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Highbridge is a small market town situated on the edge of the Somerset Levels near the mouth of the River Brue. It is in the County of Somersetmarker, and is approximately north west of Tauntonmarker, the county town of Somersetmarker. Highbridge is in the District of Sedgemoor, being situated approximately north of Bridgwatermarker, the district's administrative centre. Highbrige closely neighbours Burnham-on-Seamarker, forming part of the combined parish of Burnham-on-Sea and Highbridge and shares a Town Council with the resort town.

History

There is archaeological evidence of occupation around the Highbridge area at least as far back as the Roman period. A bridged crossing over the River Brue at this location has existed since the 14th century and it has always been an important crossing on the route from Bristolmarker to the South West. The town that sprung up around this crossing takes it name from the bridge. An older name for the local manor was "Huish" a contraction of the phrase "Huish jaxta altum pontem" (next to a high bridge). There are historical references to a wharf at this site and to usage of the river as part of the drainage plan for the Somerset Levels by the Monks of Glastonburymarker.

Highbridge grew in importance as a regional market and industrial town during the latter half of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century. Important employers included the livestock and cheese market, Highbridge Wharf, Buncombe's Steamrollers, and the Somerset & Dorset Joint Railway rail works, which closed in 1930 with the loss of 400 jobs. Heavy industry and transport declined in Highbridge after the Second World War as the Wharf proved too small for the newer generation of ships, with the last cargo of timber arriving in 1948 and the wharf was closed to shipping the following year,and commercial freight moved away from the railways. Since the 1970s close proximity to the M5 motorway has driven a growth in light industry and in the town's commuter population.

In 1973 Highbridge was sublimated within the joint town council district of Highbridge and Burnham-on-Sea. Prior to this the 1931 census listed a population of 2585. The joining of the two towns remains a contentious issue. A 2001 independence referendum was unsuccessful, but there remains strong feeling among some sections of the community, as evidenced by a number of incidents of vandalism involving signs on the approach to the town.

In 2004 a community group, the Highbridge History Project, commemorated the 150th anniversary of opening of the town's station by publishing the results of their own five year long study into the town's history ( Weston Mercury "A Glimpse into the past").

Governance

Highbridge is within the Sedgemoor Non-metropolitan district which has traditionally been Conservative run since its creation in 1974,when it was merged with the old Bridgwater & Burnham-On-Sea Urban District Councils. Liberal Democrats fared well in Burnham and Highbridge areas until 1999, when the Conservatives re-took Sedgemoor, with the Liberal Democrats losing the seat of Highbridge to Labour. It has since returned Liberal Democrats with a substantial majority.

It falls within the Wells county constituency which elects one Member of Parliament (MP) to the House of Commonsmarker of the Parliament of the United Kingdommarker, by the first past the post voting system. Since 1983 the MP has been David Heathcoat-Amory of the Conservative Party.

It is also within the South West England European Parliament constituency.

Transport

Highbridge was originally the seaward terminus of the Glastonbury Canal and the Somerset Central Railway. The Canal was established first and was designed to improve drainage along the River Brue. It was also designed to create a trade link between Glastonburymarker and the sea. A new straight channel, the clyce which runs from the present day tidal gates to the location of the current Station, was cut in 1801 and the original course of the river was as the basis of Highbridge Wharf. The Canal opened in 1833 and while initially successful it later suffered from financial and engineering problems. Only the 1801 clyce remains of the Glastonbury Canal at Highbridge.

In 1844 the Bristol and Exeter Railway (a future component of the Great Western Railway) opened a station at Highbridge on what is now the Great Western Main Line. Ten years later the Railway companies realised the potential of the route of the failing Glastonbury Canal and it was bought out by the Somerset Central Railway (a component of the Somerset and Dorset Railway).Robin Atthill & O. S. Nock, 1967. The Somerset & Dorset Railway. Newton Abbot: David & Charles. ISBN 0 7153 4312 2.This allowed them to run a railway line along the route of the old canal. Shortly afterwards local branch lines were added to Burnham-on-Sea and to the Wharf. These lines crossed the Great Western lines at grade, proceeding across Church Street (the A38, and then the main road route to Devonmarker and Cornwallmarker prior to the opening of the M5) via a notorious level crossing which led to long tailbacks in the summer months.No trace of the crossing or associated signal box remain. At its height Highbridge Station had five platforms and a carriage works. The decline of the British railway network hit the Highbridge Station hard and today there remain only two unmanned platforms following the closure of two branch lines in the 1960s. The official name of the station is now Highbridge and Burnhammarker.

