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No 2 Hidden Histories Middle Town

Journey into the heart of Minehead past the almshouses which literally arrived on a storm, discover how the great fire of Minehead came to pass in 1791 and the spectacle of the first aeroplane to land on Minehead sands.

Welcome to the Middle Town hidden history Storywalk around Minehead. This trail is designed to be like a skimming stone of interesting facts, myth, history and tales linked to this location. The walks are designed to be read aloud to family and friends and to embellish your experience of this place.

Plus we've hidden some Somerset dialect words in local businesses.

Allow an hour at an amble.

These digital trails are maintained through continued support from Minehead BID and Minehead Information Centre.
Directions - This trail begins outside the Minehead Information Centre between the Beach Hotel and Minehead railway station, Warren Road, Minehead TA24 5AP What3words address ///yummy.nights.drama 51.207026, -3.4698910
 
Chapter one

The Star of the West

130 years or so ago, the fortunes of Minehead and surrounding hills changed as the train line was extended here. The Grand Beach Hotel (today the YMCA) opened at the same time ready to receive new visitors and holiday makers. At the time a pamphlet enthused about the town, describing it as

‘The Star of the West and comparable to Torquay'

it goes on to say that Minehead

'has few of the disagreeables of the general run of the sea side towns'
Chapter two

The Station and Beatle-Mania

Minehead railway station is a great location to start this trail, it has been the landing point for visitors for over 100 years now and the perfect point for exploration and discovery of this great town.

The West Somerset Railway, originally extended from Watchet in 1874, and was constructed to connect people and commerce with the town and its assets. From holiday makers to cattle, from soft fruit to iron ore, from ballast to barrels of pickled herring, all have come and gone on this railway over the years.

In fact so many visitors came that camping cabins were installed along the railway line to support the influx, but with the onset of war, these were then re-purposed.

In the 1960's, Beatle-mania was at its peak and the fab four came to town to film ‘A Hard Day's Night'. It was March 1964 and two local school girls Marian Keery and Cynthia Wilkinson (13 and 14 at the time) both skipped school, to catch a glimpse of the fab four before being manhandled away by police officers.

The Beatles were here for two days, filming along the railway line. On the second day the two young girls didn't even need to play truant as the entire school was given the day off to go and see them!
Chapter three

The Beeching Closures

When the Beatles passed this way the line was already marked for closure by Lord Beeching as were hundreds of other miles of branch lines throughout the country.

In 1971 the inevitable came and closure happened, but in 1973 the local council bought the weed-strewn line and out of these ashes rose The West Somerset Railway Company. It took a few years to get the line operational again under its new charitable status but today it stands as the longest standard gauge heritage railway in Britain.

The image above was taken during the first world war and depicts mules being exported to the front line. Portuguese handlers broke and trained the animals on Exmoor first, having arrived from North America before their deployment to the front lines.

The hidden Somerset dialect words.

These Storywalks have hidden a few old Somerset dialect words in cafes and businesses along the trails. The Minehead Information Centre here, knows what a sparrow-bill (pronounced spaar'u-bee'ulz) is. To find out you'll have to pop in and ask before you move on.
Directions - From Minehead Information Centre and facing the railway station turn left and walk around the front of the Beach Hotel and the next chapter will reveal.
 
Chapter four

Stage Coach to Lynton

The sight of the stage coach collecting passengers in Minehead, heading up The Avenue to The Plume of Feathers and then on towards Porlock and Lynmouth graced this location daily for the best part of a hundred years. At The Ship Inn, which sits at the foot of Porlock Hill seven miles west of Minehead, a team of two horses were stabled to assist the stage coach up the famously steep incline and over the moors.
Chapter five

Porlock Hill

But it would have been the return journey that would have been for those of a stronger nerve, for rather than use brake shoes, which were weak and ineffectual, they used drags or skids to slow the descent. The rear wheels of the stagecoach were literally locked in metal gutters, rendering them unable to turn, the horses would then drag the coach down the slope! These can be just seen in the image taken on the Porlock Hill descent.

