The County Towns of the West Country

The county towns of the West Country are not necessarily the largest urban settlements. Historically many of the town have been given their county town status and when they have been overtaken by another urban area in terms of size they have maintained their status as the head of that county. Dorchester is not the biggest urban area in Dorset as it only has a population of just over 19,000 people. There are five larger settlements with Bournemouth dwarfing Dorchester’s population with a size of over 163,000.

The county town of Dorchester

The town rose in prominence as a result of its being a market town and then the Romans stationed a garrison in the town. The town was the site for the Tolpuddle Martyrs to be sentenced to be transported to Australia, for swearing an oath of allegiance when they formed their Trade Union. Dorchester has been the county town since at least 1305 and the reason is that the county is so rural that there has been very little competition from any other settlement. Bournemouth is self-governed and was always a part of Hampshire until 1974.

Wiltshire’s county town is Trowbridge. It was once Wilton which lies next to the must larger conurbation of Salisbury, which is the only city in the county. The largest urban area is Swindon which has a population of 155,000 but since 1997 it has become a unitary authority governing itself.

The county council in Trowbridge governs the other areas of the county, which are mainly rural. Trowbridge has a population of just over 33,000 and has been the county town since 1889. It was seen as an ideal location as the representatives from Swindon and Salisbury could both reach the town within one day. The town first grew as a market town. The construction of the Kennet and Avon Canal was instrumental in the growing importance of the town as it allowed supplies of canals to be imported into the town. These supplies then powered the cotton mills and led to in the increasing affluence of the area.

Somerset is also a rural county and its county town is Taunton. The county has two cities Bath and Wells, but Bath is now part of the Bath and North East Somerset Unitary Authority. Wells only has city status as a result of its cathedral and its population is only just over 10,000. Taunton has a population of 56,000 and has been the county town of Somerset since 1336. The center of the town is dominated by its picturesque castle and during the Civil War the control of the castle changed hands several times.

Taunton Castle

Taunton is a market town and the town grew rapidly as Somerset’s farmers would head to the market to both buy and sell its goods. It is one of the most picturesque towns in the country, and is home to Somerset County Cricket Club, which is one of England’s strongest sides.

The county town of Devon is the city of Exeter which has a population of over 117,000 people. It is actually not as big as the naval city of Plymouth which is home to over 250,000 people. Exeter was first settled as it was on a dry ridge overlooking the River Exe that was full of fish. The surrounding soils were fertile as they were part of the river’s flood plain.

Its position became historically important and the city has been subject to attacks from Romans, Vikings, Normans and Saxons over the years. The city’s industries grew during then Industrial Revolution with the majority relying on the produce that was being produced by the local agricultural community.

The city today has a wide economic base with many jobs being found in the service sector. The most popular area is the tourist industry which is thriving in Devon. Exeter is also home to the 2017 Aviva Premiership rugby union champions, the Exeter Chiefs, who play their home games at Sandy Park stadiu. Cornwall’s self-governance will be covered later in a separate topic