The west of Somerset, along with Devon and Cornwall, was named Dumnonia under the Roman rule. It can be described as upland and therefore contained no rich arable land as can be seen to the east, thus explaining why no high status farm/villas have been found. However, archaeology has identified the presence of the Roman army in Wiveliscombe, Bishops Lydeard, Norton Fitzwarren, Upton and Vellow, along with remains of a look-out on Steep Holm to control shipping in the Bristol Channel. During this period local residents would aim to emulate their Roman overlords by copying the Roman lifestyle which could include building rectangular homes in place of Iron Age roundhouses. A.L. Wedlake discovered remains of habitation in the form of tiles and pottery from a dwelling and two rubbish pits which have enabled archaeologists to understand the day-to-day life of someone living in that period. The collections included black burnished ware pottery, a portion of a rotary quern for grinding grain, shards of a mortaria (rough lined bowl) and animal bone which provides evidence of their diet.
Excavations at Dawes Castle above Watchet suggest the burgh and its mint may have been sited there, but another site, at the south end of Swain Street, has also been put forward. Wherever it was located, the mint would have been sited within this fortification. Silver pennies were minted and the Museum is fortunate to have an original on display, along with various replica coins, with an interpretation of the minting process. Silver pennies from Watchet have been unearthed as far afield as Scandinavia. The establishment of the Saxon mint at Watchet drew the unwelcome attention of Vikings, who staged several raids between AD918 and AD997. Christianity came to Watchet and led to the establishment of St. Decuman’s Church, so dedicated probably in 1189, and is one of the largest and finest in West Somerset. Situated in a commanding position overlooking Watchet, it is this prominence which helped inspire Samuel Taylor Coleridge whilst staying with Wordsworth at the Bell Inn in 1797 with the first verses of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, considered among the greatest works in English literature. As a tribute to this, the Market House Museum Society commissioned a statue of the Ancient Mariner and this was erected on the Esplanade in 2003.
The date in which St. Decuman lived is uncertain – some say AD400, others about AD700. It is said he was a Welsh missionary who crossed the Bristol Channel with a cow on a wattle or hurdle and lived a hermit’s life near Watchet. Local legend has it that whilst praying one day a native came behind him and cut off his head, after which he raised himself up, took his head in his hands, and carried it to the spring just below the present church. There he washed all traces of blood from his body and head before replacing it and then continued his prayers. The spot is now the Holy Well. The Manor House of Watchet was Kentsford, which is undoubtedly the oldest secular building in the parish. It can be viewed after a pleasant meander along the old Mineral Line; a mysterious stone cross in the foot of the wall of the packhorse bridge which spans the Washford River there can also be seen. A well-known local legend associated with Kentsford involved Florence Wyndham, wife of John Wyndham, who resided at Kentsford Manor in 1559. A version of this legend can be seen in the Museum.
Artefacts include those relating to: Archaeology, Coins and Medals, Land Transport, Maritime, Natural Sciences, Science and Technology and Social History. Watchet was described as a borough in 1243, and in 1302 was represented in Parliament. The records of Watchet Borough Court or Court Leet date from 1273 and survive spasmodically until 1606 and from 1620 until the present. The remit of the Court Leet was to ensure the smooth running of the town and that law and order was maintained. Although now having no legal jurisdiction, meetings are still held annually in October at the Bell Inn. The Court Leet still has a lock-up at the rear of the Museum – just in case! New lower display cases make the collections more accessible to children and the disabled. A portable ramp can be deployed to aid access for wheelchair users and improved handrails make it easier for the disabled to enter. Assistance dogs are welcome.
Location : The Market House, Market Street, Watchet, Somerset, TA23 0AN
Transport: Watchet (West Somerset Rail) 5 minutes. Bus Routes : 15, 16, 18, 23B and 28 stop 200m from the museum.
Opening Times : Daily 10:30 - 16:30
Tickets : Free
Tel: 01984 632266