Wednesday 31 January 2018

Brean Down

Whenever I see blue skies overhead my thoughts always drift towards the seaside, even on a cold January day like today. I'm sure it must be more a cultural than a personal thing - a product of the Famous Five and other books I read as a youngster, perhaps, rather than the occasional holidays of my childhood, which I seem to remember being predominantly grey and somewhat damp.

Weston-super-Mare from Brean Down.

Brean Down wasn't somewhere I walked as a child but the nearest significant town, Weston-super-Mare, certainly was somewhere we'd visit, staring at the seafront through rain-soaked car windows as we stoically munched thinly-sliced, beef paste sandwiches. I must have seen the headland on those days out but it wasn't until several decades later that I walked it. The first time was in August, apparently the month that the local black flies flies hold a bloodsucking jamboree on its slopes, and the second time in mid-May a few years later. The latter walk forms the basis of this trip report.

Brean Down.

On both occasions we were staying in Brean, the small village that gives its name to the Down. The economy and modest infrastructure of Brean revolves around a holiday camp and several caravan sites. If you pick your way down one of the access paths to the beach you'll see why it's such a popular spot for holidaymakers, with its vast expanse of unspoiled sand and views out across the Bristol Channel. There are fine sunsets to be had here, the sun's decline frequently emblazoned across the skies in blinding gold hues.

A couple of miles north along these sands, Brean Down itself dominates the horizon and in fine weather it's a pleasant walk up the beach to the cliffs that shape its southern aspect.

Formed from carboniferous limestone, the promontory is the last outlying summit of the Mendip Hills in the west and the shattered strata of its bedrock are clearly visible on your approach. Standing beside the murmuring surf of the Bristol Channel, it's perhaps not quite such a stretch of visualisation to picture these layers as the beds of prehistoric, shallow seas - at least compared to when you stand inside the nearby Cheddar Gorge or gaze on the gnarled rock of Winnats Pass in the High Peak, far from the current coastline. As with those locations, the rock of Brean Down is generously studded with the fossilised remains of creatures that crawled and swam here over 300 million years ago.

There are signs of more recent, human history here too. Ancient peoples from the Beaker through to the Romans recognised the strategic and the symbolic significance of this headland. Over the centuries, it was the site of Bronze Age settlements and an Iron Age hillfort, of shrines and of barrows. The remains of field systems can still be traced in the landscape. In the modern period, a Victorian fort was built at the end of the promontory and there are remnants of military installations to be found here below the southern cliffs.

After exploring the base of Brean Down, we set off for the steep climb onto the headland itself. On the way we passed a man who was using ropes and sticks to draw a intricate geometric diagram in the sand.

The flat beach made a perfect canvas and we'd passed the same chap a couple of days earlier,  when his design had been a contrary one of circles and spirals, though still on the same huge scale. Whether he did this every day, consigning his art to the incoming tide in the evenings, we don't know - I like to think so. Perhaps the disciplined formation of these meticulously-drawn patterns provided artistic and spiritual satisfaction, a creative form of meditation.

The National Trust own and maintain this site now and there's a very steep set of steps that enables you to climb onto the headland with - slightly! - less effort than it would be climbing the bare hillside. Near the top of these, we got our first sight this trip of the feral goats that live on the Down. They're handsome creatures and were introduced to protect the local ecology, rare plant species that would be lost without the goat population eating the scrub that grows here and threatens to overwhelm them.

It's around a mile from the top of the steps to the western tip of Brean Down. The path follows the crest of the headland, which undulates before you, gradually climbing - despite the dips - to a high point of just over 300 feet.

The route ahead - the trig point marks the highest point of the Down.

The weather was much finer than our first visit, which had been on a muggy and overcast day in 2009. And it wasn't just the absence of clouds and flies - or, indeed, clouds of flies - that made this trip a more satisfying one. We were there on the cusp of late spring and early summer and, all around us, wildflowers freckled grass that shone with the bright green of lush new growth  - buttercups, daisies, white rock-rose, bluebells and more. Hawthorn bushes were in rude and bright health on the northern hillside, above slopes where the heather quietly bade its time, keeping its own display of colour hidden until later in the summer.

Once the trig column has been achieved, there's a pronounced descent ahead of you and you lose almost all the height you've gained so far - including some of that hard-won altitude from the steep steps at the beginning. From the vantage point of the summit, Brean Down Fort is in clear view now, against a background of roiling waves, foam churned up on the jagged rocks at the headland's westernmost point.

Brean Down Fort.
Part-way down to the fort itself is another abandoned building on the hillside. This is a look out post from the Second World War, one of several additions to the original layout when the site became militarily active again during the combat. Its concrete walls had been decorated by local graffiti artists and there were great views out across the channel, as you'd expect.

World War Two lookout post.
Surprised to see us, clearly...
Alas, there was no pie.
Oh, for the balloons, the balloons of a dove...
Looking across the Bristol Channel.

Eager to be out in the sunshine again, we soon pressed on, making our way down the hill and past a slipway to explore the fort.

With building taking place throughout the second half of the 1860s, the structure was completed in 1871. Unfortunately, by that time, it was already obsolete - the artillery was technologically out-of-date and the reason for its construction, the perceived threat of French naval power, had been neutralised by the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War.

It was one of a series of such defensive structures built for this reason, collectively known as Palmerston Forts because Lord Palmerston, the prime minister, had advocated strongly for them. Afterwards, they were referred to less-flatteringly as Palmerston's Follies when their relative uselessness became apparent. Plus ça change...

Of limited value it might have been on completion, but the site remains an impressive location to visit. My knowledge of military fortifications is what you might call extremely limited: in return for a pint of ale, I could probably draw you a passable castle on the back of a beer mat but that's about my limit. Fortunately for those interested in the detail there are more reliable online guides than me to be found on Wikipedia and at this dedicated website. I do like abandoned buildings, however, so we did spend some time wandering around and taking pictures.

There's a footpath that gives you access out onto the furthest reaches of the headland, and this we followed. Metal tracks draw the eye out westwards and we surmised (probably completely incorrectly) that these were for a gun placement perhaps, though whether they were part of the Victorian or mid-twentieth century defences we had no clue. What was interesting was that the wildlflowers down here had adapted to the artificial terrain as well as to the rocks, with Sea Thrift (Armeria Maritima) seemingly thriving.

This marked the end of our second visit to Brean Down but hopefully not our last. It simply remained for us to retrace our path back over the summit and back to the beach. There is a lower level path that loops around and follows the northern hillside of the Down to get you back to the steps - it saves you around 100 feet of ascent, if you don't feel like going back up past the trig. We did that circular route the first time we visited but decided we preferred the higher level path on this occasion.

Below the endless series of steps, each one a jolt to the knees, the beach artist had finished his creation and we had the perfect spot at the top of them to view it in all its perfection. Beyond that stretched Brean Beach, the perfect late afternoon stroll back to our holiday cottage, where a large bottle of gin was patiently waiting for our attention.

Date: May 2014

Walk length: 12 km 

Total ascent: 190 metres


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