Taunton

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Taunton is the county town of Somerset, England. The town, including its suburbs, had an estimated population of 61,400 in 2001. It is the largest town in the shire county of Somerset.

The town has over 1,000 years of religious and military history, and is now undergoing a regeneration project. It has various transport links which support its central role in economy and commerce.

Taunton is the site of Musgrove Park Hospital and Somerset County Cricket Club’s County Ground and is home to 40 Commando, Royal Marines. Central Taunton is part of the annual West Country Carnival circuit. It hosts the Taunton flower show, which has been held in Vivary Park since 1866. The United Kingdom Hydrographic Office is located on Admiralty Way.

The town name derives from “Town on the River Tone” — or Tone Town. Cambria Farm which is now the site of a Park and ride close to Junction 25 of the M5 motorway was the site of a Bronze and Iron Age settlement and Roman farm. There was a Romano-British village near the suburb of Holway, and Taunton was a place of considerable importance in Saxon times. The Saxon town was a burh with its own mint. King Ine of Wessex threw up an earthen castle here about 700, but it was destroyed by his queen Æthelburg of Wessex in 722, to prevent its seizure by rebels.

A monastery was founded before 904. The bishops of Winchester owned the manor, and obtained the first charter for their “men of Taunton” from King Edward in 904, freeing them from all royal and county tribute. At some time before the Domesday Survey Taunton had become a borough with very considerable privileges, and a population of around 1,500 and 64 burgesses, governed by a portreeve appointed by the bishops. Somerton took over from Ilchester as the county town in the late thirteenth century, but it declined in importance and the status of county town transferred to Taunton about 1366. Between 1209 and 1311 the manor of Taunton, which was owned by the Bishop of Winchester, increased two and a half times. The parishes of Staplegrove, Wilton and Taunton itself were part of the Taunton Deane Hundred.

In 1451 during the Wars of the Roses Taunton was the scene of a skirmish between Thomas de Courtenay, 13th Earl of Devon and Baron Bonville. Queen Margaret and her troops passed through in 1471 to defeat at the Battle of Tewkesbury. In the Second Cornish Uprising of 1497 most of the Cornish gentry supported Perkin Warbeck’s cause and on 17 September a Cornish army some 6,000 strong entered Exeter before advancing on Taunton. Henry VII sent his chief general, Giles, Lord Daubeney to attack the Cornish and when Warbeck heard that the King’s scouts were at Glastonbury he panicked and deserted his army. Henry VII reached Taunton on 4 October 1497 were he received the surrender of the remaining Cornish army. The ringleaders were executed and others fined a total of £13,000.

Taunton Castle changed hands several times during the Civil War of 1642-45 but only along with the town. During the Siege of Taunton it was defended by Robert Blake, from July 1644 to July 1645, with the town suffering destruction of many of the medieval and Tudor buildings. After the war, in 1662, the keep was demolished and only the base remains. On 20 June 1685 the Duke of Monmouth crowned himself king of England at Taunton during the Monmouth Rebellion and in the autumn of that year Judge Jeffreys was based in the town during the Bloody Assizes that followed the Battle of Sedgemoor.

The town did not obtain a charter of incorporation until 1627, which was renewed in 1677. The charter lapsed in 1792 owing to vacancies for the members of the corporate body, and Taunton was not reincorporated until 1877. The medieval fairs and markets of Taunton (it still holds a weekly market today), were celebrated for the sale of woollen cloth called “Tauntons” made in the town. On the decline of the west of England woollen industry, silk-weaving was introduced at the end of the 18th century.

In 1839 the Grand Western Canal reached Taunton aiding trade to the south, which was further enhanced by the arrival of the railway in 1842.

In World War II the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal formed part of the Taunton Stop Line, designed to prevent the advance of a German invasion. Pillboxes can still be seen along its length.

Taunton was named as a ‘Strategically Important Town or City’ in the government’s Regional Spatial Strategy, allowing Somerset County Council to receive funding for large-scale regeneration projects. In 2006, the council revealed plans which it called “Project Taunton”. This would see the regeneration of the areas of Firepool, Tangier, the Retail town centre, the cultural quarter, and the River Tone, aiming to sustain Taunton as a central hub for business in the South West.

The Firepool area on the northern edge of Taunton town centre, adjacent to the main line railway station, currently includes a high proportion of vacant or undeveloped land. The Council is promoting a sustainable, high quality, employment-led mixed use development. The Firepool project is set to attract 3000 new jobs and 500 new homes.

In Tangier, a brownfield area between Somerset College of Arts and Technology and the bus station, the project proposes to build small offices and more riverside housing.

The “Cultural Quarter” is the area along the river between Firepool and Tangier. The proposals have plans to extend riverside retail, an aim to attract more smaller, boutique businesses, such as those already found in the Riverside shopping centre.

Plans for the town centre include greater pedestrianization and an increase in size and number of retail units.

