This short guide will share the wilder side of Burnham-on-Sea to Brean Down Fort and how to escape the tourist mayhem of the various holiday parks that hug the beach.
Burnham-on-Sea is a small seaside town on the Somerset coast in southwest England. It has all the usual trappings of a seaside town from arcades and the shortest pier in England to chip shops and ice creams. However, Burnham-on-Sea has a wilder side which is easy to find just a short distance from the town centre.
Burnham-on-Sea is on the Severn Estuary where the fast tidal waters and murky muddy water rushes past. Joined by the waters from the River Brue and River Parrett it is no surprise that the sandy beaches turn to mud flats with deep channels of water.
From Burnham-on-Sea it is possible to see the small Steart Island that sits on the edge of Bridgwater Bay and the unique salt marshes at Steart Marshes Nature Reserve. Behind this is the box like Hinkley Point Power Station below the rising Quantock Hills.
To the north the islands of Steep Holm and Flat Holm rise out of the estuary. Their names allow you to figure out which is which fairly easily. The south Wales coastline is in the distance with the larger towns of Port Talbot and Newport and the city of Cardiff with the Brecon Beacons, sometimes capped in snow in the winter behind.
In the summer months the sea front and beach are busy with tourists and all the way along the sands to Brean Down Fort you will find sand castles being made and picnics on the large and imposing sand dunes.
However, come the winter months the beach is as rugged as anywhere on the Atlantic coastline of Britain. The racing Severn Estuary tide brings large pieces of driftwood onto the beach and the high tide line will be scattered with seaweed and shells as well as the evidence of mans presence on the planet.
ocean plastics on beaches
Burnham-on-Sea beach at first glance is plastic free, but wander for a while and you will find the impact man is having in our oceans
The beach at Burnham-on-Sea stretches as far as the eye can see to the north of the town. Initially there is a concrete sea wall which protects the town from the high spring tides but once the houses run out the beach is flanked by high sand dunes coated with grasses and wild flowers in the summer months.
As the tide goes out the beach leads to mud flats and along the exposed sand it is possible to see wading birds feeding in the shallow water and deep mud of the beach. These include grey plover (Pluvialis squatarola) and Eurasian curlew (Numenius arquata).
The sands have small tide ripples and buried remains of Mulberry Harbours. These are the large concrete shapes buried in the sand. Used as floating harbours during the D-Day landings in World War Two after the war they were floated back to England and used as sea defences around the coast.
Overlooking the beach is the small St Andrew’s Church which sits a little wonky behind the sea wall. The churchyard is a haven for birds and there will always be something pottering around the leaf litter on the ground.
Burnham Low Lighthouse
This unique lighthouse is really quite special. Standing on the beach a short distance north of the town the lighthouse has nine legs that lift it above the highest of tides.
At low tide it is possible to walk out to the lighthouse and explore the large pool that surrounds the base of the base of the lighthouse. Snails and small crabs can be seen burrowing into the sand as well as the small squiggly mounds of sand from the burrowing lugworms.
At high tide the lighthouse is surrounded by sea. Calm and serene or buffeted and wild depending on the day and the weather.
This is a perfect place to spend a summer evening, protected from the brisk sea breezes in the sand dunes watching the sun set over the lighthouse and the Welsh coastline in the distance.
Beach Safety in Burnham-on-Sea
- This seems a little bit of an over reaction, but Burnham has a reputation for the safety of the beach. It has the second biggest tidal range in the world at a huge 12 metres. Other places around the UK can be a more discreet 4 metres.
- This means that when the tide goes out in Burnham, it really goes out. The golden sandy beaches lead to dangerous mud flats that seem to have the sea close by. However much you walk though, you will never get to the sea.
- Along with the mud flats, when the tide comes in, it races in. You will never be able to outrun the tide here and so it is best to stay close to the sea wall or sand dunes when the tide is on its way in.
Berrow Dunes Nature Reserve
Behind the bustle of the Unity Farm Holiday Park is the small Berrow Dunes Nature Reserve. This is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and as sand dunes become increasingly rare the area is managed to preserve the habitat.
Paths weave through the sand dunes which is scattered with small ponds buzzing with dragonflies and damselflies and beetles scuttle across the path. Butterflies, moths and birds flit around making the most of the grasses and prickly sea buckthorn that fill the wilderness.
Walking from the coastal St Mary’s Church at Berrow the path skirts the edge of the golf course before dropping down into the sand dunes. Keep your eyes out for the pill box that is slowly being engulfed by the sand dunes. As you emerge onto the beach the shipwreck of SS Nornen can be seen in the distance.
The SS Nornen was a Norwegian barque that was caught in a massive storm on the 3rd March 1897. She dragged on her anchors and was driven on the the Berrow mudflats. All ten of the crew were rescued by the Burnham-on-Sea lifeboat as she beached, an amazing rescue given the shallow water and raging storm.
The storm smashed the ship which despite attempts to refloat her was eventually left to the sea where she sits on the sand exposed at low tide and marked by a yellow buoy at high tide.
Brean is a long beach that merges into Berrow and Burnham. It is possible to drive onto the beach but remember the tides are high and fast around here. At one end of the beach is the imposing rocky out crop called Brean Down.
Along the beach you will find huge pieces of driftwood washed up on the beach. Some is buried deep, in place for the future while other pieces are more mobile seeming to work their way along the beach with each tide.
Brean Down and Brean Down Fort
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.
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.
Apex Leisure and Wildlife Park
Apex Park is located between Burnham-on-Sea and Highbridge and was once a series of clay pits which were later flooded. The lake is home to ducks, geese and grebes as well as less common seasonal visitors and small voles and foxes.
The small fish and eels that live in the lake as well as attracting fishermen draw in grey herons that can be seen in the tall reeds that surround the banks of the lake.
The grassland surrounding the lake are home to small reed buntings, grey wagtails, pied wagtails and less common reed warblers and sedge warblers. Song birds that hide in the dense hedgerows between the park and the adjacent River Brue emerge as the busy peak of the day subsides.
Butterflies and dragonflies make the most of the park and in the summer months the wild flower meadow in one corner of the park is a magnet for the bees and butterflies.
River Brue Estuary
The River Brue meanders across the Wiltshire and Somerset landscape all the way from the higher land on the edge of Cranborne Chase.
In the past the river was navigable all the way from Highbridge where there was a harbour all the way to Glastonbury. However now it is only possible to reach the sluices at New Clyce Bridge in Highbridge.
A path follows the river bank from Highbridge to the southern end of Burnham on Sea. The river at this point is tidal. At low tide the boats are stranded on the steep muddy banks of the river but as the tide comes in they refloat as the Severn Estuary merges with the River Brue.
Burnham-on-Sea is reached from junction 22 of the M5 and is about 30 miles south of Bristol. Trains run to Highbridge and Burnham-on-Sea train station which is a bus ride from the town centre.
There is a range of places to stay in the town from small bed and breakfasts to commercial holiday parks and everything in between.
Parking in the town is all pay and display and the traffic wardens are efficient. It is possible to park on the sea front for free in the winter months and there is street parking on some of the small roads down to the beach.