156b Brean Down to River Axe

[Continued from this morning.]

steps up to Brean Down, Ruth walking the Somerset coastThere are a lot of steep steps to climb to get to the top of Brean Down – about 150 I think, although I don’t bother to count.

And this is a popular walking route, so there are plenty of people trudging up alongside me.

Normally I simply puff and pant my way to the top, but when surrounded by other people, petty pride makes me restrict my breathing. This means I end up feeling more tired and short of breath than I normally would. Silly really.

Luckily there are ‘passing stations’ on the way – useful places to stop to catch my breath and opportunities for photography. The views are stunning.

view back down Brean beach, Ruth walking the coast

Brean Down is one of those glorious places, owned by the National Trust, and full of ancient significance, including Bronze Age  burial mounds, a Romano-Celtic temple, and a Victorian Palmerston fort. At the top a wide walkway leads out to the tip of the peninsula.

top of Brean Down, Ruth walking the Somerset coast

It may only be 100 metres high, but it is the highest point around and there are stunning views over the surrounding Somerset Levels and the Bristol Channel. To the north is Weston-Super-Mare.

Weston-super-mare on one side, Ruth walking on Brean Down, Somerset

While to the south, Brean beach stretches out, with the Berrow Flats, and Burnham in the distance. The raised hump of land on the horizon may be Pawlett Hill, or the Quantocks, or both. Hard to tell.

flat Somerset, to Brent Knoll, Ruth's coastal walk

At the highest point on Brean Down, I turn round and take a photo looking back down the peninsula, eastwards. Another stunning view along the green sward, with Weston Bay beyond.

 looking back, Brean Down, Weston in background, Ruth's coastal walking

Towards the end of Brean Down, the path becomes rugged. Narrow and rocky. I wish I’d brought my poles. I’m not the only person struggling, you have to pick your way with care. Then the path heads down to the Palmerston Fort at the tip of the peninsula.

Palmerston Fort, Brean Down, Ruth walking the coast, Somerset

You can walk around the fort and there is a good selection of information boards. Built in 1860 to defend against the French, it is in a commanding position overlooking the Bristol channel.

The fort was used during World War 2 to test experimental weapons. You can still see the rails used to launch a bouncing bomb. (This particular experiment was unsuccessful, as the trolley carrying the bomb crashed through the buffers and fell over the cliff.) And the concrete hut was a searchlight post.

launching rails and searchlight post, Brean Down Fort, Ruth Livingstone

It is windy. On my way back through the fort, I see a group of ramblers sheltering and enjoying a drinks break.

 Ramblers sheltering from the wind, Brean Down Fort, Ruth's coastal walk

There is an easier path running along the north side of the peninsula, and I take this route as I head back, with one last photograph of the Brean Down fort and the view of Wales across the channel. The island with the lighthouse, in the distance, is called Flat Holm.

Brean Down Fort, Steep Holm and Wales beyond, Ruth's coast walk, Somerset

On my left are wonderful views over Weston Bay and the curving beach of Weston-Super-Mare. I should get there tomorrow.

 walking along the north side Brean Down, Ruth looking at Weston Super Mare

At the end of the peninsula, I stop for a snack break and even manage a self-portrait.

Ruth having snack break on Brean Down, Somerset

Now I need to negotiate the south bank of the River Axe, which flows between me and Weston-Super-Mare.

There is a footpath along the bank, marked on my map, but after 1/2 a mile it ends abruptly at a point on the river bank. Maybe in the past there was a crossing here? Perhaps a ferry? Because on the opposite bank there is another footpath and it looks like the two were meant to join. But I am planning to cross over at the nearest bridge I come to, and that is several miles inland.

