Watchet

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Watchet is a harbour town and civil parish in the English county of Somerset, with an approximate population of 4,400. It is situated 15 miles (24 km) west of Bridgwater, 15 miles (24 km) north-west of Taunton, and 9 miles (14 km) east of Minehead. The parish includes the hamlet of Beggearn Huish. The town lies at the mouth of the Washford River on Bridgwater Bay, part of the Bristol Channel, and on the edge of Exmoor National Park.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was written whilst travelling through Watchet and the surrounding area.

Watchet is believed to be the place where Saint Decuman was killed and the 15th century, Grade I listed, Church of St Decuman is dedicated to him.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the early port at Watchet being plundered by Danes led by Ohtor and Rhoald in 987 and 997. The parish of Watchet was part of the Williton and Freemanners Hundred.

It is known that it was in frequent use by small boats in 1564 possibly for the import of salt and wine from France. During the English Civil War Royalist reinforcements for the siege of Dunster Castle was sent by sea, but the tide was on the ebb and a troop of Roundheads rode into the shallows and forced the ship to surrender, so a ship at sea was taken by a troop of horse.

The primitive jetty was damaged in a storm of 1659 and a larger, stronger pier was built in the early 18th century supported by local wool merchants, although by 1797 the largest export was kelp made by burning seaweed for use in glass making. In the 19th century trade increased with the export of iron ore from the Brendon Hills, paper, flour and gypsum.

Harbour trade was aided by the coming of the railway. In the mid-1860s two independent railways terminated at Watchet. The West Somerset Mineral Railway ran down from the iron mines on the Brendon Hills, and the West Somerset Railway came up from the Bristol & Exeter Railway at Norton Fitzwarren. Both lines made extensive use of the harbour at Watchet from where iron ore was shipped across the Bristol Channel for smelting at Ebbw Vale in South Wales.

The mines and West Somerset Mineral Railway closed in 1898. The West Somerset Railway, extended from Watchet to Minehead in 1874, survived as part of British Rail until 1971. Reopened as a heritage railway, it still operates today.

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution stationed a lifeboat at Watchet in 1875. The station was closed in 1944 by which time the nearby station at Minehead had been equipped with a motor lifeboat that could cover the area around Watchet. The boat was launched from the slipway at the western corner of the harbour, but the boat house was at the southern corner near the railway station and the boat was taken along the quay on a carriage. Since closure the boat house has been converted into a library.

In 1900 and 1903 a series of gales breached the breakwater and East Pier with the loss of several vessels each time and subsequent repairs.

Before World War II at a site between Watchet and Doniford a gunnery range was established for various army units to practice anti-aircraft gunnery. Unmanned target aircraft were towed by planes from RAF Weston Zoyland and later were fired from catapults over the sea. Little of the camp buildings survive and it is now the site of a holiday park.

The civil parish of Watchet is governed by a town council, having previously been Watchet Urban District. Administratively, the civil parish falls within the West Somerset district and the Somerset County Council.  In 2002, the parish was estimated to have a population of 4,401.

Watchet forms part of the Bridgwater and West Somerset county constituency represented in the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Residents of Watchet also form part of the electorate for the South West England constituency for elections to the European Parliament.

The principal landmark in Watchet is the town’s harbour and the surrounding quaysides and narrow streets. In commercial use until 2000, the harbour has now been converted into a marina. The esplanade has been refurbished with new shelters, information points, and the provision of new paving in some areas, as well as railings, lamps, curved benches, planters and new tree plantings. There are several museums in the town, including the Market House Museum, which explores the history of the town and its harbour, and the Watchet Boat Museum, which displays the unusual local flatner boats and associated artefacts.

Adjacent to the harbour is Watchet station. This is now an intermediate stop on the West Somerset Railway, a largely steam-operated heritage railway that links Bishops Lydeard, near Taunton, with Minehead. The trackbed of the old West Somerset Mineral Railway now forms a path, which can be followed from the harbour at Watchet to Washford station, also on the West Somerset Railway.

The foreshore at Watchet is rocky, with a high 6 metres (20 ft) tidal range. The cliffs between Watchet and Blue Anchor show a distinct pale, greenish blue colour, resulting from the coloured alabaster found there. The name “Watchet” or “Watchet Blue” was used in the 16th century to denote this colour.

Daw’s Castle, about 0.5 miles (0.80 km) west of Watchet, is a hill fort situated on a sea cliff about 80 metres (260 ft) above the sea. The fort may be of Iron Age origin, but was (re)built and fortified as a burh by King Alfred, as part of his defence against Viking raids from the Bristol Channel around 878 AD.

Cleeve Abbey, one of the best preserved medieval monasteries in England, lies about 2 miles (3.2 km) west of Watchet, in the village of Washford. Dunster Castle is a further 4 miles (6.4 km) in the same direction.

Note: this page is partly based on a Wikipedia page. Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. Where possible, text is being updated to original, fully referenced research. ‘Our photos’ means we took the photographs. The Street View and street map visuals are courtesy of Google.

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