Taunton is a market town in the south-west of England, situated midway between Bristol and Exeter. It's the county town of Somerset, and the largest centre in the area in terms of shopping, amenities and population. The exact population of Taunton is difficult to gauge, because there are several villages on the edge of town1 that are effectively suburbs, having become engulfed as Taunton expanded, but they remain distinct places with their own identity.
A Little History
Taunton is a place with a long history, which began life as a Saxon village next to the River Tone — it was initially called Tone Tun, 'tun' meaning farm or estate. It made the transition from village to small town in the 10th Century, granted charter status in 904 by King Edward the Elder, who ruled from 902 to 924. At the time of the Domesday Book there were three watermills by the River Tone, and Taunton developed around the wool industry. Taunton Castle was built by the Bishop of Winchester in 1138. There was a mill built in 1219 where Goodlands Gardens now stand.
Perkin Warbeck claimed that he was Richard, Duke of York, one of the two 'Princes in The Tower' (the sons of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville). After he and his army captured Taunton Castle in 1497, Perkin Warbeck proclaimed himself king, as Richard IV. One of his followers was Margaret of York, who said he was her nephew, but at his trial in Taunton he confessed to being an impostor, and Perkin Warbeck was hung, drawn and quartered in 1499.
The Charter and the Castle
In 1660 the charter was revoked by Charles II for supporting Parliament against his father. When the charter was restored in 1677 Taunton Castle was destroyed on the order of Charles II to prevent it being occupied by rebels again.
When the Duke of Monmouth led a rebellion against King James II in 1685, the people of Taunton welcomed him, declared him king, and about 400 men from the town joined his cause. Shortly afterwards, the Duke was defeated by royalist forces at the Battle of Sedgemoor, the upshot of which was a court being held in Taunton Castle that came to be known as the Bloody Assizes. Judge George Jeffreys2 tried 514 people, sentencing 144 of them to death and ordering a further 284 to be transported to the West Indies.
The Earth Moved
On 12 July, 1747, people who were going about their business in Taunton felt the ground move beneath them, and those who were in bed were rudely awakened. This was the first recorded earthquake since 1680, the one prior to that having been in 1248.
Many advances occurred during the 19th Century. Taunton Hospital was built in 1812, and mainline railways were connected to Taunton in 1842. Taunton Town Council was established by charter in 1877. Victoria Recreation Ground, as it was first known, became Taunton's first public park in 1892. It is a large park in the Priory Ward of Taunton, covering over four hectares, and has been renamed Victoria Park. The Highway Boards ceased in 1894, and the boundary post was erected a few years later.
With the decline of the wool industry in the late 18th Century, silk making was introduced to the town in 17783 and other textile-based industries developed in the late 19th Century, most notably lace products and shirt-collar making. Other industries include rayon (artificial silk), leather and general engineering.
Drink Up Yer Cider
In the 20th Century, Taunton became famous for its cider - until 1998 when the Taunton Cider company closed its premises at Norton Fitzwarren with the loss of 550 jobs, transferring production to their remaining factory at Shepton Mallet4. Although, of course, there are still a plethora of small-scale high-quality cider producers in the area.
Taunton's status throughout history has mainly been as a trading centre - it's always been a large and important market town. Today, the UK Hydrographic Office is one of the largest employers in the town, with a workforce of over 1,500 people. Sadly, the last ever livestock market took place in Taunton on Saturday, 19 January, 2008. The livestock market moved to North Petherton, just off the M5 motorway between Bridgwater and Taunton. There is (in early 2009) a massive scheme ongoing to redevelop and regenerate the former market and other riverside land known as (originally enough) Project Taunton. However, in the economic climate this may not proceed to fulfilment.
The River Tone runs through Taunton from south-west to north-east, and the town's main shopping area is just to the south of Tone Bridge, on North Street and East Street. Somerset's County Cricket ground is on the south bank of the river just to the east of the bridge, and Taunton Castle is just to the west of the town centre. Taunton Castle and Museum was originally an important Norman castle, the stamping ground of the important Bishops of Winchester.
There is a War Memorial in the town centre. North of the river, there are also some small shops (and the town's main swimming pool) along Station Road which, logically enough, leads to the railway station.
Weirfield Riverside is a section of the old canal, built in 1834, named Parliamentary Cut. It is between the River Tone and the site of the old Weirfield School, and has now been designated a local Nature Reserve. It homes a wide variety of mammals and birds, and insects like dragonflies and butterflies. On the same side of the canal as the theatre (opposite Morrison's) there is a plaque that you will have to hunt for. It has a small ball bearing mounted on it. The plaque will inform you that if the diameter of the Solar System was the length of the canal, then Pluto would be the size of the ball bearing.
