A Stroll Around Burnham-on-Sea Malcolm Rigby explores of Burnham-on-Sea, a classic seaside resort

PUBLISHED: 12:28 26 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:02 20 February 2013

The slipway on Burnham beach

The slipway on Burnham beach

Crooked churches, tsunamis and Nobel Prize winners weave their way through Malcolm Rigby's exploration of Burnham-on-Sea, a classic Victorian seaside resort. Photos by Neville Stanikk.

Crooked churches, tsunamis and Nobel Prize winners weave their way through Malcolm Rigby's exploration of Burnham-on-Sea, a classic Victorian seaside resort. Photos by Neville Stanikk.

A natural reaction on arriving at Burnham is to breathe in the sea air, smell the fish and chips and look out across the beach. Chances are you will be searching for the old wooden lighthouse which stands on its stilts in the sand like a solitary beach hut that someone has forgotten to pack away, for it is without doubt the icon of Somerset-by-the-sea. Your second compulsion might well be to stare across the waters to catch a glimpse of Hinkley Point nuclear power station, an icon from another period; on this occasion it glimmered vaguely in the sunny haze.

Accompanying me on my walk was George Brown MBE, Chairman of the North Sedgemoor Local History Group, who told me that as a historian what he liked about the town was that it had stayed the same. That said, we set off from the modern hovercraft rescue station that contains two vessels, one named after Lelaina Hall, the five-year-old who got trapped in the Berrow mud in 2002 and sadly died. The building dates back to the '90s and was constructed in just 72 hours as part of the TV programme Challenge Anneka. On this part of the sand there used to be a marine lake, with rowing boats and a high diving board from which you had to be careful not to leap into mud. On the other side of the road is Somerfield's car park, which used to be known as Chinatown and had dodgems and a miniature railway. So there have been changes, but essentially George is right, Burnham is of an era; it is indubitably Victorian.

At the beginning of the 19th century it must have looked much as it had in medieval times, a small rural hamlet by the sea, with a church. The significant change came with the introduction of a spa, the arrival of the railway at nearby Highbridge in 1841, and the Victorian appetite for holidays by the sea.

Take, for example, the jetty, which used to have railway lines set into it. Built in 1858, this was part of a dream to take people from Cardiff to Paris; you came across from Wales to Burnham, caught the Somerset and Dorset down to Poole, got another boat to France and then the train to Paris. The dream was realised but didn't last for long and was finally killed off with the opening of the Severn tunnel, although even now there are aspirations to restore sea crossings between Burnham and Wales.

On the other side of the Esplanade is probably the town's grandest building, the Queens Hotel (now owned by Wetherspoons) and once known as the Reed Arms (named after the man who financed it and many other houses in the area). As George Brown said: "The main benefactor to Burnham was a gentleman called George Reed, who built the Queens Hotel and also the National School which was on the seafront. He built two terraces right down the far end, in memory of his daughter and granddaughter. He built Manor Gardens, which is by the church, and the house that was his home, plus he was on the board for the jetty. When the towns were growing everybody needed a benefactor, and he poured a lot of money into Burnham." If you go inside the pub there are a couple of interesting photographs of the resort between the wars.

The Esplanade is dominated by large terraced houses. The Victorian tradition was that wealthy families would rent the properties, forcing the landlady into the basement where she would organise the catering. The local paper would list the names of the people who were visiting, and if you were willing to pay a little more then you could have 'esquire' added to your title.

A short walk on and you reach the town pier; built in 1911, it is said to be the smallest in the country. Further along is Marine Cove, a small set of laid-out gardens ideal for relaxation after some arduous and fruitless slot-machine gambling on the pier!

A little further on, set into the beach, you will find a paddling pool donated by Mr and Mrs JB Braithwaite in thanks for the safe return of their five sons after the Great War. Much of the current Esplanade is the result of the last great depression, when the government pumped money into public work to boost the economy. There was also a bolstering of the flood defences after the storms of 1981, but these were nothing compared to the soaking Burnham must have received in 1607, when a flood, now thought to be a tsunami, took thousands of lives along the coast.

From here you can go and take a closer look at the wooden lighthouse with its nine stout oak legs (line it up with the larger inshore lighthouse and you have the correct navigational path into Bridgwater), or wander into the gates of the green and pleasant churchyard. St Andrew's Church, rebuilt in 1315, is proof indeed that Burnham is constructed on sand - it leans; not as much as the tower at Pisa, but visibly so. The carvings inside the church are by Grinling Gibbons and once had a home in Westminster Abbey. A little further inland is Tregunter House, built for George III's favourite cook, as well as George Reed's home and the Manor Gardens.

Cutting back along the High Street you'll come across a plaque marking the birthplace of Sir John Pople, the famous theoretical chemist and Nobel Prize winner. Another well-known personality associated with Burnham is Ben Travers, the prolific writer of West End farces.

On the Berrow road you'll find many large houses originally built for retired army folk at the beginning of the 20th century and now used as nursing homes, but you'll also discover a plaque marking the legend that Joseph of Arimathea brought Jesus to Burnham on their way to Glastonbury. Going out of town the other way you find the Apex Leisure and Wildlife Park, Burnham's playground and home to a wide variety of birds.

Burnham-on-Sea's heyday was probably the beginning of the 20th century to the First World War, but it was still hugely popular until the '60s when people started flying abroad for their holidays. As George said: "You had the Birmingham weeks, when all the car manufacturers shut for a period. They all came down here and it wasn't unusual for people to be walking along and come across their next-door neighbours, because everyone went to either Weston or Burnham."

There is an inevitability in comparing Burnham with Weston-super-Mare. The truth is that they are doing different jobs - Burnham is smaller, quieter and less commercialised. Another thing you cannot leave Burnham-on-Sea without doing is sitting down on the steps of the flood defences, looking out across the water or to the wooden lighthouse, and eating a portion of fish and chips. I think it may be compulsory... it certainly is in our family.

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