After the Industrial Revolution, Bridgwater in the Somerset Levels emerged as a busy inland port, unloading coal from South Wales and exporting the town’s famous bricks and tiles.
The West Quay on the River Parrett, as well as Castle Street and King Square, are all lined with flat-fronted Georgian townhouses from that time.
Something else that puts Bridgwater on the map is its Guy Fawkes Carnival, staging a dazzling illuminated procession followed by fireworks that turn the High Street into a trail of sparkling fire.
This celebration began right after the Gun Powder Plot of 1605 and was only interrupted by the Second World War.
Bridgwater’s town museum is set in the birthplace of 17th-century naval commander Robert Blake, whose statue has pride of place at Cornhill in the centre of town.
1. Bridgwater Blake Museum
Bridgwater’s most famous son, Robert Blake (1598-1667) is thought to have been born at this house next to the Bridgwater Town Mill.
Often called the “Father of the Royal Navy”, Robert Blake is credited with establishing England as a dominant naval power in the 17th century and is held in the same high esteem as Nelson.
A museum for the surrounding region opened here in 1926, and some of the fun is getting to see the Tudor interiors, including a panelled ceiling divided by chamfered beams, as well as fireplace with a Tudor oak lintel.
In the Blake Room you can get acquainted with the naval hero, while the Bridgwater Room keeps the Medieval chest where the borough documents were stored.
Elsewhere you can go into depth on the many battles fought around Bridgwater, study Neolithic skulls from 10,000 years ago and go back to the time when Bridgwater was a key inland port, shipping tiles and bricks around the world.
2. EDF’s Hinkley Point Visitor Centre
Something that generates a lot of interest in the wider Bridgwater parish is.
This is a group of three nuclear power stations: Hinkley Point A (1957-2000, B (1976-2023) and C, which is a construction site of astounding proportions and is expected to be ready for 2025. The Visitor Centre is at the Angel Place Shopping Centre in the heart of Bridgwater.
This is open Monday to Saturday and is the departure point for guided tours to the coast to see the stations.
Because of the sensitive nature of the attraction, you’ll need to sign up for a tour three weeks in advance.
You’ll get a sense of the colossal undertaking at Hinkley Point C, while at B a trained guide will conduct you to the reactor viewing gallery, turbine hall and a control room simulator.
3. Bridgwater and Taunton Canal
Linking the River Parrett with the River Tone, the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal was built in the early 19th century as part of plan to connect Taunton with Bristol by waterway.
The main cargo was coal from the mines across the Bristol Channel in South Wales, while agricultural goods would be loaded onto the barges for the return trip.
The canal closed in 1907, but was revived in 1994. There are 14.5 navigable miles with a walkable towpath, lined with willows and cutting through serene, verdant countryside with far off vistas to Exmoor and the Quantock Hills.
Something neat is the Somerset Space Walk, where there’s a scale model of the sun at Maunsel Lock and planets spaced at equivalent distances over six miles on either side.
4. Westonzoyland Pumping Station Museum
Out in the Levels a short way from Bridgwater, the village of Westonzoyland is the site of the first steam-powered pumping station to be built in Somerset.
Established in 1831, this Grade II* building is now a museum preserving one of the UK’s biggest collections of steam engines and pumps in the country.
Holding sway here is the station’s own pumping engine, the Easton & Amos, installed in 1861 to replace the station’s first engine.
The museum also restores and maintains an array of other engines, pumps and boilers, and the old station is served by a narrow-gauge railway, transporting wood for the main engine’s boiler.
The museum is open for free every Sunday afternoon, but really shines during steaming days every few weeks, when these great machines are brought back to life.
5. Walled Gardens of Cannington
A Royal Horticultural Society Partner Garden can be found in the nearby village Cannington, in the grounds of an enchanting Medieval priory.
Many of the priory’s buildings and structures are still intact, not least the walls that shelter this beautiful garden.
The Walled Gardens of Cannington blend traditional and contemporary features like a herbaceous border, Victorian-style fernery, as well as a sub-tropical walk, an Australasian garden and a Botanical glasshouse growing arid and tropical plants.
The gardens also boast a tearoom (with free WiFi), gift shop and plant nursery.
6. Corn Exchange
Bringing real grandeur to the centre of Bridgwater, the Corn Exchange is a Grade I-listed monument, first completed in 1834 and then extended in 1875. The building incorporates Bridgwater’s original market hall, dating to 1795, and on its east end is a beautiful circular portico with Ionic columns.
The Corn Exchange is now occupied by local and national retailers, and along the side you can go in to peruse the Cornhill Market.
This has a small assortment of shops, all independent and including a watchmaker, butcher, clothes shop and jeweller.
Across the road from the portico at the end of Fore Street is a commanding statue of Robert Blake, unveiled in 1900 and depicting him dressed as a Parliamentarian soldier.
On three sides of the plinth are details of Blake’s naval victories.
7. Somerset Brick and Tile Museum
Found at the only traditional brick kiln surviving in the South West, the Somerset Brick and Tile Museum is a document for one of Bridgwater’s many traditional trades that have slowly disappeared.
