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Where the Mendips meet the sea

Brean Down

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Looking back towards the 'mainland' from Brean Down

On the coast of Somerset between Weston-super-Mare and Burnham-on-Sea, a long finger of land juts out into the Bristol Channel – the Mendips’ last hurrah before disappearing beneath the waves. Brean Down rises high above the beaches on either side, a two-kilometre-long ridge of limestone and an obvious place to build a fort – or several. Certainly Iron Age man thought so, as there is evidence of a fort and field systems from that period. The Romans built a small temple here, and much more recently, between 1864 and 1871, another fort was constructed at the very tip of the promontory.

Today the land is under the protection of the National Trust. As with most of their open countryside there is no charge to walk on the land, but you pay for parking. We visited on a rather dull September morning during the Coronavirus pandemic and found the car park quite busy with dog walkers and with ‘staycationers’ such as ourselves.

A three-mile walk leads you up onto the ridge, along its western edge to the fort, and back along the eastern side. It starts with a steep climb up a long flight of steps. There are small stopping areas at intervals where you can pause to admire the view – surely no one will guess that you’re really stopping to catch your breath?!

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The steps up Brean Down, and old post box at the foot

Once at the top the path is undulating, crossing grassland closely cropped by sheep and goats that live here. Walking out towards the far point you have wonderful views west along the coast and across the Bristol Channel to Wales. Apparently you can see the remains of the Romano-British temple somewhere along this stretch but it eluded us.

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Trees on Brean Down

The coastline here is famous for the wide expanse of sand (some say mud!) revealed at low tide. The Bristol Channel has the second largest tidal movement in the world (second only to the Bay of Fundy in Canada); according to the National Trust website, the distance between high and low water can be as much as 0.75 of a mile (1.2 kilometres). This made for some interesting photo opportunities in today’s changing light, but is a challenge on sunny days for anyone wanting to swim!

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Views of Brean Beach from Brean Down

Brean Fort

Our walk brought us eventually to the remains of the fort built here in the 19th century. This was one of the Palmerston Forts (named for Lord Palmerston, the then Prime Minister), designed to protect Britain from invasion by France – an invasion that never came. As I explained in my post about Spitbank Fort, in the Solent, Napoleon III was strengthening his navy at that time, and the memory of past threats from that quarter were still fresh. But the invasion never came and the forts were never used for their original purpose.

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Looking down on Brean Fort

Although in ruins the walls of many of the fort’s buildings still stand and there are signs to guide you as you explore. I felt it had a slightly haunted atmosphere, despite the presence of other visitors here and there. Maybe I was sensing the ghost of Gunner Harris, who one night in July 1900 inexplicably fired a carbine into the ventilator shaft of a magazine storing gunpowder. The resulting explosion caused huge damage to the fort and killed Harris. There was some speculation that this might have been suicide – Harris was known to be sullen, with a bad temper, and was in trouble because he had left the fort without permission the previous day. At his inquest the jury returned the verdict that, ‘the explosion was caused by the deceased firing a carbine down a ventilator and that at the time he was temporarily insane.’ Whatever the reason, Harris had effectively dealt a fatal blow not only to himself but to the fort. It was closed down soon after, decommissioned and its guns sold for scrap in 1901.

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Brean Fort

However the building has been put to various uses both before and since then. Marconi had used it in 1897 to test his new wireless transmission equipment, setting a new distance record of 8.7 miles (14 kilometres) for wireless transmission over open seas. For a while it was used as a café (what a great spot to stop for a coffee that must have been!) before being rearmed during WW2 with anti-aircraft guns. The site was used to test bouncing bombs and other secret weapons. You can still see the length of rail employed to launch the bombs. A sign at the fort explains that the tests didn’t always go well. On one occasion the bomb, along with the trolley carrying it, flew off into the Channel, did a sharp right turn and came back inland to land in a local farmer’s chicken run!

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Bomb launching rail, with Steep Holm Island beyond

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Bomb launching rail, and window in the barracks

This is a great spot to take a break, sitting on the old walls with a view out to Steep Holm and Flat Holm islands. The former is English while the latter, lying just beyond it, is in Wales (its Welsh name is Ynys Echni). Both islands were also fortified under Palmerston's scheme. Flat Holm has had a lighthouse since the early 18th century (this is a treacherous area for shipping) but the current building dates from the early 19th and is today automated, running almost entirely on solar power.

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Steep Holm Island from Brean Down

The return walk

After exploring the ruins of the fort and enjoying the view out to sea, we retraced our steps but on the eastern side of the headland. The path here is a little lower and more sheltered, but even here trees struggle to grow.

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On Brean Down

There were some pretty wildflowers and views across the wide sands of Weston-super-Mare below.

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Wild flower

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Lichen

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On Weston-super-Mare beach

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Sparrow near the café

At some point this path passes the banks and ditches that mark the site of the Iron Age fort, but this too, like the Roman temple, we managed to miss!

Beyond the top of the steps we had climbed at the start the path curved back on itself and we were able to descend a more gentle slope down to the road, the car park and the café. Here we bought cold drinks and hot pasties to enjoy at a table overlooking the beach – a good reward for our efforts!

Posted by ToonSarah 01:57 Archived in England Tagged landscapes trees coast history ruins views fort seas

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Comments

I've been to Westen super Mare but have never been here. I would love to see this fort.

by littlesam1

Funnily enough Larry, I've been to Weston many times in my youth (I had a boyfriend from here when at university) and had seen Brean Down from the beach, but never been up there until now, decades later!

by ToonSarah

The beach looks huge!

Imo Harris didn't try to kill himself, but if he was so bad tempered he might have harbored some sort of pay back if he was just chastised for playing hooky and it went wrong..Never heard the man before but in my perspective the bad tempered ones are not suicidal. Again, just thinking out loud :)

The black and white photos are amazing!

by hennaonthetrek

Thanks for the compliment about the B&W photos Henna Not everyone likes B&W but on a day like this is seemed perfect!

I think you could be right about Harris - it was just an act of petty violence that went badly wrong perhaps?

by ToonSarah

nice walk ... loving the pictures of the trees!

by Ils1976

Thank you Ils for taking the time to read and comment on all these blogs :)

by ToonSarah

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