Watchet lies on the coast, west of the small Hamlet of Doniford about 9 miles east of Minehead. Watchet has its own Town Council and a population of over 3,500. There are two museums in Watchet; Market House museum, which is open from Easter to the end of September, is the museum housed in the Old Market House and upstairs can be found the Old Chapel. The building also used to house the town jail. The museum has many interesting artifacts which reflect the history of Watchet and the surrounding area. There is also the Watchet Boat Museum which concentrates on Watchet’s Maritime history. This museum is housed in the old goods shed of the West Somerset Railway. Here there is the world’s largest collection of Somerset Flatners, flat bottom boats which were used all over Somerset to carry goods on the rivers and levels.
Today the town has a good collection of shops, inns and restaurants. There are a number of places to stay including a couple of camp sites on the edge of the town. The town has a very good recreation ground just off the Doniford Road on the eastern side of the town, There is a first school for children aged 5 to 9 years. The Esplanade on the edge of the harbour houses the local library and also a Tourist information office.
Watchet grew around the mouth of the river Washford and, at one time, it was possible to sail quite a way up the river but the culvert made this impossible. Today the harbour is home to mainly pleasure boats especially since the opening of the new marina which was completed in 2001. The harbour has had quite a checkered history, being destroyed by storms on more than one occasion.
There has been human settlement in and around Watchet since pre-historic times. The remains of an iron age fort, Daws Castle, lies on top of the cliffs on the western edge of the town, a large potion of the site has been washed away by the sea and winter storms. The name of Watchet “Waeced” is believed to be Celtic for the settlement “beneath the wood”.
In the 9th century the town had its own royal mint and was an important port in Alfred the Great's time (871-901). In 918, 977, 988 and 997 Vikings raided and attacked causing great fear and damage. Just a few miles inland from the town, not far from Williton, there was a great battle against the Vikings (Danes). This legend gave the local Middle school, Danesfield, its name because, rumour has it, that the school is built on the said battle field.
In 1170 two of the area’s Knights were involved in the tragic murder of St Thomas Becket, the then Archbishop of Canterbury. Richard Brito (Brett) and Reginald FitzUrse, together with William de Tracy and Hugh de Morville, believed that they were doing King Henry the second a service by this deed. They had been at his court in northern Normandy when Henry had in a fit of temper shouted...
“A curse! A curse on all false varlets and traitors I have nursed and promoted in my household, who let their lord be mocked with such shameful contempt by a low born priest!”
(Written in Caturbury by Edward Grim, a monk who knew Becket personally and wrote his biography in 1175-7,)
The result of their action, Becket's murder, led to the disgraced knights and their families doing a number of penances, one of which was to build a Chantry chapel in the centre of Watchet and the building of St Decuman’s Church, which Richard Brito and Reginald FitzUrse then gave to Wells Cathedral. Their families went on to give land to atone for their relations’ evil deed.
In the 18th century the farmer at Snailholt farm used his apple crushing machine to make paper and in the 1750’s a paper mill was built. There is still a paper mill today and it has become the biggest business in the town.
Knights Templar School
CofE/Methodist First School
The school was opened in June 1990, to replace Watchet’s two primary schools, St Decuman’s church school and Watchet County First School. The two schools were in old buildings one Victorian and the other completed in 1909 and were no longer really suitable. The new school was build on land originally given to the Order of the Knights Templar by Reginald FitzUrse in penance for his murderous deed. The school has about 270 pupils aged from 5years to 9 years. From here the children go to Danesfield Middle School in Williton then, at aged 13, to West Somerset Community College.
West Somerset Railway
A station lies in the centre of Watchet, opened in 1862 at the time it was the terminus of the West Somerset Railway. The opening of the railway to Watchet was greeted with great celebrations, Brass bands playing and a great dinner for all worthies in the evening. Because it was the terminus there was also a large goods shed built (Now the Watchet Boat Museum) together with a locomotive turntable sited at the docks which was connected to the track. The Paper mill had a rail connection to the track completed in 1929. Because this was the end of the line the station building was built at right angels to the track facing the road. In 1874 the line was extended westward to Minehead. The line was closed in 1971 but reopened as part of the restored West Somerset Railway in 1976. The Railway is popular with residents and visitors alike.
