Arran was the 3rd island I ever visited, back in 1976. I have returned three times since and this blog post highlights some of the less obvious interesting places to visit on the island.
Saturday, 24 September 2022
Friday, 2 September 2022
Brean Down is a headland, which juts out into the Bristol Channel at the eastern end of Bridgwater Bay. It is composed of carboniferous limestone and is a continuation of the Mendip Hills (as are the islands of Steep Holm and Flat Holm). It is 1.5 miles long by 0.25 miles wide. The highest point is 97 metres above sea level and this is marked by a trig point. The name Brean probably comes from the Ancient British word briga, meaning hill.
Brean Down became an island when the sea level rose after the last ice age. Then over many centuries sand dunes built up to the south and the flood plain of the River Axe extended and joined Brean Down to the mainland. I've not been able to find out when this was but the land connecting it to the mainland is all less than 10 metres above sea level.
Brean Down has been occupied for different purposes for thousands of years:
- Neolithic people lived and farmed there.
- Bronze Age people lived, farmed and buried their dead on it.
- A hillfort was built on it by Iron Age people.
- A temple and a settlement were built on it in Roman times.
- In the post Roman period people buried their dead in a cemetery on it.
- From the 14th to the 18th centuries it was managed as a rabbit warren.
- In Victorian times a fort was built at the western end and work on a harbour was started in 1864 but never completed.
- It was fortified during the Second World War.
Brean Down is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Rare plants found there include white rock-rose, dwarf sedge and Somerset hair grass.
In the 17th century the Wyndham family bought Brean Down from Glastonbury Abbey. They thought about building a harbour on the sheltered northern side, which would have been accessible even at low tide, but nothing was built. In the 1840s plans for a harbour were revived. However nothing came of these plans either.
In the mid 1850s two rival schemes for a harbour were proposed, both centred around the existing port at the mouth of the River Axe at Uphill. Both included floating jetties and short branch lines either to the Bristol & Exeter Railway at Bleadon or to the Somerset and Dorset Railway at Highbridge.
In 1861 the marine engineer Sir John Coode published a feasibility study for a harbour at the western end of Brean Down, rather than at Uphill. He proposed that a railway line should be built along the length of the harbour wall and then along the north side of Brean Down to the eastern end where it would enter a short tunnel. The line would emerge on the south side of Brean Down and join the Bristol & Exeter Railway just south of where it crosses the River Axe.
In 1861 the Bristol & Exeter Railway registered the Brean Down harbour scheme with Parliament and the Brean Down Harbour Company was incorporated. Its chairman was Sir John Eardley Wilmot. Work began on the harbour wall in November 1864 and continued until December 1868 when the contractor, Mr Chaplin, died after an accident. There was a lengthy investigation into the accident and no one could be found to replace him. The half-built harbour was badly damaged in a storm in 1872 and was abandoned. The harbour project was revived again in 1887 but the application to Parliament was rejected in 1889.
In the 1850s concern grew in Britain about the strength of the French Navy and it was believed that war between France and Britain might be imminent. Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, became Prime Minister for the 2nd time in 1859. Palmerston and his Secretary of State for War (Sidney Herbert) established a Royal Commission on the Defence of the United Kingdom in 1859 to examine the ability of Britain to defend itself against an attempted invasion by a foreign power and to advise the British Government on the remedial action required.
The Commission reported back in 1860 and recommended the building of forts to protect naval bases and other strategic locations around the coasts of Britain and Ireland. In the Bristol Channel Brean Down, Steep Holm, Flat Holm and Lavernock Point were to be fortified in order to protect the ports of Bristol, Avonmouth, Cardiff and Newport.
In 1862 four acres of land at the western end of Brean Down were requisitioned from the Wyndham family. In 1864 Lieutenant Robert Vetch was given the task of constructing the Bristol Channel forts. Brean Down Fort was completed by 1870 but was not equipped with artillery straightaway. It was partially concealed on the seaward side and the landward side was protected by a dry moat. By 1872 a garrison of 51 soldiers were living there. Seven 7" cannons were installed by the late 1870s. These were located in three batteries:
- West Battery - this had 3 cannons and 2 underground magazines
- North West Battery - this had 3 cannons and 2 underground magazines
- North East Battery - this had 1 cannon and a magazine
There were also barracks, a guard house, a master-gunner's quarters and an officers' mess.
Both Viscount Palmerston and Sidney Herbert died before work began on Brean Down Fort. By the time the fortifications were completed, the threat from the French had diminished. The island’s heavy guns were never fired in anger.
