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Minehead - Quay Town

Tales of smuggling and maritime history abound on this walk. Discover the surprising location of Minehead's inland lagoon which naturally provided a safe harbour, the tale of the stolen boy and the silvery catch that brought prosperity and international trade to the town.

Welcome to the Quay 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, Minehead Information Centre and Somerset County Council.
Directions - This trail begins at Blenheim gardens, make your way to the large circular flower bed to begin, Blenheim Rd, Minehead TA24 5PZ What3words address ///rave.cake.agent 51.207161, -3.4752280
Chapter one

Deliciously Warm

'A Guide to Minehead' published in 1879 delights to inform us that Minehead has

'A capital sandy beach for miles along the shore so that the ground of the bay is quite flat. There are machines for the use of visitors and the bathing is both safe, comfortable and deliciously warm.'

During this era Minehead was re-inventing itself as a holiday destination partly due to the recent collapse of the herring industry. In the following years the railway would extend to Minehead and a pier was constructed for pleasure steamers to dock, all adding to the town's attractions.
Chapter two

The Lagoon

It must be said that Minehead's current quaint harbour belies its medieval maritime history for it was once a major port along the Bristol Channel. North Hill created a natural, sheltered harbour and early vessels with shallow keels would rest in the inland lagoon and bay. The very ground you are standing on now would have been this lagoon, fed by streams which flowed through what is now the town. The lagoon favoured shallow keeled vessels such as the Currach, which was built of wicker and hide. Common materials easily found close at hand, no matter where you beached your vessel. Currachs were capable of oceanic voyages; they could be up to 60ft long with a beam of 15ft and quite versatile in these waters.

Minehead's name is thought to come from the Welsh for hill or mountain written 'Mynydd' though there are early records of Mynheafdon (1046), Maneheve (1086), Menehewed and Menedun (1225), all contain elements of Welsh and old English words for hill. Today our links with Wales are predominantly land based but historically families working on the waters here at Minehead would have had strong links with the Irish and Welsh ports.
Directions - Walk on to Blenheim Avenue through the main gate and turn right and cross to the birthplace of Arthur C Clarke - stop outside the property with the blue plaque. Note - you can refresh this page whenever the distance counter gets a little sleepy or use the 'help' button on the bar below.
Chapter three

Arthur C Clarke

Born here in 1917 Arthur C Clarke is best remembered as the ‘Prophet of the Space Age' and author of 2001 A Space Odyssey, which he co wrote with film director and producer Stanley Kubrick. Produced in 1964 this epic science fiction film depicted a future of graceful space flight and is considered to be one of the most influential films of all time.

Arthur C Clarke served in the RAF during World War II as a radar specialist; he then studied at King's College London, graduating with a first class degree in mathematics and physics. In February of 1945 he wrote a letter to the editor of Wireless World, which realised the potential of geosynchronous orbits, or satellites, as we know them today. He went on to embellish his theory in a paper entitled ‘Extra-Terrestrial Relays – Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage?' Although there were others working in this field Arthur C Clarke was the first real voice and visionary pioneer back in the 1940's.
Directions - Continue along Blenheim Road, with the park on your right, the next chapter will reveal half way down.
Chapter four

The Clarke Belt

Today we rely heavily on satellites bouncing data and phone calls around the world - right now the device you are holding is listening to perhaps a dozen satellites to accurately plot your location specifically for this app, incredibly these are orbiting more than twelve thousand miles away and this geostationary orbit is now known as 'The Clarke Orbit' or 'The Clarke Belt' in honour of Sir Arthur C Clarke's contribution to science.

From a maritime perspective the navigation now made possible with the aid of satellites is a major step change in the safety of shipping. Once, when ships could plot their locations via landmarks and stars, lighthouses were built to warn of rocks and submerged dangers andin the 1700's improvements in the accuracy of clocks enabled accurate plotting of a vessel's location longitudinally (east / west). All of these measures helped mitigate the dangers of working at sea, but today with the accuracy of GPS and satellite navigation, lighthouses have been rendered as obsolete and many have been decommissioned.

