Highbridge is a market town situated on the edge of the Somerset Levels drainage system, near to the mouth of the River Brue and close to Burnham-on-Sea. The levels were at one time under water, forming an inlet from the Bristol Channel, reaching inland possibly to beyond Glastonbury. This river system was used by the Glastonbury Monks as their transport route between the local villages and hamlets and possibly further afield. There are certainly historical references to a wharf at this site at that time.
There has certainly been a bridge over the River Brue at this point since the 14th century and it was an important crossing on the main route between Bristol and the South West. The name of the town is self-explanatory; indeed the older name for the manor was “Huish”, from the Latin phrase “huish jaxta altum pontem”, meaning next to a high bridge. There is certainly archaeological evidence of occupation around the area during the Roman period.
As the waters receded from the area, two points of land remained and were linked by the old humped-back bridge that still exists today. Until the 20th century this was the main route over the river, known as the Turnpike. In the 19th century, a canal was constructed alongside the Brue. The river’s course was diverted, bypassing the bridge and incorporating a sluice gate at its new mouth. This was designed to control the ebb and flow of the tidal waters.
The new canal provided a route for small cargo ships to and from Glastonbury but it was not well-maintained. The banks began to collapse and it became impossible for cargo ships to navigate. In the meantime, the old part of the river from the bridge to the junction with the canal, had become busier due to the construction of the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway. A line had been constructed between Highbridge and Burnham and the old wharf began to be used again.
This increased activity provided work for mariners, during the later 19th and early 20th centuries, and a number of tradesmen set up shopin the town. Consequently Highbridge grew in importance as both a regional market and an industrial town during this period. The livestock and cheese market was particularly busy, and there was also some heavy industry in connection with the railway. This was to decline after the Second World War, when the wharf became too small for the newer and larger generation of ships. This was also the period when a great deal of commercial freight moved away from the railways.
Highbridge has a claim to fame as the birthplace of the noted British spy, Frank Foley. It also claims to have produced the biggest bull, known as the Colonel. These days the town has plenty of tourist accommodation, restaurants, cafés and shopping. There is a lively farmers’ market on the first Friday of each month in Highbridge. It is very close to Burnham-on-Sea, sharing many amenities with that resort. Other interesting places in the Sedgemoor district of Somerset are Brean Sands and the Cheddar Gorge. Highbridge is also an ideal centre from which to explore the Quantocks and the Mendips. There are good transport links with a railway station and a nearby M5 junction.