It was back to England this weekend, with a circular hike around Sand Bay and Weston. We first walked this stretch of coastline back in 2014 when Harri was researching his book The England Coast Path: Severn Estuary and Bridgwater Bay. Our first attempt at backpacking was certainly memorable, i.e. numerous blisters, gruelling daily distances and an unforgettable wild camping experience under Hinkley Point’s surveillance cameras.
It was a little cooler and cloudier than of late when we parked on a peaceful, residential road in Worle; however, Harri assured me that the hot, sunny weather we’d grown accustomed to would return later in the day (he was right!). Within minutes, we’d joined a quiet country lane with arable fields either side. Here in Somerset, they call their drainage systems ‘rhynes’ rather than ‘reens’ as we do in Wales, though the two words are pronounced the same. While the crops on this side of the Bristol Channel looked much greener than those we saw in the Vale of Glamorgan last week, it was evident from vegetation on the rhyne banks that the water levels had dropped significantly. Rain is needed everywhere … and soon!
Soon, we were getting our first glimpse of the Bristol Channel. Newport was just across the water, looking far more appealing with its mountain backdrop than the much flatter Cardiff just along the coast.
We did a brief detour to Woodspring Priory, a former Augustinian priory dedicated to Thomas Becket. Its founder, William de Courtney, was a grandson to one of the archbishop’s murderers, and the priory was possibly built to atone for his death. Woodspring suffered structural damage and looting between 1535 and 1541 when Thomas Cromwell’s henchman attacked it during the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. Apparently, local collusion led to some of Woodspring’s treasures being saved and eventually finding their way to local churches. Within a week of being suppressed, Woodspring was snapped up by a member of the gentility and was gradually transformed into a manor house. There is a museum on site (open on Mondays and Fridays) and, following a twenty-year restoration project, the Landmark Trust now rents out the house to holidaymakers.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s now four years since we first walked this stretch of coast and, since then, Natural England has been steaming ahead with the England Coast Path. The plan is to launch this new national trail in 2020 and the section from Aust to Brean Down is currently at the development stage. Four years ago, we’d been unable to walk along the privately-owned sea wall at Woodspring Bay but it seems this will change in the near future as agreements are gradually put in place with landowners along the coast. Not that there’s a beach or anything here, I should add,but at least walkers will enjoy coastal views.
In the distance, we could now see the Prince of Wales bridge, the renaming of which caused a bit of a furore in Wales when it was announced without any prior consultation with the Welsh people. Welsh secretary Alun Cairns MP claimed the bridge – universally known as the Second Severn Crossing – was being renamed to celebrate Prince Charles’ 70th birthday in November. The Welsh Government was in complete agreement with the new name, which is sad and kind of makes me wish we were more like Scotland with more political clout – and a leader like Nicola Sturgeon at the helm.
Having simmered for a few minutes about the injustice of imposing a pro-monarchy name on ‘our’ bridge, we followed a low-level footpath along the now muddy Sand Rhyne, arriving at a little pond which so distracted us with its prettiness that we climbed over a nearby stile instead of sticking to the footpath as we ought to have done. If we’d continued along the footpath we’d have soon come to an old wooden pier. C’est la vie!
For a while, we followed a wide grassy track around the perimeter of Middle Hope, before climbing over another stile to head onto the top ridge. The views from the top were magnificent, both towards Wales and along the Somerset coast. The strong currents in the water below were a clear indication of the point where the Severn Estuary meets the Bristol Channel.
We stopped for elevenses just above a little pebble bay. We might have ventured onto the pebbles, but a couple had already set up their tent on the beach and we didn’t want to invade their space. Besides, the views were better from our higher vantage point (though unfortunately, it meant we could see smoke rising from our local mountain, Twmbarlwm).
After we’d eaten, we ventured out to Sand Point where the views of Steep Holm were even better. The ground underneath was stony and uneven so you can imagine our horror when we saw an ill-equipped family group heading towards us. The mother was carrying a young baby in her arms and was attempting to shield its bare head from the hot sun with nothing more than her hand. The father followed behind, with a toddler on his back. We were astonished to see both parents were undertaking this challenging high-level walk in flip flops. One stumble and I dread to think what might have happened.