It is interesting to think that the longevity and welfare of sailors at sea has become much safer - due in part to the actions of the man who was born here.
Directions - Continue along the pavement, the next chapter will reveal at the junction with Northfield 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 five

The Blenheim

Turn around for a moment and compare the view today with the photograph which depicts Blenheim gardens around the 1920's.

The three areas of Minehead were once separate in their own right, with Higher Town, Middle Town and Quay Town only naturally growing together in recent years. The major connection happened during the 20th Century with plots being sold along the skirts of North Hill from about 1910.

Our journey will take us up Northfield Road where we look down onto the backs of the cottages we begin to enter the edges of Quay Town itself.

At one time the prevailing wind would have carried the ripe odour of fish waste and the distinctive smell of herring being smoked. In the late 1700's the herring industry was immense, with Minehead exporting some 4000 barrels a year to Europe, Africa and the West Indies. Overfishing led in part to the collapse of this industry and with it the demise of Quay Town's dominance - although other factors such as the silting up of the harbour and political difficulties with The Luttrells of Dunster will have all contributed.
Directions - Walk up Northfield Road to The Quay Inn rear garden gate.
Chapter six

The Old Quay

Here we are behind The Quay Inn public house, originally the Red Lion that sat on the original harbour of Minehead. This was most likely more of a sheltering spit than a solid protruding harbour wall but offered protection and a place for goods to be landed.

There were also buildings opposite on the seaward side where tickets for steamer trips on ‘The Red Funnel Line' were available. The north side of Quay street was demolished around 1910 where the grass sward is found today with the sculpture of the hands holding a map. Locally known as The Iron Giant, it is the start of the South West Coast Path.

To find out what the old Somerset dialect word ‘appledrane' (pronounced aa'pl drae'un) means, just pop into The Quay Inn and ask.
Directions - Continue straight along Northfield Road, the next chapter will reveal at the woods directly ahead.
Chapter seven

The Coffin Trail

In days of old, this was the main path of communication between the Upper and Lower Town. The lane was and still is a long and narrow ascent, and it was along this path that deceased sailors made their final journey as their coffins were carried to rest at St Michael's church.

The church was originally founded by a wandering saint thought to have set sail from a monastery in the south of Wales. Known as Peregrines, these missionaries would set out in a wicker currack with holy book, lectern, crook and sometimes a chicken or goat. Some of the Peregrines were said to discard their oars once out at sea, thus placing their trust in god and the mercy of the sea. The name of this saint has been lost in time but it is thought he arrived in the 12th Century; his final choice of location dictated by the need for a natural spring and its isolation, St Michael's fitted the bill perfectly.

The image illustrates the church around the 1940's which the Higher Town Hidden History Trail visits.
Directions - Walk down Church Path towards the sea with the houses on your right. At the bottom cross the road onto the grass sward for the next chapter to reveal.
Chapter eight

Quay Street Houses

The striking sculpture that denotes the start of the South West Coast Path is known locally as The Iron Giant. A row of houses once stood here which formed the northerly flank of the Quay Street which was often battered by great storms. They were demolished in the early 20th Century, the photograph is dated 1903 just before their removal.

It was written at the time

“that about Christmas 1715, by the badness of the weather and tempestuous tides then happened, it shattered, loosened and broke down the top walls or breast work on the old quay all round, and broke down and damnified some of the wharfe walls and houses ...”

The whole of the southwest was similarly devastated in this storm, and by all accounts it seems that Minehead came off rather lightly in comparison.
Chapter nine

Herring Smokers

During the height of the herring industry these dwellings would have been at the centre of this cottage industry. It was generally the female inhabitants who would prepare the fish for export with the men out at sea. A couple of these houses still retain their smokers huts, where gutted and de-gilled fish were first salted in barrels and then left for anything between a day to two months to pickle. The salt would then be rinsed off and the fish skewered and stretched on wicker frames to be dried and smoked for the best part of a day. Cold smoking would take longer but after this they could be kept for up to a year making them a great transportable high protein food.

