I’m a hill-dweller at heart. Although my fell-running days never really materialised, I’m happiest when on higher ground. Around here I’m spoilt for choice: I can venture out to the Shropshire Hills or to the Malverns; or simply walk up the road to the heavily undulating countryside of the South Staffs/Worcestershire border. When down country visiting, it’s the same – we end up spending a lot of time in Cornwall and Devon, and these are heavily-contoured parts of the world. To get there though, it’s almost unavoidable that you’ll be either on the M5 or on the train in Somerset at some point, and you’ll go past Bridgwater. Some way to the west are the Quantock Hills, looming over the Vale of Taunton Deane; some way to the North are the Mendips, with their Holes and Gorges; you actually traverse some fairly spectacular scenery on the motorway itself. But around Bridgwater and the whole of the River Parrett basin, the flat extends for miles, and miles and miles. These are the Somerset levels, where the only things higher than a house are the distinctly odd Glastonbury Tor, and a weird Wicker Man-style running man statue just off the motorway.
Bridgwater is the most sizable town of the region, and its history is defined by the river flowing through the town centre. It’s the first bridging point of the River Parrett and became a shipyard, the terminus of a canal to Taunton, and a port for both inland and overseas vessels. Just outside the town you’ll also find evidence of the vast network of artificial ditches (rhynes, round here) which drain the Levels enabling the local agricultural and peat industries. It’s the birthplace of Robert Blake, and closely linked with everything ocean-related, but was also apparently a hotbed of radical politics – treason and trade unions, protest MPs and radical non-conformism are found throughout.
Enter the town today of course, and you’re faced with nothing so exciting: a somewhat bewildering ring road-style arrangement seemingly completely surrounded by warehouse-sized retail outlets. So much for the radical local here; so far, so every other small town in the country. However, we drove around for some time and eventually found a car parking space so convenient that we searched up and down the street for a sign telling us we couldn’t be there. We didn’t find it, so parked right by the river on Binford Place. Convenient for the centre of town, even more convenient for the first charity shop, Scope. This is the high street side of the river, and progressing up Fore Street to Cornhill you’ll find the usual fare of this size and age of town: plenty of beautiful buildings occupied by chain stores. The worst offender here is the beautiful, Italianate Corn Exchange with its statue of Admiral Blake out front – now home to the least exciting chain (Prezzo) of the least exciting cuisine, pizza/pasta, our dilute Islington imitation of Italian food. Opposite, also in golden hamstone, you’ll happily find a huge St Margarets Hospice shop, perhaps the pick of the bunch in town, and certainly cause of a retail dilemma for us. We caved and left with a standard lamp, well-suited to our encroaching middle age.
Despite Google suggesting a PDSA shop in the Angel Place centre, these were the only two charity shops on the left bank of the Parrett. The bulk of the old parts of town is here though, and a wander around the back streets and churchyards would be well worth your time. Head back to the river though and cross the Eastover bridge. To your right, the flat ground stretches off to the east. To the left, the quay is still used, as is the large terminal basin of the Bridgwater & Taunton Canal, a short distance downstream; further still and the river widens to become the port at Dunball, then off into the Bristol Channel. Over the river you’ll find the best charity shops: British Heart Foundation, a huge Oxfam, National Missing Persons, RSPCA and CLICSargent are all found here, and every one proved worth a look. In the BHF I even found jeans in my size, which – as a giant – doesn’t prove easy.
The problem with Bridgwater is the same problem with the large majority of towns that we visit, and it’s probably a wider issue than one blog can cope with. The nice thing about going to these different parts of the country is that we can see the individual towns for what they were. The local stone of Chippenham defines the town as much as that of Kendal; the history of the industrial revolution is as big an influence in Stourport as maritime history is in Falmouth. But almost everywhere, to get to these towns you have to plough through the city walls of mass retail, as though the funnest thing to do in the twenty-first century is go to a giant Matalan and while away a couple of hours. Break through the fortifications and you’ll find that the narrow passages and the grand thoroughfares are swamped with the same shops selling the same things that you’d find in any other town. It’s a cultural condition, I suppose: having had our hand forced into getting rid of our car, we now notice that when we have to rent for a weekend, we revert to the same old pattern: parking in a massive retail park, checking the different Sainsburys in the area, doing no exercise whatsoever. In many ways, the potential restriction of no car is actually a great liberation from the consumerist bind.
Find: Bridgwater @ Google Maps
Get there: take your pick: car, rail, canal or sea-going vessel
Consume with: Prezzo?
Visit: there’s a few visitor attractions around – try the Blake Museum, tucked in a little street off the river
Overall rating: four standard lamps