Brean Down is a ridge of rock that sticks out into the sea on the south side of Weston Super Mare. Nearly all of it is a scheduled monument and rightly so, this is definitely an A* site for archaeology.
Approaching it from the south across the Somerset Levels..through the caravan parks. The carboniferous limestone cliff looms up. A giant wind-break..the silts and sands are stopped by Brean and thousands of years worth of evidence of people’s lives has been buried by its slow accumulation.
At the bottom are reindeer bones.., some were remains of meals left by communities of hunters about 12,000 years ago.
Higher up have been found Neolithic flint tools covered by Bronze Age salt-working remains and near the top a Dark Age Christian cemetery below a Tudor rabbit farmer’s cottage. It’s virtually a… you name it we’ve got it ..sort of place and there is much more to be discovered.
Along the crest of the Down are visible earthworks,’celtic’ fields (remains of the Bronze Age to Romano-British farming), these small enclosures are intermingled with Bronze Age burial mounds, an Iron Age fort and a 4th century Roman temple.
Other mounds have possibilities. Nick, who carried out the National Trust survey for Brean a few years ago wonders whether one mound facing the Bristol Channel might be a Roman light house or signal post which once guided trading vessels towards the mouth of the River Axe. He and Mark will test this theory in May with a couple of small trenches. Their geophysics has provided some encouraging results.
The Down is well worth a visit. Park in Brean Cafe’ car park beside the beach and take the long climb up the steps over the Brean sand deposits until the summit is reached. There are great views across the levels to the south or across Weston Bay and the Bristol Channel to the north. Follow the undulating spine of the ridge until you start to descend at the west end and there in front of you are the remains of a military base.
The first concrete bunker you come to was the command centre. It is a shell now but there is a WWII photo that shows the soldiers here with range finders, radios and charts on the walls. From here looking down to the left perched on the cliff is one concrete searchlight building, the other lies at the western tip of Brean.
The main thing to look at here is the fort built to guard against potential attack by Napoleon III’s French troops. By the time it was ready in 1872 and the gunners were stationed there, the French had largely been defeated by Germany and the string of forts ordered by the Prime Minister along the south coast became known as ‘Palmerston’s Follies’
The barrack block built for 20 men only had about 4 or 5 men living there according to the census returns of 1881 and 1891. The officer’s house was lived in by the Master Gunner along with his wife and 6 children aged 1-11 years old. His army career had taken him to various parts of the Empire as his children had each been born in exotic foreign places.
In 1900, Gunner Haynes decided to fire a shot into the Gun Battery’s magazine and blew himself and part of the military base into bits. By 1913, the old Brean Battery had been turned into a Cafe’ and day-trippers came to use the old military base as a recreation area which had a swing and a see-saw. People went down into the munitions stores and signed their names on the walls. Brean NT volunteers have photographed and transcribed them and written a report. The cafe’ was in use throughout WWI but it closed down in 1936.
WWII and the base was re-occupied. A series of bases for Nissan huts can be seen on the north side of the Battery and two new gun emplacements were built over the old Victorian gun sites. The Bristol Channel was a strategic position and needed to be guarded.
Towards the end of the war, as the invasion threat receded, the boffins moved in. Known locally as the ‘wheezers and dodgers’ they were based in Weston in the old Victorian Birkbeck pier and used the Down and beach beside it to test rockets and other devices, particularly in advance of the D-Day landings of 1944.
At the end of Brean, beyond the Battery survives a pair of rails used as a rocket launching device.
Take a trip and go and look. Brean is stunning for nature conservation too but this is an archaeology blog after all so I won’t mention the Peregrines and the rock roses…oh I just did.