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Bridgwater, Somerset, England: History, Annual Carnival; Docks, Marina & Canal; River Parrett & Local Boy Admiral Blake
Where is Bridgwater?
Location & Background
Bridgwater, Somerset, lies inland on the River Parrett which flows into the Bristol Channel at Burnham-on-Sea. It is the administrative centre for Sedgemoor District Council. It is close to the M5 and has good links to Devon and Cornwall.
Its name has an interesting explanation. You could be forgiven for thinking it’s simply coined from 'a bridge over the water'. You’d be wrong. When early shipping and trade was flourishing in the town, a man whose family name was Walter owned part of the quayside, then called a ‘brigge’. So that was the brigge of Walter, subsequently morphed into Bridgwater.
The town owes a rather unfair lack of popularity to the fact that a cellophane factory used to belch out fumes causing passing (as fast as possible) folk to gag and clamp their hands to their mouths. The factory is now closed so the air is much fresher than it was and Bridgwater is changing and developing rapidly.
We’re going to have a look at some of Bridgwater’s history, its river, marina and canal, as well as its two claims to fame - Admiral Blake and Bridgwater Carnival!
Industrial History: Glass Cones, Bricks & DocksClick thumbnail to view full-size
Castle Street & Site of Ancient CastleClick thumbnail to view full-size
Glass and Bricks
Before Cellophane, industry in Bridgwater was more about glass and bricks, coal and shipping. The glass industry was instigated in the 1700s by the Duke of Chandos, a prominent figure of the time; he built conical cones to manufacture the glass, the remains of one of which are still visible as an open public seating area making a rare, important historical relic. The glass industry did not survive.
However, brick factories existed along the river in the 19th century and provided an important, thriving trade when ships still came up as far as the town. One of these has been converted into a museum. The river, the docks, the railway (for coal) and the canal provided an industrial delivery network from Devon to Somerset and onwards.
Bridgwater Castle & Admiral Blake
The mediaeval town of Bridgwater was a moat-encircled castle and buildings, one side giving onto the river. Old pictures and diagrams of how it would have looked can be seen on the walls of 'The Carnival Inn' in St Mary Street. Sadly, there is no obvious evidence of the castle today, though the fine Georgian houses of Castle Street, also built by the Duke of Chandos, stand on the old castle estate. Odd fragments of the ancient walls have been excavated in Castle Street cellars and some can be seen around town (if you know where to look).
Two of these charming houses now form Bridgwater Arts Centre, where plays, talks, art classes, musical evenings and the book club, amongst other activities, take place. The street also houses the old nursing home and training centre, once also the local maternity hospital.
Castle Street leads down to the river where its lower buildings were threatened by a recent disaster, explained below.
The most famous resident of Bridgwater was Admiral Robert Blake. A statue of him stands at the top of the pedestrian shopping area, at the Cornhill, and a museum dedicated to him can be found in his old house in the backstreets near to a small park which reaches to the river.
He was a merchant, then became a politician who served his people well and later a naval man. Shops, hotels and pubs bear his name. His statue has to have a good wash regularly as the seagulls are partial to a brief rest (& the rest!) atop his head!
Apart from Admiral Blake, there is another Admiral connected to Bridgwater, though I cannot find out why. A side road behind the marina is called ‘Anson Way’ and there was an Admiral Anson. A pub, part of the converted warehouses on the Marina, is called ‘Admirals Landing’. There is no apostrophe so I don’t know whether it refers to Admiral Blake only or to both him and Admiral Anson.
However, like Blake, he was an MP, for Yorkshire from 1744-47. He took command of the Channel Fleet in 1746, became popular due to his success in capturing French ships and was made Vice Admiral as well as being made a Lord. He became First Lord of the Admiralty in 1751 until 1756, then again in 1757 until he died.
He was responsible for transferring the Marines from army to navy authority, for uniforms for commissioned officers and helped tighten discipline in the navy.
In 1761 he was made Admiral of the Fleet, despite being very ill. He retired and died in Bath.
Prize money earned when he captured a galleon made him a rich man, enabling his heirs to rebuild Shugborough Hall, the family estate, near which he is now buried. Shugborough Hall is now owned by Lord Lichfield, better known as Patrick Lichfield the famous photographer.
The River Parrett and its HistoryClick thumbnail to view full-size
The River and other Waterways
The River Parrett once had a flourishing shipping trade, all the way to Langport but, due to a build up of silt, ships of any significant size now go no further than Dunball, a mile or so downstream. Still to be seen on the riverbanks in town are the old wooden support beams built to safeguard ships at high tide; the tide rise and fall is so large and the mud so deep that conventional moorings were not enough.
