Seaside Special - In the land of the mangelwurzel: Somerset

I've done enough of these trips to give a fair impression that when it comes to public transport, I know what I’m doing. It’s an illusion. In Taunton I jumped aboard a service bus and asked for a return to Watchet. 'To where?' said the driver with more than a hint of fake bemusement, I thought. 'Watchet', I repeated firmly. Trying not to make it sound like a threat, I quickly added 'on the road to Minehead?'
  'I know where it is, matey. You need a 28. This is a 2A.’ Oh. Easy mistake to make when you're squinting at the front of an on-coming vehicle and simply following the crowd at the bus stop. Baaaa.  'There's one now.' He gestured at the double-decker overtaking us. I sheepishly stepped down and out to wait another hour.

Once settled on the correct service, the journey up to Watchet was a swinging, pitching ride around the foothills of the Quantocks. I admired stout, often steep slopes tufted with moorland bracken and receding heather. The Quantocks website records about half-a-million visits annually, mostly from people who live within sight of the hills. Mainly local visitors, then. I guessed that competition from Exmoor, Dartmoor and The Mendips gave explorers plenty of choice in this area. A bit like the way the Forest of Bowland is quiet in comparison to the Dales, The Lakes and the coast in the north west. Good places to know about for an under the radar trip.

The landscape flattened out before Williton and soon the bus was descending steeply into Watchet. I climbed out by the station for the West Somerset preservation steam railway which normally runs from Bishop’s Lydeard, north-west of Taunton through to Minehead at the top of Blue Anchor Bay. I had quite fancied a trip up the coast and past Dunster Castle. However, there were no trains on Fridays outside the peak season. And here I was on a Friday in early October the year before Covid-19 broke. There would be a significant delay of the ‘unforeseen circumstances’ type before the next Friday service steamed out of Watchet.

Instead of encouraging my train obsession any further, I packed away my egg sandwiches and ambled down to medieval harbour. Once the beating heat of town, the pulse of the place would struggle towards a steady 60 bpm on that quiet afternoon. Watchet first came to prominence in the Saxon period because of this safe anchorage and was important enough to have its own mint, next door to the Bell Inn on the Esplanade (where, inside, there is a serving hatch connecting the two).

The mineral rich landscape ensured the port prospered and by 1855 a new harbour was commissioned to cope with the increase in iron ore trade. The Esplanade was built at the same time. And the coming of two railway lines was the catalyst for increased port activity that saw a peak of 1,100 shipping movements a year. The West Somerset Mineral Railway ran down from the iron mines on the Brendon Hills, and the West Somerset Railway (preserved as the heritage railway we have already encountered) came up from the Bristol direction. Ships taking iron ore across the Bristol Channel – known by locals with a touch of grandiosity as the ‘Severn Sea’ - to south Wales returned with coal, bricks and slate. Those yellow bricks brought a distinctive note to many Watchet buildings.

A few feet of rusted railway track remained embedded on the solid, wide quay, ending abruptly at a spur jutting out into the harbour. For a moment I was lost in a noisy, filthy and long-departed world of mineral-heavy wagons lined up on the harbour awaiting cranes to unload them into cargo steamers below.  

The harbour was now principally a marina for pleasure craft alongside a few working boats. I was snapping pics and watching the tide gurgling back in to the marina through the sluices in a wall that divided the two halves of the harbour when a wind blew up from nowhere and horizontal rain zipped in from towering, filthy clouds somewhere over Minehead. I stayed dry in the lee of the cast-iron lighthouse on the western quay and noticed a plaque from 2012 unveiled by Princess Anne that commemorated the 150th anniversary of the beacon.

A visit to the little museum in the former Market House helped me plug some gaps in the history of the port. The museum manager was a bit frosty when I spilled through the door looking like a refugee from Glasto with my windswept demeanour, suspect head wear and lugging a big old rucksack. But she began to soften when I started asking her nerdy questions about the changing use of the harbour over the years.

“After the First World War, part of the harbour was leased by a scrap company.” She pointed out a framed black and white photo on the wall of a Royal Navy ship. “That’s HMS Fox”, she said. “It came here to be scrapped in 1923. It’s the largest vessel ever to have entered the harbour.” The grainy image showed tugs hanging off the Astraea-class cruiser like flies around a carcass, and I was staggered that this hulk could navigate the tight entrance. Museum lady went on to describe a slow decline at the harbour until commercial business ended around 2000.