At Sand Bay, we joined the ‘beach’ (at the north end, it’s more spartina grass than sand) and enjoyed a pleasant level stroll along a wide, level footpath full of mud cracks. Though spectacular, the Sand Bay you visit today is not a completely natural landscape. The grass was planted here in the 1950s, but is fast taking over the beach (it started to take root on the beach at nearby Weston-super-Mare too, but was removed by the council). In the 1980s, the beach was raised to prevent flooding; as a result, it now has one beach at sea-level and a second, higher beach adjacent to the road. With just two hours to go before high tide, the mudflats were still exposed and glistening.
Weston Woods provided some welcome shade and we enjoyed ambling along the now-familiar undulating path. There was music in the air when we emerged near Birnbeck Pier. We soon discovered (from a poster) that an open air fund-raising concert was taking place to raise funds for the restoration of the old pier. The brilliantly named Barnacle Buoys were entertaining a crowd down below with sea shanties. And very good sea shanties they were. In fact, having spent a couple of summer seasons working on the Isles of Scilly with the Scillonian Choir as the only live entertainment (this was the early 1980s), I have quite a penchant for this kind of music.
Not wishing to leave the music immediately, we found a nearby bench and sat down to eat lunch. Harri quietly informed me that enthusiastic Conservative Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg was the local MP* and suggested I keep my voice down if our conversation should inadvertently stray into the political. He didn’t want me getting into any arguments with pro-Brexit Tory locals.
It was a great spot to enjoy lunch. As well as the sea shanties, there were great views across the bay. In fact, Brean Down looked just a stone’s throw away across the water. From this angle it looked possible to follow the beach from Weston around the bay to reach the headland in a couple of hours. It was an illusion, of course. The River Axe at the far end of the beach obstructs the onward route, making an inland detour necessary. The coastline continues to deceive …
We were interested to spot a plaque, commemorating the efforts of Kathleen Thomas, who was just 21 when she swam from Penarth to Weston-super-Mare on September 5, 1927. We’d seen the sister plaque in Penarth a few weeks ago. It’s incredible to think this slip of a girl completed her long swim from Wales to England in just seven hours and twenty minutes.
At Marine Lake, we paused to contemplate the lost opportunity for Newport when the Usk Barrage Scheme was rejected by another delightful Tory, the then Secretary of State for Wales, William Hague. How different Newport’s city centre would be today if we too had a marine lake which could be enjoyed by families when the tide was out.
Not wishing to leave the coast, I persuaded Harri to take a leisurely stroll along Weston-super-Mare‘s promenade. It was busy on this hot and sunny Sunday afternoon and it was fun watching children doing what children do at the seaside, i.e. get over-excited about pretty much everything. There is something about Weston that reminds me of Penzance … perhaps it’s the seafront park or the wonderful stone villas just a stone’s throw from the promenade. Politics aside, it’s a lovely seaside town with something for everyone.
Eventually, it was time to head inland and back to Worle. We headed into Grove Park where the theme tune from the Dambusters film was filling the air and vintage cars lined the yellowed lawns. I spotted a few familiar models from my childhood and would have lingered, only Harri had noted the demographic of the people sitting in the lines of deckchairs in this the bluest of areas and was keen to propel me out of the park.
I don’t know about the midday sun … we’ve always found late afternoon to be the toughest time of the day for walking, perhaps because our energy levels are starting to flag. It didn’t help that after hours of level walking, we were now encountering our first steep climb of the day. Thankfully, the path which followed the towering stone wall of Old Town Quarry was mostly shaded by trees. Eventually we emerged in Weston Woods and the ground levelled off.
I was enjoying the solitude of the woods when Harri shared something frightening. Thirty years ago, in March 1987, a local dog walker was murdered in these very woods. Helen Fleet, 66, was found beaten and strangled, and despite an extensive police investigation including more than 500 interviews – there was a new appeal for information only last year – her killer has never been found. Even more worrying, police have always believed him to be local. Gazing around at the shadowy copses, I found myself walking faster.
The final hour’s walking saw us wandering along a pretty ridgeway footpath through the local golf course where, thinking there was no-one within earshot, I vented my pent-up fury towards the Conservatives at the very moment a runner appeared around a bend. Goodness knows what she must have thought! Maybe we’ll head to the Welsh valleys next week … though we’ll need to steer clear of the Brexiteers!!
If you’re interested in following our route, here’s a link to the Viewranger map.
* Harri was wrong. Jacob Rees-Mogg is the MP for North East Somerset.