The South West of England: Pt 9 – Taunton, Somerset

Today was our last day staying in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, as we moved down towards Dartmouth in Devon where we were due to spend the next week, as a base to explore Devon and Cornwall. On the way down we took a short diversion to Somerset’s County Town, Taunton…

Taunton:

Status: Taunton Deane District, Somerset, Town, England

Date: 09/08/2014

Travel: Car

Eating & Sleeping: N/A

Attractions: Taunton Castle, County Hall, Museum of Somerset, County Mall, Dragon Trail, Taunton Library, Old Cider Mill, River Tone, Tone Bridge, St John’s, Mary Magdalenes Church, Market Hall, War Memorial, K6 Phone Kiosks, Mitre House, Castle Bow, Old Post Office, Castle Hotel, Knights Rest Pub, Tudor Tavern etc

Taunton 1

Our journey began outside Somerset County Hall, the main entrance of which is contained within a stunning Neo-Georgian facade. Located at the junction of Park Street, The Crescent and Tower Street, the County Hall has stood here since 1935, after it was designed by Emanuel Vincent Harris (1876 – 1971) who also created the City Hall Venue in the Yorkshire city of Sheffield around 1932. Other council buildings are located to the South of the Hall, back along The Crescent, with the Shire Hall behind it. The Shire Hall, built in the 1850’s by W B Moffat, houses the County Court and was previously the home of the County Council before County Hall was built.

Taunton has been located here since Saxon Times, when a settlement called Tone Tun was founded. Tone comes from a word meaning river, and indeed the river Tone passes through the town, completing a 32 mile journey from Brendon Hills in West Somerset, out to the village of Burrowbridge where it merges with the River Parrett. The tun means farm, so the towns name basically meant farm by the river, which is what the settlement would have originally been. Over the centuries the name has gradually become Taunton after the original name.

Across the road, you can see the spire of St John’s Parish Church rising high above the trees. This fine Gothic Church was designed by one of my all time favourite architects, Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811 – 1878, Gothic Revival Architect) and completed in 1863 after 5 years of construction. Dedicated to St John the Evangelist, the buildings tower/spire stand 80 ft tall, and materials around the building include Bath Stone, most notably used in the city of Bath, also in Somerset.

Taunton 2

As we walked from County Hall into the city centre, we passed our next building of interest, called “Mitre House”, originally built as part of the Convent of Perpetual Adoration in 1867. Designed by John Francis Bentley (1839 – 1902, English Architect who also created Westminster Cathedral) the building is also known as St Pauls House, which is also the name it comes up under on the Listed Buildings Register. The name comes from the Chapel of St Paul which once existed here in Medieval Times. Behind Mitre House is a 3 storey house, which was actually built earlier than the tower, around 1800. Together they now form one large building according to the Listed Building Register, and contrast each other brilliantly.

Taunton 3

We moved on, into my favourite area of the town. A large square at the heart of Taunton contains a variety of interesting buildings, starting with the “Knights Rest Pub & Restaurant” at the West end of the square. The pub has a stunning Gothic look about it, and dates back to 1816 when it was built by Josiah Easton (1767 – 1845), under the name “The Winchester Arms” although obviously it has since been renamed. It replaces a previous Inn here called the “Horse & Jockey”.

Taunton 4

A year before the old Winchester was completed, Josiah also finished built the “Castle Hotel” which sits at the Eastern end of the square, although at the time only the Ground and 1st Floors existed, as the original idea was for the two buildings to mirror each other across the square. It was also only a private house, and it wasn’t until 1834 that the building became a hotel, called the “Sweets Hotel”. Sometime later in the 20th century two more floors were added to the building and it’s current look was established, meaning it now very much overshadows the old Winchester. Whilst it would have been really interesting to see the two identical buildings as they were first built, the now different designs really add to the character of the square.

The Castle has been home to some famous guests, including Tsar Nicholas I (1796 – 1855, Russian Emperor from 1825 – 1855) in 1817, the Duke of Wellington (1769 – 1852) in 1819 and the Mexican Emperor Agustin I (1783 – 1824) in 1824.

Taunton 5

The North side of the square is home to what is arguably the most impressive of the major buildings at all 4 sides of the square. The history of Taunton Castle can be traced back to at least the 11th Century, as an Augustinian Priory was in residence here. Various buildings made up the complex, including one called the Bishops Hall, which was converted into a new Castle building by William Giffard (died 1129, Chancellor of England under William II and Henry I), being completed in 1129. This was then upgraded into a much larger Castle building by Henry of Blois (1098 – 1171, Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, and later Bishop of Winchester) around 1138.

Over the next few centuries the complex expanded to include a schoolhouse, a Great Hall and a Gatehouse. In my Glastonbury post I talked about Judge Jeffreys (1645 – 1689), the Welsh Judge famous for executing various members of the Monmouth Rebellion, who had been plotting to get James II (1633 – 1701) off the throne. Jeffreys held trials in various locations, including Glastonbury, and here at Taunton Castle in 1685. Many parts of the Castle were rebuilt in 1780 due to their deteriorating condition, and are now furnished in a Georgian style. The main parts of the Castle do still exist, although the Outer Ward of the Castle was where the square, called Castle Green, is now, and it corresponds to its original size. The design of the Castle Hotel was designed to fit in with the Castle buildings, as was the old Winchester.

