I’m just back from two weeks away and, as I’ve written before, historians tend to go on their holidays merely to find new histories. The past is, after all, everywhere when you look for it.
Indeed, some of my weeks away were spent in the small harbour town of Watchet, Somerset. It’s a charmingly unpreposessing place, with vernacular cottages peppered along harbour walls which still hold a working area for small fishing boats and pleasure craft. With its mix of old-fashioned public houses and contemporary arts spaces, it’s an interesting town in and of itself, with a real community feel … but for so relatively small a settlement it also has history in abundance.
This history is long: there is an Iron Age fort just outside of town. The old market house and manorial court building now holds the town museum, however, and in one of its large windows, facing the narrow main street, there is an artist’s impression of an unusual event to which Watchet played host during the English Civil Wars: the moment at which a stranded Royalist naval vessel, bound for the siege of Dunster Castle a little way up the cost, was attacked in shallow water by Parliamentarian cavalry. With nowhere to run, the Royalist ship surrendered – representing the only time during the war that a naval unit was captured by men on horseback!
The uncertain allegiances of the area played out in Watchet’s principle family, too: the local worthy and patriarch, Sir John Wyndham, served the Crown tirelessly during his life (for instance by arranging the defence of Somerset against the Spanish), but in 1640 seemed to side with Parliament; in 1660, however, his son, Sir Wadham Wyndham, would as a serjeant-at-law take part in the trial of the Parliamentarians whom signed the death warrant of Charles I. For anyone who might think that the divisive partisanship of the Civil War didn’t stretch beyond Westminster, little Watchet is a great case study.
I was fascinated, too, by the tale of Sir Wadham Wyndham’s grandmother, Florence Wadham – a woman whom, local tales told, rose from the dead! In reality, it seems she was in some sort of coma when buried in St Decuman’s, the church just outside Watchet that also served the local village of Williton. Some versions of the story hold that, surprised by a grave robber, she regained consciousness and was next seen at the door of her shocked family. Apparently, members of the Wyndham family are to this day never buried until three days after their death.
War, high politics and popular belief, all on the same short stretch of seafront at Watchet: a town also home, incidentally, to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, of the famed seaman and repository of folksong ‘Yankee’ Jack Hatchett … and some excellent ice cream.