Middle Hope to St Thomas’s Head

Walking briskly on the spine of Middle Hope, the Priory tower below to my right and the Mendips on the horizon.

The view to Woodspring Priory founded in the 13th century and now cared for by Landmark Trust. The Mendip Hills in the background.

To the left and across the Bristol Channel, the coast of Wales sweeps west into a distant Swansea blur. My grandson is about to be born in Cardiff.

This bit of the West Country was still Wales until the 7th century.

A warm, almost hot, October day with wispy clouds in a severely bright blue sky.

Before leaving home, I’d hammered out one last.. delaying email, set the car for Kewstoke and found myself behind time for the car park meeting at 1pm.

The road blocked with drainage works at Sand Bay, so I threw the car into an ill-considered niche (perhaps a parking ticket to greet my return) and pitched myself headlong for the car park half a mile up the road…. past a concrete machine gun post with a lepracaun Banksy? on it.

The car park was empty.. (of course it was !!).. this was Sand Point and I’d forgotten the other car park at Huckers Bow. Wrong end…After all, we were assembling to talk about St Thomas Head not the rocky headland to the west.

In my hurry, I had left the phone and the water in the car… so found myself, dehydrating and uncontactable striding across Middle Hope to find the others… hopefully to intercept them at the security fence.

Though…it was so lovely here. Calm, coastal, sheep-grazed grassland, occasionally divided by stone walls and with a variety of earthworks: terraced tees (from the brief 20th century golf course), field clearance cairns and one or two round barrows.

Looking west from Middle Hope towards Sand Point, the escarpment with the banks of prehistoric ‘celtic’ fields surviving. The edge of the rocky bay visible in the centre.

At the centre, the Middle Hope ridge drops away as an escarpment. Here, the banks and lynchets of a prehistoric field system were picked out in the autumn light. And, beyond this, where the land slopes gently to the sea, a small, secluded rocky bay.

Throughout its history and prehistory, this place had a strategic dimension. At Sand Point, there’s a mound, now cut into by the ruins of some forgotten WWII structures. It’s perhaps a Norman motte ..but nobody knows.

Potentially, something to do with 10th century defence when warring factions were grinding out the identity of Britain.

The view north from Middle Hope to the south coast of Wales.

In 918 AD, a hostile fleet from Britanny penetrated the Channel and raided both the Welsh and Somerset coasts before being driven back by the men of Hereford and Gloucester.

‘And King Edward contrived that a guard should be set against them on the south side of Severnmouth; west from Wales, eastward to the mouth of the Avon’ The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

As I walked in the sunshine, more evidence for military works, the zig-zag earthworks of WWI practice trenches.

This place was also requisitioned in WWII, linked to the military research establishment at Birkbeck Pier at Weston. Like Brean Down, (NT’s headland property to the south), experimental weapons were tested here, and the coast was used as a bombing range.

In fact, after 1945, the east end of Middle Hope was not relinquished. St Thomas Head remained a secret establishment. When National Trust acquired the land in1968, it was already a Cold War base.

The perimeter fence and entrance Gates to St Thomas Head MoD research establishment 2012.

I had reached the high perimeter fence topped with barbed wire. The tarmac road led to the double gates with grim no entry signs. Nobody was there.

I spotted the gap in the fence and slipped through … pinning it back afterwards. I had not been here for a decade. At that time, the place was pristine.. and MoD were ready to give it back. It had been taken with the promise to return it as found…but could the NT wipe out all that recent history?

In the military records, there are notes on medieval burials found here during construction work. These may have been associated with a chapel dedicated to the 12th century saint, the martyred Archbishop Thomas a’ Becket. Perhaps the chapel was still in use when Middle Hope’s Woodspring Priory was built in the 13th century.

It cannot be seen now, and indeed, the various structures that were created across the headland, since the 1940s, may have removed much of the evidence.

St Thomas Head soon after it ceased to be used by the MoD in 2012 with the various buildings still in place.

No buildings. That was the great change since my last visit. Initially, we hoped to keep them as a Cold War interpretation site. David recorded them all and put them on the data-base.. found out as much as he could…this side of the official secrets act.

I walked down the track to the bay. Here, the deep tidal range of the Bristol Channel could be utilised. Underwater mines were taken out at low tide, detonated in high tide and the remnants checked and recovered when the tide fell again.

The concrete road down into the sea at St Thomas Head where the mines were transported at low tide.

Once the military ceased to guard the site… the vandals came, broke the windows and stripped out all the wiring. Without a presence on site, at this remote place, these unremarkable buildings could not be curated. Historic England agreed, this place was no Orford Ness. The MoD took the buildings and left the footprint of the paths and foundations for future interpretation.

Nobody was here. Had I got the right day? I spotted clusters of blackberries sheltered behind aluminium railings and quenched my thirst.

I looked back across the sea towards Wales.

Wales.. so strange, that every time we say that.. at its roots it means the place of the foreigners or other people… though I cross the Severn bridge so often.

In Cardiff, I ask Leah….’what does Cymru mean?’

‘It means the land of fellow countrymen, of friends’

‘And as we leave? as the bridge touches England… what is this place Lloegr?

‘Ah, this last sign of the Cymri lets everyone know that they are entering the lost lands… the once Welsh lands of the Romanised Britons’ absorbed by the Germanic tribes from the 5th-7th centuries.

So, even in the 21st century, Cymru still calls out to Middle Hope, part of the Lloegr, the lost lands of the West Country.

The unique language of British place names, telling the stories of the mixing of past communities over many centuries.

I walked back towards the security gate to see at last the group coming towards me.

‘I’m so sorry, I went to the wrong car park’

St Thomas Head reseach buildings

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