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Somerset, from Brean Down to Brent Knoll; a Stretch of Coastline and Countryside

Updated on February 9, 2021
annart profile image

I love to investigate the history and geography of my home town, my area and my country, England, as well as other parts of Britain.

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!

From Brean Down across to Brent Knoll on the Horizon (top right)
From Brean Down across to Brent Knoll on the Horizon (top right) | Source

Brean Down Promontory & Access via Steep Steps

Site of the Iron Age Camp
Site of the Iron Age Camp | Source
Looks Easy - Gets Steeper!
Looks Easy - Gets Steeper! | Source

Brean Down

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.

Vantage Point

South Face cliffs of Brean Down
South Face cliffs of Brean Down | Source
Wild Rock Rose
Wild Rock Rose | Source

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 Fort

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Headland Fort of 1860s, looking out over the Bristol ChannelOverlooking the Bristol ChannelOld foundations of the FortLord Palmerston
Headland Fort of 1860s, looking out over the Bristol Channel
Headland Fort of 1860s, looking out over the Bristol Channel | Source
Overlooking the Bristol Channel
Overlooking the Bristol Channel | Source
Old foundations of the Fort
Old foundations of the Fort | Source
Lord Palmerston
Lord Palmerston | Source


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

Guglielmo Marconi
Guglielmo Marconi | Source


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

Oystercatcher | Source
Berrow Beach and out over the Bristol Channel
Berrow Beach and out over the Bristol Channel | Source

Nature Reserve

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 Beach

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Footbridge across Berrow MarshAcross the Marsh to the Dunes & ChurchFrom Marsh to Beach
Footbridge across Berrow Marsh
Footbridge across Berrow Marsh | Source
Across the Marsh to the Dunes & Church
Across the Marsh to the Dunes & Church | Source
From Marsh to Beach
From Marsh to Beach | Source

Berrow Marsh

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

Through the Windswept Dunes to the Sea
Through the Windswept Dunes to the Sea | Source
Driftwood & Seaweed on Berrow Beach
Driftwood & Seaweed on Berrow Beach | Source

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.

The Low Lighthouse on the Beach
The Low Lighthouse on the Beach | Source

Brent Knoll

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 Camp

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Brent Knoll Iron Age Camp Top of Brent KnollEaster on Brent KnollPath down to the Village of the same name
Brent Knoll Iron Age Camp
Brent Knoll Iron Age Camp | Source
Top of Brent Knoll
Top of Brent Knoll | Source
Easter on Brent Knoll
Easter on Brent Knoll | Source
Path down to the Village of the same name
Path down to the Village of the same name | Source

Home Hill

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

My Daughter's 'Home Hill'
My Daughter's 'Home Hill' | Source

The Wetlands

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!

Flooding on the Levels - these should be farmers' fields!
Flooding on the Levels - these should be farmers' fields!

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

Grey Heron
Grey Heron | Source

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.

Sunset on Berrow Beach
Sunset on Berrow Beach | Source

© 2014 Ann Carr


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    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      6 years ago from SW England

      Hi Alicia! Yes, Burnham is in some ways not very memorable as it is a tad old-fashioned and staid, with little night life (thank goodness!). I love it for its quaintness and its ability to hang on to its gentle image.

      The area is wonderful and you've never seen sunsets like those you can see there!

      Thanks for the visit and the kind comments. Ann

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is a beautiful hub, Ann! I loved your descriptions, the photos and the tour. I would love to visit the places that you've described myself. I've been to Burnham-on-Sea to visit my aunt and uncle, but I was such a young child when I visited that I don't remember much about the place.

    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      6 years ago from SW England

      Hello travmaj! Glad you enjoyed this; it's one of my favourite places. Good to hear you have a Home Hill too! Appreciate you stopping by. I'll head over to look at your hubs. Ann

    • travmaj profile image


      6 years ago from australia

      I enjoyed this journey with you, what a beautiful part of England. The descriptions and photo's kept me engaged throughout and I felt I was there with you. Lovely. Thank you.

      I hail from the north and Pendle Hill is my Home Hill.

    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      6 years ago from SW England

      Hello again, Rusti! Two comments within a few minutes; how kind of you! It's great to know you love it so much here, especially as you have such a great country of your own (though I've never been!). We do have some wonderful spots in our beloved country, as do most places around the world of course. Each country has its treasures and I certainly treasure ours on the doorstep. If you ever move here let me know and you'd always be very welcome!

      I hope life treats you and yours better now after your trials and tribulations. I greatly appreciate your visit and your words. Ann

    • Rusti Mccollum profile image

      Ruth McCollum 

      6 years ago from Lake Oswego, Oregon

      I have a love for England I cannot explain. I would happily move there even more so after reading this. If something ever happened to my hubby (we are 50 I'll be 5 next month, I died twice myself )however, if he should go I seriously think I would move there I love love love it. Thank you for more info on a country I adore..

