Took the opportunity on the Christmas visit to in-laws types various to check out Taunton. Time was limited, so we spent most of it in the newly Heritage Lottery-funded refurbishment of the Museum of Somerset. It was all rather whistle stop, I’m afraid, but well worth it. The early sections are pre-history, the stuff I normally shun here in the capital. Excellent fossils, some superb skeletons of plesiosaurs. Lots of bronze and iron age artifacts from the pre-Roman period. Weapons once owned by local tribesmen and used to knock lumps out of one another before the imposition of pax Romana.
For history buffs, the real interest is in three areas, all extensively covered with plenty of excellent objects. 1) the Civil War, where the Siege of Taunton played a key role as Parliamentarians held out against a sustained Royalist attack 2) The Monmouth Rebellion where the locals were generally supportive of the would-be usurper; Judge Jeffries held two days of merciless assizes in Taunton. The display includes a portrait of Monmouth by Lely, much ordnance recovered from the battlefield and a pharmacy bill for the infamous lawman. 3) The military room which celebrates various Somerset regiments through the ages: Burma, Afghanistan, Boer War, both world wars and much more. There are at least two Victoria Crosses on display among the substantial medal collections of Somerset’s finest.
For me there was a very special thing. As we were about to leave, I noticed a little alcove which I had missed. Looking in, I immediately recognised this:
It is the sculptor’s maquette of the St Saviour’s War Memorial in Southwark, one of my favourites in London. I wrote about it during Remembrance week this year as a guest blog post for Exploring London. The memorial was made in 1922 by the sculptor P Lindsay Clark, himself a veteran of World War I. The label tells us that it was donated to the museum by General Sir John Swayne, formerly of the Somerset Light Infantry. How it came to be in his possession is not explained.
One last thing on the museum. If you are into hoards (who isn’t?), this is the place for you. There are four superb examples on display, each comprising many hundreds of old coin: one from the English Civil War and three Roman. The most recent was Roman, discovered last year in a large earthenware pot by a local metal detectorist. Unlike the other three, this is displayed with the coins as yet unprocessed, that is to say virtually as they were found, still covered in muck.
The Museum of Somerset is excellent, well worth the visit, and free. Give yourself at least two hours. I believe they still have teething problems to sort out with the display lighting (too subdued and and some nasty shadows interfering here and there), but I understand that these should be addressed.
Yesterday we visited friends in Ilminster about a half hour drive from Taunton. “So does Ilminster have a minster?” I casually asked my hosts in the back seat as we drove up the windy approach. “Oh yes.” As we breasted the hill into the little town we were confronted with this:
Gorgeous or what?