Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Brean Down

At one time, and not so very distant in the past, the land around Brean Down was mainly marsh and subject to frequent flooding, which would turn this 320ft high headland into an island. But then came sea defences and land drainage which in turn stabilised the marshes and, some may say unfortunately, gave an opportunity to create caravan parks. Not one caravan park, nor even two, three or four caravan parks-there are loads of them in unending procession blotting the landscape with that particular ugliness which is found in static caravans. It seems to take forever to drive the few short miles from the village of Brean to the Down with static caravans closing in on all sides, causing tunnel vision to a mind-numbing degree. But then, just as it starts to feel as if the whole universe is permeated with the stench of suntan lotion, the caravan parks are left behind and in front of you is the huge lump of limestone rock extending one and a half miles out into the Bristol Channel: Brean Down.

It is a steep climb up, but made easier by the steps which get you up the sheer hill which takes you most of the way to the top;

"A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare"*

But once you have climbed the 150 steps and reached the spot where the ground evens out you will then find yourself standing and staring. Looking inland across the Somerset Levels Glastonbury Tor stands out some twenty miles away. Closer to stands that edifice which is a shrine to the mighty John Cleese: Weston-Super-Mare. When you turn your back to the land the view is dominated by the sea and the gentle rise of the top of Brean Down ahead. From the spot where you now stand there is about a mile to walk to the tip of this headland; during this walk you are surrounded by evidence of human activity stretching back to the Bronze Age and reaching up to WW2. There is a choice of two paths to take. The lower path is a gravelled single track road which was cut in order to make easy passage for the horse and carts (and, later, the horseless carriages) carrying supplies to the fort. The higher path takes you through grazing cattle, remains of a Romano-Celtic temple, an Iron Age hill fort, various cairns and barrows, until finally you reach the ruins of a Victorian fort which was further developed and re-armed during that spot of bother we had with old Adolf. The Mudhoppers decide on the higher path out and the lower path back.

This walk is one to be taken at a leisurely pace, the views are stupendous; to the left is the sweep of Bridgewater Bay facing towards the Atlantic while to the right is the start of the Bristol Channel. In the distance before you is the Welsh coastline and, not so distant, the two small islands of Steep Holm and Flat Holm. With this panorama it is easy to miss what is underfoot, so we stop frequently to take in the more immediate scenery. The ridge is dotted with the remains of the cairns, the great number of which are an indication as to the importance of Brean Down to its earliest settlers; to see burial mounds atop high hills is by no means unusual but, to date, we have rarely encountered so many in such a relatively small area. As you reach the highest point on the down the trail of cairns is broken by the lines of the Iron Age hill fort. Just beyond this the path dips sharply, leading down to the ruins of a much later fortress.

At the very seaward tip of this spit of land a fort was constructed in Victorian times in response to fears that Napoleon the third was about to send shiploads of French soldiers over here to rampage across the countryside, invading these isles and eating all our slugs and snails. Brean Fort was built between 1864 and 1871 and most of it still stands today, though only as shells. In the early 1900s, following an explosion in one of the underground gunpowder magazines, the garrison was moved out of the fort (as the aforementioned Napoleon had died some thirty years previously the danger had long since passed) and the fort changed from military use to a more genteel incarnation: it became a cafe, afternoon teas and dainty fancies for the daytrippers. But then came Himm Hitler and the Nasties so once again the army marched in to defend this bit of coastline. The legacy of this later use is a Victorian Fort/WW2 Outpost blended together, the decorative flourishes and brickwork of the earlier buildings being in stark contrast to the 20th c. functionary and flat reinforced concrete.
Enough of technical details, skimpy though they are: the Mudhoppers are here to have fun. This involves one of our (frequent) lapses of memory concerning our actual ages and climbing amongst the ruins with childlike glee. Looking in one direction fills the imagination with images of the scarlet tunics, pill-box hats and waxed moustaches of the Victorian military man defending the Empire. Clambour over a wall and scarlet is replaced by khaki, the hats by steel helmets and the dreams of Empire are replaced by the radio, broadcasting songs by Vera Lynn and Bud Flanagan to soothe the nations' frayed nerves. We leave no stone unturned in this "What's-around-the-next-corner" playground and we pout sulkily at the iron bars which the grown-ups have put at the entrances to the gunpowder magazines to stop us from going in. We also couldn't get into the searchlight post, pictured below: the sea is well on the way to claiming that one!
Eventually it is time to head back home so we wander off in the direction of the lower path, which takes us along the northern side of Brean Down. Where the southern face is the steep rise, here the land falls more gently to the sea and is almost a complete forest of Hawthorn in places. The windswept trees grow amongst the dense braken and the scenery of the Down has changed once again. This is a walk on the wild side with the knolls rising above and the sea lapping below. With such diverse aspects to this small promontory, and with its wealth of pre-christian history, it is easy to see why Brean Down provided the perfect setting for Dion Fortune's classic work of occult fiction, "The Sea Preistess". There is magic in the air.

*From "Leisure" by WH Davies.