Up on Brean Down

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.

img_9565All 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.img_9624

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, IMG_9585.JPGand these.IMG_9575.JPG

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.IMG_9666.JPG

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. img_9693

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.IMG_9688.JPG

 

Slices of Cheddar

I rather liked Cheddar, an unassuming little town tucked into the spot where the steep scarp of the Mendips meets the flat watery expanses of the Somerset levels. It’s one of those Rolled Up Sleeves,  Getting On With It places – not particularly smart but not at all scruffy either and with a healthy dose of quiet civic pride. The sort of place where a gardener leaves an array of plants for sale at his gate with a note to put the money through the letter box and where, on Remembrance Sunday, many shopfronts were taken over by displays of poppies. Indeed, as I left, a parade was forming up ready to march to the War Memorial while spectators lined the streets and a policeman, waiting for the order to close the High Street, bantered with a passer by, protectively patting his traditional custodian helmet and declaring ‘It’s mine, I’m keeping it and they’re not taking it off me’.

Just along the way is Cheddar Gorge – a spectacular cleft in the limestone ridge – and that was my destination for the start of my walk. But first I had to run the gauntlet of the grockle gulch at its base. IMG_9499.JPGA tatty shanty town has sprung up  around the conglomeration of an unusual natural landscape and an accessible cave system, but its heyday is far behind it. Other than a tour of the caverns, there is little to do here but spend money in less than enticing outlets.

 

IMG_9485.JPG

Is conforming to regulations really the best thing you can say about your place?

 

But there was the walk and the National Trust – who own the northern edge of the gorge – have helpfully signposted a Gorge Path heading up the steep valley side and away from the congestion and the noise. Very soon I found my own Cheddar cave, straight out of an Enid Blyton story and with the potential to be really rather cosy. img_9381Once up on the top, an unexpectedly clear  day meant that the views were superb. In one direction the flatlands spilled out towards the Quantocks, into the Severn and on to the Welsh hills, with small islands popping up out of the levels here and there.

IMG_9439.JPG

That’s Brent Knoll in the distance with the Quantocks behind.

In the other direction, the windswept tops of the Mendips,  an ancient pattern of stone walled fields, were pleasing in the sunshine but are undoubtedly bleak in the harsh weather. So close to Bristol and Bath, this is commuter country, yet this is not a suburban landscape. These are hills with an edge.

 

The walk followed the north edge of the cleft for a couple of miles, dropped down to the busy road through the gorge for just long enough to have a break from negotiating mud and then climbed back up to the south side of the cliff for the return. It is one of those pleasing routes where you can see where you are going and then see where you have been.

IMG_9398.JPG

Cheddat Gorge – up this side, down the other

It’s clearly a well used path and there were lots of people around enjoying a walk in the late season sun. Snatches of conversation in an array  of languages drifted about and at one point I found myself in step with a Cardiff based group of overseas students, all politely endeavouring to engage with one another in their common tongue. Two boys had discovered a second shared language – football – and were busily dissecting their national teams, another chap was making strenuous efforts with a charming girl from the French/German border.

 

All these different accents on the wind, the bright young people,  the sunshine, the views and a mind pleasantly disconnected through the meditative act of walking – there I was in my very own version of that seminal 1970s Coke moment.c6210fae-cfd8-4415-8ab5-9a6f216502cd1

(You know the one – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m2KECJv9XrQ) Hate the stuff, but loved that song.

 

And then I came round a bend to this and to another seminal moment from my Seventies –  a family holiday in Germany and a sight never forgotten.IMG_9466.JPG In another time and place, a woodland, a fence and a watchtower. In the week of That Election, it was a chilling reminder of how it once was.

 

Unexpected inspiration

In my last post I mentioned that there was unexpectedly much about the Sharpness area that is both inspired and inspiring. I know you’ll shoot me if I mention the Victorians yet again but just before you do, take a look at the wonderfully decorative brickwork, not to mention the tiling on the roof of this dockside schoolroom.img_9045

And then avert your eyes from the hastily bricked up windows and take a look at what is going on in the gothic arch.img_9044

Here’s a view of another window – not a great picture but that end of the building is now a second hand car place and I thought if I went any closer I’d be talked into a second hand Toyota (got one already, thanks). Can you see that someone at some point has added an exuberant Gaudiesque mosaic to brighten up this corner of post industrial space?

And doesn’t this put you in mind of a giant game of PickaSticks?img_9053

Over the years I’ve had a great deal of fun experimenting with textiles without ever becoming remotely skilled myself. But this has brought me into contact with those who are massively talented and produce glorious pieces in fibre, thread, fabric, glass and all the rest. I began to wonder what they would do with the conjunctions of lines and colour above,IMG_9207.JPG

the reflections and the refractions in the waterways,img_9034

or the near monotone textures of the mudflats.IMG_9286.JPG

And just imagine what a fibre artist could do with the seaworn textures of this hulk.IMG_9133.JPG

It turned out that the response of one particular artist to this unusual scenery was close at hand. In St John’s Church, Purton, there are the most wonderful modern stained glass windows inspired by the landscape, its flora and fauna.