West Somerset Mineral Railway
The mineral line from the Brendon Hills finished at the port; it was from here than the ore was transported to the foundries of Wales. The ore was taken from the hills and transported by railway to the port, the line had the steepest incline and was only in use for 40 years. In 1907 the mine was reopened for a short time but again failed because of cheaper imports and the line was finally closed in 1910. The remains of the line can be still seen today and the track alignment is laid out as a walk way between watchet and Washford. Known as “The Old Mineral Line”. It was quite an amazing engineering achievement.
Up until 2000 the harbour was still being used by commercial boats but, due to the cost of upkeep, it was agreed that the harbour should be turned into a marina and the port was de-commissioned by a Harbour Revision Order and work was commenced to turn the port into a marina for pleasure craft.
Many local people had been against the plan but after a public enquiry the Harbour was decommissioned. Watchet Boat owners’ association has it’s own web site www.wboa.co.uk which gives the contact details about moorings boat storage as well as shipping and transport facilities.
The harbour has had a checkered history and due to the power of the sea was destroyed on a number of occasions. In 1860’s the harbour was rebuilt, one of the engineers originally asked to submit designs was Sir Isambard Kingdom Brunel but his design was too expensive for the townsfolk who went for the cheapest option.
1900 saw the harbour again being badly damaged by floods this time it resulted in the formation of Watchet Urban District Council which took over the running of the Harbour and town from St Decuman’s parish. This was the only way funds could be found to rebuild the harbour. The harbour was the lifeblood of the town enabling many trades to flourish.
Pirates were a problem in the Bristol Channel and one Watchet Sailor, George Eskott, earnt the thanks of his King by capturing some of them. In the 17th century, during the reign of King James I, there was a pirate by the name of Thomas Salkeld who with his gang of cutthroats had a stronghold on Lundy Island. From here they attacked and captured many merchant ships together with their crews. They might have remained here were it not for this one brave Watchet sailor.
George and the rest of his crew were attacked and their ships cargo which included casks of brandy was taken to Lundy, here the sailors were imprisoned. George was a canny man and didn’t want to remain imprisoned, so he talked the others into trying to escape. He knew that the pirates would find the brandy and he waited until the pirates were well and truly drunk. Then he led an attack on Salkeld’s mansion, because the pirates were all drunk they were no match for George and the other imprisoned sailors. George fought with Salkeld armed only with a shovel but he managed to win, breaking the pirate’s arm. The victorious sailors trussed up the pirates and next day transported them aboard George Eskott's ship to the mainland. The Pirates were handed over to the authorities. The majority of the pirates were later hanged. George Eskott was rewarded by the King with a pension of 18 pence a day. A good sum for those days.
Smuggling was certain rife in the town, as a number of incidents record. In the later part of the 17th century smuggling was such a serious problem that King Charles II had his Surveyor-General of Customs make a tour of inquiry around Watchet and the surrounding district. Culliforde’s report makes interesting reading for it seems that a quite a number of people were involved from the Lords of the manor down. The result of such free trading on the inhabitants of Watchet was recorded:
“ From being beggars within these ten years the whole town has grown exceeding rich and now have as great an overseas trade as Minehead… At Watchet it was found that several small vessels had no other business but that of running goods, and that the collector of customs there usually sat drinking with the masters of ships while gangs of men were unloading them.”
The collector of customs was William Dashwood who was in league with the smugglers and was often to be found drinking in one or other of the local inns, the "Blue Anchor" or "The Ships Tavern". Mr Perry, Dashwood's assistant, informed against his master as Culliforde reported and as a result Dashwood was suspended and Perry appointed in his place. Culliforde’s report concludes:
“and for as much as the said Mr Perry for making the discovery and doeing the Kings service, has begotten himselfe a generall hatred throughout the town of Watchett (which belongs to Sir William Windham who patronizes them in all their actings) and for the said Perry is a person well qualified for the said service, but I cannot but humbly offer he may be established in the room of William Dashwood suspended”
(History of Watchet by A.L. Wedlake)
St Decuman’s Church
Saint Decuman, a celtic saint, was supposed to have arrived at Watchet from Wales. He is said to have sailed across on a homemade raft, with his cow. One of the locals took exception to him and cut off his head! The saint took up his head washed it in the well and put it back on! There is another legend concerning the position of the church so far from the town centre. Every day the stones used to build the church at the bottom of the hill, as intended, were mysteriously moved each night to the top. This is a very common story and many churches that exist today on top of hills have a similar legend attached to them.
