An Insider's Guide to... Taunton

PUBLISHED: 14:12 03 January 2012 | UPDATED: 20:50 20 February 2013

St Mary Magdalene Church

St Mary Magdalene Church

Malcolm Rigby describes a town that has experienced a donkey who liked a view, a shoe-eating soldier and a serious amount of attitude

Malcolm Rigby describes a town that has experienced a donkey who liked a view, a shoe-eating soldier and a serious amount of attitude

Best known for...

Being the county town for Somerset and all that this entails. If Taunton was a bloke then he would like drinking cider, playing cricket, shopping and be rather proud of hosting the new county museum, because it is rather special. If Taunton was a bloke he would be like a responsible elder brother trying to provide everything for his siblings, culturally, physically and administratively, but he would also have a rebellious nature.

The streets of Taunton were strewn with flowers to welcome the arrival of the Duke of Monmouth in 1685. After the disastrous battle of Sedgemoor Judge Jeffreys came to the castle to try 526 rebels in the Bloody Assizes. Prior to that, during the civil war, the Castle and town was held in turn by both Royalist and then Parliamentarian forces during one siege the commander, and Cromwell loyalist, Robert Blake, announced that he had four pairs of boots left and he would eat three of them before he yielded. Even after the restoration of the monarchy anti-Royalist feelings led to unpaid taxes and Charles II had to order his troops to deal with the factious town of Taunton. For centuries monarchs avoided the place like the plague.

To acknowledge that spirit of independence one room of the revamped museum in the Castle is devoted specifically to rebellion. In fact, it is the actual room where the Monmouth rebels were incarcerated before their trial and a particular exhibit of interest is the medical bill for one Judge Jeffreys.

Simple pleasures

Residents of the town are pleased to have a joined-up vision of the future in the form of Project Taunton, part of whose brief is to make full advantage of the Tone, so take a stroll along the river. If you head west through French Weir Park, you will discover the recently created unique and brilliant Willow Cathedral in Longrun Meadow. Come back and chillax at Somerset Place with its huge public art of a kingfishers nest.

Vivary Park so called because it stands on land that was once the fish farm or vivarium of the castle at the bottom of the High Street is a tremendous asset to have so close to the centre. The 19-acre site has bowls, golf and tennis, or you can just feed the ducks at the lake and maybe catch some music at the bandstand.

Hidden treasures

At the very centre of the town, but disguised as a coffee shop (Caff Nero) is the oldest house in Taunton the Tudor front is dated 1578, but the internal structure is said to be 14th century.

Another gem, but also not quite hidden, because its spire looms over the surrounding area, is St Magdalenes Church. Inside there is a fine wooden ceiling, which has golden angels looking down upon you, but it is the 163-foot colourful tower that is most magnificent. In the 1860s, the column was deemed unsafe and had to be rebuilt stone by stone. Apparently a donkey was used to operate the pulley system to raise the stone, and when the job was completed the donkey was carried to the top so that it could take in the view that it had created.

Bath Place is fab, without a doubt, and truly hidden. As Tourist Information Centre Manager, Andrew Hopkins, said: "Bath Place has an astonishing collection of galleries, independent shops and eating establishments. If you just walked up and down the High Street you wouldnt know to try there, youd just think it was a back alley, when in fact theres an amazing book shop, local producers, and a country market three or four days a week."

Hot tips

Go to the museum! On this everyone concurs, and with good reason. Think of your traditional image of a museum, musty and dusty, dry and dour, then think of the opposite and you have the totally refurbished Somerset County Museum. Its bright, its sparkling, its imaginative and creative, its interactive and playful... and it tells you the story of Somerset. Highlights have to include the Frome Hoard; the Tree of Somerset, created from a Quantock Hill oak, it is beautiful, tactile and evocative; then theres the ethereal figure of a woman who floats mysteriously over the Roman mosaic floor; and the circular reflective room where you can peruse some quotes from famous Somerset folk such as T.S. Elliott and S.T. Coleridge.

Business Development Manager at Somerset Heritage Service, Carrie Blogg, said: "The reaction has been fantastic; we had nearly 20,000 visitors in the first four weeks of opening, which is beyond our wildest expectations. I think particularly because of the Frome Hoard, which has really captured the publics imagination; visitors are coming from all across Somerset and beyond specifically to see the coins, they get here and they realise what a wonderful place this is."

Caroline Corfe, Chair of the Taunton and District Civic Society, said: "I really love the independent nature of the town its little shops and cafs, and vibrancy of community life. My favourite cafs at the moment are Roots a cosy caf in the High Street with locally sourced food and art on the walls and the Flying Aubergine for meetings upstairs overlooking the river. If were going out well probably go to the Plough, which is a nice little local pub down by the station, quite low key but with real ales and not overly gentrified by any means.

"The Heritage Centre in Somerset was recently opened at Silk Mills free access to anyone who wants to find out more about their family tree or local area in Somerset."

Carrie Blogg says: "Come for afternoon tea and cake in the museum caf and sit in the lovely courtyard of Taunton castle, which is a space of peace and tranquillity away from the hurly burly of the town centre and just enjoy this wonderful historic space right at the heart of the county town."

Mandy Richards, who runs the interior design emporium Village World, recommended: "County Stores, a very, very old shop that has been there probably a hundred years (in fact established 1836). Its very much like having our own Fortnum and Masons in Taunton, and I know when my friends come they love going in there just because its an old fashioned store thats been there for years and hasnt really changed a lot. They sell everything you could get in Harrods and people do love it."

Latest from the Somerset Life