Reasons for Designation
Coastal fish weirs are artificial barriers created within the inter-tidal
zone, using stone walls, wattle or timber fencing to channel fish into traps.
The most common form of weir (a term derived from `were' - an Anglo-Saxon word
meaning fish trap) is a simple `V'-shaped arrangement of walls, frequently
100m or more in length. Baskets or nets would be placed at the point of the
`V' which would normally be orientated seaward so as to draw in the fish with
the receding tide. Weirs may also be rectangular or more linear in appearance
with traps located either in corners or set within spurs attached to the main
walls. Placed in gently shelving coastal or estuarine locations, the weirs
would become sufficiently exposed at low water for the fish to be collected
and, in some instances, for initial processing (gutting, filleting) to take
place on site.
Stationary fish traps are known to have been used since the Mesolithic period,
although the earliest examples to leave strong visible traces around the
coastline belong to a tradition dating from the early medieval or Anglo-Saxon
period. Documentary evidence from the 10th century onwards suggests that fish
weirs were largely the preserve of the upper echelons of medieval society,
maintained either by larger manors or by religious houses. In addition to the
obvious advantage of a constant food supply, the produce from the fish weirs
provided economic benefit, indicated social status and could aid compliance
with the religious dietary strictures of the period. Large fish weirs were
still used in the Severn Estuary until the early 20th century, and their
small-scale use persists here and in other parts of the British Isles to this
day. In general, however, the practice reached its peak between the 12th and
14th centuries, hereafter declining in the face of growing commercial sea
fishing. The remains of about 500 fish weirs are estimated to survive around
England's coast. Those of medieval or earlier date which demonstrate a high
degree of preservation, and particularly those which form groups or have
demonstrable links with manorial or ecclesiastical estates, will normally be
considered to be of national importance and worthy of protection.
Despite periodic repair and partial rebuilding over the centuries, the four
medieval fish weirs 500m east of the Harbour will retain much of their
original medieval fabric and are among the best preserved examples in a series
of weirs located along the north Somerset coastline. The weirs are known to
have been worked almost continuously since they were established and have
remained in the ownership of just three local families for at least 200 years.
They represent a surviving example of a long tradition of ancient practice in
coastal fishing techniques.
The monument includes four coastal fish weirs of medieval origin located in
Minehead Bay. The weirs are aligned from east to west and form part of a
series of similar fish weirs located between Porlock Bay to the west and
Lilstock to the east, along the north Somerset coastline. Three of the weirs
are broadly `V'-shaped in plan whilst the fourth is of an irregular
rectangular shape; all are formed by long banks or walls constructed from
migrant round stone with an inner and an outer course which encloses a core of
smaller pebbles and gravel. The migrant stone, which varies in size, is known
locally as popples. Rounded from the action of the sea, each popple weighs
between approximately 12kg and 50kg.
The interior height of the walls of the three `V'-shaped weirs is between 1m
and 1.5m and each wall is approximately 100m long. Two walls of each weir
converge to form an angle on the seaward side with a gap, known as the gut,
about 2m in width. They are on average 120m wide on the open landward side.
The fish become trapped in a net placed across the gut.
The rectangular weir is the northernmost and largest in the bay and it is
formed by three irregular walls, with the open side facing inland and a gap
along the seaward wall. The walls enclose an area of approximately 170m across
and they are on average 1.5m high within the interior of the weir, and up to
0.5m high above the surrounding shore on the exterior. A long net is placed in
the gap between the walls which traps fish when the tide recedes as the water
drains away. The remains of a linear stone-built feature, which now survives
as a flat spread, is located within the walls of the rectangular shaped weir.
The primary purpose of the stone feature has yet to be firmly established. One
suggestion is that it may represent a further weir which has had part of its
western arm removed and possibly used to enlarge the eastern wall of the
rectangular weir, which may account for its unusual plan. A further suggestion
is that the internal feature was constructed as, or subsequently used as, a
net line on account of a hang of stakes and footrope stones in place along its
western side. The stone used in its construction differs from the type used in
the construction of the other weirs and it is believed that it was reclaimed
from the dismantled groyne which was previously located across the harbour
The southernmost weir differs from the others in that it retains water when
the tide recedes and never fully drains. It also has a line of stakes for
kettle nets along the exterior of its western wall in order to supplement the
The fish weirs are still being used and their history can be traced back to at
least the medieval period when they were first specifically mentioned in a
document dating from 1424-5. They may however be even earlier in date as there
are references to fish weirs in this area from the 11th century and again in
1299-1300 when five were recorded in Minehead Bay.
The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.