Several sites along the River Tone are set to undergo renovation. Firepool Wier lock — long silted up — will be dredged during 2011  to allow boats to pass from the navigable section of the Tone through Taunton to the Taunton-Bridgwater canal. Goodland Gardens will receive a makeover. Projects to develop Somerset Square (the paved area next to the Brewhouse Theatre) and Longrun Meadow (country park near to SCAT) have already been delivered.

The government sees Taunton’s traffic congestion problems as a serious obstacle to its continuing economic growth. An important part of the government’s growth strategy for the town is new road infrastructure consisting of a new link road (Taunton’s Third Way) which was completed 27th September 2011 at a cost of £7.5 million, and a second link road (the Northern Inner Distributor Road) planned for completion by the end of 2013 at a cost of £21 million. The road would link Staplegrove Road with Priory Avenue, running across Kingston Road.

Taunton includes an area named Holway which was once a village in its own right. Holway was originally one of the Five Hundreds of Taunton Dean, the Infaring division or district of the three districts that made up Taunton Dean. The parish of Staplegrove is situated in the northern suburbs of Taunton. The parish, largely built by Monsell Youell Construction Ltd in the 1970s, has a population of 1,889.

Taunton is the main settlement and administrative centre of the local government district of Taunton Deane. The district was formed on 1 April 1974, under the Local Government Act 1972, by a merger of the municipal borough of Taunton, Wellington urban district, Taunton Rural District, and Wellington Rural District. Taunton Deane was granted borough status in 1975, perpetuating the mayoralty of Taunton. The district was given the name of an alternate form of the Taunton hundred.

Taunton lies on the River Tone between the Quantock, Blackdown and Brendon hills in an area known as the Vale of Taunton.

In the Taunton area Permian (295–250 million years ago) red sandstones and breccia outcrop, while rocks of Triassic age (248–204 million years ago) underlie much of Somerset and form the solid geology to the Somerset Moors and Levels.

Taunton forms part of the larger borough of Taunton Deane which also includes the town of Wellington and surrounding villages. Taunton Deane had an estimated population of 103,700 in 2002.

The figures below are for the Taunton Deane area.

Year 1801 1851 1901 1911 1921 1931 1941 1951 1961 1971 1981 1991 2001
33,139 51,844 53,759 55,666 56,161 56,661 62,745 69,492 75,320 81,639 84,795 95,791 102,304

The annual Taunton Carnival takes a route through the shopping district in the centre of the town.

Taunton Deane had a low unemployment rate of 4.1% compared with the national average of 5.0% in 2005.

Taunton is home to the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office (UKHO) which is an organisation within the Ministry of Defence responsible for providing navigational and other hydrographic information for national, civil and defence requirements. The UKHO is located on Admiralty Way and has a workforce of approximately 850 staff. At the start of the Second World War chart printing moved to Taunton but the main office did not move until 1968.

The Avimo company, which made precision instruments in Taunton, became part of Thales Optics in 2001, however their manufacturing is no longer in Taunton having been transferred along with a number of staff to Glasgow and Wells. Taunton is also home to one of the head offices of Debenhams, Western Provident Association, Viridor and CANDAC.

Moreover, the town is home to a Defra regional office at Quantock House on Paul St, the Charity Commission for England and Wales, General Electric, Screwfix. Taunton is also famous for the production of cider.

Gray’s Almshouses on East Street were founded by Robert Gray in 1615 for poor single women. The red brick buildings bear the arms of Robert Gray, dated 1635, and another arms of the Merchant Tailors. A small room is used as chapel and has original benches and a painted ceiling. It has been designated by English Heritage as a grade I listed building. St Margaret’s Almshouses was founded as a leper colony in the 12th century. Glastonbury Abbey acquired the patronage of the hospital in the late 13th century and rebuilt it as almshouses in the early 16th century. From 1612 to 1938 the building continued to be used as almshouses, cared for by a local parish. In the late 1930s it was converted into a hall of offices for the Rural Community Council and accommodation for the Somerset Guild of Craftsmen. It later fell into disrepair until the Somerset Buildings Preservation Trust with Falcon Rural Housing purchased and restored it for use as four dwellings of social housing. It is a grade II* listed building.

The grounds of Taunton Castle include the Somerset County Museum and The Castle Hotel, which incorporates the Castle Bow archway. Together with the municipal buildings they form a three-sided group of buildings just beyond the Castle Bow archway from Fore Street. The centre of the square is used as a car park, and a plain brick edifice of Mecca Bingo hall makes up the west side of it.

The Tudor Tavern (now a branch of Caffè Nero) in Fore Street dates from 1578.

The area by the river north of the centre is surrounded by Morrisons supermarket, retirement housing and the Brewhouse Theatre. Towards the centre, is the Dellers Wharf Nightclub, Bridge Street and Goodlands Gardens. Currently a regeneration programme is being executed, north of Bridge Street, which will include redeveloping the County Cricket Ground. The area has hosted a concert by Elton John in 2006.

