Bridgwater: A diamond in the rough
PUBLISHED: 11:50 13 March 2018
Often overlooked in favour of its more illustrious neighbours, Bridgwater has a wealth of riches too, just waiting to be discovered, says Laurence Mcjannet
Don’t let Bridgwater fool you. A casual observer might dismiss the place as another industrialised former market town stripped of character and charm. But you only need to wander into the heart of this thriving community on the banks of the River Parrett to discover evidence of its former glory and to realise how vital a place it is. From a distance, a clue to its fascinating history points skyward. The spire of the 14-century Church of St Mary, on which site a place of worship has stood for almost 1,000 years, can be seen for miles around and hints at historic hidden gems to be found within the town walls.
Situated on the edge of the Somerset Levels, south of the Mendips and east of the Quantock Hills, Bridgwater is surrounded by verdant countryside. It is best known for its annual carnival, but has so much more to offer than the 400-year-old event that has come to define it.
For although this vibrant illuminated procession, claimed to be the biggest in Europe, steals the show each autumn, once the music and lights have faded and thousands of revellers have departed, there is plenty to be found here that exudes a more subtle radiance.
A 14th-century screen work in St Mary’s Church, traces of wattle and daub in ancient buildings like the vicarage, fine Georgian architecture around Castle Street or a painting rescued from a 17th-century Spanish galleon; these are just some of the secrets that an exploration of the town will reveal.
Many of the street names hint at its Medieval past, when a castle and walled fortifications dominated Bridgwater. Castle Moat, King Square, Northgate and Queen Street can all be found in what is now the most pleasant district, on the west bank of the river, but all hark back to a darker time when Bridgwater lay besieged.
Situated on an ancient border between the Saxons and Britons, this 1000-year-old settlement has often been the site of skirmishes and battles. It was almost completely destroyed during the English Civil War and was embroiled soon after in events surrounding the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685 and the ensuing Battle of Sedgemoor.
Where once a castle lay, grand 17th century properties now proudly stand, as well as England’s first Arts Centre, which opened in 1946 and still produces a varied programme of events and exhibitions. King Square, Chandos Street and Castle Street have a fine array of almost identical early Georgian terraces. The residence of their architect, Benjamin Holloway, can be found a stone’s throw away on West Quay, a splendid house dating from 1723, with grand steps leading up to its columned facade. The Lion House, as it is known, is one of 22 historic blue plaque properties in Bridgwater. Another plaque, though black, marks the red-brick Unitarian Chapel in Dampiet St, where writer Samuel Taylor Coleridge once preached (the long-distance Coleridge Way footpath begins in nearby Nether Stowey, winding west over the Quantocks, Brendon Hills and Exmoor to Porlock, across the land that inspired him to write Kubla Khan and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner).
The River Parrett Trail is another scenic waymarked route for those who like to wander, which runs from its source in the Dorset hills to its mouth at Stern Point on the Bristol Channel, winding through Bridgwater’s centre along the way. Sustran’s National Cycle Network routes 3 and 33 follow the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal and river alike through the town, giving cyclists traffic-free access to Glastonbury and Wells along the Levels or to Ilminster and Chard along the picturesque banks of the Parrett and Taunton along the peaceful canal towpath.
A hive of industry
There are reminders aplenty along the town’s docks and quays, now converted into sought-after apartments, of Bridgwater’s importance as a trading post, where once wine was imported from Bordeaux and coal from South Wales, or grains, beans, hides and cloth loaded up for export abroad.
On Cornhill, by the town’s high street, a century-old statue of Bridgwater’s most famous son, General-at-Sea Robert Blake, is a proud reminder of the town’s historic maritime connections too. One of Cromwell’s greatest admirals, he now has a street, museum and pleasure garden named after him. The Blake Gardens are a peaceful oasis in a busy town, set between the Blake Museum and the Parrett, and nowadays the site of summer-long annual music festival.
Behind Blake’s statue are the handsome dome and pillars of the 200-year-old Market House, overlooking an unusually wide high street. Before it was built there was an island of shambles and shops here called Cock Row, but these were soon demolished as the Market House became the centre for local trade. Several ship building yards opened around the time too, but Bridgwater’s principal industry remained ornamental brick and tile making until its decline in the 1960s. The Brick and Tile Museum on East Quay (swheritage.org.uk) is well worth a visit, the free exhibition affording a fascinating insight into the town’s 19th century heyday.
The success of the canal, meanwhile, was more short-lived. Briefly a hub of commercial activity, its usefulness was curtailed with the arrival of the railway. Opened in 1827, it was extended to meet the new dock opened on the north side of town in 1841. The once-telescopic Black Bridge, which withdrew to the east bank to allow ships to pass upriver but now lies fixed, is a reminder of what caused the canal’s decline, ceasing commercial traffic in 1907.
Fortunately residents and visitors can now benefit from the painstaking restoration of the canal as a leisure facility, with Sustrans amalgamating the towpath into its traffic-free network. The working locks are attractive features dotted along the waterway, with one particularly interesting.
Maunsel Lock is the centre of a large art installation called the Somerset Space Walk, a 53 million-to-one scale model of the solar system, with the planets located along the towpath in both directs. The sun can be found at Maunsel Lock and Pluto an 11km walk away at Taunton’s Brewhouse theatre.
Food for thought
One thing the town has plenty of are great places to eat, drink and stay. The Tudor Hotel in St Mary St does a wonderful range of homemade pies, fresh fish dishes and Cyprus-inspired cuisine, all locally sourced. The Old Vicarage, a 14th-century Grade II-listed property just down the street, has well appointed rooms that exude a peaceful, historic charm and ambience.
Nutmeg House in Clare Street prides itself on great coffee and Wild Rocket on the High Street offers a friendly welcome, excellent service and food that’s a cut above the rest. Just out of town the Walnut Tree Hotel offers a touch of luxury, both in its rooms and its modern British cuisine. So too the Bower Inn in East Bower, a fabulous 18th-century house set in picturesque cottage gardens.
For those looking to slake their thirst, then the Malt Shovel in Wembdon Road has a great selection of wines and cask ales. And early next year celebrity restaurateur Marco Pierre White will be opening his Steakhouse Bar and Grill in the new 118-room, four-star Mercure Hotel on Eastover.
Bridgwater certainly has something for everyone. In a way it’s quite fitting that the town has come to be defined by its Carnival, as well as the St Matthew’s Fair that precedes it. Both events are steeped in history – the Carnival was inspired by Guy Fawkes’ gunpowder plot (hence its proclivity for huge fireworks or ‘squibbs’), the fair dating back to 1249 and having been held on St Matthews Field since 1404.
Both are pillars of a town known historically for its politically radical tendencies. What that translates into nowadays is a place full of vibrant character and history at every turn, a rich history it embraces and celebrates to this day.