The history behind Wincanton
PUBLISHED: 11:04 07 April 2015
Andrea Cowan takes a gallop through the history of Wincanton
I’ve driven around Wincanton countless times, skirting the town’s edges to access the A303. But I admit that I’ve never taken the time to explore the town centre. So I was intrigued when I was asked to delve into its history.
Where better to start than the Wincanton Museum and history society? Committee member, John Baxter, met me at the small museum attached to Wincanton library and took me through the impressive computerised archive.
Wincanton’s history is peppered by a wealth of interesting points of reference, starting with the discovery of its oldest recorded resident: the skull of a young man, with perfect teeth, from approximately 4,500 years ago, buried with tools and a beautiful beaker on Windmill Hill.
It was mentioned in 1086 in the Domesday Book – with the spelling Wincaleton. The River Cale flows through Wincanton giving rise to the origins of the name meaning ‘pleasant town by the river’ i.e. win (pleasant) cale (the River Cale) ton (town). The historical importance of the river still resonates today and a community action group has been set up to return it to its former glory (rivercale.org).
Mill Street, probably the oldest and prettiest street in the town, leads from the Market Place down to where the old mill once stood. Like many towns in Somerset wool was an important industry, in addition to silk and linen. You can still see houses with wide loom windows, designed to maximise daylight hours for the weavers.
The year 1556 was significant for Wincanton as Queen Mary granted a charter enabling the town to hold two annual fairs and a market alternate Wednesdays. This signalled a prosperous new era. In a nod to its past, a Sunday Market is still held every month.
The town had a gory link with the Monmouth Rebellion and the subsequent Glorious Revolution. In 1685 the Duke of Monmouth led a rebellion in the South West against King James II which resulted in six men hanged, drawn and quartered in Wincanton.
In 1688, William of Orange landed in Devon and marched towards London to take up the throne. A party of his men went ahead to Wincanton to procure horses and battled with some King’s soldiers who were stationed there. The site of the skirmish was between Flingers Lane and Ireson Lane and thought to be, as John says: “the last battle to take place on English soil from an invading army.”
William followed on and stayed at The Dogs, a handsome Grade II listed manor house in Wincanton, named after two stone greyhound gatepost finials. The bedroom was subsequently known as the Orange Room. The interior of the house was redesigned by the famous architect, Nathaniel Ireson, who lived in Wincanton from around 1726. He rebuilt a great part of the town following devastating fires in 1707 and 1747.
Wincanton is the mid-point between Plymouth and London. From the late 18th century this strategic position for both coaching routes, and later the railway, ensured a long period of prosperity. This is still evident in the wide streets in the town centre, lined by former coaching inns with their familiar archways. Walk through the town and you can still see, and drink at, the thatched Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Dolphin Hotel, the White Horse, the Grade II listed Bear Inn and The Greyhound, where Queen Victoria stayed as a child.
During the Napoleonic Wars Wincanton was one of 50 English towns used as a base for captured French officers. On ‘parole’ rather than prisoners, the 350 officers could access their money from France and spend it in the town.
Buildings and developments continued to shape the town. Cow & Gate (later Unigate) built a milk factory to the south of the town centre in the 1930s. A large three-storey glass and brick building, it is a fantastic example of industrial architecture for that time and is still in use today by local furniture company, Myakka.
The railway closed in 1966 and the A303 bypass was completed in the 1990s. This could have rung a death knell for the town centre but an exciting re-generation of the high street has seen an influx of unique and specialist independent shops, with buildings restored with thought and care. Next time you are heading for the A303 I urge you to bear left and visit the town.
Hunting was a favourite past-time in Somerset. So perhaps it is not surprising that Wincanton is credited as hosting the first national steeple chase hunt at the beginning of the 19th century.
Further steeple chases were then held between the 1860s and 1913 at its site on Hatherleigh Farm.
Racing was postponed during both World War One and then in 1925 it was moved to its current site at Kingwell Farm. During World War Two the racecourse was used as a military base; it held its first post-war meeting in October 1945. Now a popular rural course, Wincanton Racecourse hosts 17 jumps between October and May, which attract top equestrians and National Hunt racers from all over the country. Desert Orchid has been a visitor.
Hunting was a favourite past-time in Somerset. So perhaps it is not surprising that Wincanton is credited as hosting the first national steeple chase hunt at the beginning of the 19th century. Further steeple chases were then held between the 1860s and 1913 at its site on Hatherleigh Farm.
Racing was postponed during both World War I and then in 1925 it was moved to its current site at Kingwell Farm. During World War II the racecourse was used as a military base; it held its first post-war meeting in October 1945.
Now a popular rural course, Wincanton Racecourse hosts 17 jumps between October and May which attract top equestrians and National Hunt racers from all over the country - Desert Orchid has been a visitor.