Geology museums of Britain: Watchet Market House Museum, Somerset

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Jon Trevelyan (UK)

Watchet is a charming little coastal town on the north coast of Somerset. It is also smack in the middle of some of the best Triassic and Jurassic geology in Britain. Therefore, it is no surprise that, in the centre of town, there is a lovely little museum, Watchet Market House Museum, containing a lot of geology (and quite a lot of local history). In fact, along with some magnificent palaeontology, there are artefacts, paintings, photographs and so on, depicting Watchet’s history, which can all be seen in the museum.

Fig. 1. Watchet is a lovely harbour town on the north coast of Somerset.
Fig. 2. Watchet harbour was the inspiration for the poem The Ancient Mariner by Coleridge in 1797. As part of the Watchet Regeneration Programme, the Watchet Market House Museum Society commemorated the between Coleridge and the town by commissioning a statue as an attraction for local people and visitors. A seven-foot high effigy of the mariner was designed and created by sculptor Alan B Herriot.

As any fossil collector will know, Watchet and its surrounds are very fortunate in their geology. Watchet itself lies on Lias rocks, laid down 200 to 215 million years ago during the Lower Jurassic, in which there are a plethora of fossils. The Lower Liassic sedimentary beds were formed during the end of the earlier Upper Triassic period into the first part of the Jurassic. As a result, the museum is able to display a wide selection of locally-found fossils, many picked up by people walking on the foreshore. Ammonites and Gryphaea are abundant on the beaches, and there are also fossilised coral, fish, oysters and plants, all from the local area, in the collection.

Fig. 3. A tray of fossils from the area.

Located where the Esplanade meets Market Street, and occupying the ground floor of what was Watchet’s Market House, is Watchet Market House Museum. The building is a two-storied stone building, which was constructed between 1819 and 1820, with open arches to the ground floor and an open staircase at its west end to the upper floor, under which was the Court Leet lock-up.

Fig. 4. Two views of Watchet Market House Museum: (left) from the Esplanade and (right) the entrance.
Fig. 4. The above three images are of the windows of the museum that are visible in Fig. 3 (left). As you can see, they are really rather good.

The market was held on Saturdays and continued until the 1830s. The ground floor was then converted to a shop and, from the 1920s, the upper floor was used as a mission church.

Fig. 5. A magnificent Paracoroniceras lyra (Hyatt 1867) from the Lower Jurassic, Lower Lias, Semicostatum Zone (195 million years old). It was found at Helwell Bay, Watchet.

The building is now owned by the Wyndham Estate, and when an ironmongery shop ceased trading on the ground floor there in the 1970s, it became the home of the Market House Museum, opening in 1979.

As suggested above, Watchet is well known as being a place where the red rocks of the Trias pass upwards into the grey marine rocks of the Jurassic (the Lias). The rock sequences are easy to access and collecting from the beaches is also relatively easy.

Fig. 7. Not all the exhibits are geological at the museum. These are stone axes from the Watchet area, together with a mammoth tooth. There are also much more modern exhibits showing some of more recent human history of the town.
Fig. 8. Ancient human artefacts from the area.

There is no admission charge, but donations are accepted to help meet expenses. The museum’s address is 32 Swain St, Watchet TA23 0AD. For further information about visiting, ring 01984 631660. Give it a go – it will be an entertaining and interesting visit to a lovely little museum.

Fig. 9. An example of a nearly complete ichthyosaur, for which the north shore of Somerset is rightly famous.
The other articles in this series consist of:
Geology museums of Britain: Whitby Museum, Yorkshire
Geology museums of Britain: The Booth Museum of Natural History, Brighton
Geology museums of Britain: The Museum of London
Geology museums of Britain: The National Stone Centre, Derbyshire
Geology museums of Britain: Staffin (Dinosaur) Museum, Isle of Skye
Geology museums of Britain: Watchet Market House Museum, Somerset (to be published)
Geology museums of Britain: The Museum of Somerset, Taunton (to be published)

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