

“When we started the South Axholme Community Swimming Pool Association, we were initially looking to raise £50,000 to £60,000. But I got a call from the National Sports Council, who talked to me about the possibility of putting forward a researched and budgeted plan for funding for the project,” said Coun Stewart.

“We actually put forward an application for a £750,000 scheme, with help and advice from Boothferry Borough Council. The Sports Council said that if the scheme was successful it would find fifty per cent of the money and in 1994 it gave us over £400,000 of National Lottery Funding, to which Boothferry Borough added £234,000.

“In 1996 we opened the pool on a piece of land next to the school, with a condition that we provided 160 hours of educational swimming free of charge.”

Today, the twenty-metre pool, which is managed by the South Axholme Community Swimming Pool Association, serves about 18,000 in the Isle of Axholme area and is the training base for the South Axholme Sharks. It’s worthy of note that this pool is self-financing, with no help from any local authority.

While in Epworth it is well worth taking time out to visit Epworth Rectory, a shrine to the Wesley family. You should also look out for the unmissable, six-foot bronze statue of John Wesley on Albion Hill.

You may be surprised to discover that this is a much more recent addition to the town than you might at first think. It was erected in 2003 to mark Wesley’s tercentenary.

“It was in 1999 that I was part of a small group which discussed what we should do to celebrate the Millennium and ideas for the bronze statue were among those put forward, but it took us until 2003 to actually get it made and put into place,” added Coun Stewart.

Other features of the town include The Mechanics’ Institute in Market Square, which celebrated its 175th anniversary in October 2012. Traditionally a place which provided technically-focused education to adults, it is a subscription library and also contains an extensive archive.

You might also wish to walk to King’s Head Croft, a green space (with car parking) where the King’s Head Pub used to stand. It is now registered as a Fields in Trust project, and is used for social gatherings and celebrations. It cannot be built upon.

Shopping in Epworth is another delight – particularly if you love businesses which offer individuality and personal service. Whether you are looking for stylish womenswear, top class florists, beauticians, a hardware shop or a travel agent, your needs are catered for, and you can take time out for a cuppa too.

Marian and Russell Bassindale own The Tea Room, which enjoys a prominent corner position at Number 1 High Street.

“We have owned the premises for many years and took over from the previous tenant, reopening for the Queen’s Jubilee weekend,” said Mrs Bassindale.

“I have always made wedding cakes and birthday cakes so when the previous tenant moved out we decided to re-open it ourselves. But the café hadn’t been touched for many many years, so we stripped everything out from floor to ceiling and put in a new kitchen and toilets.”

The Tea Room is open from Tuesdays to Saturdays, between 8.30am and 4pm and it is a great place to take time out and enjoy everything from a full English breakfast to a hot or cold snack and, of course, a delicious slice of cake!

Wander into the attractive Fountain Court and you will find hairdressing, beauty and shoe repair businesses, among others, and the Fountain Court Florist and its sister business, Designs by Reflections.

The Fountain Court Florist was established in the late 1990s by the late David Gravel and today, daughter Toni is at the helm of this busy floristry business and Designs by Reflections, which opened three years ago.

Toni said Designs by Reflections marked an expansion for the business which had needed more space. This side of the business concentrates on everything from silk wedding flowers to centrepieces and church flowers.

The family also owns D Gravel & Sons – a fruit and vegetable business in The Market Square, which is run by David’s sons, Richard and Guy Gravel.

Epworth Rectory is an impressive Grade-One listed building, created in 1709 in the Queen Anne style. Visitors can find this landmark in Rectory Street, where they are transported back to life in the early eighteenth century. And more work is underway to restore the house and enhance the visitor experience.

This is where the Rector of the parish of St Andrew, Samuel Wesley and his wife Susanna, brought up their family of ten children – including John and Charles, who are world famous for developing the Methodist movement.

Rectory curator and development manager, Reverend Claire Potter said:

“We like to welcome our visitors into a family home, rather than just a museum. This was such an important place in the history of not only the Methodist church, but also in terms of eighteenth-century British society.

“It was here that Susanna Wesley educated her large family, at a time when girls were not generally educated and where she held acts of worship in her kitchen – a remarkable event at that time which had a large impact.

“Her methodical, disciplined approach to life, faith and education had a clear impact on her sons, John and Charles Wesley, who followed her example in their future lives, as they began to evolve an inclusive theology and a disciplined approach for people inspired by their words and example.”

Both John and Charles struggled to keep the Methodist movement within the Church of England, insisting that their followers attend their local parish church as well as Methodist meetings.

In 1744 they called the first Methodist Conference with six clergymen and four laymen present to govern Methodist affairs, and in 1784 the Wesleyan Connexion was legally established with an annual ‘Conference of the people called Methodists’ consisting of a hundred people.

After John’s death the leadership passed to this Conference, with one person being elected as its President to serve for a year – a practice which has continued to this day. Within six years of John Wesley’s death Methodism made a decisive break with the Church of England and became a separate church.

“At the Rectory you can stand in the spaces where the family lived, and imagine how this inspiration began. We have events throughout each year as well as a schools’ programme, costumed tours and other special tours by prior arrangement. We offer catering for groups and we welcome all visitors, from every corner of the world, individually or in groups. Guided tours are also available,” said Revd Potter.

There is also a trail around the town showing the sites which were significant for the Wesleys and all of these are identified with posters and a map.

The Rectory is set in peaceful grounds, some of which are still maintained as a croft where heritage breeds of livestock graze. There is also an established lawn, a heritage orchard and wildflower garden, a vegetable area and the Physic Garden. Here the plants that John Wesley used in his book of home-spun remedies, ‘Primitive Physic’ are grown.

“We have a major development plan in progress, to restore the house to how it would have been in around 1716 and to upgrade visitor and education facilities,” said Revd Potter.

The next stage of this project is to excavate the main chimney and restore the Inglenook fireplaces, so that an open fire can really add to the atmosphere.

“It is very likely that we will find evidence of the previous rectory in this chimney stack, the rectory that burned down in 1709, from which the five-year-old John Wesley was rescued ‘as a brand plucked from the burning’, as his mother Susanna put it,” added Revd Potter.

“There is also a void next to the main fireplace which may have been sealed up for centuries which we are hoping to open up. If anyone wants to support this ‘putting the hearth back into the home’ project, they are welcome to contact us.”

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