The coaches were often very top heavy as this is where the luggage was carried; here at the Beach Hotel they would have stored a long thin ladder ready to hoist the cases and baggage on top of the coach. In many hotels the luggage was moved directly into the first floor through the windows or doors above the porch.
Chapter six

1906 - Bungalow Tea rooms

The photograph shows the Bungalow Tea Rooms circa 1906, today Beach Hut Gifts which is on the seaward side of the station. But over to your left today you will see the Jubilee Cafe, initially built as an open fronted stage in 1912, the audience would sit where the crazy golf course now resides. Why not pop into the Jubilee cafe at some point and ask what the Old Somerset dialect word 'vuzpig' (pronounced vuuz'pig) refers to.
Directions - Walk up The Avenue staying on the left hand side of the road, the next chapter will reveal before Tregonwell Road. Note - you can refresh this page whenever the distance counter gets a little sleepy or use the 'help' button on the bar below.
 
Chapter seven

The Underground Stream

Minehead has been prone to flooding over much of its lifetime and higher up the high street there once ran an open stream. Culverts were dug in the 1960's in the street and the stream now flows underground.

Photograph depicts flooding in The Avenue in 1935.
Chapter eight

Benny Hucks Flies to Minehead

In 1910 Minehead witnessed the amazing spectacle of an aeroplane landing on the beach, at this time planes themselves were very rare and quite unreliable. Benny Hucks was the first aviator to ever land in Minehead and was sponsored by The Daily Mail on a round Britain competition. A barn was set up on the beach where you could pay to see his single seater plane, although accounts of how many took up this offer are conflicting.
Chapter nine

Salmet on Minehead sands

Three years later the French aviator Henri Salmet arrived. He was the first person ever to fly over Exmoor, and his plane had two seats so he could also take paying passengers. But as his plane approached to land on the beach, something felt wrong and he pulled up at the last second.

He then came around for a second attempt which was perfect although when he was greeted on the beach he said he was 'cold, very, very cold' and kept on flapping his arms to warm himself up. It was likely he was suffering from exposure from wind chill, as to keep the weight down he had economised in clothing.

But just a week before he had crashed at Ilfracombe when he had audaciously attached floats to his landing gear and attempted to land on the sea. But nothing went to plan with the landing although neither Salmet nor his plane were damaged.
Chapter ten

Chocks Away

After a week in Minehead he then flew up the channel with the local scout master from Taunton riding pillion. The plane taxied well and took off fine but just minutes into the flight and not even out of sight the plane stalled and plunged like a stone into the Bristol Channel just near Watchet.

Swiftly the Watchet lifeboat was launched with all men to the oars (as the lifeboat was still some years from being motor powered). Thankfully the tide and wind did not conspire and both men were rescued successfully though it was said that neither could swim!

More about this on the England Coast Path Storywalk at Watchet
Directions - Continue up The Avenue staying on the left hand side of the street, the next chapter will reveal opposite Apple Tree Tea Rooms.
 
Chapter eleven

The Avenue around 1900

The picture you see here is of The Avenue around the 1900's, at the time holidaymakers were beginning to make Minehead a desirable destination, a place to take the airs, rejuvenate the body and perhaps even take a dip in the sea - with use of a bathing machine of course!

Over the road here you will see Apple Tree Tea Rooms, if you have ever wondered what the old Somerset dialect word ‘clinkervell' (pronounced tling-kur-vuulz) might refer to then pop in and ask.
Chapter twelve

The Old Jalopy

Minehead has been the seat of car rallying for many years with the famous Porlock Hill being one of the major draws and challenges. These cars were notoriously difficult to drive as they had no synchromesh system making gear changes hard work. Drivers had to perform a double clutching routine every time they wanted to change gear. This involved depressing the clutch pedal to move out of one gear then taking your foot off the pedal to then depress it again and engage the new gear. Porlock Hill was the place to show off your double clutching skills and prowess to the gathered crowds.

Even today modern cars can be stretched to their limits on both incline and decline; with the village being cursed with the scent of overheated brakes ever since!
Directions - Continue up The Avenue staying on the left hand side. The next chapter will reveal at the crossing. Note - you can refresh this page whenever the distance counter gets a little sleepy or use the 'help' button on the bar below.
 