Looking along the plain I can see the raised section of the river bank. It looks like a straightforward walk. Although most of it is not a public right of way, I know other coastal walkers have walked this section before me. Yes, I’m going trespassing.

 looking down at River Axe, Ruth on Brean Down, Somerset

First I need to climb off the height of Brean Down, and I follow a footpath down the side of the slope. It is a scramble. Obviously hardly ever used. Steep and narrow and eroded, the path twists and turns under a low covering of bushes. I have to bend double in places. I really wish I had brought my poles.

tricky footpath, going down to River Axe, Ruth walking the Somerset Coast

I reach the bottom without twisting an ankle. The way ahead seems easy now. Danger signs warn me not to try to wade across the river. There have been several walkers who tried it and ran into problems.

warning sign, mud, River Axe, Ruth trying to walk the coast in Somerset

I can understand why they tried. The river is narrow and shallow, with the tide out. It is such a small gap to cross. And such a long deviation to get to the nearest bridge.

narrow River Axe, Ruth walking the river bank

I am not sure at which point I leave the footpath, but the grass becomes progressively longer, the ground more irregular, the going difficult.

overgrown bank, River Axe, Ruth walking in Somerset

Only a foot or so away from my boot and heading towards me, I see something, long and winding.

A snake! 

I leap into the air and make circling movements with my legs – like a Disney cartoon character, or a triple jumper – trying to keep airborne as long as possible.

It slithers past, under bent grass stems. Was it an adder? Don’t be silly. Almost certainly it was a grass snake, I tell myself. I really, really, wish I had my poles.

Onwards. The grass on the bank becomes flatter, and the walking gets easier. Ahead I can see the reason why. I am about to pass through fields of cows.

cows on river bank, River Axe

After snakes, cows are my least favourite animal. And, since I am no longer on a public footpath, these cows could be (1) unused to humans, (2) dangerous dairy breeds, (3) or bulls in disguise.

I come down off the bank and creep along with my head low, to escape their attention. The technique works, even though it makes me look like a poacher, or a thief.

After an hour of walking along the bank, I see large sluice gates ahead, and feel myself relax.

approaching sluice gate, River Axe, Ruth in Somerset

I’ve survived my trespassing walk, and escaped unscathed, despite snakes, mad cows, and many fierce warning signs. Luckily, for my conscience, most of the signs were facing the wrong way and only visible to me after I had climbed out of the forbidden fields.

Clay Pigeon warning sign, River AxePrivate Keep Out signs, River Axe bank

Ahead is Diamond Farm Caravan Park. My walk is nearly over for the day.

 approaching caravan park, River Axe, Ruth trying to walk the coast in Somerset

The caravan park is right next to the large sluice. I was secretly hoping I might be able to cross the River Axe at this point by climbing over the sluice. But, as I had been warned by others, the gates are too high and well protected by barbed wire. Shame.

no passage over sluice, River Axe, Ruth walking the Somerset coast

So through the caravan park I go. It seems deserted. Everybody must be out on the beach.

caravan park, reception, River Axe, Ruth trying to walk the coast

In the reception area of the campsite is a little shop cum café. I go in and ask if they have cold drinks. The lady points me to a large cupboard-fridge. I am a little worried because the lights are off in the fridge, but the can of drink seems cold enough.

Shop just closing

After I’ve paid, I go outside to sit in at the tables in the sunshine. The café doors bang behind me. Through the glass, I see the lady turning the ‘OPEN’ sign around. ‘CLOSED’. I realise I only just made it in time. The place is shutting.

It is 4:15 on a sunny Sunday afternoon in August – and the only shop cum café on this large campsite is closing for the day. How extraordinary!

I just can’t get over the miserly opening hours kept by cafés in our British holiday resorts. No wonder people go abroad. (I can’t complain officially, of course, being only a trespasser.)

The sign on the plastic chair says – in case you’re wondering:

Keep off
Trespassers will be
Survivors will be
Shot again”

Anyway, I enjoy my drink in the sunshine while I wait for hubby to arrive and pick me up.

[Update: the sluice over the river is now open to walkers and cyclists, and is an official crossing point! This is excellent news, and thanks to Anne, in the comments section below, for letting us know.]