Can you spot the herring smoking houses opposite?
Chapter ten

The Whipping of Peter Bond

In 1682 there was much trade through Minehead's busy harbour and as such customs officers were employed to monitor and oversee all was in good order. However there was much bribery and corruption and legal records tell of a Mr Peter Bond, a Minehead shoe maker living on Quay Street who reported having seen packets of cloth and brandy being landed at Minehead but no duty being paid.

Two tidesmen, a Mr James Hellier and Henry Clement were accused, and they did in fact confess to the smuggling. But interestingly the latter was in the employ of a certain Col. Luttrell of Dunster Castle just two miles east of Minehead. The Colonel encouraged Henry to retract his statement at which point the tables turned on the shoe maker, Peter Bond, who was then shackled to the bed of a cart and dragged along The Avenue whilst one hundred lashes were administered. Apparently no citizen of Minehead would deliver the punishment so a servant of Dunster Castle was tasked with the job.

It is interesting to note how integrated and ingrained smuggling was within the local community including the Dunster family and duty officers. There are court records some forty years later which compound this further, as in 1726 Alex Luttrell, then in his early 20's was involved in smuggling as well, although to what extent it is not clear. The Commissioner of Excise, Mr William May, accused Alex Luttrell of rum running - however the established smugglers of Minehead were able to have Mr May dismissed from his post rather than the eminent Mr Luttrell prosecuted.

Perhaps take a photograph of your group for the Storywalks Facebook Page before we continue to our next location.
Directions - Walk along the pavement towards the harbour with the sea on your right. The next chapter will reveal at the Portside Diner a short distance along. Note - you can refresh this page whenever the distance counter gets a little sleepy or use the 'help' button on the bar below.
Chapter eleven

Turning Turk

Around the 1600 and 1700's the seas all around the coast were treacherous, not just with natural dangers but man-made too, as pirates from North Africa and the coast of Algiers would routinely come raiding in the Bristol channel. There is one account of the pirates sailing all the way to Iceland in 1627 where they captured 400 locals to be sold as slaves.

One young Minehead boy, who was stolen by pirates and sold into slavery, he remarkably survived this ordeal and was able to return to the town. The journey to Algiers was in itself a trial, as he would have been chained to a 15ft oar for 10 hours a day whilst lashed and beaten with a bull's pizzle. The boy was put to harbour dredging and stone cutting, very heavy tasks that often killed the slaves. But at the time this was not considered a problem, slaves were cheap and easily replaced; the value of a slave was the same as a single onion!

Professor Davis notes that “all slaves who lived in the Bagnos and survived to write of their experiences stressed the endemic cruelty and violence practiced there.”

As the slaves were of Christian faith it made them not only the property of their owner but viewed as infidels and so brutal punishment was often exhorted, the best hope for a captive to survive and lessen the burden of slavery was to “take the turban” and convert to Islam. This exempted a man from service in the galleys, heavy construction, and a few other indignities unworthy of a son of the prophet, even if it did not release him from slavery itself.

It was through this process that our Minehead boy managed to lift himself out of his situation and change it all by escaping back to the England and finally to home and family. But if you thought that this was the end of his story you will be very wrong for he had now returned a ‘Mohammedan and Infidel' in Christian eyes!

A special service was held in the parish church of St Michael on 16th March for the “re-admission of a Relapsed into our Church.” In this unique ceremony the boy now a man, stood before the congregation in his Muslim clothes while Dr Byam declaimed an appropriately momentous oration. By the end of the service, having cast off his wanton faith and garments he was restored to the Church. However it is also recorded that he continued to wear the clothes from his slaving days and did not renounce Islam completely.
Chapter twelve

The Portside Diner

The Story of Mother Leaky is covered in much detail in the Higher Town Storywalk, but The Portside Diner here also has a claim to this tale. Pop in and read their plaques, plus ask what the old Somerset dialect words ‘pinchfart' (pronounced pun'shfaa'rt) and ‘spranking' (pronounced sprang'keen) might mean.
Directions - Continue along to the Harbour, the next chapter will reveal outside The Old Ship Aground.
Chapter thirteen

Chapel and the Pier

Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, noted Minehead the best port and safest harbour in Somerset. Whilst in town he stayed at the Plume of Feathers hotel which was sadly demolished in 1965.

