At the southern end of the North Somerset town of Clevedon, a small promontory juts out into the Severn Estuary, bounded by steep cliffs on each water-facing side. Around the edge of this is Poets’ Walk, a short, popular route named after two poets who visited Clevedon, Alfred Tennyson and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Another poet, and a close friend of Tennyson, Arthur Hallam – Tennyson’s In Memoriam is dedicated to him – is buried at St Andrew’s Church, about halfway along the route.
It’s a walk I’ve wanted to do for a while, mostly because it gives views across the Severn Estuary and out to the Bristol Channel beyond, a curious mixture of the sea and the waters of the ‘brown Severn’, heavy with silt. The water here is neither clear nor blue, the waves as much riverine as marine but there is something irresistible about it, the estuary and Bristol Channel just big enough to give the feeling of a large expanse of water but small enough for details of the lands opposite to be discernible. Its closeness and connections keep the mind constantly occupied.
The walk itself starts, conveniently, at a car park. Near the beginning of the route as you wander past a tidal pool and up the hill there’s a small nineteenth-century stone building called ‘The Lookout’. Allegedly used in the nineteenth century to watch for ships carrying sugar coming into the estuary from the West Indies, it’s a small, odd folly, looking like part of a lost castle with a crenelated roofline and squat Gothic windows on each side giving views in all directions: Clevedon Pier and the modern Severn Crossing to the north; five miles or so of estuary to the west across to Cardiff Bay, almost lost in the haze on the other side; and towards the south the sea on which two small islands, Steep Holm and Flat Holm, sit either side of the England-Wales border. I watched the water for a while, following the flow downstream and listening to the waves sloosh against the cliffs below.
St Andrew’s Church lies in a dip between the two hills forming the promontory, Church Hill and Wains Hill, a large churchyard surrounding the medieval building. It has its origins well before the Norman Conquest of 1066 but a wedding stopped me having a look around, giving me a good excuse to come back another time.
I headed along the path towards Wains Hill, home to an Iron Age hillfort. Along here the trees lining the cliff edge all bend to the landward side away from the prevailing winds that so often whip across the estuary. There’s little of the hillfort to see on the ground, just a curving ditch forming its outer edge. If I wasn’t an archaeologist I’d probably hardly have noticed but I liked it anyway, that feeling of deep time beneath my feet.
Up on the top of the hill is a very clear and modern structure, a concrete pillbox from the Second World War. Constructed as part of the nation’s defensive network should Britain have been invaded by sea, it’s a reminder that locations like this have had strategic significance for longer than we perhaps realise, and more recently too.
At the bottom of Wains Hill, the Rivers Blind Yeo and Land Yeo join and empty into the estuary, the creek ending in a series of mudflats exposed as the tide recedes, the rivers still present as depressions and channels winding their way out into deeper water. Out in the mud a few wading birds wandered, searching around for something to eat. Beyond them the flat land stretched back towards the Mendips Hills and wooded promontories dotted the coastline to the south. In between the greens and fairways of the local golf course seemed an incongruous addition, but that might say more about my feelings towards golf than its presence here. Out in the water Flat Holm and Steep Holm looked inviting, two places on my list to visit sometime.
One of the aspects I like a lot about this stretch of the Severn and the Bristol Channel beyond is the way the water, from river or sea, has produced a long, winding coastline, the constant flow of water and tides exposing the promontories from the low-lying silty land producing a series of bays between the higher ground. It gives a ‘sense of place’, steeped in history – old hillforts like Wains Hill abound, there’s the odd temple, medieval towns and reclaimed lands – yet dominated by water, the huge tidal range moving the landscape from coast, river and sea to exposed wetland and mudflats and back again twice a day, a constantly shifting scene playing out in its daily cycle. It is all, rather appropriately, quite poetic.
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How to get there: Clevedon is just off the M5 south of Bristol. Leave the motorway at junction 20, following signs to the ‘sea front’. The best car park for the walk is Salthouse Fields, parking costing £4 for 4 hours. There are other car parks closer to the town. The car park post code is BS21 7TU.