Although Taunton grew up around the River Tone, the modern town effectively ignores its waterfront - although there is a small, pleasant riverside park called Goodlands Gardens, named after the Goodland family who played a major role in the water-borne coal trade, between Tone Bridge and Taunton Castle. For the most part, the river is surrounded by car parks and the odd supermarket, and the livestock market opposite the cricket ground5. Victoria Parkway was renamed Chritchard Way in October 2004 after the late Colin Chritchard MBE, who was Secretary of Taunton Carnival Committee for many years.
If you arrive in Taunton by rail, the town centre is about 10 minutes walk to the south. If you arrive by bus or coach, you'll pitch up at the Bus Station next to Taunton Castle - there's an archway you can walk through next to the Castle Hotel that'll bring you out on North Street.
One of the plus points of Taunton is that it has very good transport links. The first railway link that connected Taunton was provided by the Great Western Railway (GWR). This soon became known as 'God's wonderful railway' and connected the town to Bristol and London until nationalisation. There was a class of GWR locomotives know as the 'castle class' and Taunton was honoured with an 4-6-0 engine No 7036 called Taunton Castle. Almost all First Great Western railway services stop at Taunton station on their way from Devon and Cornwall to London (which is only two hours away), and similarly Virgin Trains cross-country services link the South-West with the Midlands and North6.
Taunton is just off the M5 motorway, which links the South-West with Bristol and the Midlands. London is just over three hours away by road, either on the M5 and M4 motorways, or by leaving Taunton on the A358 and joining the A303 at Ilminster. The A303 is a more direct route and generally considered to be a far more pleasant drive, except at busy holiday times when it's prone to long delays due to being only single-carriageway in places.
Both National Express coaches and local operator Berry's of Taunton operate frequent services to London7, and in the case of National Express, also further afield to the Midlands and the North as well as more exotic destinations like Westward Ho!
Air links are also improving in the South-West. Bristol International Airport now has a regular service to New York as well as a variety of European destinations, although public transport links from Taunton to the airport are atrocious - the airport is located between Bristol and Taunton and is about 45 minutes away by road, but there's no direct bus service, so the only way is to take the coach link to Bristol Temple Meads station, then a train from there to Taunton, which can take an hour and a half. Exeter Airport has also expanded in recent years and offers flights to the Isles of Scilly, mainland UK, Europe, and Canada.
Taunton has a namesake in Bristol County, Massachusetts, USA, which was founded by a daughter of Taunton in Somerset, Elizabeth Poole. Taunton, Somerset is twinned with Lisieux in France and Königslutter in Germany.
According to the 2001 census, the population of the Taunton Urban Area (eg including the surrounding villages) was 58,241 - but in comparison, the latest figures for the parish of Taunton8 on its own totalled 44,050 people.
The population of Taunton is not particularly cosmopolitan. There is no University in the town, and no major industries to attract outsiders to come and live in the area, although since Poland joined the EU there has been a significant influx of migrant workers to the surrounding rural areas. Like many medium-sized rural towns, there tends to be a 'brain drain' in Taunton: when people growing up locally pass their A-Levels at the age of 18, many of them go away to University and most of them don't come back once they've graduated.
Elizabeth Poole (1588 - 1654) - founder of Taunton in Massachusetts.
A supercentenarian from Taunton, Henry John 'Harry' Patch, was a 16-year-old training to be a plumber when war was declared, and he enlisted in October 1914 to fight in the Great War. In 1999 Harry received the Legion D'Honneur medal awarded by the French government. Harry, born in 1898, laid a poppy wreath at the Cenotaph in London on Remembrance Sunday 2008, when he was 110 years of age.
Actor James Purefoy, born in Taunton on 3 June, 1964, starred as Mark Antony in the huge-budget BBC/HBO drama Rome.
Stuart Brace (born in Taunton on 21 September, 1942) was a professional footballer in the English Football League with Plymouth Argyle, Watford FC and Peterborough United before serving his longest spell at Grimsby Town FC (205 league games and 81 goals in total for the Mariners) under the management of Lawrie McMenemy. Finally, he completed his football career playing for Southend United. Stuart also played 2nd XI cricket for Somerset County during the 1960s.
Actress Jenny Agutter, born in Taunton on 20 December, 1952, starred as Jessica 6 in Logan's Run and Bobbie Waterbury in The Railway Children.
Marcus Trescothick MBE, former England cricketer, lives in Taunton with his wife and family.
Author Sir Arthur C Clarke was born in nearby Minehead, but he attended the Grammar School (now Richard Huish College) in Taunton, which was founded in 1522.