Geography

Highbridge town centre clusters around the crossroads formed by Church Street and Market Street. At their meeting point is a roundabout which marks the location of the town's original three-faced town clock. A modern concrete replacement clock, also with three faces and topped with the town's coat of arms stands in nearby Jubilee Gardens. The town centre has faced a steady decline in recent years, with numerous small independent shops and major banks closing. The exception is Natwest which operates a 'customer service centre', open for part of the day only. The former wharf area is occupied by recently built new housing, which stretches alongside the river from the town centre to the railway.

Economy

Recent developments have seen a rapid expansion of flats and social housing in the town centre, along with numerous new takeaway outlets which has led to concerns regarding antisocial behaviour and the long-term viability of remaining businesses. The closure of many of the small family shops and businesses in Highbridge along with the development of a number of industrial estates (which take advantage of the proximity of the M5 motorway) has led to much of the employment in the area being in transport and light industry on the outskirts of the town. Notable sources of local employment include furniture manufacture at Woodberry Brothers & Haines, food storage and distribution for Yeo Valley Organic and Brake Brothers, and road hauliers R T Keedwell.

The town has had an independent livestock market on the same site since 1851. It was previously run by J.H. Palmer and Sons and met weekly on a Monday. The market closed briefly during the 2001 UK foot and mouth crisis, and in 2007 moved to a purpose built site at Huntworth near Bridgwatermarker which also replaced the livestock market at Tauntonmarker.The former market site is now ear-marked for redevelopment. The Highbridge Hotel which adjoins the market site was damaged in a catastrophic fire on 22 April 2008.Parts of the hotel are Georgian in origin and are subject to a Grade II listing.There is local pressure on the owner to protect the remains of the building to prevent further deterioration due to weather damage. The famous 3 faced clock looks as if it may be replaced by a new 4 faced clock, maybe not in its present position. This is due to the present clock falling into disrepair.

Landmarks

The Community Hall (opened in 1994) stands on the site of the former Town Hall (built in 1885, demolished in 1984) and Railway Hotel, and incorporates a large function room and associated meeting rooms, a small public library and offices for Homes in Sedgemoor, the local Housing Authority. However since cuts by Sedgemoor District Council in 2007/08, these offices have not been open to the public.

Like most British towns Highbridge has had its ample share of alehouses and inns. Many of these depended on trade from the wharf and livestock market and numerous public houses existed close to these facilities along Newtown Road. Now only The Globe remains in this area. The Cooper's Arms, once recognised by the Campaign for Real Alemarker (CAMRA) as one of the best pubs in the region has declined in popularity in recent times. Since the freehold was sold it has had various tenants, none of which have been successful. The town is also served by The George Hotel, The Bristol Bridge Inn and a thriving social club. This decline in the number of public houses has also affected local skittles leagues who are facing a reduction in the number of venues in which this locally very popular pub game can be played.

Education

The town is served by Beechfield Infant School and St John's Church of England Junior School. The local coeducational comprehensive school is The King Alfred Schoolmarker, which sits in Highbridge near the border with Burnham-on-Sea, which it also serves. It was founded in 1957 and is now a specialist Sports College. The majority of students continuing study travel to Bridgwater Collegemarker.

Religious sites

St John's Church
Highbridge is served by St John's Church and Hope Baptist Church, both located in Church Street.

Money for the building of St John's was given by Mary Ann Ruscombe Poole who laid the foundation stone in 1856 and opened in 1859.The South Aisle was included in the original plans but not completed until 1882 by Frederick Bligh Bond. Structural damage was identified during a survey in 1987.

Notable people

Highbridge was the birthplace of noted British spy Frank Foley, the "British Schindler", who is honoured by a statue near the Community Hall in the town centre.

Edward Higgins (General of the Salvation Army in the early 1930s) was born in Church Street, and lends his name to a development of elderly persons dwellings near the town centre.

Colonel, the biggest bull in Britain, was resident at the Alstone Wildlife Park on the outskirts of Highbridge.

References

  1. G. Body and R. Gallop, (2001), The Glastonbury Canal, Fiducia Press, ISBN 0-946217-08-4


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