Miles walked today= 12
Total distance travelled= 1,525


About Ruth Livingstone

Walker, writer, photographer, blogger, doctor, woman, etc.
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31 Responses to 156b Brean Down to River Axe

  1. john harkness says:

    Hi, this is the sluice we were lucky enough to have opened for us by the Environment man who happened to be there. We were chastised by the farmer for trespassing

  2. Wingclipped says:

    Hehe, I am so very pleased to see that your garters finally proved their value, even if they did not get any actual anti-snake use!

    How did you feel trespassing? The last time we tried it we were terrified the whole time like naughty schoolchildren!

  3. Hi Nik, I’m not very good at trespassing,. Like you, I feel very nervous and anxious doing it. I knew that when John and his friends did this trip before me (his comment is above yours) they were challenged by a farmer. Luckily I didn’t see a soul. And all the fierce signs were on the wrong side of the gates – not visible until I had climbed over!

  4. Bronchitikat says:

    Ah, memories of childhood visits to Brean Down and related beaches! Thank you. I’ve really enjoyed following your travels around the country.

    Just so you can tell what cattle you are being wary of in future:
    Dairy cows tend to be black and white – with quite a lot of white. It goes without saying that they have udders, usually prominent ones. They will be milking cows. If the cattle are black and white with small udders they they’re likely to be heifers. They are the curious ones! Otherwise they shouldn’t be too much trouble. Apparently bulls can be run with herds of cows. Sometimes there will be a notice, sometimes there won’t. In such situations bulls are supposed to be safe – I suspect for a given value of ‘safe’ but there we are.

    Other cattle you meet with may well be being reared for beef – like the ones you pictured in this entry. These may have white faces (Hereford blood), they may be brown (again Hereford blood if they also have white faces), they may be black (Aberdeen Angus, sometimes with Hereford cross). Or they could be one of the Continental beef breeds – Charolais (white to grey) or others (usually shades of brown).
    Sometimes beef herds will have calves with them. You want to watch that sort of herd – the cows can get a bit protective. Otherwise they mostly mind their own business.

    There are also Highland cattle – big horns, long, brownish-golden shaggy coats, incredibly tough, reputed to have the most amiable temperament of any cattle. Often used to keep scrub in check in special sites. Shouldn’t be a problem

    Most often people get into difficulties with cattle when they walk their dogs through a field containing cattle, particularly if the cattle have calves. You are walking alone so that shouldn’t be a problem.

    BTW – I notice that on BBC’s “Countryfile” the farmer there always has a stout walking stick with him when he visits his cattle in his fields. Maybe you could follow suit?

    I’m no expert on such matters, just remembering what my farmer brother says!

  5. mariekeates says:

    Well done for getting past the snake and the cows. I’m often accidentally trespassing but I would rather not have to. It seems a shame that such beautiful places are often so unwelcoming.

    • Hi Marie. I can understand why you wouldn’t want trespassers in your back garden, but on a river bank? Think we need to change the law. Scotland has the ‘right to roam’, and I wish England would follow.

  6. Wow! You did incredibly well! I wouldn’t have had the courage to have trespassed so far! But it’s one of the most disappointing things about the area – that there is no direct crossing between Brean and Uphill. I’ve seen that stile before and have often wondered where it may or may not lead to. We need a campaign…

    I remember the first time I visited Brean Down and how I spent more time exploring the old fort and its buildings than I did walking! Last year, I was fortunate enough to visit on a surprise day when many of the locked doors were open – you could wander down and in to the darkness, which was quite an experience!

    I’m quite certain that large mound you refer to is Brent Knoll, for future reference. I’ve (fortunately) never seen a snake on any one of my walks but I’ve heard that adders are most prominent around the Mendips and generally harmless as well. I like to think that they’re more afraid of us, because of our size and that most can sense our presence and keep clear, with vibrations passing through the ground. 🙂

  7. David L says:

    There used to be a ferry across the R. Axe. Closed c. 1980. Hence the pattern of paths

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  10. David L says:

    Brean Down a delight; sea on both sides; Wales to the west and the Quantocks southward; Weston looking better in the the distance than close up; even the bullocks were friendly and peaceful, plodding along beside me on the narrowest section.

