History, tourist information, and nearby accommodation
HERITAGE HIGHLIGHTS: Taunton Castle, now the Somerset County Museum
Taunton is the county town of Somerset, with a history going back to at least the 7th century. Sometime around AD 680, King Ine of Wessex built a fortification here by the River Tone. The king gathered a council of his leading nobles to Taunton to draw up a code of law. The fortification was later destroyed by Ethelburga, his queen, to prevent it being seized by rebels.
The name Taunton comes from Old English meaning a settlement by the River Tone (Tone Tun).
Taunton grew in importance during the late Saxon period, and Alfred the Great made it a burgh, or fortified town. In AD 904 it was granted a charter, giving the townsfolk a measure of independence, and later in the 10th century, a mint was established. A regular market was held where The Parade is now.
During the medieval period, Taunton's wealth grew as a centre for the wool trade, and fulling mills were built to process the raw wool. Wool from Taunton was exported to Europe and as far afield as Africa. The glorious church of St Mary Magdalene with its superb west tower is a reminder of the wealth of Taunton's wool merchants.
Throughout the medieval period, the manor of Taunton was owned by the Bishop of Winchester. Around 1125 a priory was founded and the Bishop began to build a castle beside the priory. The priory moved outside the town walls 20 years later but the castle remained. A reminder of the priory can be found in the modern street name of Canon Street, and in Vivary Park, named for the Bishop's 'vivaria', or fish ponds.
In 1627 Taunton was granted a new charter giving it a mayor and civic corporation, and freeing it from the influence of the Bishops of Winchester.
The Civil War Sieges
Taunton supported the Parliamentarian cause in the Civil War. In 1643 a Royalist army marched on the town and the natives surrendered without a fight. The Royalists controlled the town for a year but in 1644 it was captured by Parliamentary troops. The Royalists mustered a fresh army and attacked Taunton once more, forcing the Parliamentary soldiers to retreat into Taunton Castle.
Taunton was heavily damaged by fire during the fighting. Parliament sent a new army to raise the siege and the Royalists fled, never to return.
When Charles II regained the throne her annulled Taunton's charter in punishment for the town's support of his father's enemies. He was persuaded to renew the charter in 1677, though he ordered the Castle 'slighted' so it could not be used against him in future. It did, however, continue in use as a prison.
In 1685 the Duke of Monmouth launched his ill-fated attempt to take the throne. He was welcomed by the people of Taunton and was declared king in a ceremony on The Parade. Unfortunately, the Duke was defeated at the Battle of Sedgemoor shortly after and the rebellion was speedily crushed.
Over 500 rebels were held at Taunton Castle and brought to trial by Judge George Jeffreys in the infamous Bloody Assizes. Of the 514 prisoners, some 144 were sentenced to death (though some were never executed) and 284 were transported to the West Indies.
The wool trade declined by the 18th century but Taunton became a centre for the silk trade. Sir Benjamin Hammet restored the medieval castle and the Taunton Museum opened in the castle in 1778 (in 1958 it was renamed the Somerset County Museum). The arrival of the railway in 1842 enhanced Taunton's position as a busy market town. Taunton was named as the county town of Somerset in 1935 over Weston-super-Mare.
There is so much to see in central Taunton! The Taunton Visitor Centre publishes an extremely useful Heritage Trail leaflet with a useful map and details about many of the most interesting historical buildings. What follows is based loosely on the Heritage Trail, which our family very much enjoyed.
Nominally the centre of historical Taunton, this striking memorial stands on a traffic island at the junction of North Street, Hammet Street, and Fore Street. The memorial commemorates the men of Prince Albert's Somersetshire Light Infantry who fell in the Third Burma War of 1885-87.
The memorial is in the style of a tall Celtic cross standing on a stepped plinth. Near the base are carved the battle honours of Egypt, Burma, Azim Curh, and Jellalabad. During the Burmese conflict 144 men of the Somerset Light Infantry's 2nd Battalion lost their lives. The Grade II listed memorial was moved to its present location in 1996.
The Market House
This beautiful red-brick Georgian building stands at the southern end of North Street, facing the Burma Memorial. The Market House was built in 1772 by the architect Coplestone Warre Bampfylde. Bampfylde is perhaps best known for the elegant gardens at Hestercombe. The Market House was designed as a multi-purpose building with separate areas for the administration of justice and for amusement.
The ground floor served as the Guildhall, where magistrates heard weekly court cases. On the first floor was an assembly room for musical functions, with a gallery at one end.
In 1929 the market moved so the arcades on the ground floor were removed. Wings were added, and one of these wings now houses the tourist information centre.
15 Fore Street
A few steps from the Market House is a timber-framed building once known as the Tudor Tavern. As of this writing, it is home to Cafe Nero. The building gained its present 'black and white' facade in 1578. It was once owned by the Trowbridge clothiers whose initials can still be seen on the front facade.
In 1685 the building played a role in the Monmouth Rebellion. At that time it was owned by Thomas Baker, a wealthy grocer. Baker officially welcomed the Duke of Monmouth to Taunton, and his house was occupied by one of Monmouth's Privy Councillors.
From Fore Street, it is a short walk to Bath Place, the main west thoroughfare from the medieval period onwards. Bath Place is occupied by a series of independent shops, and the colourful 19th-century shop fronts provide a picturesque place to stroll. Almost all the shops have retained their original octagonal fanlights.
On Corporation Street stands the former Gaumont Theatre, now a bingo hall. The theatre was built in 1931 in typical Art Deco style by WT Beslyn. Over the entrance is a sculptured panel depicting 'Love and Life Entangled in Film'. The Gaumont acted as a venue for two Beatles concerts in 1963.