The curb edging here runs just in front of the Old Ship Aground and the Chapel was the original harbour wall, making the location you are currently standing, most probably the deck of a ship!

The chapel to the right of The Old Ship Aground was once a warehouse and salt store, the rent from which supported the poorhouses along Market House Lane. Local mariner Mr Robert Quirke ran into a terrible storm a few days from his home port of Minehead in 1630.

His crew prayed for deliverance and Robert vowed that if they were to reach home safely then ship and cargo would be sold with the money being put to good use to help the poor. They did survive the storm and the ship's timbers were used to construct the almshouses that still stand today. The ship's bell can still be seen to one end of the buildings, however the buildings are now private residences.
Chapter fourteen

The plaque reads

Robert Quirke sonne of James Quirk Built this house ano; 1630 and Doth give it to the use of the poore Of this parish for ever & for better Maintenance doe give my two inner Sellers at the Inner end of the Key And cursed bee that man that shall Convert it to any other use than To the use of the poore 1630 (Below these lines is an engraving of a three-masted ship) God's providence Is my inheritance R.Q E Robert Quirke

He also gave to St Michael's Church three painted boards depicting the Ten Commandments, the Creed and the Lord's Prayer.

In 1670 this chapel building was home to the customs house and was robbed of kegs of brandy and rum. Today it is St Peters Mission Chapel.

The Pier Hotel, now The Old Ship Aground can be seen in the image with the Minehead model yacht club. Why not pop into the pub and ask what the old Somerset dialect phrase ‘spring buttons' (pronounced spring'-buut'n) might refer to.
Chapter fifteen

Oyster beds.

Minehead's railway, which opened in 1874, brought a ready market for the local oysters, which became nationally famous and sought after as the food of the people. But in the mid 19th century there were reports of steam dredger boats arriving from the east and systematically stripping the oyster beds clean. Inevitably the oysters were overfished and the industry collapsed. More recently new oyster beds have been seeded at Porlock Weir in a bid to revive this unique industry.
Directions - Walk past the chapel and through the entrance with three large stone orbs. Pass through the gate to see the ramp and anchor points of Minehead pier.
Chapter sixteen

The Rudderless Forest Hall

If you walk up the ramp to your right you will see metal protrusions, these were the anchor points for Minehead Pier, which stood here for some 45 years. The end of the pier remains also if you look out to sea, designed to receive steamers no matter the state of the tide. The well-to-do would promenade under parasols with the water swirling in an exhilarating fashion below.
Chapter seventeen

Lynmouth Launch

The R.N.L.I (Royal National Lifeboat Institute) was established in 1824, but it wasn't until 1901 that Minehead had its own lifeboat station. This was in part due to the 1899 heroic Lynmouth lifeboat rescue, where the rudderless ‘Forest Hall' was struggling in gale force 8 winds along this coast. The jetty at Lynmouth had been wrecked by the storm and the crew couldn't launch there, so captain Jack Crowcombe organised his crew to haul the Louisa up Countisbury Hill and over the moors.

It took twenty shire horses to pull her the arduous thirteen miles grafting all through the night. They arrived at Porlock Weir at 6am the next morning and launched immediately to rescue the stricken crew.
Chapter eighteen

John Leicester

It was only after this extraordinary rescue of the Forest Hall that public opinion requested a lifeboat to be stationed at Minehead, especially as the Watchet lifeboat had been unable to help.

Following an inspector's visit to determine the best location for a new lifeboat station, a site being offered by Mr Luttrell was decided upon on 21st November 1900.