I dropped a few quid in the donation box on the way out and received a big smile. I am such a local history tart.

Time for a pint. The weather had eased enough for me to sit outside the Bell Inn and contemplate an impressive statue of Samuel Coleridge's 'The Ancient Mariner' in front of me. I mentioned in the Lynton post that this fella would crop up again. Here he is. The statue was a seven foot bronze of the ill-fated sailor who stands with a noose around his neck and an albatross entwined around his legs. I contemplated the emaciated figure with sticky-out ribs and a downcast face, and reflected that the epic poem was one of the few that I really, properly liked. But maybe that’s because Iron Maiden recorded an equally epic metal anthem of the same title, incorporating segments of the work that were read by an actor whose voice had all the richness and treacly tone of Richard Burton in his prime. Not to mention some stirring bass runs, biting guitar and complicated double bass drum weaves from the band in their pomp.  

Coleridge lived nearby and as we have learned already on this tour, walked over the Quantocks from Lynton to Watchet with his poet pal William Wordsworth. He was apparently enraptured by the harbour (although that’s what they say in Lynton as well). The first lines of the poem are reputed to have been written there at The Bell Inn. I raised my glass to Coleridge and to Steve Harris and the Maiden boys too.

My time in the impressive, unplanned, industrious little town finished with a walk over the eastern cliffs, pausing at the former coastguard lookout at the top for a good view of the harbour’s dominant and yet frequently inundated quays. JMW Turner once sketched the town from this very spot. Over the other side of the cliff I was rewarded with an equally stunning view of a full, wide and shallow rainbow settling over the boulder strewn rock platform of a deserted Helwell Bay. I turned back and caught a slap of rain on its way to reinforce the beautiful phenomenon over my right shoulder.  

Almost exactly a year later, Mrs A and I returned here with some mates and stayed on this cliff top in the coastguard cottages to my left. Lockdown restrictions had progressively eased during the Summer of 2020 and we squeezed in a cheeky weekend away during the October half term only a few days before those lockdown shutters slammed down again. We came for some R&R and ticked that box nicely, but Watchet was still spookily quiet. Pubs closed, shops empty, streets deserted, rights-of-way blocked. We made the best of it with good, home-cooked fare, polypins lugged with us from our local Tring brewery and some coastal exploration further west. Dunster, the town I’d missed on my initial visit was well worth the wait. A medieval village preserved almost perfectly with a fine castle up the hill that gives on to Exmoor  National Park.

I had also visited Somerset earlier that crazy Covid Eat-Out-To-Help-Out Summer. I had found myself north-east of Watchet at Burnham On Sea. I didn’t know the place, but was looking for an add-on to a Bristol work trip and was attracted by pics of the lighthouse on the beach. Yes I know, but sometimes you just get a feeling… I really didn’t know what to expect. If I held any expectations, they were at the quaint and quiet end of the spectrum. Burnham wasn’t really either of those.

The resort used to have a railway terminus right on the sea front. It closed in 1966 and I walked into town from Highbridge station where the Burnham spur used to join the Bristol to Taunton route. The walk was less than two miles, so it’s a surprise the line lasted as long as it did. On the other hand, such stations used to bring thousands of visitors to resorts like this back in their heyday. The railway was the making of them.

Arriving on a Sunday night in August as day trippers were packing up, the town had a buzz. A salt-of-the-earth seaside resort in the middle of a decent spell of weather during a Summer when most holidaymakers were staying in Britain. Burnham was benefitting.

Maybe it was a bit frayed around the edges. There were a few empty shops and closed cafes, some likely to be a consequence of Covid-19 but hard to say how many. Precious few of the buildings held much architectural merit, and there were rather more tattoo parlours and dodgy boozers that strictly comfortable. But this was essentially an honest, small, affordable working class family resort without the tack, tat and gaudy brashness of, say, Weston-Super-Mare just up the coast. The seafront was a joy. Largely tidy, plenty of chippies and acres of clean, usable sand.

That sand, and the Bristol Channel, were the town’s best asset. The Burnham Low lighthouse lived up tp its pictures on Flickr. Famous for its position on the beach, it is held above the briny on nine wood and metal legs. As the sun dipped behind this curious building, I was inevitably snapping away in the company of a few other visitors.

