You can’t really miss Brean Down. Sticking out into the Bristol Channel just below Weston super Mare, it’s a narrow, steep sided ridge towering above the flat lands to the south. But although it can be seen for miles, strangely this very visible feature is actually very remote.Why? Well, it’s all down to geology – about which I know nothing – so let’s just pin the blame on the River Axe which, instead of taking the easy course to the sea across the barely above sea level land, insists on mulishly kicking a hole through the petering out Mendips.
All of which means that although it’s barely half a mile as the crow flies from where I’m standing here to Uphill across the way, non-crows must trudge eight miles to get from one to the other if they don’t want to get their feet wet.This makes Brean Down the place at the end of the road. It’s not somewhere you’d ever find yourself passing. You have to make a deliberate decision to seek it out. Which is undoubtedly why I had never been there before.
I got myself onto the long straight road that clings to the coast in the lee of the sea defences and encountered a caravan park. Not a bucolic field in which an assortment of holiday homes nestle in a sylvan setting, this was a bare concrete patch in which serried ranks of mobile homes were lined up, one behind another. No sooner had I driven by this site, but another came into view. There were so many that I lost count. Parks on the coastal side of the road boasted of direct access to the beach, those opposite offered funfairs, shops, bars, pools, playgrounds and all manner of diversions in a bid to compete. All were brashly immaculate and all were eerily deserted. Eventually the sites dwindled to just one and finally a car park. The multiplicity of signs, the double yellow lines, the overflow parking all spoke of a place packed with people in the summer but today there was barely half a dozen cars there.
Was it worth the detour? It’s an extraordinary spot so I’d say a resounding Yes (although I think I’d give it a miss in August). Why? Because for such an out of the way, exposed and inhospitable site, it has seen an enormous amount of activity. On top of the unexplained earthworks, field systems and tumuli, the OS map also points to the remnants of Bronze and Iron Age occupation, a Romano-Celtic temple and Anglo Saxon burial site. I confess that I spotted none of these but my eye was caught by the 19th century fort, some splendid reservoir railings and an array of Second World War defensive structures. Like this one, and these.
Then there are the goats which are so unbelievably photogenic that I could be persuaded that they are stationed there on purpose by the National Trust, custodians of the land.
Coming back down the steep staircase set into the cliff edge, I had a bird’s eye view of the little settlement at the base. In this lonely place, open to all the elements, several of the homes had an ad hoc look about them, more prefab than bricks and mortar. Close up they spoke of ingenuity and a frontier like determination to outwit whatever was pitched at them.
I’ll gloss over the rather dismal, and very shut, Bird Garden and move straight on to tea in the immaculate NT café, adjoining the sparkling NT shop into which no one had stepped all day, as I overheard one of the delightful young staff tell the other. Do you ever get days when you have no customers in the café at all? I asked. Oh yes, quite often, so we generally give it to 3.30 then we close up early. Happened on Monday actually they replied matter of factly.
As the light faded there was just time for a quick walk on the endless beach, deserted in the approaching gloaming, but I’ll be back. Back to fill my lungs with more breezy Brean air and back to the café and to the girls who every morning straighten up the boxes of fudge, sweep the floors and put on the kettle even though no one is coming.