Wednesday, 28 December 2011
Some Boxing Day Wilderness
Every Boxing Day for the last few years, we have walked off our turkey and mince pies by a walk up and along the lofty peninsula of Brean Down near Weston Super Mare (though somehow, in nature, not near Weston super Mare). I will not describe its features as the wikipedia page covers it perfectly in physical depiction as does this picture which I hope the photographer won't mind me linking to, but which shows it so beautifully that I just had to refer to it.
Brean Down is essentially a Mendip Hill which is in the Bristol Channel, along with the islands of Steepholm and Flatholm.
I remember Brean Down from my childhood when I played on the beach down below. It is a long flat beach and my memories of it are of the vehicles which were left rusting after being overtaken by the sea to the chagrin of the foolish people who drove them down there, doubtless enticed by the prospect of driving fast over a huge uninterrupted expanse of sand. Personally, I think this is madness from many perspective, not least mechanical, knowing what sand does to machinery.it's a steep climb up a flight of steps to the top of the down. When one is weighed down by a voluminous belly from several days of excess, it seems a never-ending toil to get to the top of the steps.
Once you get to the top, hacking and coughing your congested guts up, you are confronted by a view along the length of the first hump of the Down. There are several of these that you walk up and down along if you walk down the southern side. Its a walk along a spine of rock, a long drop down one side and shallower drop on the northern side with a view of Weston and up the Severn. Weston looks particularly ugly and incongruous given the ruggedness and beauty of the hill upon which one stands. But the view along the peninsula, with the Somerset Levels behind me, always fills me with a sense of adventure and wildness.
With the ageless moaning of the wind in the stubby hawthorns, I am the paleolithic hunter leaning on my spear and wondering at the gods that lived beneath the waves or I am the Victorian artilleryman heading back to the barracks wondering if the invasion will come and if I would be the first to spot it and raise the alarm.
There are the remains, in the form of long interconnected mounds, of the neolithic field system, though looking at the shape of the wind-stunted trees, it is hard to imagine any soil remaining there for very long, hence the walls I suppose.
There is also at the highest point (I have not really been able to see it but i think the rectangular depression in the picture might be it), the remains of a temple to Apollo build by the Romano British in the 4th century. This was purportedly built upon and older temple stretching back into prehistory. Given the eeriness of the place, high up on a long line of rock with water swirling grey and forbidding either side, you can see how ancient peoples might have attributed a specialness to the place and of course to many human minds, geographical specialness often equates to supernatural attributions.As you get along towards the end, the path gets very rugged and the steepness of the cliff accounts for a number of dogs every year who, chasing the goats or whatever else catches their hunting instinct, run over the edge to presumably pause motionless for the second or so before they realise they are above empty space, at which point the knocking of legs against air stops, accompanied by a surprised expression as gravity resumes its ten metres per second squared pull towards the sea.
At the end of the promontory is the fort. Walking down the steep hill towards the fort, you get a sense of how bleak it must have been to be stationed here in the 1860s when Lord Palmerston decreed it be built as part of a line of defences against invasion.
The fort is still in reasonable shape, though mostly without roofs and with the huge artillery guns now gone. Part of it was blown up when a certain Gunner Hains shot his rifle into the the powder magazine on July 3rd 1900. Nobody knows why. But perhaps the bleakness just got to him. I can understand that, though not the spectacular response.
There are rails which head down to the sea where boffins attempted to develop a ship-launched bouncing bomb in WW2. The bomb rolled off the end, stopped and exploded, terminating the rail raggedly and the programme promptly.The most atmospheric place feels to me to be the gun emplacement facing south west at the top of the hill. Derelict but sturdily made from concrete, they stand starkly against the skyline, hinting at the number of eyes that must have scanned the horizon over the years from their fortified windows. Even now there is a lovely view of Steepholm.
I stand in the middle of its graffiti-covered walls and attempt to imagine the soldiers pacing around on long winter wartime nights as the huge searchlights played out across the Bristol Channel looking for invading ships. It is not difficult to hear the tread of their boots or the grumbles at the inclement weather in between puffs on cigarettes.
On the North side, the going is easy. There is a rough road which traces its way along the hill for a mile and a half. It passes the house of Captain Cox from the 1800's, modified as a command post in WW2 and the gun emplacements from which bren or Bofors gunners would have rained down fire upon any invading tourists attempting to storm Weston beach in the hope of the last of the raisin muffins from the Edwardian tearooms.
It is a relatively easy walk round the back of the headland and back to the car park. Usually, here, we arrive windswept and cold and sit in the van cooking up the remnants of the Christmas dinner as we stare out to "sea". Its not really sea, I think, though there is seaweed, the fragrance of which is almost convincing. It is difficult not look wistfully out at the water as you eat your reheated turkey, stuffing and sprouts in rich gravy. Or the cheddar truckle and home made bread as we had this year.
Then, sated, as the light fades, we drive home through the twilight along the sandy road towards Berrow, listening to (as is my wont) Kate Bush "Hounds of love".
And that is Boxing day, atmospheric and invigorating!