Lockdown has been a funny thing. I fell into conversation with a couple from Derbyshire who should have been in Majorca right then, but came to stay in a mobile home on the south of the bay after that trip was cancelled. They weren’t moaning though. Well, they moaned a bit about a two-and-half-hour delay on the M5 on the Friday night. But they loved the beach and they had enjoyed a great stay. ‘No such thing as bad weather’, said the bloke sporting a mahagony-tan, ‘just bad preparation, har-har!’ in an echo of some long forgotten advert for Barbour jackets, or something. ‘Yep. Get out and stay out, hehe,’ I said, echoing an equally distant advert for Nikwax or some such. Honestly, we could have jousted TV ads all night, but sadly I had some more sunset to photograph.

And there were plenty of top photos to be had. Another photographer with a fancy tripod and chunky camera had driven over from South Wales for the evening with his wife and kids. I was marvelling at the view whilst he was packing up his kit and muttering that the sunset was a bit disappointing. Ten minutes later, the sky was filled with wispy alto-stratus underlit by the most vibrant apricot glow silhouetting the nine-legged lighthouse. I chuckled smugly and went back for more snaps.

Dog owners ruled Burnham. At least they did on the stretch of sand north of the pier beyond the ‘Dogs Are Banned’ signs every 50 yards. The beach was absolutely crawling with hounds of any pure and cross-bred variety you’d care to mention. One owner miscued a tennis-ball throw for her Labrador and the object headed directly for me, picking up a bit of extra zip from the puddles left behind by the retreating tide. My football skills have never been much to speak of, but somehow I deftly lobbed the ball up off my right instep and followed with a left foot volley that sent it flying back to the rather startled owner. The dog stopped in mid-tongue-lolling stride, executed a perfect 180 turn and sped back after the ball, sending a neat spray of wet sand in my direction.  

Alongside signs banishing dogs from the bits of the beach in Summer, there were much more stark warning signs advising people to stay clear of the mud at low tide. These warnings were not taken lightly by the locals. Over the sea wall, I could see three kids slithering down the mud embankment of the strangely named Brue Pill, a small river that empties into the River Perrett at the southern end of Burnham. A woman on the esplanade shouted to her husband to tell them to get out. But he was pre-occupied with packing up a kite. The manager of the pub I was staying in later said that someone had died out in the Channel the previous Summer.

By the time I had strolled a little way upstream and back, the kids had swum across the river and were absolutely caked in sloppy mud on the far bank. I passed another local on the sea wall who was concerned enough to be describing the scene in reasonably animated tones to someone who, judging by her responses, worked on the lifeboats or in the coastguards. I didn’t hang around to see the situation’s resolution. The kids were totally oblivious and were having an absolute blast in what appeared to be a Tough Mudder event they had designed entirely for themselves.

The pub I was staying in was busy. Gary and Kelly, the managers, were friendly and working bloody hard. They had been busy for the previous three weeks and had seen benefits from relaxed quarantine rules. Praise for dishy Richi and his et out campaign was fulsome in those parts. Gary said the restaurant was booked solid the next day from noon til 8pm. They offered to squeeze me in somewhere and I was glad to see they were looking after residents, but I already had fish and chips on the seafront in mind. Another round of man-with-food vs hungry-herring-gulls was on the cards.

I woke up early the next morning and was distracted by the traffic. Every four-wheel drive in the county seemed to be hitched up to caravans in order to drive past my window at 7.30am. Later, walking to Brean Down, I spotted where they were all headed. A string of massive camping and caravan parks sprawled back from the north end of the beach; and were surrounded by even larger mobile home sites with names like ‘Channel View Holiday Park’ and ‘Happy Days Touring Park’.

Later in the day, I came back to Burnham by service bus, which was an open-top double decker. I was grinning like a kid with the wind in my face and tugging at my face mask, suddenly transported back to Scarborough’s Marine Drive on the open top buses between the North and South bays. Except the face mask, obviously. Anyway, the bus route was on a road set back from the beach and the top deck view had me goggling at the scale of the mobile homes and caravans along this stretch of coast, punctuated by a not inconsiderable theme park, replete with ferris wheel, go-kart track and log flume. A massive and faintly scary string of developments.  

I had missed much of these park on the walk north earlier that day. They were hidden from the beach behind attractive sand dunes. For the first three or four miles out of Burnham I had only a few dog walkers (naturally) and joggers for company on the vast beach. The River Perret was away to my left occupying a small part of the Bristol Channel. This part of the coast has the second highest tidal range anywhere in the world. The sand was firm and flat. As testament to that, I read that an American B17 Flying Fortress had crash landed on the beach in 1943. All the air crew survived. One of its engines was discovered 50 years later.

