Tales of the unexpected

One of the most fun and interesting things to come out of all our consultation meetings into ‘What does Watchet need?’ is the wealth of rip roaring good stories about Watchet that people have told us. In the best tradition of a good yarn, we have all the ingredients needed; heroism and dark deeds, tales of courage and events of mythical proportions, pirates, murder, resurrection, Kings, Queens, poets who changed the world, Vikings and a famous singing sailor. How did such a small town collect such an array of brilliant, shocking and dramatic tales?

Here are a few of our favourites…

Did you know King Canute (he of holding back the waves) had a Royal Mint in Watchet? The Vikings held raids on Watchet for the best part of 100 years between 918 and 977 and the Saxon mint was possibly situated where the remains of Dawes castle is now. In 1066 after the Battle of Hastings and an ill-fated arrow in the eye, King Harold’s mother Eleanor fled to Watchet in order to take a boat and escape to the island of Flat Holm (the one with the lighthouse on it next to Steep Holm).

1170 was the year of murder most horrid, when 2 of our local Knights were involved in the murder of St. Thomas Becket, the then Archbishop of Canterbury. The knights apparently felt duty bound after hearing Henry II utter the famous words “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” (Unfortunately for the knights it turned out to be a rhetorical question). In order to atone for their sins their families’ did penances, including building St. Decuman’s Church and gave land to the Order of the Knights Templar, apparently land on which Knights Templar First School now sits.

In the 17th Century brave Watchet Sailor George Eskott tricked and captured a notorious and bloodthirsty pirate gang, led by the wicked Thomas Salkeld in their stronghold on Lundy Island, apparently George fought the pirates with only a shovel, but managed to break Thomas Salkeld’s arm and win! (seriously, you can’t make this stuff up!)

1649 saw Charles I walk to the scaffold in a waistcoat of Watchet blue, Queen Catherine (or Queen Caturn to us Watcheteers) had apparently been on a few shopping trips to Watchet and was partial to our lovely cloth. The origins and exact hue of Watchet blue is the subject of much debate and include suggestion that it was derived from the juice of the whortleberry, ground up blue lias rock and even the root of the stinging nettle!

My deep crush on Samuel Taylor Coleridge was probably first formed watching Linus Roach looking misunderstood and dishevelled in Julien Temple’s film Pandaemonium, But Dorothy Wordsworth cut to the quick in her journals when she said “At first I thought him very plain, that is, for about three minutes… with his wide mouth, thick lips, not very good teeth” He and William Wordsworth were the first rock and roll poets, attracting great crowds in London with their radical revolutionary ideas. Escaping to the Quantocks, and spending most days walking in the hills, they are said to have settled for a pint (or 2) at the Bell in Watchet and sat planning out the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a poem still considered to be one of the finest in the English language, the poetry they wrote during this time is credited with starting the English Literary Romantic Movement.

St. Decuman, who the local church is named after apparently sailed over to Watchet from Wales in a handmade raft with his trusty cow, landed only to have his head cut off by a zealous local. Nonplussed our practical and ever calm saint washed his head in the sacred well, put it back on and managed to win the admiration of the suspicious locals. Watchet's patron saint is not the only story of resurrection. Lady Wyndham rose again after a Sexton attempted to cut off her finger to get to her gold rings as she lay dead in the church. She woke from her torpor, frightened off the Sexton, walked home and had problems convincing her family she wasn’t a ghost!

Yankee Jack is another Watchet hero, who sailed the seven seas and joined a Yankee ship in the American Civil War. He sung sea shanties with a famously melodious voice, and brought the songs home to Watchet, his songs were collected by Cecil Sharp who was the founding father of the folklore revival in the 20th Century. Yankee Jack’s statue on the Esplanade is the subject of many visiting ‘selfies’ sat on his knee and maybe the reasons for his Mona Lisa – style smile…

There are many more stories where they came from, most of which can be found in the excellent Watchet Museum, or here on their website. An interesting question is, how best to celebrate all these stories, all this history? Some suggestions so far have been ideas like themed walks through the town, regular events, maybe some kind of visitor centre. One thing is sure though, these tales are told and re-told by the communities that live here, which is how we came to find them. Stories are so important, they are entertainment, memory and identity all rolled into one, and they deserve to be told as often as possible.

Photo: Jankee Jack and me selfie!

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