I WAS joined on last Saturday’s walk by Alice, who has been patiently waiting for me to embark on a walk within easy travelling distance of where she is. I forewent breakfast in my hotel in favour of a café on the high street and then set about finding a bus back to Highbridge.
The bus deposited me in the centre of town and I made my way towards the station, passing as I did so a memorial to Major Frank Foley, an SIS officer who in the lead-up to WW2 was posted to Berlin with the cover of being the British Embassy’s passport officer. Foley, who was not protected by diplomatic immunity, bent several rules and pretty much just ignored Nazi Germany’s anti-semitic laws, issuing tens of thousands of visas to Jews so that they could escape the country. Highbridge is where he was born.
Highbridge & Burnham Station
Highbridge & Burnham Station (or ‘Highbridge & Burnham’ according to the signage) is basically just a halt, although originally it was a proper Bristol & Exeter Railway station (later GWR and then BR).
The old Brunel-era station buildings were demolished in the 1980s, leaving only ‘bus shelter’ style structures in their place. At one time it also served the Somerset & Dorset Joint Railway, which ran a line out to Burnham-on-Sea and that company’s locomotive works were nearby. The Burnham line closed in 1966.
In the twenty minutes I spent waiting in the station the weather cycled through rain, wind sun and back again several times over. With the arrival of Alice, we set off along the northern bank of the River Brue, soon reaching the coast.
Arriving in Burnham
It was grey and windy when we got to Burnham-on-Sea and, for all that we had only walked two miles, we decided to stop for a cup of tea and to consider our options for the day.
The reason as to why there were options depended partly on timing and partly on the route.
I had intended to follow National Cycle Route 33 (the Stop Line Way) for part of the day’s walk, with the slight caveat that this would only be possible where that route had been established, it still being under construction.
A lot hinged on whether a sluice across the River Axe near the village of Brean had been converted into a public bridge yet, or whether it was still private Environment Agency property with no access even though it was four years since the intention to have it opened up was announced. I had been unable to find out for sure, which led me to believe it was probably still inaccessible and this would add a couple of miles to the day.
The other item under consideration was Brean Down, a rocky hill and promontory north of Brean, which I was quite keen to walk but which was also a dead end. Walking to the head of Brean Down meant a three mile trek out of Brean and then turning around and heading back again, traversing the same stretch of road in two directions. We resolved to do this if and only if we were making good time. Although that seemed mildly unlikely as we leisurely consumed our tea out of the driving wind.
Burnham-on-Sea was a small village that grew as a resort in the late eighteenth century. Although the first drainage of the Somerset Levels was in Roman times this was not maintained by the Saxons and so Burnham was mostly surrounded by floodland and marsh for several centuries.
The Great Wave of 1607
Even when sea walls and drainage channels were being built, they weren’t always effective and Burnham suffered badly from the Great Wave of 1607, which flooded Somerset as far inland as Glastonbury Tor.
Opinions are divided as to whether the Great Wave was a storm surge or a tsunami but either way it collapsed the sea wall and inundated the Levels, which are at or just below sea level.
Being on flat terrain, with a flat muddy beach, Burnham experiences impressive tidal ranges, with a 15m difference between high and low tide. Across the almost horizontal mudflats this translates to the sea receding and advancing by as much as two and a half miles.
Lifeboats and Hovercraft
The mudflats make it easy for boats to get beached and for people to get cut off by the tide. Bridgwater Corporation bought a lifeboat for Burnham in 1836 and replaced it in 1847, operating until 1866 when its duties were taken over by the RNLI.
The RNLI lifeboat was withdrawn in 1930, however, because they could not get sufficient crew. Burnham did without until 1992 when a local charity, Burnham-on-Sea Area Rescue Boat (BARB) was established to operate an independent lifeboat.
In 2003, this failed to save a five year old girl who drowned on the mudflats in waters too shallow for even the inshore lifeboat. This prompted the purchase of a rescue hovercraft plus the return of the RNLI after an absence of 73 years. Both BARB and RNLI continue to operate in Burnham.
St Andrew’s Church
Hand-in-hand with lifeboats when the coast is dangerous are lighthouses. In the eighteenth century Burnham showed a light from the gloriously wonky tower of St Andrew’s Church, which is afflicted with inadequate foundations.
Burnham High and Low Lighthouses
The local vicar raised the money to build a purpose-built lighthouse next to the church in 1801 and this was taken over by Trinity House in 1815. It was replaced in the 1830s by two new lighthouses, imaginatively labelled ‘High’ and ‘Low’ while the Round Tower by the church was reduced in height and sold off.