There are other, more conventional wrecks in the channel. Just off Berrow, protected by cloying mud and shifting sands, the SS Nornen was slowly being claimed by the sea. Bones of the hull wrecked in 1897 can be seen at low tide. The ship ran aground in a fierce gale and Burnham’s lifeboat was despatched to make a scrambled rescue of the Nornen’s ten crew (and dog). The site was covered by the incoming tide that morning and there was no evidence of the wreck.

The sand was comfortable underfoot. Firm amd moist. Only a small strip adjacent to the dunes was the dry, rippled stuff above the high tide line. When I hit Berrow and later Brean, there were cars parked on the hard packed sand. Where did they think this was? Daytona Beach?

I was heading for Brean Down. I could see its ghostly outline at the top end of the bay, partly obscured by murk and mist. The environment began to change as I approached that end of the bay. Too many cars had compacted the sand into something closer to a concrete road. Unattractive black silt the shade of engine oil covered much of the surface, having been washed up from the foot of the Down. There were no dunes anymore to shield casual passers-by from the holiday parks and after an eight-mile yomp, I began to feel despondent. Restoration was found in a pee, a frothy coffee and a cheese pasty, all obtained from the National Trust café via socially distanced queuing.

Brean Down completed the resurrection. Despite a thigh-straining zig-zag climb up steps with implausibly high risers dug into the side of the cliff, the view was uplifting. The ascent was only 300-odd feet, but the startling feature of the Down is its 1½ mile projection into the Bristol Channel, giving a remarkable feeling of being cast adrift in the sea on a knife-edge of rock. Its exposure given literal presence by the trees blown into the shapes of cycling helmets by the prevailing south-westerleys.

The Down is a continuation of the Mendip Hills that run like a limestone spine through west Somerset. The site has been occupied since the late Bronze Age. The most recent structure was a fort built at the western tip originally to repel Napoleonic France in the late 18th Century that was then re-tooled and extended in WWII with coastal gun batteries and anti-aircraft positions. I was fascinated by two rusty metal rails that exited the fort at the base and headed down the promontory ending near the forward searchlight post. They were used for testing seaborne bouncing bombs. Explosives were launched down the track on a trolley before hitting a ramp which catapulted them into the sea. The experiments were abandoned when one trolley hurtled at such speed that it caught fire, prematurely detonating the device just outside the fort.

Back in in Burnham that night, I fulfilled my personal promise to sit by the lifeboat jetty and scoff fish and chips watching the sunset. My tea was purchased from the busy Esplanade café which clearly enjoyed a buoyant reputation. A framed photo montage on the wall entitled ‘Celebrities that have visited the Esplanade fish bar’ had Tommy Banner from The Wurzels as its centrepiece. Tinkering with his squeeze box. Ahem. In between sarcastic chuckles that he might also have his handprints on Hollywood Boulevard, my google search revealed that the band still has a significant cult following in these parts, having recently released music with British Sea Power, been managed by The Stranglers’ team and numbering Bill Bailey amongst their fans. OK, I get the point…

Anyway, the fish and chips were absolutely worth Tommy’s endorsement. I polished them off whilst humming ‘I’ve Got A Brand New Combine Harvester’ and keeping a nervous eye on the line of herring gulls to my left, clearly contemplating a frontal assault.  

The Somerset coast isn’t somewhere I’d been until those trips in 2019 and 2020. I have a dim memory of a week in Weston-Super-Mare when I was about ten. However, these memories revolve around staying up late in the caravan park bar to watch some God-awful spangly cabaret act (definitely not The Wurzels) and winning about 38 pence in tuppenny bits from the coin waterfalls in seafront arcades.

I’ve become a bit of a fan of the area. Glimpses of tough, hard-edged coastline mix with stretches of wide beach, broken up by understated towns and estuaries with livid currents that require detours of many miles inland to cross them. The experience has whetted my appetite to return and peel back a few more layers.    

Series navigation: Intro and chapter guide

Previous post: North Devon - Poet’s corner


Popular posts from this blog

Seaside Special - Skye is the limit: west Highland

Seaside Special - NC500 part 2: north and north-west Highland

Seaside Special - A honeymoon and a fast car: Argyll & Bute