In July 1900 a soldier called William Haines fired his rifle into one of the West Battery's magazines, in an apparent attempt to kill himself, and it exploded and destroyed the battery. After the explosion the fort was decommissioned and the guns were sold for scrap in 1901. In 1909 Brean Down Fort was handed back to the Wyndham family. Harry Cox was warden of Brean Down for the Wyndham family from 1909 until his death in 1949. He was a keen naturalist and he lived on Brean Down, firstly in a tin shack located to the south of Fiddlers Point and later in a stone house near the hillfort.
In 1910 part of the fort was converted into a café , which was run by Mr R. Waterman. The fort was not used during the First World War. In the early 1920s the Wyndham's leased the fort to Joseph Chamberlain, who opened it as a café, which was run by Alfred Meredith and his wife. Many visitors arrived via the Uphill Ferry or on boats from Anchor Head or Knightstone Harbour in Weston-super-Mare. The Merediths closed the café in 1936.
Brean Down Fort was refortified in 1941-42. Two gun positions were built: one on the site of the ruined West Battery and the other over part of the North West Battery. They were armed with 6" ex-naval guns. Two Coastal Artillery Search Light posts were built - on on the western tip of Brean Down and the other on the cliff top to the south of the fort. The Victorian barracks were reused as a cookhouse but the windows were partly blocked to give protection from blasts. The officers were accommodated in the former Master-Gunner's quarters. 12 Nissen huts were built in the old quarry on the east side of the Victorian fort and used as barracks. A battery of 6 Lewis guns was built on the north side of Brean Down, close to the Iron Age hillfort.
Experimental weapons were trialled at the fort by the Admiralty Department of Miscellaneous Weapons Development and the short length of launching rail, which can still be seen, is evidence of these trials.
At the end of 1943 Brean Down Fort was downgraded to "care and maintenance" and the guns were removed in 1945 and the land was returned to the ownership of the Wyndham Trust.
Axbridge Rural District Council bought most of Brean Down (except the fort) from the Wyndham Trust in 1954 and then gave it (147.5 acres) to the National Trust. Weston-super-Mare Borough Council bought the fort from the Wyndham Trust and they considered various future uses for the fort e.g. a casino or a centre for youth activities but all were rejected. In 1958-9 parts of the fort were dismantled and the rest of it was cleared of miscellaneous debris and undergrowth by groups of volunteers. In 1973 Weston-super-Mare Borough Council offered the fort to the National Trust but they wouldn't accept it because they didn't want to pay for its repair and maintenance, so they sold it to Axbridge Rural District Council for a nominal fee.
In 1977 the army were brought in to blow up the roofs of the two Second World War gun emplacements, as they were in a dangerous condition. In 1983 a Manpower Services Commission team were employed to make the fort buildings safe.
Various councils and organisations produced reports and plans for the future conservation and development of the fort over the years. Between 1994 and 1997, Sedgemoor District Council (the successor council to Axbridge Rural District), the National Trust and English Heritage worked together on an application for a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to restore the fort and convert the buildings into a museum, holiday accommodation a café and a shop, but the National Trust withdrew their support at the last minute and the application was rejected in March 1998.
In December 1998 the National Trust submitted their own application to the Heritage Lottery Fund for a grant of £350,000 to pay for the repair and stabilisation of the fort. They were told in August 1999 that their application was successful. In 2000 3.4 acres at Brean Down Cove were acquired by the National Trust from MD & M Matthews. In 2002, following renovation work, Sedgemoor District Council gave Brean Down Fort to the National Trust.
Wednesday, 17 August 2022
St Ninian's Point is a flat tidal island located off the west coast of the Isle of Bute at the hamlet of Straad. It is about 600 metres from north to south and 250 metres from east to west. It is only cut off from Bute at high spring tides. It is separated from Bute by a beach of flat pebbles. There are two houses and a ruined chapel on the island.
The chapel site was excavated in 1952 and 1954 and an earlier pagan burial site of long cists was found underneath it. The chapel was founded from Whithorn (St Ninian started his missionary work in Scotland there in 397AD) in the 6th or early 7th century and possibly abandoned in the 9th century when Norse people arrived.
When we visited in mid May 2022 we identified scurvy grass, lousewort, daisies, dandelions, bird's-foot trefoil, buttercup, cranesbill, celandine, silverweed, cuckoo flower, thrift and iris growing on St Ninian's Point.