Saved from demolition in the 90s, the kiln was last fired in 1965 and is the last of an original six at what used to be the Barham Brothers’ Yard on Bridgwater’s East Quay.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays you can come by to see this Scheduled Ancient Monument and discover how the tiles and bricks fired here helped define the look of Somerset for generations to follow.
8. Willow Man
Striding beside the M5 just north of Bridgwater, the Willow Man is a monumental sculpture by Serena de la Hey, first erected in 2000. Standing 12 metres tall, the Willow Man celebrates the long history of willow cultivation on the Somerset Levels, and is composed of thousands of locally grown black mall willow withies (stems) woven around a steel frame.
The Somerset Levels are the only place where basket willow like this is grown on a commercial scale.
The Willow Man is held as the South West’s equivalent of the Angel of the North and was initially supposed to stand for just three years.
9. WWT Steart Marshes
As a response to rising sea levels caused by climate change, the Wildfowl and Wetland & Wetlands Trust, in partnership with the Environment Agency has established the largest new coastal wetland in the UK just north of Bridgwater.
Steart Marshes are on a gigantic scale, made up of freshwater grazing marsh, brackish marsh and an expansive tidal zone, all between the mouth of the River Parrett and the Bristol Channel.
The tide has a big effect on the landscape, creating different vistas hour by hour.
And as for wildlife there’s a kaleidoscope of wildfowl and waders all year, like golden plovers, wigeons and teals in winter, or thousands of shelducks and nesting lapwings, avocets and little ringed plovers in summer.
10. Coleridge Cottage
You could make a literary excursion to Nether Stowey at the edge of the Quantock Hills, where a cottage once rented by the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge is in the hands of the National Trust.
Coleridge was here from 1797 to 1799, a productive couple years in which he composed some of his major poems like Frost at Midnight, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison and some of Christabel.
The cottage was turned into an inn as soon as Coleridge departed, and in 1908, following a long campaign, the property was bought for the nation.
The older rooms in the cottage now look as they did when Coleridge and his family were here, while you can pore over some of his personal correspondence, locks of his hair and his inkstand.
Outside, audio stations play the works Coleridge wrote here, and there’s an 18th-century vegetable plot and a patch for wildflowers.
11. Battle Of Sedgemoor Visitor Centre
In July 1685 at the village of Westonzoyland a bid by the Duke of Monmouth to overthrow King James II was brought to a bloody end in just five hours.
The Battle of Sedgemoor is often referred to as the last battle to be fought on English soil, and the ensuing response to the Monmouth Rebellion was violent.
By September the Duke of Monmouth and more than 300 had been executed, many hanged, drawn and quartered.
The Church of St Mary in Westozoyland houses a visitor centre for the battlefield, detailing the causes of the Monmouth Rebellion, the decisive battle and the response by James II who would be deposed just three years later.
An interactive kiosk shows a film of a re-enactment of the battle.
12. Burrow Mump
A few miles up the River Parrett and next to Southlake Moor stands Burrow Mump, a hill that was fortified on and off from Roman times until the late Medieval period.
The terracing and scarping on the slopes are probably from a Norman motte-and-bailey castle, while at the top is a plateau measuring 45 by 25 metres.
Up there now are the ruins of the Church of St Michael, started in the 15th century and occupied by royalist and then James II’s troops in the Civil War and the Monmouth Rebellion.
The sides of Burrow Mump are grazed by sheep in summer, and at the top you can revel in the distant views over the Levels to the Quantock and Blackdown Hills.
13. Oatley Vineyard
This family run vineyard is refreshingly uncommercial, and welcomes visitors for leisurely tours and tasting sessions, starting around Easter.
Oatley Vineyard was founded in 1989 and grows two grape varieties, Madeleine Angevine and Kerling, both happy in milder damper climes.
These produce Oatley’s “Leonora’s” (Kernling) and “Jane’s” Madeleine Angevine wines, both crisp and dry.
The vineyard uses no herbicides, instead preventing disease with sensible vine management.
Tours take place on Fridays, Saturdays and across Bank Holiday weekends until September.
As you go you’ll get to chat with the owners to learn how they work their 30-year-old vines, and may be tempted to buy a bottle or six from the vineyard shop.
14. Bridgwater Carnival
This town celebrates Guy Fawkes in style, with one of the largest illuminated carnival processions in the world.
The event falls on the Saturday before Guy Fawkes Night (5 November) and brings in some 150,000 people from far and wide.
In the procession are upwards of 100 vehicles, many of which are large floats 30 metres long.
Illuminated by thousands of light bulbs, these are designed with amazing attention to detail and will carry dancers dressed up according to a given theme.
The half an hour after the procession you can watch another outlandish spectacle, “squibbing”. Here around 150 squibbers line up along the High Street, simultaneously lighting squibs (fireworks) to create a river of fire.
15. Bridgwater Carnival Centre
The Bridgwater Carnival is so engrained in the town’s culture that there’s a visitor centre for the event at the Town Hall complex.
This was opened in 2010 as a way of promoting and raising funds for the event, which is becoming more expensive with each edition.
You can call in to check out displays about the carnival, and its costumes, posters, photographs and (non-live) squibs.
You can also find out about the many fund-raising events for the carnival that are held throughout the year.