Brean Down sticks out into the Bristol Channel providing a clear division between the sands of Weston-super-Mare and the extensive rolling sand dunes and vast expanse of mudflats below on the sandy beach that runs from Burnham-on-Sea, through Berrow to Brean. The fort sits at the very end of the promontory, perched in eerie isolation looking out over the muddy, churning sea that is the Bristol Channel. The whole headland is a site of special scientific interest for the natural history and a scheduled ancient monument.
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History of Brean Down Fort
Brean Down has been a site of importance since the Stone Age and even before this time mammoths and woolly rhinos roamed the headland area. On the south side of the headland are ancient field systems and the remains or a Roman temple. More recently an Iron Age fort was built onto the headland and the banks and ditches remain today.
On the headland are the ruins of Brean Down Fort, a Palmerston Fort, built to defend the country against a possible Napoleonic invasion. Across the Bristol channel is a similar fort at Mumbles Lighthouse, a slightly different layout but built with the same intention to protect the Bristol Channel. The fort is ruined but many of the building remain and it is easy to imagine it bustling with soldiers.
During the Second World War the fort again protected the Bristol Channel and the machine gun platforms are still in place. It was mainly used for training and even today is a landmark and turning point for flight training.
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Walking and Exploring Brean Down Fort
This is a 5km circular walk with 152metres of ascent which is mainly covered with the steps up onto the down. The walk from the parking at the end of the road is tough at the start; a flight of steps, winding up the side of the hill. As you get closer to the top the view out across the Somerset Levels and the Bristol Channel open up and the halfway point is worth a break to take in the view, if it’s clear. From the top of the steps it is either a walk along the ridge or drop down onto the main path and follow this along the north side towards the fort. There is a path from the parking which is good for pushchairs and those who can’t manage the steps but this winds along and is a bit of a drag.
Once on the Down it can be either stunning with views to Cardiff and South Wales or blowing a hoolie with thick fog. Just be careful as there are steep cliffs and goats, not a good combination for dogs.
The fort is entered over a bridge and the initial buildings are imposing, with swallows flitting in and out it is a strange morphing of man and nature. The structures are all empty now, but the ornate brickwork, rusting metal and historical graffiti all add to the feel of history being within your grasp. The mountings for the guns are all still in place and the rusting doors remain in the storage areas.
There are a lot of nooks and crannies on the fort and it is possible to explore just below the main fort at the end of the headland in the lookout. The whole fort has an unusual feeling and at sunrise and sunset it is stunning.
The walk back from the fort gives stunning views over Weston and a visit to the trig point gives a good pause before heading back down the steps or around on the road.
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Wildlife at Brean Down
As you walk up onto the down it will be difficult to miss the goats that graze across the headland. They are often found down the steep slopes enjoying the short grasses that cover the entire area. In the spring the area is a wash of blue with wild bluebells and later in the year the yellow gorse flowers. There are a few trees and these have interesting shapes, blown by the endless winds that funnel up the Bristol Channel. The area has three rare plants that thrive on the windswept hillside – white rock rose, dwarf sedge and Somerset hair grass and peregrine falcons nest on the cliffs of the headland.
Brean Sands and Village
Brean is small village that forms a ribbon along the coast away from Brean Down towards Berrow and Burnham-on-Sea. In the village there is the small and quite pretty church of St Bridget that has origins in the 13th and 15th Century and was rebuilt in 1882. St Bridget was abbess of Kildare in Ireland and this may indicate links back to Ireland in the past. The village is also home to Brean Leisure Park a mad and vibrant place a million miles from the small village and ancient fort.
Brean Sands stretch from the headland at Brean Down towards Burnham-on-Sea. The sand is firm and compact and ideal for walking. Care should be taken as this beach has the second highest tidal range in the world, only beaten by Bay of Fundy in Canada. The tide goes out for miles and the sand gives way to dangerous mud flats. When the tide comes in it is fast and if you are on the mud flats you will not be able to beat the rising water levels.
Photographing Brean Down
The whole area is perfect for photography and is stunning at sunset when the sun goes down over the Bristol Channel. There are a large number of options in the area and can be everything from holiday memories to minimalist art.
The sands are pretty nondescript although the wooden marker posts from the slipway by the car park make for a nice long exposure. This can be with Brean Down Headland in the background or just the posts. The minimalist style with just the posts works well on a grey day. Further along the beach in Berrow is the shipwreck of SS Nornen which is exposed at low tide.
Fort and Down
The fort is perfect for anyone who likes metal and old buildings. There is plenty of abandoned architecture and metal bollards, bolts and rings make for interesting abstract images. The best views of the fort and the headland are from the top of the hill above the fort looking out over the Bristol Channel. The sunset at certain times of the year can be incorporated into the windows of the lookout hut on the end of the headland.
The Down has plenty of wildlife from small native flowers to goats and insects. Just wandering will provide plenty of photographic opportunities. Visit in the spring for the wash of bluebells that coats the hillsides.
Brean Down Headland
From the beach at Uphill in Weston-Super-Mare the whole of Brean Down can be seen stretching out into the Bristol Channel. This is a particularly good place for photographs as the small farmhouse in the shadow of the headland can be seen and gives a sense of scale to the whole landscape.
Details Of Brean Down Walk
Minimum time: 1 hour
Ascent: 152m either steps from car park or gentle road around headland
Suggested Map: OS Explorer OE153 Weston-super-Mare and Bleadon Hill
Start and Finish: Brean Down National Trust Car Park
Road: Warren Road, Brean
Parking: 51.32186°N, 3.01117°W
Nearest Town: Burnham-on-Sea
Getting to Brean Down
Brean Down Fort is located at the far end of Brean and Berrow Sands. The road heads out from Burnham-on-Sea, hugging the coast. It passes through the holiday villages at Berrow and Brean before terminating in a National Trust pay and display car park. From the Brean Down car park the path is a continuation of the road. There are either steep steps to the top of the hill or a well made road that snakes around the headland.
To get here from Weston-Super-Mare you need to take the A370 from the town as there is no way across the River Axe at Brean Down.
Places to Stay in Brean and Berrow
The whole coastline from Burnham to Brean Down is covered in mobile homes, holiday camps and campsites. There is an unlimited choice. Some have access to the beach through their sand dunes and others allow you to pitch against the sea wall.
If this commercialised holiday style is not for you then exploring other options gives you a range of choices. One option is a bungalow in Brean which has its own private access onto the sand dunes.
Places Close to Brean Down
- Burnham Beach Lighthouse – A unique stitled lighthouse that is located on the beach at Burnham-on-Sea and is surrounded by water at high tide
- SS Nornen – The remains of a small shipwreck on the beach exposed at low tide close to Berrow Church
- Cheddar Gorge and Caves – Not far from Brean Down is Cheddar with its deep gorge and interesting caves
- Glastonbury Tor – Glastonbury with its Tor and Abbey is fantastic for a day of exploring and walking
- Wells – This is the smallest city in England and nestles on the lower slopes of the Mendip Hills