Exploring the Secrets of Brean Down, Western extremeties of the Mendips on the River Axe Estuary

PUBLISHED: 16:12 27 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:32 20 February 2013

The spectacular Brean Down juts out into the Bristol Channel. Photo: NTPL/John Miller

The spectacular Brean Down juts out into the Bristol Channel. Photo: NTPL/John Miller

The distinctive whale-back shape of Brean Down must be familiar to almost everyone in Somerset. Brean Down is the western extremity of the Mendips, a 320ft-high (97m) finger of rock separated from the rest of the range by the River Axe estuary. Th...

Exploring the Secrets of Brean Down, Western extremeties of the Mendips on the River Axe Estuary

About 230 million years ago the rocks at Brean Down were subjected to great movements of the Earth's crust, which folded them into a series of crests and troughs aligned east-west across the county. Since then, millions of years of erosion by rain and ice has smoothed out the peaks and filled in the valleys, producing the softer Mendip landscape we know today.

Brean Down is a place of fascination for the amateur archaeologist. Direct evidence of human habitation dates back thousands of years - the worked antler of a giant deer found in post-Ice Age deposits has been dated to around 10,000BC. However, there are signs that humans had colonised the Mendips as much as 500,000 years ago.

The wildlife of Brean has changed somewhat since the last Ice Age, along with the climate. Fragments of bones found at Sand Cliff, on the south side of the Down, indicate that in the centuries after the ice retreated, the local fauna included reindeer, Arctic fox, aurochs (the wild forerunner of domestic cattle), bison, mammoth, wolves - even lemmings.

The climate warmed and the sea level rose until, by around 5,000BC, Brean had temporarily become an island. By 2,000BC the sea had retreated again and the Down was being grazed by livestock.

Brean is a place of fascination for the amateur archaeologist and the exploring naturalist

By the time of the Iron Age Brean must have been home to a busy community. We know iron tools were used in the building of a hill fort here around 300BC, and some 600 years later a temple was built on top of the eastern knoll; the remains of both can still be seen today, along with those of Celtic field systems, round barrows and several other features that have yet to be identified conclusively.

More recently, Brean Down Fort was constructed, one of a series built around the south coast in the mid-19th century as defence against the French. There was accommodation for 50 men, along with seven mighty cannons, each capable of firing a 112lb (50kg) shot at 1,560 feet (457m) per second - enough to penetrate eight inches (20cm) of armour at 1,000 yards (915m). They were never fired in anger and the nearest the fort ever came to action was in 1900 when, for unknown reasons, a gunner fired his rifle down the shaft of a ventilator into one of the powder magazines. The resulting explosion killed the gunner and demolished a large chunk of the fort.

The fort briefly became a caf before being rearmed during the Second World War and used for weapons testing. Today it is open to visitors.

Brean very nearly became a much more prominent place on the map than the quiet nature reserve it is today. In the 19th century, plans were made for a full-scale harbour here, capable of taking the largest ocean-going ships. The Brean Down Harbour Company was formed in 1861, and three years later, amid great pomp and ceremony, Lady Eardley Wilmot lowered the foundation stone. But by the next morning the stone had been washed away by the sea (it was later found off Steep Holm) - not exactly an encouraging sign. In 1868, following a series of disagreements and disasters, the project was finally abandoned. Although it was briefly revived towards the end of the 19th century, it soon ran into fresh difficulties and was finally abandoned for good.

Brean is a great place for the exploring naturalist. The grassland along the south-facing areas harbours a variety of wild plants characteristic of exposed limestone turf. They include four rarities which do not appear to occur together anywhere else in the UK, possibly the world: white rock rose, dwarf sedge, Somerset hair grass and honewort.

White rock rose ('Helianthemum apenninum'), conspicuous along the south-facing cliff tops in early summer, is closely related to the very widespread common rock rose, which is found on chalk and limestone downs across Britain and looks rather like a small, floppy buttercup. Where the common rock rose has bright yellow flowers and green foliage, the much rarer white species - there are only two other colonies in the UK - has white petals and greyish leaves. Like the common rock rose, it is used as a food plant by the brown Argus butterfly.

The aptly named dwarf sedge ('Carex humilis') is restricted to a mere two inches in height, and is inconspicuous unless you know exactly what you're looking for. Somerset hair grass ('Koeleria vallesiana') is found nowhere in England outside the Mendips. Finally, honewort ('Trinia glauca'), also known as honeywort, is a delicate white plant which is easily overlooked.

Among these and other localised wild plants are found many interesting creatures. Chalkhill blues, dark green fritillaries and marbled whites are among many butterflies which frequent the turf in summer. Stonechats, linnets and whitethroats flit among the scrub, and rock pipits and peregrine falcons may be spotted along the rocky margins. BY CHRIS NEWTON

The National Trust's Brean Down is reached via a steep climb from the car park (ST 290590). Visitors are advised to wear proper walking shoes or boots and stay on the paths as the cliffs are very steep. For more information call 01934 844518 or visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk.

Latest from the Somerset Life