Across the street from the Gaumont Theatre is Hunts Court, now a nightclub. The building was designed in 1905 by Samson and Cottam as an art school. It is notable for its striking neo-classical front facade.
Cider Press Garden
Beside Hunts Court is Cider Press Garden, a small public garden named for a large stone and timber cider press given to the people of Taunton by the Taunton Cider Company to commemorate their Golden Jubilee in 1971.
Old Public Library Building
Beyond the garden stands the Old Library Building, now home to pitcher & Piano. The Taunton public library opened here in 1905. The library was partly financed by the Carnegie Foundation and the building was designed by architect Alexander Little of London. The library was located here until 1996 when it moved to larger premises.
After the library moved, the building was used as a pub. This caused some local controversy, for when the Carnegie Foundation gave money to erect the building they specified that as a condition of the grant no alcohol was to be consumed on the premises.
Old Municipal Buildings
Across Corporation Street from the Old Public Library stands one of Taunton's most impressive historical buildings, the Old Municipal Buildings (now the Registry Offices). The large building can be divided into two sections. To the right of the main entrance is the oldest portion, built in 1522 as the town grammar school. The school was established by Richard Fox, Bishop of Winchester, and cost 226 pounds to build.
Like many older buildings in Taunton, the school was badly damaged during the Civil War. It was restored and continued to serve as a school until 1885 when it was converted to become the offices of the Taunton Corporation. The Corporation moved out in 1987 and since then it has served as the Registry Office.
Around the corner from the Old Municipal Building is Castle Bow, the last remaining gate to Taunton Castle. This was the castle's east gate and was originally approached over a drawbridge. A replica portcullis has been installed in the original medieval grooves.
Pass under the medieval gateway and to your right you come to the Castle Hotel, built in the 18th century as an opulent private dwelling looking across to Taunton Castle. It became a hotel in 1834.
Beyond Castle Hotel is Taunton Castle, now housing the Museum of Somerset. From the 10th century, Taunton itself was owned by the Bishops of Winchester. The site where the castle now stands was probably occupied by the Bishop's hall.
Taunton Castle is perhaps most famous for its role in the aftermath of the Monmouth Rebellion in 1685. The infamous Judge Jeffreys held his Bloody Assizes at the Castle. He tried over 500 Monmouth supporters here, most of whom suffered a speedy hanging. The Castle served as a prison and in 1707 it held the trial of the last accused witch in the south west of England.
The Museum of Somerset now occupies the historic castle. The Museum has a huge range of exhibits on the archaeology and history of Somerset, as well as the Regimental Museum of the Somerset Light Infantry.
St James Church
From the Castle a lovely signposted walk along the riverside brings you to a beautiful cast-iron Victorian bridge across the River Tone. Beyond the bridge on St James Street you pass the former St James Pool, built in 1928. Look for the 'Public Baths' sign over the doorway.
Beyond the pool, you come to St James Church, possibly the oldest church in Taunton, with a history going back to at least the early 12th century. Highlights include a beautifully carved 15th-century pulpit and a pulpit dated to 1633. Look for the grave of Joseph Whidbey (1757 – 1833), an engineer and explorer who sailed on Captain George Vancouver's expedition and later designed the Plymouth Breakwater.
Somerset County Cricket Ground
St James' tower overlooks the Somerset County Cricket Club's ground. The SCC was founded in 1875 and held their first match at the ground was played in 1882.
Beyond the ground, tucked away in a courtyard, is Priory Barn, a late 15th-century building that once formed part of an Augustinian priory. The priory was suppressed by Henry VIII in 1539. The Priory Barn now houses the SCC Museum, covering both the history of the Somerset County Cricket Club and the England women's team.
St Mary Magdalene Church
From the barn, you have to backtrack towards the town centre to find Taunton's other major historic church, St Mary Magdalene. The church has the highest tower in Somerset at 163 feet, and the views from the top of the tower are superb. There has been a church here since the 12th century. Look for the painted monument to Robert Gray, a town alderman who died in 1635. Gray established the almshouses on East Street that are your next stop on the Heritage Trail. The church organ was built by Henry 'Father' Willis.
A short walk down East Street brings you to Gray's Almshouses, founded in 1635 by Robert Gray and still providing accommodation to 7 elderly people. Gray was a native of Taunton who later moved to London where he made his fortune as a merchant and a member of the Merchant Taylor’s Livery Company.
The almshouse is one of the oldest brick buildings in Somerset. It still has its original oak-panelled chapel, with a richly painted ceiling. The public is invited to visit the chapel by prior arrangement.
Taunton is an absolute delight to explore. The historic core of the town is full of interest and following the Heritage Trail makes for an extremely enjoyable introduction to the town.
Address: Taunton, Somerset, England
Attraction Type: Town
Location: Off junction 25 of the M5
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express
NEARBY HISTORIC ATTRACTIONS
Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low to exceptional) on historic interest
Taunton Castle (Museum of Somerset) - 0 miles (Museum)
Taunton, St Mary Magdalene Church - 0.2 miles (Historic Church)
Taunton, St James Church - 0.2 miles (Historic Church)
Hestercombe Gardens - 2.5 miles (Garden)
Thurlbear, St Thomas Church - 3.2 miles (Historic Church)
Fyne Court - 4.6 miles (Garden)
Bishops Lydeard, St Mary's Church - 4.8 miles (Historic Church)
St Agnes Holy Well, Cothelstone - 5.2 miles (Historic Building)
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