As does the River Severn whose estuary also flows into the Bristol Channel, the River Parrett frequently has a bore, the phenomenon of a wave of tide-water being pushed up the river, due to the narrow river mouth and the surge of high tide on the broad estuary. The Severn Estuary has the second largest tidal range in the world at around 49 feet or 15 metres. People surf on the Severn Bore but the Parrett’s bores are not large enough for such activity; they are, however, spectacular enough to witness at least once.
The old railway bridge, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and opened in 1871, took coal across the river from the docks. It was a steam-driven telescopic bridge, known as the Black Bridge, one section being retractable. You can see the old mechanisms of wheel and pullies, beside and beneath. The traffic now is pedestrians and bicycles.
Damaged west bank Wall, jutting out into the riverClick thumbnail to view full-size
Modern Flood Damage
Bridgwater was in the news in November 2011 due to the collapse of part of the river wall; there was a flash flood causing the overflow of ancient pipes and drains and the west bank gave way, putting people, traffic and house foundations at risk. Fortunately, no-one was hurt but many residents and shopkeepers were inconvenienced, with some loss of revenue; repairs took a while but were carried out as quickly as possible, tide permitting.
The wall is now repaired, the road fully restored and business back to usual. At the time of writing (Feb 2014), I thank our lucky stars the wall is strong once more, as local flooding has been extensive, due to unusual storms and high tides.
Much of the flooding has been due also to the lack of dredging and maintaining the rivers and the local irrigation system on the Somerset Levels, causing local anger and much loss of farmland, livestock and therefore livelihoods. The floods remain but dredging is starting.
One fear when the river wall collapsed in town was that the drains and therefore the buildings would be damaged. The drains date back to mediaeval times when there were no deep foundations, when that part of town was fortified with a wall and when Bridgwater had a Castle, of which very little is left and not easily seen.
Bridgwater Marina, Old & NewClick thumbnail to view full-size
Bascule BridgeClick thumbnail to view full-size
Bridgwater Docks (now a marina) winched up boats from the river, ensuring delivery of goods and distribution of coal from the railway which had its yard on the quayside. The docks were opened in 1841 with a canal link providing a valuable industrial network.
The docksides were redeveloped in the 1980s, the huge warehouses being converted into spacious flats, and the marina is now occupied by colourful, recreational narrow boats which ply the Bridgwater-Taunton canal. Many are privately owned and some can be hired for parties to take a relaxing trip down the canal.
The old animal feed company 'Bowerings', with its distinctive chimney, still functions at the canal end of the Marina, by Newtown Lock. There is a certain beauty in industrial buildings. The chimney has a two-toned pattern in brick; hopefully it would be preserved should this old building also be converted into more flats when the present owners move premises. At present, a constant stream of lorries unload and load to serve local farmers and traders.
There is an inner basin of water inside the river locks, which narrows under a bridge before the water leads into the main marina; a road spans the narrow gap, supported by a rare example of a working Bascule Bridge. A bascule bridge works simply on a cantilever system of weights.
Short but Beautiful: the Bridgwater-Taunton CanalClick thumbnail to view full-size
At the west end of the Marina is Newtown Lock, which links the marina to the canal. Since the lock from marina to river was sealed, this lock is no longer used, though the mechanisms are still intact.
The Bridgwater-Taunton canal was built through to the outskirts of Bridgwater and opened in 1827; the last section was cut through to join it to Bridgwater Docks for the opening in 1841. It was then used for the transportation of goods as part of an extensive network from Devon to Bridgwater and then further afield via the River Parrett.
The canal was blocked for security reasons during World War II. It was reopened in 1989 and these days is purely recreational. Walkers tread the towpath and cycles imprint it; fishermen fling in their lines, sometimes in competition; narrowboats slowly and quietly travel their relaxed journeys; the YMCA instructs youngsters to navigate bright canoes on the shallow water.
With all this measured activity the wildlife co-exists, adapts, swims and flies on and above the canal, through the middle of town in relative safety. It's a shortcut from A to B for anyone who wishes to use it and it's a haven for photographers and those who prefer the quieter side of life. One can escape to the countryside without effort or if you're feeling energetic you can walk the length from Bridgwater to Taunton, just 14.5 miles.
This extension of the canal was a tremendous feat of engineering, involving a gang of navigators, specialist labourers.
Navigational History written upon the Beams
The Navigators' Story
A navigator (or navvi) in this instance means the so-called unskilled labourers who worked on canals and other industrial sites. Their story is carved into the 11 wooden beams over the Bridgwater Canal where it goes through a deep cut by Victoria Bridge and then through a tunnel under the road. This is the vital extension which had to be made in order for the docks to be functional, for industry to thrive.
You can read the story as you tread the towpath going towards the marina. 'Red Quantock' refers to the red stone on the sides of the cut which comes from the Quantock Hills on the Somerset-Devon border.