The Church can be found on the edge of the town overlooking the harbour. This is someway out of the centre of Watchet but it is here because of the Holy Well, which was the place of worship before the coming of the Christian faith. Partly because of the position of the church, the Holy Cross Chapel was built by Richard Brito and Reginald FitzUrse in the centre of the town. Today the Chapel also houses Watchet’s Museum on the ground floor; the building was rebuilt in 1833 and still holds daily church services.
The present Church building is one of the largest in the area, mainly Perpendicular in style and was developed from an earlier 13th century building. The tower is in three stages and battlemented, on the south side there is a niche which contains a figure holding a cross supposed to be St Decuman. An unusual feature is the pavement of the south porch whidh is made up of old roof tiles set vertically into the ground. The oldest part of the building is that of the chancel parts, which are of the 13th century - the tiles are a good example possibly made locally at Cleeve Abbey, as they are very like the ones in the refectory at the abbey. The church has a beautiful waggon roof, the one on the south aisle is 15th Century, with ornamental carved bosses.
The north aisle is known as the Wyndham chapel and contains a number of monuments to the family who lived at Kentsford (The last member of the family is now in her 80’s and lives in Williton). The monumental brasses are those of Sir John Wyndham (1574), his wife Elizabeth (1571), and his son John (1572) with his wife Florence (1596). These brasses are very good for their amazing details of 16th Century costume. Florence Wyndham is famous locally she has even had a poem written about her. Her story is quite unusual. The legend goes that a year after her marriage she was taken ill, and died, she was taken to the church to be entombed in the family vault. That night the sexton, a poor man, crept up to the tomb and opened the lid to take the gold rings from her fingers, but he couldn't pull the rings off so he decided to cut the finger off. As he started cutting he was horrified to see blood, and her body move. He immediately fled the scene never to be seen in watchet again. Florence now wide awake picked up the lantern left by the sexton and walked down the path from the church to her house at Kentsford. It is said that she had great difficulty in persuading her household that she was not a ghost. Not long after this she gave birth to a son from whom the family has descended. The poem about this event was written by Lewis H Court a vicar of the church, he called it “Lady Wyndhams return”. Here are a couple of verses
“ He seized the slender fingers white
And stiff in their repose
Then sought to file the circlet through;
When, to his horror, blood he drew,
And the fair sleeper rose
She sat a moment, gazed around ,
Then, great was her surprise,|
And sexton, startled, saw at a glance
This was not death, but a deep trance,
And madness leapt to his eyes.
The stagnant life steam in her veins
Again began to flow:
She felt the sudden quickening,
For her it was a joyous thing ,
For him a fearsome woe.”
The rood screen on the south side is 15th century and was once brightly painted. The pulpit and the sounder board are 17th century. The north aisle is slightly different from the south, it was built with money from Joan Syndenham in about 1498, she also gave money to rebuild the tower. The three windows above the alter and the east window were designed by a master mason from Watchet. The font is also 15th century and would have been brightly painted, the carvings are finely done. There are 6 bells, the first is dated 1896 and bears an inscription:
“ I lead in the melodious sound from hill and dale our pleasing notes resound.”
It was cast by John Loughbrough. The second bell dated 1723, cast by E.E.Bell, is inscribed:
“Come let us sing for church and King”
The third bell could have come from Cleeve Abby after the dissolution and was cast in 1440/50 by a Robert Norton, it’s inscription is in latin. The 4th bell dated 1723, inscribed:
“Peace and good neighbour”
whilst the 5th one is listed, because of it’s makers Apsey and Bickham, and is dated 1671. The 6th bell is known as “The Passing Bell” because it used to be rung when someone was dying. The bells are in demand by visiting bell ringers.
The church is quite spacious and well maintained. For more information there is a book on the churches history available in the church (Saint Decuman by David Ireson, where this information was taken)
Every year Watchet hosts its annual carnival which involves the whole town and attracts many visitors to the area. The carnival is usually held during the last week in July. Web site
The small hamlet lies west of West Quantoxhead, in 1925 the low cliffs were taken over by the army training camp. They were welcome by the council but immediately the army restricted access to the beach, which came as a blow to the local fishermen as it became impossible for them to continue the centuries old industry. By the 1930 there was a continual army presence with the building of an gun range on the cliffs. The army was finally driven away by the erosion of the cliffs by the sea which undermined the gun bases and it was thought to be too dangerous to continue, so the army left the bay in the early 1960’s. The remains of the concrete bases can now be seen resting on the beach. Doniford today is now home to a Haven holiday village which restricts local access to the beach!