From bargains and burning boats, from markets to motor cars, from riots to romantic liaisons and vast three-unit carnival carts, Bridgwater’s Cornhill has seen it all. And no doubt it will see it all again over the coming centuries as it stands at the centre of the town. The wide sweep of the road into the High Street, the statue of Blake pointing out into the blue yonder, the Corn Exchange with its shops and cafes, and a wide civic space in which to sit and watch the world go by.
However it was not always thus. Until 1779 the now familiar shape of the road and space was quite different with houses crowding the top of the hill near the church. Then a law was passed to create the market house and building and demolishing work soon followed. It wasn’t until 1875 that the building with its dome and classical pillars that we know now was finally completed to accommodate the growing market.
Admiral Blake only became a fixture in 1900 when the bronze statue was placed outside the exchange after the public raised the cash to pay for it. Another statue – this time known as The Spirit of Carnival sees a 17th century figure modelled on the joint author of Remember, Remember, Roger Brown holding aloft a squib.
The Cornhill is also a junction of several roads with Fore Street rising up from Eastover, the High Street sweeping past what used to be The Royal Clarence Hotel (now shops and a bank) towards the Town Hall, Church Passage running along beside St Mary’s Parish Church and at its other end St Mary Street. Before the market was built there was a line of buildings running parallel with the High Street with a narrow medieval passage creating another route to the area.
A century and a half before the decision to build the market Bridgwater was still a comparatively small place with the original shape of its medieval layout still intact. There were the four gates whose names of Northgate, Southgate, Eastgate and Westgate live on, while the Castle then in ruins covered the Castle Street and King Square area with one entrance leading to Cornhill. A glance at a map of the town reveals Cornhill to be pretty much smack in the middle – a spot it continues to occupy to this day.
There is one aspect to the market that many residents of a romantic disposition will know. For more than a century it’s been the place where couples would meet up for that first uncertain date.
Harry Mottram (First published in the Bridgwater Mercury in November 2015)