Thirty men formed the committee and passed resolutions appointing the operational members with the lifeboat being complete in 1901 with the first lifeboat being the John Leicester, which served for twenty-seven years.
Directions - Retrace your steps back through the gateway to the harbour. Then walk along the harbour arm.
Chapter nineteen

Harbour Plaques

12 Directions - Retrace your steps back through the gateway to the harbour. Then walk along the harbour arm.

Zone 11

20 Harbour Plaques
Seven plaques depicting the seven ages of Minehead's maritime heritage are installed along the harbour wall. Artist Sue Webber created these with guidance from maritime historian John Gilman - she also drew inspiration from a project led by Halsway Manor with local sea shanty specialists Tom and Barbara Brown.

This is one of their shanties:

When I was a lad I worked with me dad
Down on the Minehead Quay
We'd shoot a line at the herring time
For fishing was our game
And me mates and I would look and sigh
At the posh folk on a spree
We'd watch them - Taking a trip on a Campbell steamer
Out on the Severn Sea

All the ladies with the feathered hats,
Twirling their parasols
And the gents in their suits with their polished boots
Would promenade round the town
At the Beach Hotel if you looked right well
The better-most you could see
And they'd be – Taking a trip on a Campbell steamer
Out on the Severn Sea

Now fishing times got very bad,
And herring none at all.
And three in hand doesn't make a cran
And your boat is in the yard
So came the day when I did say
The fishing's not for me So I'll be - Taking a trip on a Campbell steamer
Out on the Severn Sea

I signed on board of a paddle steamer
Down from Bristol Town
Bottom of the crew for a year or two
Until I made the grade
But the Germans came and spoiled our game
White Funnels turned to grey
Still I'll be - Taking a trip on a Campbell steamer
Out on the Severn Sea

We cruised the coast of England
Minesweeping was our trade
From sound to sound we paddled round
To keep the seaways clear
When the war was done it's home I've come
To the place I started from
So no more - Taking a trip on a Campbell steamer
Out on the Severn Sea
Chapter twenty

The Final Plaque

The final plaque depicts the image of two sailors departing from Minehead to report on some floating debris spotted in Blue Anchor Bay just to the east of Minehead. The debris unfortunately turned out to be a mine, which exploded as they approached, both men sadly lost their lives and there is now a memorial plaque in the lifeboat house dedicated to them.
Directions - Continue along the harbour.
Chapter twenty-one

Red Hot Horse Shoes

The new lifeboat station at Minehead performed several launch tests of their vessel but it was suggested that they too should attempt a launch from Porlock Weir just like the Lynmouth boat in case of particularly severe conditions preventing a launch at Minehead.

Ten horses were to be used, the men were assembled, with one on a bicycle to go ahead and clear the way, the boat was loaded and they set out. All went well, if hard work up the hill to Tivington and then holding back as they descended to Selworthy turning, then on to Porlock. The town is approached via a short, steep hill called Dunster Steep, but as they started down the brakes refused to hold.

“Let go all of you I'll take her through,” shouted the carter in charge of the leading pair of horses. With that everyone leapt aside and released the brakes, and the horses sped off at full gallop, with the rest of the crew trailing far behind. At every corner of the perilously narrow and winding road they expected to find a smashed lifeboat, but at the far end of the town there were the horses and lifeboat intact, with the carter pouring water on the red-hot horseshoes. Not a house was damaged, not a scratch on the boat. From that day on the carter's pay was increased by 1/6d a week by his employers, making him the highest paid carter in town. Apparently this paid for his regular Saturday night out - with an ounce of baccy and four pints of cider with a little to spare. The test was declared a success and Minehead lifeboat crew were allowed to keep the carriage.
Chapter twenty-two

The Hopwood and The Kate Greatorex

During the lifeboats history here in Minehead the crew have been called upon on numerous occasions.

On 16th December 1910 a call was received in the late afternoon to help the fishing smack M & E of Bridgwater. In the teeth of a westerly gale, the M & E's crew of seven were rescued along with their dog. Later when the storm eased, the lifeboat put out again and saved the smack. During the rescue, crew member, W. Slade suffered severe exposure from which he never recovered.

The Hopwood was the second lifeboat to serve at Minehead and was stationed here for three years. On the 22nd June 1928 she was called out to assist the S.S. Pelican of Cardiff who had run aground on the Gables, a notorious uncharted reef-like ridge which circles Minehead Bay. By the time the lifeboat arrived the steamer was full of water with the sea breaking over her, the crew of five were saved but within the hour the S.S. Pelican was submerged.

