THE possibility of the coast road into Watchet being closed for at least a year would be an “utter disaster” for the town, traders have been told.

The B3191 coastal road at Cleeve Hill, used by up to 2,500 vehicles a day, has been closed since January 12 while Somerset County Council highways teams investigate a major landslide of rocks and soil on a section of the road which is now only feet away from the cliff edge.

“Our members are telling me they are up to 90 per cent down on trade,” said John Richards, chairman of Watchet Chamber of Trade (WACET). “We estimate that up to 80 per cent of that could be due to the road closure. A lot of the shops are shutting early because there is no traffic and no people.

“We have somehow got to get support for businesses this summer but who knows from where? The road closure, on top of the hard economic times, could make the situation in Watchet very serious indeed.

“In the meantime, we are working on better ‘business as usual’ signs and we are planning to put ‘Watchet is Open’ banners on the bridge into the town and at the Tropiquaria roundabout."

John Richards, chairman of Watchet Chamber of Trade
John Richards, chairman of Watchet Chamber of Trade (John Richards)

Mr Richards added: “I have pushed for at least a footpath to be opened on Cleeve Hill during the closure, but there is a resounding no for the time being.

“It would appear from an initial survey that the whole area is unstable, but highways will review the position once they have done a full survey.

“As far as we can see, from an engineering point of view, the road could be closed for at least a year, - there is already an 18-month road closure notice on it - which would mean an utter disaster for Watchet.

“I will call a meeting in the next couple of weeks so we can all discuss the issue, but I would suggest all those who are affected should look closely at their business interruption insurance as a way forward.

“I am also approaching the district council with a request that they allow free parking in Watchet for at least a couple of hours a day to help alleviate the problem.

“We are hoping to help all the businesses in Watchet survive what is going to be a difficult year.”

Mr Richards told the Free Press: “The uncertainty of the situation is really worrying. The road is absolutely essential to local business and tourism. We have been warning for years that it could one day fall into the sea but nothing has been done.

“At the moment the closure is essential for the safety of road users but if it remains shut in the long term the loss of trade from visitors and caravan sites could be a disaster for the town.”

The road closure gate at Cleeve Hill
The road closure gate at Cleeve Hill, Watchet (Tindle)

Local county councillor Hugh Davies was among civic and business leaders pressing the highways authorities for a quick decision on when the road would be reopened.

He said the B3191 was a vital tourist link, particularly from Blue Anchor, and was also a major diversion road in the case of accidents on the A39.

“Not knowing what will happen is hitting the area hard, yet the situation can hardly have come as s a surprise to the authorities,” he added.

One Watchet shop-owner said: “We can cope with a quiet time at the beginning of the year, but if it extends into the holiday months things will get serious.

“A lot of our customers come via the B3191 and might not be prepared to make a three-mile diversion through the lanes. They could well drive on to somewhere else.”