The High Lighthouse, built in stone, was automated in 1920 and then sold off in 1992 to a member of the Rothschild family. Sold again in 1996, it is now available as holiday accommodation and is a Grade II listed building.
Far more quirkily charming is the Low Lighthouse, a weird squarish wooden construction built on nine stilts. This was deactivated in 1969 but, in a rare twist, recommissioned as a lighthouse in 1993 after the sale of its companion. It continues in service today but is operated by Sedgemoor District Council rather than by Trinity House.
As the path had led down onto the beach we traipsed along it noting how the howling gale in which we were walking was blowing waves of loose sand in constantly shifting patterns about our feet. And into our backs. And our hair.
Desirous of a change we headed inland after a while, passing through a golf course into the high street of Berrow.
Berrow is a small village that was once part of the hundred of Brent-cum-Wrington. It has a Grade I listed thirteenth century church (albeit with some nineteenth century restoration) and also the wreck of a Norwegian barque on the beach. This presented a challenge as I wanted to see both, despite the barrier of a good many dunes lying between high street the beach.
We elected to be clever, cutting back and forth between the two on footpaths only to somehow get ourselves lost on the golf course. The golfers were very good about it and told us how to escape, in the course of doing which we somehow managed to see both things.
Continuing up the Beach
No sooner had we decided to stick with the beach for the time being than it suddenly became impossible to leave it, with all the paths through the dues being marked with variants on the theme of ‘Private! Keep Out!’
We passed a JCB and various other vehicles, although quite what they were doing wasn’t clear (cheating at sandcastles suggested Alice). We also passed a number of reassuring signs along the beach. And when I say ‘reassuring’ I’m lying through my teeth:
We had a brief discussion about the safety or otherwise of the mud underfoot but reasoned that if it could support a JCB then it was probably safe where we were. We just wouldn’t be going anywhere near the water’s edge. Not that we were going to anyway, that would quite literally have added miles to our walk.
By the time we reached Brean we had pretty much dawdled away much of our time. This in combination with the driving wind and intermittent rain led to the decision not to ascend Brean Down. I’m not being a purist about the coast thing and, quite apart from the time involved, it seemed like more effort than fun.
Brean Down is a 98m high limestone promontory with archeological remains going back to Roman times and before. It is actually the end of the Mendips but cut off from them by the River Axe, which has forced its way in between.
Lord Palmerston had Brean Down fortified in 1864 and his fort was re-armed in WW2 as part of the coastal defences. Guglielmo Marconi performed some of his pioneering radio experiments from it too.
But I didn’t go anywhere near it. Instead I sat in the warmth of a pub and ate fish and chips, washed down with gin & tonic. It worked for me.
Etymology of ‘Brean’
‘Brean’ is derived from Brythonic bryn, which meant ‘hill’ (and still does in Modern Welsh). Given the absence of anything else remotely hill-like, it can only be referring to Brean Down. Almost as if the town were mocking us for our failure. I drowned out its mockery by drinking more gin.
St Bridget’s Church
Hitting the Road
The way on from Brean involved quite a lot of road walking, where ‘road’ signifies high hedges and blind bends every step of the way. It was pretty clear from the outset, when the mileage given on signs for the Stop Line Way was the same as that for road traffic, that the sluice at Brean Cross remained closed to the likes of us.
The constant blind bends meant that we had to keep crossing the road, since facing into the traffic is no help if it you only get to see it (and it gets to see you) when it hares around a corner at 40 mph and you plant your face through its windscreen. The regular buses didn’t help much either.
The Weather Worsens
The rain decided to pick up again now, and then started and stopped intermittently for most of the rest of the day.
Overly Keen Cattle
We quickly made our way to a farm where we could cut across country on a footpath only to find that it led through a field of twitchy-looking cattle. Normally, a field full of male cattle will be bullocks — which in Britain signifies that they have been castrated as opposed to bulls, which haven’t (in North America, by contrast, ‘bullock’ tends just to mean a young bull).
These didn’t look castrated. They didn’t look overtly aggressive either, but they did however look very interested in our opening the gate and their staring seemed somewhat unsettling. It didn’t feel much like the previous day’s field full of curious cows.
Discretion was the better part of valour, we decided, and we elected to continue on the road. On the way, we paused by a farm gate to rest and look out across the fields.
Brent Knoll sat in the distance. At 137 m high, it dominates the otherwise sea level landscape. Also known as the Mount (or Isle) of Frogs, it is mentioned in the Red Book of Hergest as the place where Arthur sent Sir Ider, son of Nuth, to slay three giants who lived there.