World War II brought more work for the Minehead lifeboat crew, as it did for all R.N.L.I craft around Britain's coast searching for survivors of sunken shipping or crashed aeroplanes. In 1940 the Kate Greatorex took part in a fruitless search for survivors from the torpedoed Yugoslav steam ship.
Directions - Continue along the harbour.
Chapter twenty-three

Harbour Guns

During the Second World War, Minehead's broad stone harbour walls were in danger of being destroyed though not due to the result of active action.

In 1940 two guns were positioned in this locality in order to provide artillery cover in case of a German sea assault navigating the Bristol Channel. They were housed in cabins designed to look like fishing huts so that German photographic reconnaissance would not be able to spy them from the sky so easily. After positioning the guns it was revealed that the arc of the guns' shot was towards the pier, which by now was nearly 40 years old.

It was decided that the pier itself was too flimsy to place the guns on top, so instead it was demolished. Once removed they set about testing the guns but within minutes of the first shots being fired huge cracks appeared in the harbour wall. These were repaired immediately but all test firing was then halted and the guns were required only to fire in anger from that point forth. Thankfully no sea assault ever came, and the guns stayed silent, leaving the harbour walls undamaged.
Chapter twenty-four

Minehead Pebbles

In 1951 Mr Luttrell revealed that in addition to the sale of Dunster Castle he was to hand over another historic asset developed by his family over successive generations - Minehead's harbour.

The maintenance of the harbour had been a huge cost to the family and after lengthy negotiations it was sold to Minehead Urban District Council for £2 plus a £10 a year ground lease.

It was a warm and sunny day in June 1952 when Sir Geoffrey Luttrell formally handed the 350-year-old harbour into public hands. The harbour and her approaches were festooned with flags and bunting and a huge crowd witnessed the event.

Just a year before in 1951, the last ketch named ‘The Emma Louise' sailed out of Minehead harbour after years of hauling coal and cargo between ports, marking the end of such vessels working here.
Directions - Continue along the harbour.
Chapter twenty-five

Conger Eel Trap

One of the oldest features of Minehead's maritime heritage are the fishing weirs. These low walls built out of stone and rubble would guide the fish on the incoming tide towards a single central net or basket, these simple structures date back at least a thousand years and are still visible today from here at low tide.

Also visible at low water is a conger eel trap, a round crater shaped depression which would have been staked and netted to catch eels which can grow up to three metres in length. Their size and bulk would have provided considerable sustenance but their dog-like mouths, razor sharp teeth and super quick reflexes would mean retrieval of a specimen could often be hazardous. It was also common to chase eels out with trained dogs, the local word for this is Glatting or Clatting.

There is more about Glatting on the Kilve Storywalk and England Coast Path Storywalks
Chapter twenty-six

The End

Today Minehead is a diverse town with a rich and surprising history. As you look across the bay the signature white canopies of Butlin's dominate the skyline. In high season the town's population doubles with visitors. It demonstrates the town's continuing resilience as a popular holiday destination and as a base to explore this wonderful coastline.

Thank you for reading and walking this Storywalk trail, we do hope it has enlightened and revealed aspects of the town's character that were otherwise hidden. Please feel free to delve deeper and discover more by visiting the Minehead Information Centre and Minehead Museum where you will find photographs and historical snippets tucked away in their cabinets. Go take a peek and ask questions.

Finally, be great to see a photo of your group on the Storywalks Facebook Page.
Chapter twenty-seven

More Storywalk Trails

The dialect words appledrane, pinch fart, spranking and spring buttons are respectively wasp, miser, watering can, and the spring button refers to ale which you can drink and drink until your buttons pop off without any effect to the head!

Find more dialect words go walk the England Coast Path Storywalks.
Chapter twenty-eight

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

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

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

All rights reserved by Storywalks - C Jelley 2020
Directions - To return to Blenheim Gardens, just retrace your steps.
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