What’s more the glass artist, Kim Jarvis (www.kimjarvis.co.uk), generously provided an annotated copy of her sketches so that the birds, the grasses, even the tides and the hulks can all be found in the windows.

So delightful, so inspiring and so unexpected.

 

 

Shipshape in Sharpness

Ever heard of Sharpness? No, me neither, but friends who had visited the area told me it would be worth a look, so out came the map. From what I could see, Sharpness is an old port on the eastern bank of the River Severn, between Berkeley and Gloucester (but rather closer to the former), well upstream of  the Severn Bridges. img_9076When the tide’s in, the Severn is a very broad expanse of water, well over a mile wide in places; when it’s out, a pattern of vast sandbanks emerges. And what a tide – I am told that the Severn Estuary has the second highest tidal range in the world. This strikes me a particularly British boast – we’re rather good, without being anything so showy as the best. (Pole position goes to the Bay of Fundy in Canada).

Here’s a visual – an hour after high tideimg_9033

and four hours later.img_9325

Just above Sharpness, the Severn carves out a series of broad meanders and what with these, the tidal range and the sandbanks, it is not surprising that some enterprising, not to mention creative, Victorian engineers hit upon the idea of building a canal from Sharpness right up to the docks at Gloucester to make life easier for all concerned. Around 16 miles as the seagull flies. But they didn’t just make a Kennet & Avon size waterway for narrow boats, just a hop, skip and a jump wide. Oh no, they went for a full blown, ocean going vessel size canal – a proper ship canal.img_9184

It’s enormous. And very deep. Apparently.

So it’ll be no surprise to hear that Sharpness at the start of this canal is anything but a quaint old harbour. Not a bijou cottage, fishermen’s inn or shop selling wooden seagulls in sight. Gloucester’s merchant marine past may be far behind it but down here there are all the indicators of a working port –  big trucks dashing about, constant noise and lots of signs saying Keep Out. img_9041

The high tide had just brought in the Groningen-registered Ijselldijk from Santander, laden with cement, according to a helpful notice and the Westewind from Riga and the Beaumare from Ravenna are expected in the next couple of weeks (animal feed, both). Everything about the place was on a giant scale, making for a rather surreal sight in the middle of Gloucestershire.img_9298

To the walk. For the first couple of miles the Gloucester and Sharpness canal sticks pretty close to the Severn, meaning that there’s not much dry land between the two – just room for a towpath and then, over the wall, the saltmarshes. I was soon out of earshot of Sharpness and the only noises were the birds, the rippling of the falling tide out in the river and, across the Severn the whining of a chainsaw and the occasional hoots of a passing train bizarrely loud given the distance and the distorting effects of sound passing over water.

Round the corner and then there was this.img_9088

Turns out it’s the remnants of a railway bridge that once crossed the Severn at this point.

Here it is back in the day

img_9334

Photo shamelessly filched from the Canals and Rivers Trust information board at Sharpness which shows the bridge as it was before it had to be demolished and also the proximity of canal and river. (The waterway going up from the bottom left is the canal). Wouldn’t it have made for a spectacular rail journey?

 

and here’s the vista today.

img_9274

Only the canalside towers and a few traces of the pillars remain in the mudflats today.

 

I’m going to refer you to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Severn_Railway_Bridge if you want to know more about the series of worst case scenarios which built up and up and led to its inevitable destruction, because I want to focus – yet again – on the creativity of the Victorian engineers who so often made things both useful and beautiful.

Doesn’t this remnant of the bridge remind you of Rapunzel’s tower?img_9260

Creativity – actual or inspired – turned out to be quite a theme of this walk, to the extent that I’ll come back to much more of what I saw in another post. But here’s some more engineering ingenuity to end with…

 

img_9211

Purton – where hardy souls take canoe lessons in November.

 

Hidden away on the river side of the unassuming village of Purton is a graveyard. A ships’ graveyard to be precise. It turns out that back in 1909 the extreme closeness of canal and river was causing concern. The sliver of land which separated the two – and thus kept the canal operational – was in danger of being eroded away. In an elegantly imaginative bit of repurposing, old vessels were towed up river, run aground where required, then scuttled and left to fill with silt and form part of the palimpsest of the riverbank. The resulting array of hulks features wartime concrete barges somehow piled up on each other, img_9175

the bare ribs of nineteenth century schooners,img_9131-copy

the remnants of something more workaday,img_9150

and even the carefully recorded fragment of a ship reclaimed by the sea.img_9145

The Purton Hulks are an extraordinary sight, fascinating on a sunny day and undoubtedly gloriously atmospheric on a foggy one. Well worth another visit – but maybe I’ll wait until the pub’s open next time.img_9246

Over to you – do you enjoy poking around industrial relics when you’re out and about? Or do you prefer to keep it strictly rural?