Designated for pleasure

One of the ideas to come out of 2014’s ‘What does Watchet need?’ workshops was to bring the old Victorian pleasure grounds at Splash Point back to life. The derelict cliff top field has the best views in Watchet, is wild and windy, but its extremes are protected by a thick cliff hedge of hawthorn and bramble. Clear back the scrub and it’s not hard to imagine something wonderful there.

Landowner John Richards has kindly agreed the lease of the land to Onion Collective for a peppercorn rent, and a serendipitously skilled group of volunteers has stepped forward and offered their time to make this happen.

Paul Upton from the Conservation Society has scoured the records and found some historical context. The land was ‘gifted’ to Watchet by the trustees of the will of Lord Egremont (George Wyndham) following the arrival of the railway in 1862 (The term ‘gifted’ is perhaps misleading. The land remained in private ownership, but was made use of, and maintained by the people of Watchet, until it was bought from the Wyndham Estate by Commander Copp in 1984). An octagonal timber refreshment kiosk, known as the ‘beehive’ and several benches were installed. Kelly’s and other directories mention the Pleasure Grounds from the 1870s until 1914. They indicate that a Mrs Elizabeth Date ran refreshment rooms in Swain Street and the Pleasure Grounds. The 1901 census shows that Elizabeth (age 56) was the wife of John Date (age 54) who was a Coal and Corn Merchant in Swain Street. Their daughter, Lydia (age 24) was the “refreshment room assistant”. The Kelly’s Directory of 1906 shows that Lydia had by then taken over from her mother. By 1919 there is no mention of the Pleasure Grounds in the directories so we may assume that they went into disuse, or were used for other purposes during World War 1.

Nick Cotton from the Linda Cotton Gallery in Swain Street painted this artist impression of the pleasure grounds, which beautifully shows how it would have looked up there.

Jim at Market House Museum is pretty clear that they were pleasure grounds at Splash Point not pleasure gardens. There’s a difference; Pleasure Grounds were open spaces for outdoor entertainment events, circuses, football matches, banquets and live music. A pleasure garden is a far more horticultural, landscaped affair. The creation of the pleasure grounds was intrinsically linked to the arrival of the railway, which changed everything for Watchet. Now working, industrial, maritime Watchet could flourish economically thanks to its modern infrastructure, and began to be seen as a place to visit for pure enjoyment. Visiting the seaside was becoming the fashionable thing to do in Victorian England, and for the first time, thanks to the railway, Watchet was relatively easy to get to. Larger ‘pleasure’ vessels were using the harbour, and the Esplanade, which was built the same year as the railway, became somewhere to promenade, and to enjoy the sea air. The pleasure grounds provided the perfect space to entertain these new visitors.

Pleasure Gardens were at the height of fashion in Georgian London, Vauxhall being the most famous, starting out life in 1661 as ‘New Spring Gardens’ and made fashionable in 1732 by young entrepreneur Jonathan Tyers who re-launched it as Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. Its success was only rivalled by Ranelagh Gardens which opened in 1746 on the site of the current Chelsea Flower Show.

“Pleasure gardens featured every sort of attraction, from the sedate to the salacious. There were manicured walks and impressive fountain displays, light refreshments, classical concerts, exotic street entertainers and even fireworks. Away from the prying eyes of polite society, they were ideal places for romantic trysts. Their darker corners were also rife with prostitution...” [ gardens]

Whilst salacious attractions may not be quite Watchet’s style (you may beg to differ!) creating an outdoor space that may be used for music, eating and entertainment open to all, would be a wonderful addition for Watchet. And it is our ambition to create a garden, and to use planting as way of promoting relaxation and enjoyment- somewhere full of interest and variation rather than just open ground. This way it can be enjoyed year round, with events being a complementary addition rather than a main focus.

The refreshment kiosk has also sparked excitement. Whilst we have no intention of ‘recreating’ what once was - this is not a restoration project - a structure will be an important element of our garden. The idea of building our own structure as a community project is central to many of the ambitions of Onion Collective. Collecting skills within the community, sharing those skills, helping others gain skills, building confidence, building networks, inspiring people into considering starting their own businesses, these are the ideals that Onion Collective is really interested in. Building something together, enjoying the feel of the timber, working out how it fits together, making mistakes – learning from them! Are all part of the point.

Architect Piers Taylor, who has created our concept designs for East Quay, runs a workshop every year called Studio in the Woods. For a week he and other professionals work with architecture students to create a structure designed by the students and built by them as a way of keeping architecture and building connected and integral. These principles of upskilling, of design as you build, of learning from some of the most interesting professionals in the country, and for the sheer enjoyment of building something together – would be an amazing opportunity in Watchet. So we asked Piers if he would be interested in doing a version of Studio in the Woods here, except using local people instead of students, and building in 3 days instead of a week. (gulp!)

(image c. Piers Taylor, Studio in the Woods)

Lucky for us, Piers agreed and is bringing with him Charley Brentnall, renowned timber expert who has worked on projects such as the restoration of the ceiling at Windsor Castle and also the restoration of Shackelton and Scott’s huts in Antartica. Marc Dix, from award winning Landscape Architect LT Studio has extensive experience of landscape interventions for waterfronting developments, and has worked all over from Singapore to London. Piers, well known for presenting BBC2’s £100k House is an award winning architect, broadcaster and academic and is known for challenging mainstream convention in architecture and education. These are some exceptional professionals, and working with them, is an amazing opportunity, and one not easily come by.

On the first weekend of September (Thurs eve 3rd – Sunday 6th) Piers, Charley and Marc will lead a 3 day workshop to design the landscape and construct a structure for Watchet Pleasure Gardens. What we are calling the Pleasure Build-Up Weekend is open to anyone who is interested in becoming involved. It’s an opportunity to build something unique for Watchet. Booking is on a first come first served basis, and the event is free. We only ask that you bring a packed lunch and a willingness for hard graft! Thursday evening will be presentations from the professionals to show what is possible, to inspire, to provide some outline design principles, and to agree the plan of attack followed by a light supper. Friday, Saturday and Sunday is for building and landscaping, and Sunday evening will be a celebration party, with live music and a bbq.

You can book for the whole weekend or any variation of the days. If you want to be involved but cannot commit to a whole day, please email me at and we will do what we can to accommodate!

To book on please click here:

This new pleasure garden, with its amazing structure built by us locals represents something close to our Onion hearts; seeing the potential of something and working together as a community to make it happen. This project brings exceptional world class skills together with local knowledge and local graft, and sharing that expertise so that everyone can benefit. This will be a pleasure garden fit for Watchet in the 21st century and I don’t think those Victorians would disagree.

Featured Posts
Recent Posts