Somerset, from Brean Down to Brent Knoll; a Stretch of Coastline and Countryside
King or Queen of All you Survey
Stand on the top of Brean Down and look south. Before you is an inspiring view over the sands and dunes stretching along to Berrow and Burnham, panning round to the flat wetlands woven with rhynes and dotted with willows, and finally to the back-drop of the Mendips which hide Cheddar Gorge. Behind you is the wide sweep of Weston Bay and the estuary of the River Axe.
On your southerly horizon Brent Knoll rises up from Burnham flats to 550 feet above sea level and dominates the surrounding plain. To the west is a wide finger of sea between England and Wales; the Bristol Channel.
What a View!
Brean Down Promontory & Access via Steep Steps
You can choose a gentle gradient to attain the ridge of Brean Down (belonging to The National Trust since 2002), or, if you have the energy, scale the steps on the southern side which rise steeply up between the rocks and take you rapidly to the giddy vantage point. Now you have truly a bird's eye view of the sea, sand and soil, with military rows of caravans in the numerous sites stretching either side of the road through Brean, a highly active holiday resort from April to September. From your position they are mere toys with ants scurrying between them; you are at a height of almost 318 feet.
A giant is attributed responsibility for Brean Down and the islands out in the estuary. Giant Gorm was involved in a dispute when forming the Avon Gorge; he had to flee, he tripped and fell, his bones becoming Brean Down, Flat Holm and Steep Holm, the latter two being islands in the Bristol Channel.
Iron Age Camp
Picture yourself as one occupant of the Iron Age Camp on this promontory high above the sea. This peninsula of carboniferous limestone, roughly 1½ miles long, is your stronghold against frequent marauders. You and your comrades have constructed a fortification on this flat-topped peninsula, exposed to wind and spray, inhospitable but affording some safety from invaders across the sea or land-ward. A harsh environment and a lonely one.
You stand atop surveying the landscape, eyes screwed up against the sun, searching out any movement below, in the sea or on the sand; any movement out on the plain towards Brent Knoll in the misty distance or inland towards the Mendips. To the north you survey the small estuary of the River Axe and the mud-flat sands. You must be on your guard constantly; you risk invasion and death.
There are cliffs to the south and small quarries at each end. This wild place, though standing apart, denotes the end of the Mendip Hills. There are few trees to give cover but much grassland, grazed by cattle and goats, and beautiful flowers, notably the white rock rose, later to be a rarity. The shrubbery of hawthorn and bramble provides some windbreak for you, as well as shelter for migrant and breeding birds.
Palmerston Fort and Weapons Testing
It was a harsh landscape then and it is a wild and windy place still, though beautiful on a warm summer’s day. This site was not only an Iron Age fort but also the Romans had a use for it, as a quay where their ships sheltered for loading.
At the end of this headland is another type of Fort, constructed in the 1860s as one of the Palmerston Forts. Lord Palmerston, twice Prime Minister during the 1800s, had these built to provide protection to the ports all along the Bristol Channel. Although it was decommissioned in 1901, it was rearmed in World War II for the purpose of experimental weapons testing, including a test launch site for rockets. Perhaps the most famous weapon tested here was the seaborne ‘bouncing bomb’ used by the Dambusters.
From the fort, one can see out over the Bristol Channel, past the islands of Steep Holm and Flat Holm, to the coast of Wales and on a clear day the stark outline of the Brecon Beacons in the distance.
Headland FortClick thumbnail to view full-size
The Fort also proved useful to Guglielmo Marconi, the pioneer of long distance radio transmission. In 1897, at the age of 23, Marconi was developing his experiments and attempting to transmit over greater distances. He had an idea that transmitting over water might help. The stretch of water from Brean Down across to Wales provided him with ‘stages’, in the shape of the two islands, for progressive increases in the distance of transmission.
On 18th May of that year, having been successful in transmitting from South Wales to the islands, a final transmission was successfully made to Brean Down. The total distance was 14km, the farthest covered by wireless communication at that time. Marconi received the Nobel Prize and the Franklin Medal for his pioneering work.
He returned to Italy and was received among the rich and famous. Maybe not so laudable, he later became a fascist and an associate of Mussolini.
There is an annual Marconi Day, celebrated at a special event station near his experimental site.
Long Distance Transmission Pioneer
This area is a resting place for birds found nowhere else in England, a calling place for the bird of passage and a sanctuary for sea birds who need rest or are off-course. You might see black-headed and common gulls which roost here. If you’re lucky you’ll spot kestrels, peregrine, even merlin.
On the sands and fields below the promontory may be oystercatchers, curlew, redshanks, dunlin and golden plover. Ducks and geese rest in passing and, in the spring, migrants such as ring ouzels, sand martins and grasshopper warblers are present. A lucky visitor may even spot a red kite or marsh harrier. The buzzard is a frequent visitor in these skies.
Oystercatcher and Splendid Horizons
Ok, that’s enough time at high altitude. Come down from your vantage point for a closer look at the land. Near the shore, between the numerous caravan sites of Brean and the end of the golf course at Berrow, is a stretch of land where Berrow Dunes Local Nature reserve has been established. Work began at the end of October 1992, to re-establish the natural habitat of the dune system before the invasion of sea-buckthorn, and to enable the dune ponds to return along with all the flora and fauna which naturally live and breed in such an environment. It is a combined project between Sedgemoor District Council and English Nature.