    …… all made up for the long,dull, circuitous slog round from Weston and Uphill to cross the R. Axe…… The overgrown section leading towards Tarrs Farm (where I somehow emerged instead of Wick Farm) is still overgrown. Hanging brambles cut my face and the stinging nettles, encouraged by the mild southwestern climate, are growing nicely into the Autumn, covering the ankle twisting holes in the ‘path’.

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  12. I finally tackled the section from Weston to Burnham in one lump on the 2nd June 2016 (I have had to adopt a ‘scattergun’ appraoch to doing Britain’s Coast) anyway, all was lovely till I approached that dreaded sluice (Brean Cross) – and yes, it is STILL closed (although a decent hacksaw would have solved that issue!) so for cyclists and walkers you still have a rather miserable slog along dodgy narrow roads, and Tarrs Farm footpath was miserable, I hacked through ten metres of stinging nettles (lucky I have recently taken to using a walking pole) and fell over backwards into a deep badger hole….anyway, Diamond Farm was a welcome break with an ice cold coke, and then a sweltering walk down to Burnham on a crowded Beach – and I got completely sunburnt…
    (Still didn’t stop me doing a bit of The Ceredigion Coast a few days later though)!

    I am just about to send a bunch of ‘disgusted of Hastings’ emails to all agencies complicit in such a shamefully tardy approach to the opening up of this sluice – what should be a pleasant, entirely off road walk is still a miserable slog…

    I must be a glutton for punishment though – I will be walking the Weston – Clevedon section in August…(another section with ‘issues’)

    • That’s a long walk, Gemma. Well done. Yes, so disappointing that they haven’t opened up the sluice. They would also have to negotiate a right of way on the southern bank as well, of course. Hope your ‘disgusted of Hastings’ emails get some response. Were they written in green font? 😉

  13. Anne says:

    Hi You might be interested to know that a new path using the sluice is now open

    • Yay! That’s really good news.Thank you for posting the update here, Anne, and I’m sure that will be very welcome news to the many coastal walkers (and cyclists) who plan to follow the coast. A great new crossing point. Excellent.

  14. Hi Ruth, it is great to hear that the sluice at Brean has finally been made accessible (at least twenty years overdue!)
    I hope that by the time you reach Gibraltar Point (south of Skeggy) that sluice is also made accessible, so you can avoid the long inland slog via Wainfleet I was subjected to. It might be possible to go via New Yard Farm, but these Lincs farmers have a real penchant for ‘Keep out – private signs’ and you never know what will happen if you ignore these…

    Anyway, keep up the good work,

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  16. Karen White says:

    The view of Brean beach, and the other views from Brean Down, are all spectacular.

  17. Karen White says:

    Spectacular views and photos.

  18. Roger Revell says:

    Hi Ruth

    I walked the entire coast between Portishead and Lands End in the mid 1980s and the Uphill ferry was certainly operational back then – I used it to cross the River Axe .Unfortunately, the bureaucrats responsible for deciding the route of the all England coast-path have opted for a unsuitable inland diversion. The money spent on sorting out this route would have been much better spent on funding a footbridge to replace the defunct ferry. Write to your MP!

    You are quite safe from snakes – even adders! The jaws of an adder are quite small and can only bite fingers or toes. So as long as you don’t walk bare-foot (or pick one up!), you should be fine.

    Regarding cattle, as has been stated, the dairy breeds are the ones to worry about – especially Frisians, Holsteins. Jerseys and Guernseys. If your route incudes field paths, always carry a stick – and be prepared to use it if necessary!

    – Roger

  19. Hi Roger
    Lucky you to have used the ferry! I love ferries, and it is sad to see how many of them have disappeared. I agree, a footbridge would be much better than an inland diversion. Maybe we can get them to change their minds?
    Reassuring news about adders have tiny jaws. I will have to keep reminding myself of that fact whenever I stumble across one!
    Best wishes, Ruth

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