In some versions of the myth he does this because Giants don’t just slay themselves; in others it is because Guinevere and Ider get on just a bit too well. In either case, Ider vanquishes the giants but not before they inflict mortal wounds. Arthur is then so overcome by the sight of him that he pays for some monks to say prayers in the dying man’s remembrance.
So that’s all right then, everybody wins. Except the giants, And Ider. And possibly Guinevere.
Brean Road Halt
The road took us past a farm selling cider, mead and a host of lovely things and it was with some reluctance that we ignored it. We then passed over an old iron railway bridge and, as I looked down at the track and the road to the hamlet of Wick that snaked alongside it, I wondered aloud if there had once been a railway station there (there were a number of long-gone stations on that line).
Alice reasonably pointed out that there were no platforms, or the banks for platforms, but I airily dismissed this by arguing that they could have been wooden, although I was far from even convincing myself. It turns out I was right. It was indeed the site of Brean Road Halt (it being on the road from Lympsham to Brean) and it really did have wooden platforms. So several million points out of ten to me. Huzzah!
The road described two sides of a triangle, bending blindly as it went, until we crossed over a second iron railway bridge besides the point where the Footpath of Twitchy Young Bulls would have come out. The road now ran alongside the railway line and soon it crossed the River Axe.
The Axe, not to be confused with the other River Axe in Devon, rises at Wookey Hole in the Mendips and meets the sea just east of Brean Down; it was navigable for much of its length until 1915.
It is the Axe that cuts off Brean Down and would have forced us to retread our steps, for its estuary is soft mud and it fills rapidly with the tide. There are signs at its mouth warning people not to try to cross on foot but, since it doesn’t look far, some always try. They generally have to be rescued, having got stuck in the mud.
NCR 33 / Old Wall
NCR 33 left the road shortly after we’d crossed the Axe. It seemed rude not to follow it. The cycle route now followed a dirt track (‘Old Wall’ on some maps) as it looped across the fields and I think it would have demanded a fairly rugged bicycle — the track appeared to be made entirely of potholes. The track became a path and then reached a sort of park, which contains the Uphill Cliff Site of Special Scientific Interest.
The village of Uphill is, surprise, surprise, situated mostly on a hill (although its name originally comes from OE uppan pylle meaning ‘above the creek’).
We only had to ascend the lower part of a fairly gentle hill and we took the most direct route up it, pausing to sit down at the top on the first benches that we had seen for miles.
Old Church of St Nicholas
Suitably rested, we continued onwards, finding to our joy that we didn’t need to ascend the rest of the hill to the Old Church of St Nicholas (built in 1080) but instead could pass through a field of bored-looking bullocks and head back down again to Uphill Marina.
On our way down we passed an old explosives store or ‘powder house’, a nineteenth century building connected with the quarry behind the marina.
The powder house, which was built of sturdy limestone, was tucked out of the way for safety reasons and would once have had metal doors designed to blow off as a ‘sacrificial wall’, directing any explosion in the event of an accident. The powder house only started showing up on Ordnance Survey maps after 1931, which suggests it was no longer storing explosives by then; previously it was omitted as a security measure.
A Horse of Many Colours
We skirted around the edge of Uphill, heading for the beach. On the way we passed a horse that seemed to be wearing an Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat modelled closely on Joseph’s. We quickly left the area in case it started to sing.
On reaching the beach we noted that the howling gale hadn’t lessened any. We also saw just how close Brean Down looks when there’s only the Axe between you and it.
We headed off along the beach into Weston-super-Mare, which takes its name from OE west tun + Latin super mare ‘upon sea’. It was actually Weston-juxta-Mare before 1348 but was changed by Ralph of Shrewsbury, the Bishop of Bath & Wells (d. 1363).
Until the seventeenth century, when everyone got pretentious, the suffix was usually dropped.
We made our way along the seafront, which seemed to take an age. Between 1902 and 1937, trams used to run along Weston-super-Mare’s seafront to the station, which would have suited us ideally. Unfortunately they were purchased by a local bus company and shut down.
Sorry, We’re Closed
So far as we could see, everything in Weston-super-Mare was pretty dead. Okay, so the weather didn’t help and it was late in the evening but it was also mid-June. And yet everything seemed to be either shut or shut down. We did, however, pass the Weston-super-Mare Sand Sculpture Festival 2012 which, judging from what tiny fractions of it were visible from behind its hoardings, was deeply impressive. It was of course shut.
The Bristol & Exeter Railway arrived in Weston in 1841; the current station was built forty years later. We used it to get the hell out of there, heading to Bristol to find dinner, before heading off to our respective homes.
In my case that meant catching a train to London that got me into Paddington an hour late and after the Tube had closed. Three night buses later I made it home, late into the small hours of the morning.
This time: 16½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 981½ miles