A day in…Taunton

By | Category: Travel destinations
Vivary Park

Vivary Park

Falling into step with a lady as I walked back to Taunton station, I asked what she enjoyed about living in the town.” I’ve only been here five weeks,” she said, “so I am still exploring. But that’s the fun of somewhere new.”

And on the 21st of June there is Somerfest in the town which is supposed to be a celebration of culture but I’ve been told it’s just an opportunity for Taunton to let its hair down and have some fun.

“But what I really enjoy, she continued, “is Vivary Park. It’s wonderful – and somebody else is doing the gardening. But my husband prefers the West Somerset Railway and the fact that Taunton is the county cricket ground for Somerset. I haven’t seen much of him in the last couple of weeks so I have more time for the grandchildren. I got the impression she didn’t mind that she hadn’t seen much of him.

Vivary Park is set just off the pedestrianised high street and was where I had eaten whilst watching the world go by. I had wondered where the inhabitants of Taunton were on this warm, sunny day. They hadn’t been in the shopping centres and only a few were in the roadside cafes. They must have been all in the park. Like me, they were eating their sandwiches, talking and soaking up the sun. There is a river – the Tone – which goes through the park and dozens of ducks and a lone gull were swimming and dozing rather than pestering me – or anyone else – for their sandwiches.

the majolica-like fountain

the majolica-like fountain

Established in Queen Victoria’s day  – prior to that for hundreds of years it had been fishponds kept by the Bishops of Winchester -you can instantly tell it is Victorian. It has a bandstand and an over-the-top sculptured fountain in a style that’s like majolica. It is painted in the same manner. But, away from the bandstand, the ducks, the fountain and the relaxing locals there is also something much more modern. The Vivary Centre is Taunton’s answer to active leisure. Here there is a climbing wall, aerial rope walks and next to it a bowls club. I could be shallow and say that this seemed typical Taunton. Vivary Cenre was empty; the bowls club wasn’t!

And Taunton holds the nation’s oldest flower show. For 183 years it has held its show – now at Vivary park – at the very beginning of August. That predates even Queen Victoria.

My walking companion may have liked the park  and the gardens but it was the railway that attract ted her husband. And why not? The West Somerset is one of the major heritage railways running as it does from just outside Taunton all the way to Minehead. There might be signs at Taunton station announcing the departure of the bus service to Minehead but which would you prefer? This railway is almost a branch line of the main network – one of few heritage railways that could claim as much.

Her husband’s other joy was the county ground just off Priory Bridge Road. I don’t mean to belittle it but it isn’t as impressive as the Oval or Old Trafford, but like Worcester it is a cosy ground. Here, in heady days gone by, Viv Richards and Ian Botham shared wicket stands as well as a flat. You can see some of that legacy, peculiarly, in the fifteenth century prior barn in which the memories of great Somerset cricket achievements are stored.

cosmopolitan Taunton

cosmopolitan Taunton

Taunton is a strange town in many respects. Strange because it seems so firmly anchored in all that seems redolent of middle England. There are Tudor buildings, rows of smart and not so smart terraced housing, lanes that hark back to the way middle ages towns with artisan shopkeepers, large public gardens with that bandstand and a steam railway nearby. But there are also quite a few Polish shops, even a Polish take-away, a supermarket providing “exotic” foods where I could buy enough coconut milk to last me all my days. There are Japanese, Thai, Nepali and Indian restaurants. Taunton is more cosmopolitan than it first seems.

There is a tea shop called the Algarve which is either in memory of a holiday, a desire to go there or a feeling that abroad is appealing. That seemed fulfilled as I walked around the town and almost saw more people in the travel agencies than I did on the streets.

Museum of Somerset entrance. Behind the building is a stone in which it looks like a sword has been plunged. Arthurian legend? Glastonbury isn't that far away!

Museum of Somerset entrance. Behind the building is a stone in which it looks like a sword has been plunged. Arthurian legend? Glastonbury isn’t that far away!

But the heritage is still there. This is where over 500 people were tried by Judge Jeffries for the role in the Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion in 1685 to overthrow his catholic uncle, James II. It happened in the old twelfth century castle which today houses the Museum of Somerset.  Little of the castle remains as much was ordered destroyed after the civil war. But what exists has been expanded to house the museum and here you’ll find things like Monmouth’s buckle and the Frome hoard. It is just a shame that a rather grand building is spoiled by having a multi-coloured piece of plastic announcing what the site is.

And that is the problem with the area in which it stands. Called Castle Green this large square houses the museum and the Castle Hotel which used to be a private residence, is not the castle but looks more like it than the actual castle. Then there is a very old looking pub called the Knight’s Rest which even has mediaeval stocks standing next to the entrance and a range of attractive buildings. But it also has a real eyesore – the Mecca  bingo hall which looks like 1960’s or soviet style functionality with all the unpleasantness that suggests. But I am assured that it is art deco and built 80 years ago. It is still out-of-place, still looks unpleasant and if I wanted an art deco building to gaze it I would pick the Coal Orchard any day of the week which is now a Witherspoon pub.

the Coal Orchard

the Coal Orchard

Compared to the square in Salisbury opposite the entrance to the cathedral that includes a national trust house and Edward Heath’s former home plus houses that fit with the rest of the architecture and you will know what I mean.

This matching of modern with heritage can also be seen at the Cafe Nero in Fore Street. The building dates back to at least Elizabethan times, maybe even earlier but was subsequently the home of the Duke of Monmouth’s Privy Council before his execution. As a coffee shop was originally a place where people gathered so alarming Monmouth’s father, Charles II,  who feared plots might be hatched against him that he momentarily banned them, it could seem poetic justice that this place of historical revolt is now a coffee shop!

and the Mecca

and the Mecca

It isn’t the only building to have a chequered history. Another pub, the Pitcher and Piano, was the town’s library which was part-funded by the Carnegie Foudation in 1905. The Scot, Andrew Carnegie, was a lifelong abstainer and the  endowment carried a clause saying the building must never be used for drink. So much for his views.

But that seems typical of the town. It contains much that harks back to an earlier time but melds it with a changing outlook as it points to life now.

and the Cafe Nero

and the Cafe Nero

Taunton is a busy town so even in the middle of the day, the cars stop-start through the main thoroughfares. But the town is quite compact so you don’t need  a car to tarvel around. It’s quite flat as well. You can leave a car outside the town either just off the M5 at junction 25 where there is a park and ride on the A38 heading towards Ilminster or  at the Silk Mills park and ride off the A358 to Minehead. You can arrive by train but it is a ten to fifteen minute walk into town. And when you get there, the tourist office isn’t the easiest to find. Located in the same building as the library it is to be found off East Street.

For more information about Taunton, click here.

 

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