At the Bridgwater Civic Awards last month Brian Smedley gave a brief history of the town. His Complete and Utter History of Bridgwater was an enjoyable summary of the town's long and varied past.

Part 1: The Early Years

I’ve always hated it when people put down the town they live in. Any town you live in is as good as you make it. And if you don’t like it, get involved yourself and help change it for the better.

I bring a lot of International groups to Bridgwater- Czechs, French, Italians, Hungarians, Slovenians, Canadians. Give or take a Slovak that’s 7,000 people over 25 years. People say Bridgwater is a great location for touring – but in fact it’s a great location in itself. I always start these excursions in Bridgwater by taking the group on a walking tour of our town. and I always make the point that the history of Bridgwater is the history of England.

Of course in reality this applies to anywhere. I expect people are doing the same in Stratford on Avon, Bath, York, Highbridge…well, some tours would be maybe shorter

But the point about Bridgwater is it actually IS a very special place. So for a minute I’m going to pretend you’re a visiting group of Czech students and take you through the history of Bridgwater and thereby the history of England. Tak dobré odpoledni , vítejte na Bridgwater . To je krásné m?sto v jihozápadní Anglie s tém?? 40.000 obyvateli….. (but we probably cant keep that up)

The River, the Romans and the Ruddy Celts

I always start the tour on West Quay -which is where Bridgwater started. The River Parret. The Celts called most of their rivers ‘Avon‘-because that’s the Celtic word for river. But here we have the ‘Paredd‘ -which means ‘partition‘ and in modern Welsh still means ‘wall‘(I learnt Welsh, look you) . After the Battle of Peonnum in 660AD the Saxons pushed the Celts west of this river in the Bridgwater area and it became a clear division between 2 totally alien peoples…which may go to explaining the rivalry today between Sydenham and Hamp.

Of course we could go back even before this to such finds as the neolithic stone axe discovered here on Hamp- although that was subsequently found to belong to Cllr Moore.

The Romans created the original Bridgwater. Before there was a Bridgwater there was a small Roman port on a now long gone meander of the River Parret at Bawdrip, still called locally Crandon Bridge. A Roman road led to there from across the Poldens and the Roman regional centre of Lindinis (that’s Ilchester). A long lost silted up spur of the original river it was known as the ‘Black ditch‘ until re-opened in the 1790s as the King Sedgemoor Drain.

Some ‘big names’ drop in

We’ve had ’em all here you know. Some ‘very’ famous names. Of course we know that the Beatles dropped into Terry Downes cafe on the Bristol Road and that George Best played on the hallowed Bridgwater Town turf, running rings around hapless junior ball boy Alan Hurford, but clearly ‚’bigger than the Beatles‘ no less a celeb than Jesus Christ himself would have dropped in to Crandon Bridge on his way to Glastonbury with his Uncle Joseph of Arimethea. And did those feet in ancient times go to Glastonbury. Apparently yes. And of course another interesting town,not just the first site of Christianity, the burial site of many Saxon kings but a town today populated almost 50-50 by hippies and people who hate hippies.

And then of course King Arthur himself, that famous fictitious King of the Romano Celtic period definitely probably based himself around here (If he’d existed) defeating the Saxons at the Battle of Mons Badon, about which opinion is divided as to the location. All the other historians say it was just outside Bath, I say it might have been on Bower Manor.

Seasonal Saxons, Vicious Vikings and Naughty Normans

Eventually the Saxons prevailed and forced the crossing of the Parret and at the narrowest point set up a pool and a trading point for their ships. Either side, Eastover and Westover, being named after the saxon word ‘ufer‘ meaning harbours or Quaysides.

The Parret – connected to the Bristol Channel with the second highest tide in the world was of course navigable, so you’d get off at Combwich to go to the Quantocks, at Crandon Bridge to go to Glastonbury and at Bridgwater to go to the Fountain. Well West Quay anyway. The Saxons called the little settlement that grew up around these landing points Brycg (which can mean bridge-although there’s no evidence of there being one at that time) but can also mean ‘gangplank‘ – as in getting on and off of boats.

Raiding pretty much everywhere came the horny hatted sons of the North, the Vikings and by 878 they’d conquered most of England by landing a massive army in the East and pushing the Saxons west with their ‘Great Horde’ (oo er missus). But again it was in the Bridgwater area that the King of Wessex (the Saxon kingdom of the West Saxons) Alfred the Great hid in the swamps and marshes around Sedgemoor, formed a fortified if slightly swampy base at Athelney, built up a mighty army , counter attacked and consequently routed the Vikings at the Battle of Edington (again historians claim that’s the one in Wiltshire but they‘re wrong-we know it was the one near Catcott because why else would he baptise Guthrum King of the Vikings at Aller and sign the peace treaty at Wedmore!?) It’s a lesson to be learned – don‘t let facts and evidence get in the way of a good story.

It was at this point that Alfred carried the Wyvern standard (the red and yellow flag of Somerset and therefore Wessex) with him (well, he probably got someone else to actually carry it) as he pushed back the Vikings liberating and uniting England as he went. Looking very much like David Hemmings. Especially the tache. It’s no small boast to claim that Bridgwater therefore conquered England. If you look at the Bayeux Tapestry the Wyvern flag is right there behind dead King Harold as he gets the arrow in his eye. So it’s true. It IS!

In 1066 along came the Normans who proceeded to conquer US! And of course introduce the horribly unfair Feudal systém. They did this by apportioning the conquered lands amongst their victorious knights. The Bridgwater area was given to Walter de Douai -who had been present at the Battle of Hastings. Hence by the time the bureaucrats of the Domesday Book arrived in the area in 1086 to jot down what was where and who had what they noted the town as ‘Brig of Walter‘ – so you can see where this is going.