Wincanton, Somerset: Coaching Inns and Curiosities - Somerset Towns
PUBLISHED: 14:24 22 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:35 20 February 2013
Malcolm Rigby explores Wincanton in beautiful Somerset, a town that has received visitations from William of Orange, Queen Victoria, Desert Orchid and hundreds of French prisoners of war.
A visit to Wincanton transports you half a step back in time and half a step into fiction, with the towns most unusual claim to fame entirely fictional as well as being twinned with Gennes/Les Rosiers in France and Lahnau in Germany, it is also twinned with Ankh-Morpork, a city in Terry Patchetts Discworld novels. In honour of this bizarre association, certain road names, such as Peach Pie Street and Treacle Mine Road, have been changed to mirror the mythical place.
At the quaint little town museum I meet up with the Curator, John Atkins. Its a strange collection of stuffed ducks, dictaphones and materials relating to the dairy industry so important to the area. Theres a propeller from the American plane that came down in 1944 just outside Wincanton, and a picture of the destroyed National Westminster hit by a German bomb during the war, which killed the bank managers daughter as well as destroying the records of the Somerset and Dorset Canal (the canal that never was). One room is dedicated to the Victorian kitchen of Hannah and Percy Day and their eight children, who actually lived there. The museum was set up here on the High Street more than a quarter of a century ago; the location was supposed to be temporary but its still here and the future is still uncertain.
We walk briefly up the hill towards the old tollhouse; there used to be two gates, one for the road to London and one for the Shaftesbury direction. Situated exactly halfway between Plymouth and London, Wincanton was an important staging post in the 17th and 18th centuries, and evidence of this is the abundance of old coaching inns with the familiar archways. Coming back down we encounter the thatched Uncle Toms Cabin, the Dolphin Hotel, the White Horse dated 1733, the Bear Inn and the Greyhound, where Queen Victoria stayed as a child.
1556 was a significant year for the town, as this was when it received its Fairs and Markets Charter, courtesy of Queen Mary the Charter signalled a new era of prosperity for the area. Evidence can still be seen of where the fences used to be fixed to contain the sheep, but today the Market Place is quiet, dominated by the gently imposing town hall, built in 1878 then restored a century later, and the yellow post office.
Looking along North Street you can see the National School, created in the 1830s, but we continue downhill along Mill Street. John tells me that it is probably the oldest street in town; it is quite possibly also the prettiest. At the bottom is a builders merchant on the spot where the old mill used to reside and on the other side the River Cale that originally powered it. The town was mentioned in the Domesday Book as Wincaleton, and 53 other spellings of the name have been found. But Puffy Bowden, the man responsible for establishing the museum, suggested that the name really means pleasant town on the River Cale win (pleasant) can (Cale) ton (town).
Heading in the other direction you come across the parish church of St Peter and St Paul the tower is the oldest part, dating back to the 14th century, but largely what you see is a rebuild from Victorian times following a description from the diocesan architect as one of the ugliest in the county. In the north porch is a lovely old sculpture of St Eligius, the patron saint of farriers. The story goes that a misbehaving horse was proving so difficult to shoe that the saint took over the task. He removed the horses leg before re-shoeing it in peace and then restored the leg to its place on the horse. The carving shows the saint by the forge fire with the detached leg in his hand. Rediscovered by Victorians, the sculpture is peculiarly appropriate for a town boasting a racecourse. There have been steeplechases held in Wincanton since the beginning of the 19th century, but the present location, on the road to Bruton, goes back to 1927. Its a popular rural course, particularly on the Boxing Day meeting, that enjoyed successful visits from the famous Desert Orchid.
Outside the church are some interesting gravestones and memorials. In the early 19th century about 400 French prisoners of war were billeted in the town; two of the captured soldiers died and their gravestone is easily detected by their distinctly French names. Here you will also find the headless monument created by and for Nathaniel Ireson, businessman, architect and potter, who was responsible for many of the buildings in the town following the great fire of 1707. Examples of his pottery are held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. On leaving the graveyard you will see a stone with an incomplete pillar in memory of a youth whose life was sadly cut short.
Continuing up Church Street I am struck by the differing styles and shapes of the buildings; John points out one in particular, on the front of which you can just make out the weathered sign Temperance Hotel. On the right-hand side as you make your way down South Street are the two Catholic churches, one old, one not so new. Behind them is the tall Carmelite Priory, which has now been converted into residential use, but is distinctive in that one wall is totally void of windows, so that the monks would not be able to look down on the town. The other side of the street boasts the very 30s former Plaza Cinema, now the Wincanton Community Church, and the old Manor House. These days the manor is known as The Dogs because there was a dog in the old family coat of arms and there is also a dog carving above one of the entrances. It was here that William of Orange stayed on his way to take up the throne in 1688, the room he used is known as the Orange Room and contains some interesting murals thought to have been painted by the French prisoners of war, or possibly even earlier. A battle also took place in the town on Williams behalf against soldiers loyal to the deposed King James II. From here we round the priory to discover the wonderfully secretive alley of Angel Lane and arrive back at the High Street.
John says affectionately of Wincanton: Its a funny old place, but over the years Ive got quite fond of it. A funny old place but friendly. There used to be a trade brochure around saying Wincanton the town of the future, but it hasnt quite got there yet. When I came here people used to say, Its 30 years behind the times, this town: it probably still is. What he means, of course, is that it still retains an old style charm.
From April to September the museum is open every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday between 10am and 12.30pm.
It is also possible to arrange special visits for schools and organisations outside of those times by contacting the Curator, John Atkins.
Over the past year, the museum has presented an extremely interesting and well-attended series of lectures on historical subjects, such as Jane Tapleys lecture on the History of Pantomime as well as From Field to Feast, Jenny Peets lighthearted view of Tudor food, the social history, the etiquette of eating and the magnificent menus.