Brean Down is a slender finger pointing from the West Coast of Somerset into the Bristol Channel and is a great place for a short stroll of just three miles, combining dramatic scenery with a glimpse into Victorian defences.
Brean Down is a long, hill peninsula with the earliest signs of life dating from 10,000 BC. A walk along the top westwards and back along the Military Road on the north side is an adventure covering the far distant past into the 19th century. The whole Down is steeped in history - evidence of extinct creatures such as mammoths and woolly rhinos have been found here, as well as an Iron Age hillfort, a roundhouse, barrows and a pre-Roman shrine.
The walk is accessed by some fairly severe steps leading up from the National Trust carpark with convenient passing and breathing spaces factored in along the way. Once on the top you can look south to see Glastonbury Tor in the distance then turn westwards along the grassy tracks.
A Roman temple was excavated on the top of the first high point – nothing now to see as the Romans themselves destroyed it in about 390 AD but you can imagine its presence if you try hard! Roman gold and silver coins found here include some from the reign of Augustus, showing this area was of strategic importance to them and was occupied swiftly by the Romans after the invasion of Britain.
As you walk and reach the trig point you can see the coast of North Somerset in the south and the coast of South Wales to the North West. The town of Weston-super-Mare is further along the North coast. The view sweeping down to the sea in front of you encompasses the dramatic remains of the fort ordered by the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, in the 1860s to provide protection to the Bristol Channel ports from the threat of a French invasion.
A gentle descent to the coast brings you to the remains of the fort and an exploration of the site by strategically placed information boards. They cover two periods of occupation – the first being the last decades of the 19th century and the second being its hasty recommissioning on the outbreak of WWII.
Inside Brean Down Fort
Originally the fort was armed with seven 7-inch rifled muzzle-loading guns cast in Woolwich. It was manned by 50 officers and men, although no shots were ever fired in action.
In 1900 No 3 magazine which held 3 tons of gunpowder exploded. The explosion was caused by Gunner Haines firing a ball cartridge down the ventilator shaft and the resulting eruption killed him instantly.
An inquest found this was a deliberate act of suicide - the Gunner, described as sullen, morose and with a violent temper, had been out without permission the night before, which would have resulted in his arrest. He had removed all of his clothes, leaving them in a neat pile on his bed before stealing a carbine from a colleague, sneaking out to the gunpowder store and firing a bullet into it. The explosion ripped through the fort with windows shattered, iron girders twisted and the explosion audible in Cardiff. Gunner Haines' headless body was found in a nearby pit.
This event, and the diminished threat from the French, led to the decommissioning of the site in 1901.
The fort was run as a café until 1939, when it came into its own again and was rearmed with two six-inch naval guns and two searchlights as a Coastal artillery battery for World War II. Some experimental weapons were tested here including the seaborne bouncing bomb.
The buildings evoke the memories of both occupations as you clamber and explore the ruins. A long Barrack Room is where the soldiers (and sometimes their wives and children) lived and slept, with beds opening out from the wall and the area also being used for dining.
The Officers Quarters are in a separate building, probably housing 4 officers and their families in 4 large rooms. The underground magazine that housed the gunpowder is there, along with explanations of the security measures taken to ensure that no spark entered the room – soldiers had to change outside into clothing with bone fastenings and rope sandals.
You can walk further out on the rocks and note that this spot is where Marconi moved his equipment after his first experiments and set a new distance record of 8.7 miles transmission over open sea.
The 21st century may well make its presence felt at this point – when I visited there were groups of happy young climbers learning abseiling on the rocks, their colourful bags and equipment occupying the spots where uniformed soldiers of two different centuries must have patrolled, looking anxiously out to sea for signs of the enemy.
If you’ve had enough of the heights you can return along the Military Road to the north, built for the transport of building materials, guns and supplies to the fort. This will take you back on a gentler route to the car park.
You can reward the kids for the walk with a visit to the café and the beach – a great beach for sandcastles as the sand is firm, and also for swimming in the sea in summer as the area is patrolled by lifeguards.
VISITING BREAN D0WN
How to get to Brean Down
Postcode: TA8 2RS
Public Transport: The no 20 bus goes to Brean Beach from Weston-super-Mare. By bike along the National Cycle Network
Parking: Park in the National Trust car park at Cove Café.
When is Brean Down open?
From dawn to dusk. The carpark is open at different times depending on the season.
How much does it cost to visit Brean Down?
The site itself is free. Carparking is free to NT members or £5 for the day.
Are there any facilities at Brean Down?
There is a café on the beach and a pub called The Brean Down Inn.