Chapter thirteen

God Save the King

These enigmatic images are from the Empire Day celebrations along Minehead seafront but little more is known about them. Interestingly Canada celebrated Empire day from 1898 but it was not until Queen Victoria's death in 1901 that we celebrated them in England. Bonfires, fireworks and fancy dress seemed to be the order of the day designed to -

'remind children that they formed part of the British Empire, and that they might think with others in lands across the sea, what it meant to be sons and daughters of such a glorious Empire' and that 'The strength of the Empire depended upon them, and they must never forget it.'
Chapter fourteen

Empire Day

The 12th Earl of Meath introduced this event 'to nurture a sense of collective identity and imperial responsibility among young empire citizens.' In schools, morning lessons were devoted to 'exercises calculated to remind us of their mighty heritage'

In the late 1950's the event fell out of favour to be replaced by the Commonwealth of Nations Day.
Directions - Continue up The Avenue on the left hand side to the Regal Theatre.
 
Chapter fifteen

Hospital and Regal Theatre

The image above shows the ornate building of Minehead Hospital in the background, with the building site of the Regal Theatre to the fore. The venue was designed as both cinema and theatre space, seating up to 1600 with a ballroom on the lower floor (today Poundland).

The theatre holds a comfortable 410 today as the upper stalls have been removed to enable the stage to be both deepened and widened. The Regal does indeed have a wide range of visiting shows, a film club and quality youth theatre. It is less well known for the apparition of the young tanner boy who has been glimpsed on the west stairwell during the quiet darkness of rehearsals.

Just to the right of the theatre is Lisa's Vintage Tearooms which was once also part of the theatre complex. Why not pop in and ask what the Old Somerset dialect word farnticles (pronounced faarn'tikulz) might refer to?
Chapter sixteen

Hard Rock Minehead

Local quarries lie scattered all over Exmoor and the surrounding hills, much of which is Devonian stone, a red sandstone also know as hangman's sandstone. It is tricky to shape into regular blocks so is more commonly used in 'ragwork' or 'rubble fashion' and much evident throughout Minehead.

Opposite the Regal is an ornate building which was once Minehead Hospital. This is in part constructed from Ham stone, a far more predictable material allowing masons to create detailed and intricate work. Features like doorways, corners and mullions (window surrounds) could be shaped with Ham stone with the cheaper local red ragwork used elsewhere.
Chapter seventeen

Minehead Tannery

Traditionally tanners would use stale urine as part of the softening and preservation process and barrels would be kept on street corners for people to top up! It is said the phrase ‘taking the piss' stems from the movement of these barrels to the tanneries.

Only when the urine was stale would it be useful in the tanning and dying process, understandably it took some time and effort to clean this plot of land up before the theatre could be built.

The ghost child was thought to have worked in the tannery as just before his apparition appears there is said to be a terrible smell which precedes him! Thankfully he has not been seen for many years now.

Directions - Continue up The Avenue to the Old Priory just short of Summerland Road and WH Smiths.
 
Chapter eighteen

Priory

The old building you see here thankfully escaped the great fire of Minehead in 1791 although many of the medieval buildings in town were less fortunate. The Old Priory is early Tudor in origin and was built initially as a manor house although since has been a courthouse, manor offices and then for many years a well renowned restaurant.

Around the 16th Century the Court, or more correctly The Court Leet was set up here to deliver justice on both local matters as well as the King's business. Local issues would include the reprimanding of individuals for letting their pigs wallow in the stream to settling disputes and tenants' debts.

Walk around the side of the building to see the aspect of the next two photographs.

A Minehead resident remembers evening meetings many years ago inside the restaurant which were disturbed by the sounds of rats eating the biscuits! Thankfully these days are long gone.
Chapter nineteen

Thithingmen

Twice a year, unpaid constables were nominated from the community to carry out the justices required by these courts. The position was called a Thithingman and their duties often focused on the calibration of the size of a loaf of bread and a pint of ale. These assizes regulated the value of the penny, half penny and farthing.

The Thithingmen would also oversee other trades and keep them in order, job titles included ‘The Keeper of the Shambles' which was the regulation of the butchers, ‘The Keeper of the Ways' who would look after the streets and bridges, and interestingly Minehead also had a ‘Keeper of the Weirs' to look after the waters.

