Shepton Mallet is an ideal centre from which to visit the many tourist attractions of this area, including other fascinating towns such as Bath, Wells and Glastonbury. The town is delightful mixture of an old market town and the amenities of the modern world. It is set in a fold of the southern edges of the Mendip Hills.
There are signs of an early Romano-British settlement in the area. Pottery kilns from this period have been unearthed nearby and there are several substantial Roman buildings not far away at Charlton. A number of Roman artefacts were uncovered in 1990 at a site next to the nearby Fosse Way. These included the remains of forty Roman citizens and a Chi-Rho amulet, which is believed to be one of the earliest pieces of evidence of Christianity in England. The bodies were believed to have been buried in the 4th century, according to Christian custom. They were reburied in the local churchyard in 1994.
The word Shepton is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word for sheep fold, indicating the original source of the town’s wealth. The settlement was part of lands given to the Mallet family by Henry I in 1100, hence the second part of the town’s name. Shepton Mallet was one of the places of the original gatherings of the Monmouth Rebellion in 1685, after Monmouth landed at Lyme Regis. A number of rebels were hanged from the market cross, after the Bloody Assizes of “Hanging Judge” Jefferies. This same cross is a 50 foot high, 16th century structure, which can still be found in the town centre. The nearby Victoria Fountain has been recently restored. A 15th century covered market stall close by is a remnant of The Shambles. There is still a busy outdoor market here every Friday.
England’s oldest prison is still in use here too. This prison was a civilian jail from 1610 to 1930, when it closed. It was reopened in 1939, for use by the American army. The prison returned to civilian use in 1966. During the Second World War, some national treasures, including the Domesday Book, were kept safe in the town.
Among other interesting buildings in Shepton Mallet is the Church of St Peter and St Paul, The original Saxon church was extended in the late 12th century, by piercing the side walls with two pairs of arches, constructing side aisles and adding a pair of arches at the west. At the same time, a tower was built and the chancel was enlarged. In the late 14th century, the tower was altered to its present shape. The magnificent, carved English oak wagon roof, with 350 different panels was built about the middle of the following century. Some interesting surviving features are a Saxon font and a fragment from the doorway of the Saxon church, both from around the first millennium, and the 16th century stone, carved pulpit. Two effigies of knights, believed to be Robert and William Mallet, are from the early 14th century.
The traditional textile industries were supplemented by brewing in the 19th century. Apparently the Anglo-Bavarian Brewery was the first in England to brew lager. Shepton Mallet is still home to Europe's largest cider plant, producing Blackthorn Cider, Gaymer’s Olde English cider, and Babycham.
There have been recent improvements to the town centre and further redevelopment is planned. Shepton Mallet has plenty of tourist accommodation, cafés, restaurants and entertainment venues. The annual Mid-Somerset Show is held on fields on the edge of the town. In addition, the four day long Royal Bath and West Show is held at nearby Evercreech. The Glastonbury Festival, which is the largest music festival in Europe, is held about 2 miles from town, in the village of Pilton.