This is one of a series of reports on the archaeology of the urban (and formerly urban) areas of Somerset commissioned by English Heritage as part of its Extensive Urban Survey (EUS). The reports were prepared by Somerset County Council in 1994-98. There is a brief history of the town extracted from the report or you can download the whole report and maps in Portable Document Format (PDF).
Down End is included in this survey because of its short-lived medieval urban status, and the possible associated urban archaeology. No real urban activity is known before this time. However, it is likely that the same factors which encouraged the attempt to set up a port in the middle ages were relevant in earlier times. The site of Down End at the western end of the Poldens offers a strategic viewpoint, natural defences and good communications. Until 1677, when its course was deliberately altered, the Parrett flowed along the south side of the Poldens between Crandon Bridge and Down End, where the King's Sedgemoor Drain now runs. Along this stretch of the river, traffic could pass directly from the Poldens to deep water river transport. There is evidence of some iron age activity here, and of significant Roman activity. A Roman road is reputed to have run along the ridge, completing the land connection between Ilchester and the possible Roman port of Combwich, but there was also a significant port at Crandon Bridge. Archaeological investigations have shown a large Roman settlement only just east of the site of Down End.
Nevertheless, there is no evidence that Down End was anything other than part of a rural estate in Saxon times. In 1086, Puriton parish was a possession of St Peter's, Rome. By 1159, however, Philip de Columbers held the land. There is documentary evidence that he was paying for borough rights - somewhere - but the location of that borough is uncertain: it may have been Down End, but is perhaps more likely to have been Nether Stowey (Dunning, pers. comm.). Certainly by 1226 Down End (called Capite Montis or Dunende) was a borough, having its own jury at the eyre; and it is referred to as a borough in the 1242/3 Assize Rolls.
The borough of Down End was probably set up in order to take advantage of the estate's position on a junction of north-south and east-west routes and on the tidal stretch of the River Parrett, closer to the sea than Bridgwater. Very little is known about the town, except that it had a grid street plan (still visible), a probable motte and bailey, a chapel and a suspected port. It seems never to have taken off, perhaps because of Bridgwater's commercial success: there are no certain references to the borough after the 13th century, though there are 16th century references to unidentified "burgages" in Puriton parish (Dunning, pers. comm.). How long settlement continued on the site is uncertain, but no post-medieval urban activity is known, and the late 18th century map shows a site returned to agricultural use. During the 19th century, the conveniently delimited plots were in use for orchards and farm buildings, whilst industrial and infrastructure developments (road, rail, cement) hemmed the site in. This process has continued in the present century, leading to Down End's redevelopment as an annex to the village of Puriton, and the industrial estate at Dunball.