The crowning glory of Minehead is North Hill and from its summit can be seen the Quantocks and the Brendons, and nearer the Hopcott Hills, whilst rising in the background are the heather-clad hills of Exmoor. Between them are the valleys or ‘coombes’, mostly thickly wooded, with a clear moorland stream flowing between them and a footpath alongside. Cliffs and beaches border the wide Bridgwater Bay and the Bristol Channel soon joins the rolling Atlantic.
On the slopes of North Hill, viewed as a sentinel from far out to sea, is Minehead’s Parish Church of St Michael, best approached by climbing Church Steps between quaint cob-walled cottages. Rich in history, this church is mostly fourteenth-century although the tower is of a later date, about 1500. The tower with a clock and bells has some interesting sculptures. On the eastern side St Michael is depicted weighing souls of men: Satan at one end pressing down the scales, whilst the Virgin Mary is frustrating his efforts by pressing the opposite beam. Inside, the church is separated by a delicately carved oak rood screen of a design similar to that seen in Dunster Church. There is an interesting rood loft and from the window in the turret a light is said to have been kept burning all night, shining as a beacon to sailors. For many years a curious figure, known as ‘Jack Hammer’, hammered out the hours on the church clock. He has long since retired from his duties and is now inside the church over the screen in the North Aisle.
The church also possesses a rare treasure: the Fitz-James Missal, dated late fourteenth century, and the Fitz-James chest. From the Church Porch, there are excellent views of the town and the hills beyond.
Minehead’s sands extend from The Strand to Warren Point and the pebble beach towards the harbour, in all a distance of about a mile. In spring 2000 a major new sea defence scheme transformed Minehead’s promenade and beach, making it one of the area’s key attractions.
Minehead’s largest park, Blenheim Gardens, was opened in 1925, following the generosity of Mr. Magnor of Northfield House, who wanted to create a public park and donated £500. The gardens are close to the seafront and just off the main shopping area. The beautifully-laid out borders and flowerbeds have won numerous prizes; there is an area for putting and on Summer Sundays a band concert. Deckchairs are available and refreshments can be obtained in the park café, which was originally the park’s band stand. Sadly, the row of tall elm trees that once graced the park had to be felled in the 1970s due to Dutch Elm disease.
The Park’s Walk, Woodcombe Walk and Bratton Walk were originally part of a thirteenth century park. The Park’s Walk was laid out in the 1920s and consists of attractive gardens set between the hills in the vicinity of the Porlock Road. The Bratton Stream, which once ran through meadows, winds its way through the gardens and disappears under Park Street, eventually emerging onto the beach.
Below the church is Minehead’s ‘Higher Town’. Higher Town has a number of picturesque old thatched cottages with abutting chimneys in true West Somerset style, whilst the narrow path known as Church Steps is a popular setting for artists and photographers. The red sandstone building on the left, at the foot of Church Steps, was Minehead’s earliest workhouse and was leased to house the poor in 1731. The building was later used as a mint but the grills on some of the windows still remain. The colour-washed house on the opposite side of the steps was once used as a schoolhouse.
Snug beneath the steep seaward slopes of North Hill lies Quay Town, with a history which dates back to the eleven century. According to the Doomsday Book, Ælgar Earl of Mercia held the town and the harbour but when he was dispossessed by William the Conqueror, the town was given to one of The Conqueror’s friends, William de Mohun of Dunster. It has been suggested that his name gave rise to the name of Minehead – a contraction of Mohun and Saxon ‘heved’. The name, however, is variously written Manheve, Munheved and Minheved in early documents relating to the town. By the year 1400, Minehead had become a port of considerable importance; later, in the reign of Elizabeth I, Minehead boasted a Port Officer like that of Bristol. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, some forty vessels were trading regularly between Minehead and Ireland, South Wales, Bristol and Bridgwater. There was also a herring fishing industry of some importance; it is recorded that some 4,000 barrels were exported annually.
Times have changed but Quay Town has retained its old-world charm and in the summer it is the port of call of the pleasure steamer ‘Balmoral’ and the paddle steamer ‘Waverley’. In the early days, there were several inns amongst the old fishermen’s cottages, one being the Queen’s Head, which was opposite The Pier Hotel (now the Old Ship Aground), and earlier, The Mermaid on Quay Street.
Minehead’s Ghost and The Hobby Horse
The Mermaid was one of the oldest business premises in the town and has been in turn a ship’s chandlers, a nineteenth-century ‘department store’ and in more recent years a tearoom. The old building was the scene of much activity when the harbour was full of tall-rigged ships and was the home of Minehead’s famous ‘Whistling Ghost’: Old Mother Leakey.
It is said that Mrs Leakey, who died in 1634, became notorious after her death by her unpleasant habit of whistling up a storm whenever one of her son’s ships neared port. The townsfolk became so anxious that the Bishop of Bath and Wells presided over a commission to inquire into the matter. This resulted in a statement being issued to the effect that the elect commission doubted the credibility of the witnesses and did not believe that such an apparition as Mother Leakey’s ghost existed. The findings were signed by Archbishop Laud and the publicity enjoyed by Mother Leakey began to wane. Not all the local inhabitants, however, shared the commission’s views concerning this alarming affair.
Always associated with Quay Town is Minehead’s Hobby Horse, a genuine remnant of the Middle Ages. The brightly decorated ‘Horse’ with its long tail – used to encourage donations from passers-by – appears in the streets each May Day. It is worn on the shoulders of a local inhabitant who thrusts his head through a hole in its back, his attendants accompany him with a drum and an accordion. This custom has been maintained without a break from time immemorial and may well have been a part of the ancient May Games. Many local folk believe that the Hobby Horse existed at a much earlier date and tell of marauding Danes, who when confronted with the Hobby Horse charging towards them, hastily retreated and put to sea in flight.
The quaint little Fisherman’s Chapel, ‘The Chapel of St Peter on the Quay’ is situated in an old cellar beneath a store. Services are still held regularly.
Lower or Middle Town
With just a few exceptions, this part of Minehead was built in the late 1700s and early 1800s; practically the whole of the original buildings here were destroyed in the Great Fire of Minehead in 1791. Originating in the town mill where the miller accidentally caught alight a barrel of pitch, the fire quickly spread from building to building until some seventy houses, shops and stables were destroyed and a number of families rendered homeless. The disaster was described in the London papers of 12th July 1791 as a ‘deplorable public calamity', and as the result of public appeals made for assistance in London and in Bristol, a considerable sum of money was given for the relief of the victims.
A Mariner’s Vow and a Curse
One small row of old dwellings escaped the fire. Tucked away in Market House Lane, off The Parade, is a row of ancient almshouses built in 1630 by Robert Quirke, a local merchant mariner. It was during a severe storm at sea that Robert Quirke made a vow to God declaring that if He spared the ship, he would dedicate both ship and cargo to God’s service. When the storm-battered ship eventually reached Minehead, the cargo was sold, the ship broken up and with the proceeds Robert Quirke built the almshouses in gratitude for having reached home safely. However, in the building of them he invoked a curse upon those who might use these dwellings for any other purpose and on the wall of one of the houses a plaque can still be seen giving details of Robert Quirke’s bequest and of the curse.
The canopied statue of Queen Anne in Minehead’s Wellington Square is one of two by the sculptor Bird. The other stands outside St Pauls Cathedral without a canopy. Minehead’s statue has faced the square since 1893, before which it stood within the Parish Church. It was presented to the town in 1791 by Sir Jacob Bancks after whom Bancks Street is named; he was one of Minehead’s MPs in the days when Minehead, with a population of under 2,000, boasted two Members of Parliament.