A bright future for Bridgwater
PUBLISHED: 15:18 11 February 2019 | UPDATED: 15:18 11 February 2019
It's not had the best reputations but Bridgwater is fast building a bright future, discovers Chrissy Harris
To be fair, I didn’t pick a great day to see Bridgwater in its best possible light. In fact, there wasn’t much light at all.
Torrential downpours and howling gales made everything look pretty grey and gloomy.
Bridgwater has struggled to shake off its rather downmarket image over the years, not helped by the fact it used to smell pretty bad, apparently.
Residents here still recall the distinctive odour from the nearby Cellophane factory (now closed).
So here I was with wet feet and rubbish hair in a place which used to get right up peoples’ noses.
But then I met some locals whose passion for this town genuinely lifted my spirits.
They talked about a bright future and new businesses working together to make Bridgwater a destination, not just somewhere you drive past on the M5.
One of these enthusiastic ambassadors is Holly Buckingham, who has opened a super-cool independent coffee shop in what was the Watergate Hotel in West Quay.
Holly was born and bred here, moved away for a while but then came back to launch her business.
“People would come in, see the décor and say, do you think Bridgwater is ready for this?” says Holly, recalling the raised eyebrows before the upmarket-looking White Feather Coffee opened its doors in November 2017. “I said to them, yeah, it is! Bridgwater has had this bad reputation in the past but there are so many people coming in and bringing a different vibe. Things are definitely changing.”
Of course, one of the most significant developments here is the arrival of the nuclear power station Hinkley Point C, which has created employment and boosted the whole area’s profile.
New housing and commercial developments have followed, including a hotel and retail park.
“But change has got to come from within,” says Holly, who believes it’s up to the people who live here to realise Bridgwater’s potential and tap into its community spirit, something she’s seen first hand.
Holly’s husband Luke, manager of Bridgwater Town’s football reserve team and a coach at Bridgwater College’s Team BC, died from leukaemia in 2015 aged just 30. Just before he passed away, the town came out to support a charity cricket match held in his honour.
“There were about 1,000 people there,” says Holly, 34. “I remember looking out over it all and thinking, you just don’t get that anywhere else. That’s a Bridgwater thing, that level of community.”
Getting together is part of life here. The town’s famous carnival is said to be one of the largest of its kind in Europe. There are also big turnouts at Bridgwater Fair in September and at the Quayside Festival in July.
“We should be proud of what we’ve got,” says Rose Stacey, who runs Timeless Images photography studio in Cornhill. Rose is also a member of the Town Team, a group of local shops and businesses working to promote Bridgwater.
“Nine years ago, this town was going downhill,” she says, talking about empty buildings and low morale. “We all got together and thought, right, we’re not having this.”
The Town Team, which includes staff from Hinkley Point, Sedgemoor District Council, plus the local Chamber of Commerce and independent retailers, was formed to boost Bridgwater’s appeal and generally ‘get stuff done’.
“We have a drive to make things better,” says Rose. “We’ve put lights on the town bridge so it looks really pretty. We’ve just spent £130,000 on new bins and seats and we put on free events. It’s about doing something for everybody.”
No one is pretending that change will be straightforward. Bridgwater has a high reliance on food banks and there are deep pockets of deprivation that no amount of pretty lighting will change.
But there’s also a lot to shout about. This is an architecturally attractive, friendly, culturally diverse place, proud of its history but also willing to look forward.
“I think it’s on the up,” says Emma Rathbone, sales manager at the recently opened Mercure Hotel in Eastover. She says the hotel plans initially faced some opposition but now many locals are coming in to enjoy the Marco Pierre White Steakhouse bar and grill.
“These things always take time but once people can see something is a success, they start to think, ok, can we handle more of this?” says Emma, who spent months meeting local residents and businesses in the run up to the hotel opening in November.
“Bridgwater is very unique,” she adds. “The folk here are very passionate about their town.”
Holly agrees. “Oh, I’m really proud to be here,” she says, looking around her busy cafe. “Everything’s going really well. There’s a lot of positivity around at the moment.”
Eat, drink, shop and visit...
• The Purplespoon Café in the George Williams Centre has just won best family dining at the Somerset Life Food and Drink Awards.
• The Cow n Bun in High Street won best newcomer.
• The Spice Club in Eastover has just won best in the South West at the Asian Restaurant and Take Away Awards.
• Pay a visit to the EDF Hinkley Point visitor centre in Angel Place shopping centre. There is plenty for kids – and adults - to do and learn.
• The Cornhill Indoor Market is worth a look.
• The arts centre in Castle Street has a packed programme of theatre, music and visual arts, activities and classes.
• Blake Museum in Blake Street, is full of local history.
• And walk over the Black Telescopic Bridge, built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1871 to link the railway line to the historic Bridgwater Docks.