Hankridge Farm is a retail park close to the M5 motorway, with large stores including PC World, Halfords, Homebase and Tauntons second Sainsbury’s store. In addition, there is a ‘Venue’ on the park, with restaurants, the Odeon cinema and Hollywood Bowl bowling. Now known as Riverside Retail Park.

The Old Market was a farmers market and took place on the Parade in front of Market House but this eventually moved to the Firepool area, although cattle trading on the site ceased in 2008. A large indoor shopping centre to the east of the Parade was built on a site which had, at one time been a pig market. Although its official name is now Orchard, and before that the Old Market Centre, locals still refer to it as “The Pig Market” as one operated on the site from 1614 to 1882.

The County Walk is an indoor shopping complex in the centre with an anchor supermarket, Sainsbury’s.

There are a number of public parks around Taunton including Vivary Park, Goodlands Park and Victoria Park. The most notable is Vivary Park, located on land that was formerly a medieval fish farm, or vivarium, for Taunton Priory and Taunton Castle. Fronted by a pair of cast iron gates made by the Saracen Foundry of Glasgow, it contains the Sherford Stream, a tributary of the River Tone, which flows through the 7.5 hectares (19 acres) park, which is located near the centre of the town. It contains two main wide open spaces, as well as a war memorial dating from 1922, a miniature golf course, tennis courts, two children’s playgrounds, a model railway track which was added in 1979, and an 18-hole, 4620-yards, par-63 golf course. The park includes trees, rose beds and herbaceous borders, with around 56,000 spring and summer bedding plants being used each year. The rose garden includes the Royal National Rose Society Provincial Trial Ground. Taunton Flower Show has been held annually in the park since the 19th century. It has been described as “The Chelsea of the West”, and attracts around 24,000 visitors over its two days. Goodlands Gardens, located in the centre of the town, is behind the Debenhams department store and The Castle Hotel.

Taunton railway station is on the Bristol to Exeter line, the Reading to Taunton line, and the Cross-Country Route. It is served and operated by First Great Western and served by CrossCountry, with services to Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff, Bristol, London, Exeter, Plymouth and Penzance, as well as the rest of the West Country. There are generally one fast and one slow trains each hour to both Bristol Temple Meads and Exeter St Davids and one train to London Paddington.

The former railway route to Minehead has is now a heritage railway known as the West Somerset Railway.

Taunton also has good road links, having the M5 motorway junctions 25 (Taunton) and 26 (Wellington) close to the town, as well as other major roads such as the A38 and A358. The Taunton bypass section of M5, from J25-26, opened in April 1974, relieving the town of heavy holiday traffic on the A38. Taunton Deane services are located between junctions 25 and 26 on the M5. However, with the flourishing local economy, traffic is a problem with Somerset County Council giving a prediction of 300-400% increase based on 2001 levels.

The Taunton Tramway was opened on 21 August 1901. Six double deck cars operated on the 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) gauge line between the railway station and East Reach where the depot was situated. In 1905 the service was withdrawn for two months while the track was improved; the cars were replaced at the same time by six single deck cars and the old double deckers were sold to Leamington Spa. A short extension beyond the station to Rowbarton was opened in 1909 making the line 1.66 miles (2.7 km) long. The price of its electricity was due to increase in 1928 which the company refused to pay so it offered to sell out but this was not accepted. The electricity was cut off on 28 May 1921 and so the system closed.

The Parish church of St. Mary Magdalene, built of sandstone more in the South Somerset style, preserves an attractive painted interior, but its most notable aspect is its 15th and 16th century tower (rebuilt in the mid-19th century), which is one of the best examples in the country and a 163 feet (50 m) tall landmark. It was described by Simon Jenkins, an acknowledged authority on English churches, as “the finest in England. It makes its peace with the sky not just with a coronet but with the entire crown jewels cast in red-brown stone.” The tower itself has 12 bells and 3 bells “hung dead” for the clock mechanism.

The Parish church of St. James is also located near the centre of Taunton quite close to St. Mary Magdalene. The oldest parts of St. James Church are early 14th century and there are fragments of 15th century glass in the West end. Like St. Mary’s it also has a sandstone tower but built to a much less impressive design. The tower was also like St. Mary’s rebuilt in the 19th century – in this case thought to be due to building defects in the original tower. The church backs onto the County Ground and forms a familiar backdrop to the popular Cricket ground.

The Brewhouse Theatre is the largest theatre and arts centre in Taunton, offering drama, dance, comedy, music, workshops, exhibitions and poetry by both local and national touring artists such as actor Simon Callow and clarinetist Emma Johnson in Spring 2012. The Tacchi-Morris Arts Centre also operates as a theatre and is based at Heathfield Community School.

 

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