Discovering Bridgwater. Malcolm Rigby discovers a Somerset town that has always worked hard

PUBLISHED: 12:02 26 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:18 20 February 2013

The Docks

The Docks

Malcolm Rigby discovers the spirit of an early female pilgrim, a republican admiral, an inspired friar and a doomed yachtsman in Bridgwater - a Somerset town that has always worked hard. Photos by Neville Stanikk.

Malcolm Rigby discovers the spirit of an early female pilgrim, a republican admiral, an inspired friar and a doomed yachtsman in Bridgwater - a Somerset town that has always worked hard. Photos by Neville Stanikk.

If ever there was a town with an apt name it is Bridgwater because its history, financial base and traditions have always been in precisely that - bridges and water - and, in particular, the fast-flowing tidal River Parrett.

Local historian, vice-chairman on the civic society and co-ordinator of the town museum, Dr Peter Cattermole, tells me: "I like it because of its eccentricities, quirkiness and rich history. There are plenty of characters if you go looking for them, both alive and dead. There are some spectacular buildings, and some jolly nice friendly people - it's a very friendly town."

By agreement we rendezvous on the north side of the 13th-century St Mary's Church, and Peter proves his identity by displaying his umbrella, which has his name printed across it in large letters; I suspect he is himself one of the town's eccentricities. It was from the tower of this church that the Duke of Monmouth attempted to view the advance of the Royalist army just prior to his ill-fated come-uppance at the Battle of Sedgemoor. Before we pass through an alley onto the High Street, Peter points out a couple of medieval head sculptures - both in need of a nose job! He tells me that when looking around Bridgwater you need to always 'look up', and he's right, every building is different.

Continue a little further and you reach the impressive 1830s Grade I Listed Cornhill building that fronts the market place; opposite is a statue of Robert Blake. This is a man who is very important to the identity of the town. As well as the statue, there is a Blake Street, Blake Gardens, Blake Bridge and the Blake Museum. David Sebborn, a Blake expert, says: "He's significant in that he is the most important national figure to come out of Bridgwater. If you speak to anybody in the Navy then they will see him as the founding father of the English Navy. But he's not well known because he was a Republican, and the achievements of Cromwell's Republic were airbrushed out when Charles II return from exile in 1660. But the Navy that Nelson inherited at the end of the 18th century was basically what Blake and his colleagues had set up in the 1650s. They used the same systems almost to the letter. I always quote Nelson himself who actually said at one point: 'I shall never be the equal of Blake'."

Outside the arcade are a couple of girls, incongruously wearing wedding dresses and hiking boots whilst collecting for charity. Peter makes a donation and we nip down the side to reach the splendid Regency terrace of Angel Crescent. Adjoining is Clare Street, where a house bears one of the town's 24 blue plaques, paid for by a lottery fund grant, and the general consensus is that they have really increased people's awareness of local history. This particular one is for Isolda Parewastel, a 14th-century pilgrim who travelled to Jerusalem, was captured and tortured (hung naked upside down for a couple of days) by the Saracens, then escaped and fled back to Somerset after visiting the Pope in France, who gave her permission to build another altar in the local church.

A stone's throw away is the 'London-like' King's Square - a pleasant and peaceful oasis of garden dominated by the centrepiece war memorial, which has sadly just been updated to include the name of a victim of the Afghanistan conflict. The area was once the site of Bridgwater Castle, and two of the sides of the square are imposing magisterial terraces from the early 19th century, whilst another side, just by the Masonic Hall, has a building with bricks jutting out, indicating that it would have been continued had the money not run out.

Walking eastwards you encounter Castle Street, which has been described as the most perfect Georgian street in Somerset. Peter points out the differing and decorative doorways that must have proved a temptation to the successful merchants of the time, for the road still maintains a sense of splendour and tranquillity. In contrast, the oldest concrete building in the country is just around the corner; Castle House was built in 1851 as a folly, perhaps for the Festival of Britain, to demonstrate the versatility of the new building material and as an example of Bridgwater's industry. Despite appearing on the BBC's Restoration programme a few years ago, it is still covered in scaffolding and speculation continues about its future.

Coming out at the riverside along West Quay, turn left to find another of those blue plaques on Lions House, home to many of Bridgwater's mayors, but we go right and discover West Gate, an archway that is one of the few remaining pieces of the castle. It was here that the tariffs were collected as ships passed up and down the river - an historic place that looks a little seedy now and Peter is apparently forever cajoling the council to give it a facelift.
You pass a crane on the quayside before reaching the Town Bridge. Built in 1883 it replaced another iron bridge from the previous century, which in turn had superseded a three-arched stone bridge. 'Looking up' as you gaze down Fore Street you'll see a couple of dragons' heads peering out from the top of a chimney. Wandering on past the library we reach Blake Gardens, complete with bandstand, and the back end of the Blake Museum, where it is thought Blake was actually born. The building provides a history and archaeology of the area as well as paying tribute to the great man himself.

Possibly to appear a tad contentious, Peter disagrees that Blake is the most important figure to come out of Bridgwater. He puts his money on John Somer, a 14th-century Franciscan friar, who was a court astronomer, tutor to Chaucer's son, and wrote a calendar that governed the days of the year and which was used throughout the world for 400 years. "A quite outstanding man, who was nurtured in Bridgwater. Very few people know of him and although there is a book about him, it is rather obscure. In my view, in terms of breadth of intellect and interest, he is neglected but much more important than anybody else."
Other more recent famous residents include Lord King, who was Defence Secretary in Margaret Thatcher's government, and Donald Crowhurst, the businessman turned yachtsman, who tried to cheat in a round-the-world race by floating around in the Atlantic, before going mad and committing suicide.

Bridgwater has had its ups and downs, Peter tells me. One 'down' being the Black Death, which wiped out half the population, but the ups have included periods of great prosperity and industry on the back of the wool trade, bricks and tiles and, more recently, Cellophane. The smell that went with the Cellophane has now gone but the town is still thriving and there is plenty to admire. Just look up, and watch out for those blue plaques.

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