In 1486 during the reign of Henry VII, thirty people in Minehead registered for a licence to sell ale of which twenty were women. It is recorded that six years later twelve tenants were fined one penny each for selling ale before it had been sampled by the Ale Tasters.
Chapter twenty

Henry Woods - smooth moving goods

WH Smiths was once home to Henry Woods ‘a very competent removal company' (1904). They were also cabinet makers, upholsterers, and estate agents with a 'list of furnished and unfurnished houses on application'.

Aside from their fleet of wagons and vehicles they even had a railway carriage, all were emblazoned with their livery ready to move anything from antiquities to livestock all around the world.
Directions - Continue along the pavement past WH Smiths to the next crossing which will be Bancks Street.
 
Chapter twenty-one

Fish Market

The image above depicts the old fish market, which is the grand building on the right, at the top of the street you will see the original Plume of Feathers which was demolished in the 1960's. But to the right you will see a building still standing today which is occupied by Chanin and Thomas estate agents.

Much of Minehead Parade was developed in Edwardian times, by local Devon architect W.J.Tamlyn who settled in the town. He was responsible for designing several hundred domestic properties but also The Queens Hall on the seafront and The Market House opposite.
Chapter twenty-two

Pickled Herring

The Quay Town trail visits the harbour and highlights the town's former history as a major exporter of pickled herring. A bustling harbour required many supporting industries including makers of rigging for ships, cranes, nets, hoists, along with sailcloth all providing employment for the townsfolk.
Directions - Cross the road carefully and walk into the street opposite called Market House Lane to the right of the NatWest Bank.
 
Chapter twenty-three

Poor House and Butter Cross

The line of medieval buildings to your right were Almshouses and given to the town in 1630 by master mariner Robert Quirke. His ship ran into a terrible storm a few days out from home in Minehead and the crew and captain prayed for deliverance, vowing that if they reached home safely, the ship and cargo would be sold and the money used to help the poor.

This row of Almshouses was allegedly built from the very timbers of this ship on the site of the old marketplace (the stump of the market cross can still be seen today). The income for their upkeep was obtained from the leasing of two cellars on the Quay, today the St Peter's Mission Chapel next to The Old Ship Aground.

The event of the storm is recalled on a brass plate fixed to the centre cottage. Under the inscription is engraved a three-masted sailing ship and the original ship's bell is mounted on the roof of the end house.

By 1861 seventy-eight people were recorded as occupying thirteen poor houses in Minehead. By 1980 only three of these Market House Lane houses were occupied, each a ‘one up one down' with toilet but no bath. They were restored and modernised in 1985 and sold as private dwellings.
Directions - Back on the main street (The Parade) turn right and walk along the pavement to the next corner. The next chapter will reveal at the tree with the circular bench outside Glenmore Bakery. Pop in to find out what the old Somerset dialect word ‘cuckoo-buttons’ (pronounced geo-keo-buut'nz) might mean.
 
Chapter twenty-four

Floyds Emporium

The major store in Minehead still trading up until the 1960's (today Knicker Bocker Glory) was once Floyds Emporium and had replaced the earlier draper, grocer and chemist J Bond. Interestingly the new Floyds Emporium store had a pneumatic payment system installed - you would place your money in a vessel which itself was placed in a tube which would shoot off upstairs to a central office. There the cashier would manage the payment, place receipt and change in the tube to be shuttled back to the customer. Apparently it was the chosen method for even the smallest transactions keeping cash off the trading floor.

Their advert in a local pamphlet from 1904 proudly declares both wedding and funeral orders promptly undertaken.
Chapter twenty-five

The Plume of Feathers

On the current site of Costa Coffee and Butterflies Cafe stood the nationally renowned Plume of Feathers hotel. Author of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe, stayed as a guest in 1722 and wrote praising the building and the hotel service. He returned to the area in 1724 and was impressed by the remarkable fossils he found at Watchet.

See England Coast Path for the Watchet Storywalk and href=https://kilve.storywalks.info>Kilve Storywalks for more especially about the fossils and unique geology found there.

It was a great loss to the town when The Plume of Feathers was demolished in 1965 and there seems to be no record where its famous, much photographed chair made entirely of red stag antlers went, although there is a similar one in the Dulverton Heritage Centre.

If you are curious to what the Old Somerset dialect word skitty-vamps (pronunced skeet'ee-vaam's) refers to, then perhaps pop into Butterflies Cafe and ask.
Directions - Carefully cross the roads to Wellington Square at the top of The Parade where our tour will complete.
 