SINEW AND BONE
JOLT OF THE PICK
CRACK OF THE HAMMER
IRON ON STONE
WE CAME AND WENT
THROUGH THE HILL
'Please to remember the 5th of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot.'
The Origins of Bonfire Night & Carnival
Bridgwater Carnival's origins go back to the reason for 'Bonfire Night' in England on 5th November. The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was when Guy Fawkes and others attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London, at the time of King James Ist. The King decided that 5th November should be an annual celebration of the failure of that plot, with the lighting of bonfires across the country; it became a tradition continued still.
Bridgwater was a Protestant stronghold and their festivities around the bonfires were extensive. The mid 1800s saw the manufacture of home-made fireworks called the Bridgwater Squibs, something which is unique to local celebrations.
These days Bonfire Night nationally is usually an organised affair at clubs or coucil sites but up to only a few years ago we celebrated in our back gardens. The usual 'health and safety' restrictions have meant that we can no longer enjoy our neighbourly celebrations with soup, mince pies and the lighting of our own fireworks; we have to go elsewhere and pay a fortune for a burger and some soup.... I digress.
However, one celebration which is definitely worth going out to see on a cold, even rainy, night is the Bridgwater Carnival, records of which date from 1847.
Development of the Celebrations
The people of Bridgwater and districts used to gather round a huge bonfire at the 'Cornhill' in the centre of town. Many would take part in a parade, some hiding mischief-making by dressing up in costumes and masks; squibs were lit and everyone had a good time well into the night.
The 5th November 1800 saw arguments and violence escalating to a riot. The fire brigade was ordered to douse the flames and end the celebrations but the revellers turned on them. The riot caused much debate and unrest until a local man suggested a controlling committee should organise an annual procession, to allow people in all parts of the town to see the costumes which had become an important feature of the event. In 1881 the first carnival committee was formed and 5th November saw the very first official Bridgwater Guy Fawkes Carnival proceed through town, weaving its way around the streets.
A yearly concert night was set up to raise funds; the concert still takes place.
From then on, groups of carnival enthusiasts have evolved into Clubs, each spending a whole year making their floats. There is fierce competition for prizes each year and therefore each club's ideas and premises are fiercely guarded and woe betide anyone who lets the cat out of the bag!
The better funded clubs have massive floats, lit by thousands of light bulbs, pulled by tractors or lorry cabs. The club members choose a theme for each year, dress up in amazing costumes and choose music to sing and dance to. Some have 'tableaux', the participants remaining still as statues for the duration of the parade. It is truly a site to behold.
If it's a cold night, the place to stand is by the roadside as the heat from the lights of each float keep you warm. Charity trailers come along between the other floats and the crowd throws in pennies and pounds to support them. The atmosphere is fun and convivial, all entering as one into the spirit of carnival.
Bridgwater starts the carnival season; there is an established circuit of towns in the area, including Burnham-on-Sea, North Petherton, Glastonbury and finishing at Weston-super-Mare, over the 'carnival week'.
Squibbers & 'The Spirit of Carnival'
At midnight, when all the floats have followed the circuit from outside the town, round the streets and out again, the squibbers take up their positions in the main street. About 100 or more men each hold a traditional Squib on a stout pole above their heads, a squib set up at the end of each pole. At a signal, each squib is lit. There follows an immense crackling sound, the whole street is lit up by a brilliant, almost blinding, white light and thick smoke fills the air. It lasts for 2 or 3 minutes, maybe a little longer. Each squibber has put money into a fund before they started. The bearer of the squib which is the last to extinguish, wins the pot of money. It's a site worth staying up for but make sure you avoid the smoke as it's eye-watering in the extreme!
This is England's longest running carnival and probably the most spectacular, hence Bridgwater's second name - Home of Carnival.
Pre-Christmas Festivities in Bridgwater
Christmas Lights & More Squibbing!
Christmas lights are switched on in the centre of Bridgwater early in December, usually by a local dignatory. There are fireworks let off from the roof of the Cornhill, where the original bonfire was once lit for Bonfire Night, then the switch is thrown to light up the main street.
Folk then make their way down to Town Bridge, at the far end of the pedestrian precinct, and line the riverbank to await a smaller, but no less spectacular, squibbing ceremony on the bridge itself.
This time about 30 squibbers line the bridge rails (about 15 each side), the squibs are lit and the bright light is kindled once more. In some ways this is more wondrous than the carnival squibbing; the lights and bridge are reflected in the river below, the sparks from the squibs cascade like a waterfall, the ethereal smoke wafts up and down the river, then up into the night sky without troubling our eyes.
The squibs run out, the crowd disperses, warm in spirit that Christmas time has started and all's right with the world (at least until the morning!).
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