A Quiet Life #3: Brean Down, Somerset, June 2019

I’ve only been to Brean Down once, in early June last year. An outlier of the Mendip Hills to the east, it stretches into the brown-blue waters of the Bristol Channel rising to about 100m above the beach and the water. I’d wanted to visit and walk its length for some time, its location combined with a landscape reflecting activity from the Neolithic through to the Second World War. Archaeology and the sea, a perfect combination. It’ll be a place near the top of my list to revisit once the current restrictions and lockdown have passed. Like my last post I’ve gone back to the notes and phrases I wrote while there.

Brean Down, Somerset, 1 June 2019

Road closures – not to mention someone moving the diversions signs – have sent me across half of Somerset, up into the hills and along lanes not much wider than the car. Finally, though, after driving through miles of caravan parks and campsites, Brean Down loomed up ahead, bigger and more imposing than I’d expected. It was early, the car park empty and the National Trust cafe just opening its doors. While I wait for bacon butty I read list of birds people have spied on the Down in the last week – peregrine falcons, long-tailed tits, shelducks, the list goes on. I don’t recognise many of them, I have much to learn.

The steep route…

There’s two routes up, the steep stairs zig-zagging their way up the side, and the longer meandering loop to the back end of the Down. I opt for the former. Not far up, the songs of the skylarks over the field behind me drift across the air, the small birds invisible, their song seeming to come from nowhere. It’s steep going this way, and it’s easy to stop and look out over the ever-increasing view, chatting to a few other early risers on their way up.

Cows and windswept trees above the beach at Brean

At the top, there’s a small herd of cattle lying down in the grass near to an old concrete structure. Up here the only sound is that of the wind, some birdsong and a plane somewhere up above. The breeze gusts strongly enough that it feels like my breath is being forced back into my lungs.

I look to the south, out over the beach and sea of caravans, the tide way out, uncovering the mudflats which inhabit this part of the Bristol Channel. Behind are the Somerset Levels, to the south the Quantock Hills and, way off in the distance, Exmoor. There’s a solitary hill in the local landscape, Brent Knoll, rising from the Levels. Its covered with archaeology and myth, an Iron-Age hillfort of the early centuries BC, Roman occupation and legends of King Arthur. It’s a silhouette this morning in the haze and another place to visit sometime.

The long beach at Brean with Brent Knoll dominating the landscape in the near distance

Prevailing winds?

It’s up here on the top of Brean Down that archaeologists have found occupation stretching back into the Neolithic. The only easily visible aspect is an Iron-Age promontory hill fort, its square ditched enclosure heavily banked up. Concrete and brick Second World War gun emplacements now line the cliff edge. I can look down on Weston-super-Mare from here, it long promenade and pier a world away. I’d rather be here.

Looking through the Iron-Age enclosure banks to the south

Gun emplacements with Steep Holm and Flat Holm behind

Walking along the spine of the Down I know there’s the remains of Bronze Age fields and burial mounds (barrows) but all are under the vibrant growth of ferns, grasses and wild flowers. There’s a Roman temple too and, although I can pinpoint its position, there’s no trace I can see on the ground. It brings a pang of disappointment but I sit and look out over the beach, far enough along that the constant, far away sound of the waves can reach me where I sit. I’m in no way surprised that this would be a special place in people’s minds over the millennia. There is something special about this location, the views cover the whole Bristol Channel, which itself feels so far down below me. They bring with them a real feeling of connection to the landscape, and connectivity in the land and seascape. I’d love to do some archaeological research here on all of this.

Looking east towards the Mendip Hills

Brean beach at low tide

I watch a peregrine falcon for a while, sweeping along the cliffs, hovering and watching before moving on and repeating the process. It swoops a few times before returning to its lofty spot above the rocks. I’m transfixed as are the few others up there with me, lucky to see such a display. Impossible to photograph I don’t even try.

Looking down onto the 19th-century fort

At the end of Brean Down and at the bottom of a steep slope is a large fort built in the 1860s to offer protection to the ports of the Bristol Channel. Down here are large stone fortifications, barracks, officer’s quarters and armoury, all ruinous and long-abandoned, their walls covered in graffiti. It’s an odd experience wandering these rooms and buildings after the isolation and semi-spiritual experience of the walk out here. I can’t quite make up my mind as to whether this would be been a good or bad posting.

Brean Down fortifications

Evidence of previous visitors…

The end of Brean Down, just beyond the confines of the fort, is back at sea level and I sit for some time watching the waves roll in and break onto the rocks. The sea here is an oddity, made heavy by the mud of the River Severn which floods into the Bristol Channel at its northern end. Out in the water are two small islands, Flat Holm and Steep Holm, each perfectly described in their names: the former home to a lighthouse and other buildings, the latter a green-covered mass with a small visible beach. The tales of early-medieval hermits on these islands add another layer of interest. Behind is the coast of Wales, ranges of high hills disappearing into the haze and the land vanishes as it sweeps away to the west.

The end of the Down and the blue-brown sea

There’s birds out on the water to watch, and in the rocks flowering plants hang on just above the high tide line. I sit for a long time, watching people come and go, some silently, others with noise and disinterest. I finally persuade myself it’s time to go too, but it’s the kind of place I can’t quite ever get my fill of.

Postscript

The Bristol Channel and Severn estuary and is a place I love enormously, it intrigues and interests me more than almost anywhere else these days. Every time I visit it fills me with a real sense of wonder and excitement. I think it’s that you can see its confines, it narrow entrance to the west and you can see so much of the coast and landscape around it from pretty much every vantage point. The sea, too, has a uniqueness: the second largest tidal range on Earth fundamentally changes its experience twice every day, it’s colour is never quite brown or blue, and in its northern reaches it can’t quite decide if it’s river or sea (as so wonderfully captured in Philip Gross’s poem Severn Song). I last visited in early March, a morning walking along the coast to the south of Clevedon, a week before it became obvious we should all be staying local and not travelling. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to head back down that way to carry on walking the coast and hills, to see and learn more about it. It’ll be one of the first places I head and I hope it’s not too long in coming…

Steep Holm

Further information:

At the time of writing Brean Down is closed to the public because of the COVID-19 pandemic. More information can be found on the National Trust webpage here.

Philip Gross’s Severn Song can be read here.

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