The flag of Somerset flies over the Castle entrance, consisting of a Red Dragon on a yellow background.

Taunton 17

The East Gate of the Castle, called the Castle Bow, built in the 13th century is located just off to the right of the Castle Hotel and is now a part of it and leads through to the high street. It was once part of a large Bailey but this was destroyed by Charles II (1630 – 1685).

The rest of the Castle, the Inner Ward, along with the Great Hall, now forms the Museum of Somerset, and covers a history of Taunton, Somerset and much more, with a Courtyard just past the Castle’s main entrance leading to the Museum. Until 2008 it was called the County Museum, after the Castle had been refitted at the end of the 19th century for use as a Museum. After a revamp it reopened as the Museum of Somerset in 2011. We did have a look around the Museum and the exhibits are fascinating, and we would recommend anyone visiting the Castle Green to pop in for a look round.

Inside the Castle grounds, aside from the Museum there are a few other things on interest. The first of these is a restored Almshouse, which was one of a number of Almshouses built over in St James’s Street at the start of the 16th century. The rest were demolished in 1897, but this one was moved into the Castle grounds in 1899 and to its present position in 1992. It can be found in the Castle Courtyard, along with the 2nd item of interest, a bust of John Harding of Petherton (1896 – 1989) a Colonel in the Somerset Light Infantry between 1953 and 1959 and later the Somerset & Cornwall Light Infantry until 1960. He was also the Governor of Cyprus during the 1950’s. He was born in nearby South Petherton, and was the 1st Baron Harding of Petherton, being succeeded by his son John who became the 2nd.

Around the back of the Castle a large metal sword can be found sticking out of a rock. This closely resembles Arthurs Sword in the Stone, although sadly I was not destined to become the new King of England as the Sword stayed where it was!

Taunton 6

The final edge of the square, to the South, stands the old Municipal Buildings, where local Government would have been decided centuries ago. The East side of the building (on the left) was the first part of the building to be constructed, back in 1522 as a Boy’s Grammar School, replacing previous schools dating back around 2 centuries. It was founded by Bishop Richard Fox (1448 – 1528, Bishop of Bath, Durham, Winchester, Exeter and Oxford) and remained in use as as school until 1870, and 20 years later the local Borough Council bought the building for use as their local offices. The West side of the building (on the right) was then built at the start of the 20th century as a large extension, and you can really tell the difference between the two halves of the building, especially if you look at the stone quality.

By 1928 the building was now in use as a Courtroom, until the 1970’s when the new Taunton Deane District Council (created out of the Local Government Act 1974) moved back in. The Council are now located over on belvedere road, and the old building is now the home of the Taunton Registry Office.

Taunton 10

We eventually left the square, following a path that runs just behind the Castle to the river Tone. A number of bridges cross the river here, including the Tone Bridge, shown above, designed by J H Smith and opened in 1895. It carries the A3027 into the town centre, and is a mixed use bridge for road traffic and pedestrians. We followed the river up to the bridge and re-entered the town centre after enjoying the relaxing sounds of the river flowing past. Taunton is a very pleasant town, in a reasonably rural setting in one of England’s most rural counties.

Taunton 11

As we made our way towards the very centre of town, where the main square, Market Hall and War Memorial are located, we passed the beautiful Edwardian Post Office from 1911. It makes great use of Red Brick and Portland Stone, especially at the front, and the words Post Office are still visible above the main entrance down on the left of the building. It was designed by Arthur Rutherford and built by Pollard & Son from nearby Bridgewater.

The top two floors of the building have now been converted into apartments (2008), leaving the ground floor which is currently for sale by the current owners, Primeco (as of 2014). Interested parties in the building include a Bank and a Building Society, and it is thought that by the end of October 2014 an announcement will be made on what the future of the main building will be. I hope the stunning exterior is retained, as it is one of the defining buildings on North Street, which leads from Tone Bridge towards the Market Hall.

Taunton 16

We soon reached the most central point of Taunton, where the shopping streets, main roads and shops all meet up together, not far from the Castle Green. In the very centre of the road, acting as the roundabout amongst the sea of cobbles, stands one of the towns War Memorials. This particular one is dedicated to the soldiers from the Somersetshire Light Infantry, who fought and died in the 3rd Burmese War between 1885 and 1887. The Regiment was originally called the 13th (1st Somersetshire) Regiment of Foot until 1842, when the 13th participated in the defence of the British Outpost in Afghanistan, called Jellalabad. The British successfully held off the attacks, and this incredible victory caused Prince Albert to allow his name to be used in the regiments title and it became the 13th (1st Somersetshire) (Prince Albert’s Light Infantry) Regiment of Foot. A large barracks called the Jellalabad Barracks was later built in Taunton around 1880, and still survives today with an impressive Gatehouse Tower.

