Brean Down, UK – Down to the Sea

On the Somerset coast just outside Weston-Super-Mare is a small holiday village: Brean. Apart from the beach and holiday homes, there really isn’t much there. There is just one exception: Brean Down.

Looking at Brean Down from Brean Beach

History

Brean Down formed about 60,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age in southern England. Glaciers retreated across the face of what we now know as the UK, leaving more or less the modern topography.Most of Somerset is flat; the flat parts are “the Levels”, which is under sea level. Why is it dry then? The monks from Glastonbury Abbey claimed this land from the sea bit by bit over the centuries. However there are some hills that punctuate the flat areas and Brean Down is one such formation.

Looking out over the Somerset levels from the landward end of Brean Down

As the name suggests, Brean Down is a series of hills. In this case they sit above the surrounding area, rise steeply on all sides and jut out into the Bristol Channel. In fact to get to the top of this Down, you have to climb a staircase from the village of Brean, which is at sea level, to the nearly 100 m height before you access the Down.

Looking out from the end of the Down. In this image you can see the village of Brean and Brean Beach on the left and the coast of western Somerset to the right.

Climbing to the top of the Down (on a good day) you can see all the way to Cardiff and Swansea (although of course individual buildings and features will be hard to distinguish), Weston-Super-Mare and all the way to Glastonbury Tor. You may even be able to see St Michael’s tower at the top if you are really lucky.

Please beware that, due to the stairs leading up, Brean Down is not a good walk for those with mobility issues and those unable to climb approximately 100 m in height in 100 m of distance. The National Trust looks after Brean Down; they also own and operate a car park at the bottom of the Down. The cost for parking is £5 whether you stay there for 5 minutes, 5 hours or the entire day. I would suggest going as early as possible though, especially on good days, as the parking lot fills up extremely quickly. I would also suggest taking long sleeves, even in the summer, as it is usually windy on the Down. There is no protection from this wind. You can observe this poignantly in the taller vegetation. They have obviously grown under the influence of and lean due to the wind.

Cows enjoying the nice sunny day. In the background across the water is the northern coast of West Somerset

Brean Fort

In addition to seeing cows and being able to view the surrounding area, Brean Down also boasts a fortification that was first in use in the 1870s. The fort both protected the Bristol Channel and acted as an early detection station for a possible invasion of French troops under Napoleon III. During the Second World War the army used it for the same purposes. It comprised several buildings, including gunpowder storage quarters and officers’ quarters, a mess, defensive fortifications and a small building that housed a search light. The fort fell into disrepair after the war.

No longer needed, the fort has remained as it is. While the site is maintained, the buildings are not. As a result some are not safe to enter and many do not have roofs. There are some that do have roofs and other buildings or fortification works that you can enter. You can even walk down to the spotlight house, although this is very close to the sea and requires some climbing over and between boulders, so good hiking shoes and a good sense of balance are a must.

Looking down at the Brean Down fort. In the background you can see Wales. Cardiff is on the right and Swansea is on the left of the fort (somewhat hidden due to the haze).

The fort is at the far end of Brean Down and is any easy walk once you are on the Down, although it does lie at nearly sea level so there is approximately 100 m of descent to get there. The pathway though is well trod, although there are no aids such as handrails. The steps are well spaced that it should be simple enough for able-bodied individuals to traverse. There is a more gradual, paved route that runs along the bottom of the Down near sea (I suspect this is an accessway for maintenance vehicles of the National Trust). This paved trail must also have a steep slope at some point as the Down has no gentle ascents.

The fort from the inside. Most of the buildings were ruined in some way, such as not having ceilings.

Here are some more photos from the area:


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