    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      6 years ago from SW England

      VVanNess, thanks for visiting. England certainly has some beautiful places and Somerset is one of them. My other favourite is Sussex but then I'm biased! Glad you enjoyed this; I greatly appreciate you reading and commenting. Ann

    • VVanNess profile image

      Victoria Van Ness 

      6 years ago from Fountain, CO

      Wow, this sounds beautiful! I've never physically been to England, but now at least I feel like I've been there mentally. :)

    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      6 years ago from SW England

      Thanks for the great comment, tobusiness. It's certainly worth several visits as there's such a lot to see here. The camp site at Home Farm just off the Burnham-on-Sea junction of the motorway is a good one, or a small friendly one at the BASC ground in Stoddens Road, or loads of sites in Brean, just below Brean Down (more tourist-orientated).

      I hope you manage to do that; happy caravanning! Ann

    • tobusiness profile image

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 

      6 years ago from Lincolnshire, U.K

      Hi Ann, I visited Somerset years ago, a friend of mine had a house in Bath but after reading this I think it's time to see it again with new eyes. Now that the weather is getting milder it's a good time to get the old caravan out of mothballs we may well be paying Somerset a visit soon. We had a wonderful time in Dorset last Summer. Great hub.

    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      6 years ago from SW England

      raymondphilippe: Thank you so much for visiting and commenting. Somerset is a great place for cycling as much of it is flat, hence the names 'Levels' and 'Flats'! I hope you manage to visit again and to see all these lovely areas. I notice you're from the Netherlands; we've had many Dutch experts here to help us drain our flooding when the government realised that they weren't actually up to the job and it might be a good idea to ask experts! So a big thanks to your fellows there!

      I appreciate your comments. Good to meet you. Ann

    • raymondphilippe profile image

      Raymond Philippe 

      6 years ago from The Netherlands

      i've been in Somerset once. But i'm afraid i might have missed a lot (judging by your hub). I'd love to cycle through the countryside. Your descriptions make it come alive. Thanks.

    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      6 years ago from SW England

      DDE: Thank you so much for your kind comment. There are indeed many beautiful places in our green and pleasant land, in areas North, South, East and West, from wetlands to mountains, from beaches to small country lanes.

      Wishing you a good week and thanks for the visit. Ann

    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      6 years ago from SW England

      always exploring: I never think of them as being faraway places for some people but of course they are! They are indeed beautiful and it's amazing how many here don't value or appreciate what's on their doorstep. We always want to travel abroad don't we? I love concentrating on local areas and local history.

      I hope you manage to visit some time. Thank you for your lovely comment. I hope the new week is a good one for you. Ann

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      6 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Beautiful photos I enjoyed this read the nature of another place is always so interesting. The istes look awesome and so much more to see than I had expected.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 

      6 years ago from Southern Illinois

      Your hubs are full of faraway places and very beautiful. I would love to visit. Thank you again...

    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      6 years ago from SW England

      Thank you Faith for a wonderful comment and for the votes; I'm thrilled you loved it so much. It was published in a slightly different format in a magazine nearly 20 years ago so I've tweaked it somewhat to update and refresh it.

      May you have a wonderful Sunday. Ann

    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      6 years ago from SW England

      It is certainly a wondrous place, bill, and I have never seen anything else to match its kind. Sorry to make you jealous (not!). I hope you do manage to see it one day.

      Just watching the rugby and we're thrashing Wales so all's right with the world!!

      Happy Sunday to you too, bill. Ann

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 

      6 years ago from southern USA

      Oh, up and more and sharing too!

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 

      6 years ago from southern USA

      My goodness, Ann, what a stunningly beautiful countryside and shore! You have outdone yourself with this superb hub. Thank you for taking us all on an amazing tour here. This article should be in a travel magazine. The photos are so lovely too. I hope to be able to travel one day in the future and these lovely places will be on my list of places to visit! Blessings, Faith Reaper

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      6 years ago from Olympia, WA

      There you go again, Ann, flaunting these sites in my face and making me jealous. Is that what friends really do, Ann????

      Good morning my friend and Happy Sunday to you. Joking of course...lovely pictures and wonderful information. I was looking at the countryside and trying to think of landscape in the U.S. that matched...I guess the coastal areas of the west coast with the coastal mountains in the distance comes close....but really, your area is fairly unique and not something we see much of here.

      Well, I will tuck away my jealousy and say "well done" and hope that one day I will be able to fly over there and see it all for myself.

      Have a wonderful day my friend.



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