June 1995 saw the launch of the reserve by wildlife photographer Simon King. Local schools monitor the types of wildlife using the reserve and bird ringers contribute information from their records. Orchids, flag iris, evening primrose, frogs, toads and newts have been given the chance to flourish in a freshly created but native habitat.
From Marsh to BeachClick thumbnail to view full-size
Nearer Berrow, between the golf course and the dunes, is another phenomenon of this environment - a large brackish marsh, largely overgrown with reeds and flanked by sea-buckthorn. These plants provide ideal cover for small birds and Berrow Marsh is home to many; snipe, water rails, bearded tits and sedge and reed warblers. The bright orange berries of the sea-buckthorn are winter food for fieldfares, redwings and other thrushes, but usually only if other food is scarce.
You can approach this marsh from the beach or from the land by clearly signposted public footpaths. Indeed it is important to keep to the paths to avoid flying golf balls, soggy feet, and, most importantly, unnecessary destruction of the dunes themselves. I find this path just as pleasant, if not more so, in winter time - the beach can be marvellously empty and the winds wild - the perfect place to blow out the cobwebs!
Walk Through the Dunes to the Beach
The Dunes and Beach
You may be lucky enough in the winter to see a Short-eared Owl on the dunes or the beach during the daytime, and on an evening early in May the Whimbrels (small curlews) can be seen flying north, especially towards the mouth of the River Huntspill, on the southern side of Burnham.
Large groups of oystercatchers congregate on the beach and during the summer the shelducks with their young come to the mudflats out in the estuary; moulting birds arrive in Bridgwater Bay during July also for the safety of the flats.
The quiet stretch of Berrow beach with its backcloth of church, dunes and ever-changing skies finally takes you to Burnham-on-Sea, passing the High Lighthouse amongst the houses inland and on the beach itself the Low Lighthouse, looking rather like a beach-hut on stilts, resplendent in white and red.
We will not concern ourselves with the town but turn inland behind Burnham towards Brent Knoll which rises suddenly out of the plain. A knoll is a small hill or hill-top. The name Brent has several possible derivations: Old English ‘brant’ meaning steep; an Old English word for ‘burnt’ suggesting that the settlement might have been burnt by the Danes; or a Celtic word for ‘high place’. There is also a local river Brent so this might be the most logical. I tend to prefer the old word for steep because this hill certainly burns the calf and thigh muscles!
Brent Knoll supports the impressive Iron Age fortification of Brent Knoll Camp. It may also have been the site of a battle recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of AD 847, when the armies of Dorset and Somerset together beat the invading Danes. One explanation of the mound's existence is that it is a shovelful of earth thrown down by the Devil whilst digging Cheddar Gorge (yes, where the cheese comes from!). Devils and Giants seem to have been busy round here.
There is an annual Easter service atop Brent Knoll. A wooden cross stands there. You can stand beside it and look out over yet more beautiful Somerset meadows.
Iron Age CampClick thumbnail to view full-size
Brent Knoll has another name in our family. My daughter and I once lived in Berrow, just north of Burnham-on-Sea (where I now live). When we travelled afar for a weekend or longer, we usually returned on the motorway. The sight of this hill meant we were nearly home so to my daughter it was ‘Home Hill’. We’ve all referred to it thus ever since and in fact it does still denote that we are close to home when returning.
This is Home
From Brent Knoll, you can look northwards again to Brean Down, but do not ignore the wetlands in between. At first glance the intervening plain does not seem to contain much of interest, but go down to the lanes and see the rhynes (or ditches) which irrigate this low wetland, reclaimed from the sea and once covered with apple orchards and willow trees. It sustained cider production, withies (from pollarded willow trees) were cultivated for basket weaving and dairy production was abundant. The network of rhynes, 'drains' and pumping stations were built then to ensure that no more flooding would occur, as did in more ancient times when there were 'lake dwellers' who built their houses on stilts out on the moors, when life was far more hazardous.
However, late 2013/early 2014, we once again experienced extensive flooding due to the lack of maintenance of this precious network! At the time of writing, the devastation has not been repaired and the cost has been high, to homeowners and farmers alike. Perhaps we are destined, sadly, to become lake dwellers once more.
... but sometimes Too Wet!
A Rich Countryside
In this rich countryside where peat was 'mined' extensively, there are still beautiful, gentle willows, flag iris in the rhynes, dragon and damsel flies the size of which are outstanding and the beauty breathtaking. The heron is at home here too; I have even seen one on the roof of a bungalow ready to fish the owner's garden pond for a fat juicy goldfish. Kestrels hover over the fields and, soaring up on the higher currents, the majestic buzzard surveys his hunting ground. Villages and hamlets dot the pastures.
A Varied Landscape
Surprises and Sunsets
This countryside, whether viewed from Brean Down to the north or from Brent Knoll to the south, is beautiful and full of surprises. It is unspoiled; a little pocket which is not dominated by the nearby industry and motorway. It still has a mind of its own; it still has a peace and tranquility which is to be cherished.
'There is no land where one can see such sunsets as in the flats'. How true! They take one's breath away; the universe holds you in its hand when you stand on the beach by the dunes, a burning sky on the horizon and a golden sea before you.
© 2014 Ann Carr