Chapter twenty-six

Queen Anne on the move

The statue here is of Queen Anne, one of only two existing statues by the sculptor Bird, the other stands outside St Paul's Cathedral, London. The MP Sir Jacob Bancks presented the statue in 1791, the same year as the great fire of Minehead. The gifting of the statue illustrates the absurd disproportionality of representation that Minehead once held at parliament with two MP's representing a population of less than 2000 people.
Chapter twenty-seven

The Great Fire of Minehead

You may wonder where the old town of Minehead really is; Quay Town has its fair share of medieval properties, so too does Higher Town, but there is little evidence and few historical buildings in this part of the town today. This is due to a great fire, which ravaged through the heart of the town destroying a huge swathe of property in a single night.

The year was 1791 and the majority of Minehead residents were tenants of the Luttrell family of Dunster. Here is a contemporary report documenting its beginnings.

‘Mr May a considerable miller who lived in Bampton Street (just a stones throw from here) yesterday noon had occasion for some pitch which was in a barrel near his back door, and with a hot iron or poker he meant to take some, but it unfortunately caught in flame and he rolled it in a small stream of water near at hand where it blazed much much more; near the spot stood a wood or wallet rick of immense size, to which it immediately communicated and from thence to adjoining houses ….'

By the end of the night seventy plus dwellings were consumed including warehouses, store rooms and outhouses. The fire had spread along the stream leaving nothing but ashes.
Chapter twenty-eight

Mr Luttrell shows distress

Most of the sufferers were reputable shopkeepers who supported large families, it was estimated that between four and five hundred residents who were in prosperous circumstances the day before were rendered destitute within twenty-four hours.

In a local paper at the time ‘Mr Luttrell appeared much less distressed to see the valuable effects of his tenantry destroyed than to hear the cries of their wives and children. . . . (he) stayed till a late hour and did not leave till the remaining houses were in some safety.'

Even though the fire was intense, it claimed only one casualty a 'Mr D Price, a maniac, [who had been] locked up and forgotten in the confusion'

Following the fire Mr Luttrell stated that Minehead would be 'raised to a state of elegance and repute'

His words and sentiment lifted the spirits of the residents for a brief time but not for long as the funds and support were not forthcoming. A local newspaper article said 'a chimera only of groundless fancy . . . totally void of foundation.' Five years later and only one cottage had been rebuilt, Lord Luttrell had failed to provide even for his tenants' basic needs.
Chapter twenty-nine

The Lost Charity

A charitable fund was also set up at the time to support the destitute but again that did not reach the needy nor was it used for the rebuild. In 1796 Mr Parson Swete visited Minehead and wrote of the 'vast number of houses in blackened ruin and utter dilapidation.'

Not until thirty years later, in the 1820's did the rebuild begin in earnest and Minehead rise once again from the ashes.

Within the Minehead Information Centre you will discover a museum with a fabulous map depicting the houses destroyed in the town.
Chapter thirty

Other Storywalks Trails

So this brings our Middle town walk to a close, if you wish to know more about the town's maritime heritage may I suggest you walk The Quay Town Trail. Alternativly the The Higher Town Trail which climbs into the quieter higgledy piggledy houses and peels back the veneer of history which surrounds us all.

I shall leave you with one final image, please do walk along Friday Street to number 27 which was once Bradbeers car showroom. And feel free to post a picture to the Storywalks Facebook Page.

And finally, the words Somerset dialect words Vuzpig, Clinkervells, Farnticles, Skitty-Vampsand Cuckoo-Buttons are respectively hedgehog, icicles, freckles, lace up boots and thistles.

Find more dialect words on the England Coast Path.
Chapter thirty-one

Image References

Somerset Heritage Trust

Ref – A/AGC/38/5 (Hilary Binding Albums)
Ref – A/DRY/13/54
Ref – A/DRY/13/49
Ref – A/DRY/13/39
Ref – A/DRY/13/9

Images of the Beatles by H Hole provided by A & C Elle of Dunster

Banner image crown copyright OS 1938 – 611351 – T912,423

All rights reserved - Storywalks - Christopher Jelley 2020
Directions - To walk back to the station, just retrace your steps.
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