Behind the Memorial is one of the towns most well known buildings, the Old Market Hall. Whilst its present look was the work of H S W Stone in 1932, the main structure of the building can be traced back to the 1770’s, when it was designed by Coplestone Warre Bampfylde (1720 – 1791, British Artist and Amateur Architect). Originally there was also a single storey wing to either side of the main building, but these were demolished as part of the 1930’s works. Sadly this area ceased to be the town’s main market in 1929, and the former site of the outdoor market, a triangular section directly in front of the Hall, was later lost due to road improvements in 1996. There was a small outdoor market being held behind the Hall however when we visited, and we got a lovely Pork Roll!

Although annoyingly a bus got in the way on one side of the picture, there is one other thing of interest that is associated with the Market Hall. At either end of the Hall, stood outside, is a typical British Red Telephone Kiosk, and the one of the left is visible above. They are both original, and are of the K6 Variety, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1880 – 1960, English Architect who also designed Liverpool Cathedral) in 1935 to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of King George V (1865 – 1936). They were however delivered only after his death the following year so he never got to see the Kiosks out on the streets. These K6 Kiosks are still in use today all over the UK, and have a crown on all four sides above the word Telephone. The original crown was known as the King George crown per the original design, although in 1953 Elizabeth II had the crown changed in what became known as the Coronation Crown. The right hand Kiosk in Taunton has a mixture of crowns on it, for both George and Elizabeth. It is by far one of the most iconic British symbols and thousands can be found all over the country.

Heading right at the roundabout, just along the road brings you out at the front of the old Municipal Buildings and you can cut through from there into the Castle Green. The Gatehouse that meets with the Castle Hotel is located a short distance back up North Street on the left hand side as you head towards the river, although not as far along as the old Post Office. You might also notice the street lighting on the roads around the town. Whilst there is nothing particularly special about the current street lights, their presence is notable as Taunton was the first town in the South West of England to permanently install street lights, in 1886.

Taunton 13

This is a view from the outside the Hall itself, looking North East towards the Parish Church of Saint Mary Magdalene, at the end of the similarly named Magdalene Street. The 163 ft Tower is quite significant, as not only is it the tallest tower in the entire County, it was also once home to the town’s first Fire Engine back in 1734. My favourite fact however has to be of Somerset’s luckiest Donkey. The Tower was rebuilt in 1862 to it’s original designs, and a Donkey was used to operate the pulley to get the stone to the top, with it walking down an adjacent street. When it was completed the Donkey itself was then pulled up to the top to enjoy the view, where no donkey has gone before!

The first stone version of the Church was built in 1180 and existed legally as a Chapel. This was changed in 1308 when it became a fully fledged Church. The Tower was then added around 1514. As I said before the Tower was then later rebuilt in 1862, and like the K6 Kiosks this was done by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. It is truly a stunning building, and one of Taunton’s greatest landmarks.

Taunton 14

Behind the Market Hall is one of the towns most well preserved Tudor Era buildings, known as the Tudor Tavern. The only date available for the building is 1578, when the main front of the building was rebuilt. This means that the rest of the building is even older, and through the centuries it has passed through various hands, from the Trowbridge Clothiers to a grocer called Thomas Baker in 1685. Today it is owned by Caffe Nero who moved in in 2003, beautifully restoring the building at the same time. At the top of the building there is a large figure head, possibly where a hook once hung to pull goods up to the top of the building.

Taunton 15

Our last stop in the town was the Cider Mill shown above, located just off Corporation Street, across from the Municipal Buildings (to the right). The Mill was presented to the town in 1971 to celebrate 50 years of Cider Making by the Taunton Cider Co. Ltd in the town.

To the left of the Mill is a building called the Somerset College of Art, constructed in 1905 by C Samson and A B Cottam. To the right is the Public Library, which opened the same year. It was part financed by Andrew Carnegie (1835 – 1919, Scottish Entrepreneur) who provided funds for various libraries around the country, from Scotland to England. Since 1996 it has been a pub called the “Pitcher & Piano”, which was frowned upon due to the fact that the Carnegie Foundation advocated no drinking of alcohol on any of its premises.

Taunton is a lovely old town, with interesting buildings, historic sites and a pleasant atmosphere. Taunton Railway Station is located North of the river Tone, and trains run not only to local destinations such as Penzance in Cornwall, Weston-super-Mare in Somerset and London, but also all the way up to Edinburgh in Scotland via Birmingham, the Midlands and many more. The town is almost midway between Bristol and Exeter International Airports, 35 and 30 miles away respectively. Elsewhere in the town you can explore more of the historic buildings that date back centuries, visit Vivary Park, or the Tourist Information Office in the library behind County Mall. Our time in Somerset was at an end and we began the short journey down to Dartmouth in Devon for the second leg of our journey.

Whilst we were exploring Taunton, we were also on the hunt for one of Britains most elusive creatures, the Taunton Deane Dragon… Find out if we found any in my next post where I shall reveal all!

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