The Town of Watchet
St. Decumans Church
History and Heritage
The first recorded evidence of settlement on the site that is now known as Watchet emerges in the Dark Ages with the arrival of one of those Celtic holy men who acted as pastor, arbitrator and physician to remote communities. His name was St Decuman and legend has it that he arrived from what is now South Wales, on a raft with a cow as companion. . A pebble stone mosaic, beside the Library on the esplanade, depicts his journey.
St Decuman is still remembered today through the dedication of the local church in his name and to the continued existence of the Holy Well where some of his healing took place.
Watchet's importance as a strategic site grew as evidenced by the remains of an iron age fort at Daw's Castle to the west of the Town and to the east of the town at Doniford, traces of Roman settlement have been unearthed. Watchet's natural harbour made it an early trading centre and in the 10th century coins were minted for Ethelred II and thereon for five more Saxon Kings and three Norman Kings, ending with Stephen.
With the Norman invasion of 1066 and the death of King Harold, his mother Eleanor fled to Watchet where she then took a boat to Flat Holm Island. The Norman successors were given parcels of land throughout the country and in this area the manor of Dunster was created and a castle built to ensure the dominance and military might of the invader. Watchet is unique in that to this day it still maintains the Court Leet system of medieval local administration, today albeit symbolic, where post holders are still appointed to the various tasks such as Ale Taster and Portreeve.
The Civil War and the Monmouth Rebellion came and went as reigns changed and the centuries marched on. In the First and the Second World Wars Watchet sent its men to fight for their country. Following a major fundraising campaign, a new War Memorial was erected in 2014, besides the library on the Esplanade, to provide a permanent memory of their sacrifice. the Memorial Ground on which a lot of the sporting, cultural and recreational activities and events of today take place.
The harbour from an old photograph
The harbour area has always been the hub of the town and it is from here that a lot of Watchet's early prosperity was based. Small locally owned vessels traded coastally and to Ireland with a host of commodities that can be seen in the cargo manifests still held in the Market House Museum. In the 19th century iron ore was exported from the mines in the Brendon Hills to the smelters at Ebbw Vale in South Wales. Latterly wood pulp was imported from Scandinavia and Portugal for the local paper mill and general cargo passing through the harbour included sand, cement, fertilizer, lead ingots, tractors, potatoes and coal.
Much more about the social, political and maritime history of Watchet can be found in the town’s two museums: Watchet Market House Museum and the Boat Museum.
Watchet in the 21st Century
A cyclical decline in coastal traffic led to a call for the port to be closed in favour of creating a pleasure marina. The harbour was decommissioned, after a millennium of activity, and Watchet Harbour Marina opened in 2003, with further enhancements of public spaces such as The Esplanade completed in 2008.
Today Watchet is a bustling town with lots to see and do. The town’s main commercial artery, Swain Street, has many shops to attract and cater for the visitor and resident alike. There is a busy market every Wednesday through the summer months on The Esplanade, overlooking the harbour. A range of dining options, from traditional English to Indian and Chinese cuisine, is on offer in the cafés, restaurants and prize-winning real ale and cider pubs. A thriving music scene includes the annual Watchet Live Music Festival, regular music nights in most of the pubs and clubs and outdoor performances by two resident brass bands. A growing creative community offers exhibitions in the town’s two art galleries, artists’ studios to visit and locally-made crafts, sold from Swain Street shops and the market stalls. A host of local organisations, societies and clubs and local churches organise a busy calendar of events, entertainments and community care and support provision. The open space of the Memorial Ground is a focus for sporting and recreational activities and events throughout the year. The West Somerset Railway, a heritage steam railway line, runs through the town, with Watchet a popular station stop.
Watchet is a forward-looking town with a history of voluntary engagement and community-led support and regeneration projects. A Community Strategic Plan was drawn up in 2009 by Watchet Online, a steering group of volunteers drawn from the community. More recently a Watchet regeneration social enterprise, Onion Collective, following extensive community consultation has formulated a plan for four interlinked regeneration schemes. One of these, a purpose built Visitor Centre and restored Boat Museum, has been achieved and now houses the Town Council Offices. Plans for a cultural enterprise tourism development on the Quayside are now being developed.(see www.onioncollective.co.uk ). Meanwhile, through a Coastal Communities Team with representatives from the Town and District Council, Onion Collective, local businesses, and community interest groups, the town is collectively working towards developing a stronger future for the town. The team has published an Economic Plan to 2015. The overall vision for Watchet is a future in which there is a thriving tourism economy which celebrates our rich heritage, more jobs and better community facilities (see www.coastalcommunities.co.uk/coastal-teams/watchet).