Dr Peter Cattermole

Peter Cattermole
Peter Cattermole inspecting the 13th c. papal heads on the north porch of St Mary’s Church

It is with the deepest regret that we record the death of Dr Peter Cattermole, who passed away peacefully in his home, on Monday 16 March 2015. Dr Cattermole had for a long time been intimately immersed in the civic life of our ancient borough and was founder of the Bridgwater Heritage Group.

Dr Cattermole was born in London in March 1950, as he said within hearing distance of the church bells of St. Mary Le Bow, making him a Cockney, although he was firmly rooted and settled in the West Country. He was awarded a PhD from the University of Exeter in Chemistry. He taught for a few years at Millfield School, which is how he came to live in Somerset, before serving for many years as head of Science at the prestigious Winchester College. He had a very long involvement with the Somerset and Dorset Railway Trust, of which he was variously Chairman, Curator and Archivist. He had a great love for medieval and early modern music and was a patron of the world famous Stile Antico. He leaves behind a wife, a son, three daughters and several grandchildren.

His services to Bridgwater are many and significant. He had an unmatched familiarity with the built inheritance of the town, especially its medieval core. More importantly, he had a deep professional knowledge of the practical application of building preservation and heritage practice, which he used in safeguarding and enhancing the heritage environment within Bridgwater for future generations. He started and maintained a number of websites which contained notes, articles and features on the history of Bridgwater.

Dr Cattermole was chiefly responsible for the revival of the Durleigh Brook. For many years its waters had leaked into the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal, rendering the watercourse running along Friarn Street, under St Mary Street and past Blake Street as a pathetic trickle. Having applied pressure on the Environment Agency and Sedgemoor District Council the leak was stopped and the Brook regained its old flow, which in turn revived the rich biodiversity of its banks. He was principally involved in the restoration of the West Quay Crane, sourcing a new white jib and preservation of its working elements, so that it is again a splendid ornament of the river front. He was intimately involved with the Bridgwater and District Civic Society’s placing of blue plaques on key historic sites and buildings, and was responsible for their handsome and durable design, in the process inventing the ‘Bridgwater lug’ a form of deep pin intended to hold securely into a historic building’s pointing rather than damaging the historic masonry. He possessed splendid practical skills, as witnessed through conservation work on a variety of worthy projects, not least the lovingly restored house in Friarn Street, as well as the Midford box at Washford Junction for the Somerset and Dorset Railway Trust. His highly regarded advice was often sought by various public and private bodies, such that Derek Gibson, his old friend and founder of the Civic Society, suggested with his knowledge and practicalities, he might be considered an Academic Fred Dibna.

Keenly interested in Bridgwater’s medieval heritage and lost history he was initially behind the erection of a commemorative plinth on a piece of land in Friarn Avenue for the long lost Franciscan Friary, which copied the design of the Friary’s stone columns found in past archaeological digs. Peter unveiled the Friary Plaque at which event he read a Franciscan prayer. Following that event, he encouraged Bridgwater historian Hannah West to submit a petition from residents to preserve the surrounding land as a community garden. In recent years he personally assisted with funding applications in order to buy materials for the garden and was very happy to see the project being brought into fruition. Dr Cattermole was also keenly interested in St Mary’s Parish Church, he lent his expertise on various occasions to the various projects within the building, as well as recording and researching the medieval chancel bosses. When he was able Dr Cattermole conducted tours of the church and town, pointing out the obscurest but most fascinating details which would cast a light into the history of the town. People were always captivated by his manner of speaking and address, if this approach was carried back into his teaching days, he must have enthused many of his pupils in the same way.

Dr Cattermole often offered his services and expertise to Bridgwater Town Council, helping to catalogue their archives, contributing advice on planning matters, acting as I/T adviser (an invaluable role), as well as practical guidance during the renovation of the Town Hall. It was during this latter work that he helped to discover a lost medieval hall behind the Mayor’s Parlour, a previously lost jewel of Medieval Bridgwater, which was subsequently revealed and preserved to expose its former glory, now known as the CRUCK ROOM for obvious reasons. He was also keenly interested in the fine collection of Royal Charters the town had been presented with since 1200 and carried out extensive research into them.

Until stepping back in 2012, he had been one of a number of key individuals who saved the Blake Museum from folding when Sedgemoor District Council divested itself of the responsibility. Acting on behalf of the Town Council, Dr Cattermole not only ensured the initial administrative organisation of the museum, but also the first round of refurbishment since the early 1990s. It would be fair to say that the now thriving institution would not be where it is without his involvement. He was involved in the Archaeological Society and with their help conducted a number of important surveys in the cellars of King Square. He was instrumental in the first phase in conservation of the ruined Lytill Mill attached to the museum, helping to build the Museum a new stores and laying the groundwork for later conservation.

He was also involved with Bridgwater College’s Oxbridge programme and offered his expertise in helping students with their university applications. He also encouraged college students to volunteer in the town’s various heritage organisations, which provided invaluable experience for their CVs as well as a genuine service to the civic life of the town.

Recognising the contemptible destruction wrought on the historic town in the second half of the twentieth century and wishing to ensure that it never happened again, first as vice-chairman of the Bridgwater and District Civic Society and then as founder and chairman the Bridgwater Heritage Group, Dr Cattermole was tireless, right into his final days, in making representation on planning matters. He asserted that any project should preserve the historic character of the town. Working under the principle that heritage can only be lost and that the built environment should be an interaction of past and present, rather than the present disregarding or replacing the past, he strove to ensure that historic features, contexts and character should be protected against inappropriate, lazy or downright destructive development. His knowledge of planning policy was exceptional and often surpassed that of planning officers. When the District Council made decisions out of step with public feeling, Dr Cattermole persisted and always challenged them with impeccable logic. As such he was the bane of the planning department in Sedgemoor District Council and any developer who lacked sufficient respect for the town’s historic features and character. He also took time and pleasure scrutinising the accounts of Sedgemoor District Council, which must have taken him some undoubted length of time. Few other members of the public can be said to be so diligent in exposing the irregularities which he managed to identify.

He was far in advance of his contemporaries in keeping up with and using current day digital communication systems, embracing new technology where ever he encountered it, although he did not possess a television set. He did however enjoy radio and when the Civic Society Executive met at his home, for example, one would not be welcomed until the daily programme of The Archers had ended at 7.30pm. The programme was sacrosanct and governed his availability.

For services to the town of Bridgwater he was presented with the Bridgwater Cup in 2010. He was thoroughly uncomfortable with the award as he tended to be embarrassed by recognition; he was certainly not in it for any form of personal glory. As any good schoolmaster he was firm but fair, those on the end of his disapproval certainly knew it (and no doubt often deserved it), but it is this intractability which was put to the greatest service and benefit of the town. He was usually great, sometimes difficult and occasionally impossible to work with, but was certainly the best man to work for. With the passing of Dr Peter Cattermole Bridgwater has lost its greatest defender and supporter.

Dr Cattermole at Cholera Memorial Rededication.
Peter Cattermole at the St John’s Memorial Rededication for Baker, Bowen and the Cholera Victims