Taunton has a Farmers' Market on the High Street on Thursdays. There are three town centre supermarkets (Sainsbury's, Morrison's and Tesco) as well as an Asda and a larger Sainsbury's on the way out to the M5. Big department stores are represented by Hatcher's and Debenham's, whose Head Office is in Taunton. Most of the usual chainstore suspects can be found in the town centre. Noteworthy local shops include Anna's Dairy and the County Stores. The Old Market Centre is a shopping centre, and not a particularly good one.
Eating and Drinking
Taunton has a number of excellent restaurants - the Castle Hotel has a Michelin Star; Gary Rhodes was once Head Chef there. The Willow Tree concentrates on excellent local produce. Other restaurants include The Sanctuary and Bonne Vie. For reasons that aren't quite clear, most of the town's purveyors of pizzas, kebabs, fish & chips and Chinese, Indian and Thai food have congregated on Station Road. The usual McDonald's, KFC, Burger King, Starbucks and Costa Coffee can be found in the town centre.
The dodgy pub near Taunton railway station in which the first big conversation between Arthur and Fenchurch happens (in So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish) closed down ages ago, and is now a restaurant called China China.
Accommodation in the town includes Castle Hotel and Corner House. There are also campsites nearby.
Perkin Warbeck has a very large Wetherspoon's pub named after him on East Street, in the town centre. The low prices mean it is very well used by the younger crowd and acts as the centre of the town's night life.
The performing arts are represented by the Brewhouse Theatre next to the River, while for movie-goers there is the Odeon Multiplex out at Hambridge. Deller's Wharf and Shout! are the only clubs, and the Sunday karaoke night in Que Pasa packs 'em in.
There has to be a carnival, of course! Taunton Carnival is part of the South Somerset Federation of Carnivals circuit. One, which took place on Saturday 21 October, 2006, set off from Priory Bridge Road and passed through Station Road, Bridge Street, North Street, East Street and East Reach before reaching Chritchard Way (formerly Victoria Parkway) and finishing where it began at Priory Bridge Road.
Taunton references feature in many well-known TV programmes and books. Worthy of a mention are: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; So Long and Thanks for All the Fish; The Remains of the Day; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; Blackadder; Monty Python's Flying Circus and Doctor Who.
Without a doubt, Somerset County Cricket Club, founded in 1889, has the most illustrious sporting history in Taunton. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the side captained by Brian Close won five trophies in as many years, thanks to the sparkling talents of Ian Botham, Viv Richards and Joel Garner. More recently, the likes of Marcus Trescothick and Ian Blackwell have honed their skills at the County Ground on the best batting track in the country, and gone on to represent England at Test level. The County Ground in Taunton recently became the official home of Women's Cricket - although suggestions that it should be renamed 'Ladies'10 have so far been ignored.
Compared to Somerset's cricketers, Taunton Town Football Club hasn't achieved quite such national impact. But they have had their fair share of success playing in the Western and Southern Leagues, and the biggest day in their history came in 2001 when they won the FA Vase11, beating Berkhamsted 2-1 in the final at Villa Park.
Taunton Racecourse is just south-west on the B3170. As well as the horse racing, events can be booked there, such as conferences and seminars, as well as celebratory occasions like weddings. Other events like mock-battle re-enactments and classic car exhibitions are also held there.
Places to Visit
The town has some old pubs, and a few old streets such as Mount Street, which has approx 2,000 listed buildings, and Hammet Street with its 18th Century houses, near the church. The Church of St George is Perpendicular style, almost entirely rebuilt in the 19th Century. It has traces of Saxon work in the west wall and there is some work which dates back to the 13th Century. Local parks are Wellington Park and Vivary Park, located near the centre of town. Vivary Park, a Green Flag award winner, has an ornamental Queen Victoria memorial fountain and a War Memorial. There is a museum, the National Museum of Baking. West Somerset Railway is nearby, as is Exmoor National Park.
To the south and west of Taunton are the Blackdown Hills (an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), rising to 315 metres at Staple Hill. Another 'Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty' is to the north, the Quantock Fringes, a narrow ridge of Devonian slates which rises to 386 metres at Will's Neck. The Vale of Taunton and Quantock Fringes have scattered villages, farmsteads and hamlets linked by winding lanes. There are cider apple orchards, variable hedgerow trees including oak, and willow trees on the floodplains.
As part of the millennium rejuvenation project, the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has pledged £4.8m funding to restore Taunton Castle and the Somerset County Museum located within it, provided the rest of the estimated total cost (£1.7m) is raised through grants and public fundraising. A large temporary gallery capable of staging national touring exhibitions has been proposed, and visitor numbers are expected to double. Development work began in 2008, with the aim of reopening the museum in the summer of 2010.