There were no complaints from me when Harri suggested we return to Somerset to check out the changes to the England Coast Path near Uphill and Brean Down. I love coastal walking and this cider-producing region of England is one of my favourite places to hike, not least because it’s possible to walk for miles without ever leaving the beach (meaning no steep hills).
But this wasn’t just a trip to the seaside. Back in 2014, Harri wrote a hiking guide called The England Coast Path: Severn Estuary and Bridgwater Bay (Chepstow to Minehead). At that time, the England Coast Path was under development but looked likely to take years to complete. Harri’s book was a practical guide to walking the stretch of coast between Chepstow (where the Wales Coast Path begins/ends) and Minehead (where the South West Coast Path begins/ends). He linked existing trails and rights of way to create a walking route that followed the west of England coastline as closely as possible.
That walk from Chepstow to Minehead was our first proper backpacking trip and it’s fair to say things didn’t always go smoothly. A too-heavy rucksack and bad shoe/sock combination on the first day resulted in painful blisters for me. Then there were the ridiculously long distances; Harri had left me to sort out our overnight accommodation and, using Google Maps, I completely under-estimated the coastal distances between towns. We sometimes found it difficult to follow footpaths on the ground. At one point, we wandered through field after field near Wick St Lawrence wondering if we would ever work out the way to reach the other side of the M5. Fortunately, Harri sorted out the correct route on a subsequent trip to Somerset. But most memorable of all was the endless trek up and down the River Parrett, followed by our night of wild camping (my first) under the watchful surveillance of Hinkley Point’s security cameras.
Thankfully, today’s walk would take us nowhere near that nuclear power station, but to the rather more picturesque Uphill and Brean Down.
In the past four years, considerable progress has been made in developing the England Coast Path, and the section between Brean Down and Minehead is now officially open with new access rights negotiated between Weston-super-Mare and Brean. Harri had included Brean Down as an optional detour in his original guidebook, simply because visiting the peninsular meant turning back on yourself for several miles on what was already a 14-mile (22 km) section.
Now, the Brean Down Way takes cyclists and hikers across the newly opened Brean Cross Sluice (2017) and past Diamond Farm campsite. It means crossing the River Axe at a much lower point than was previously possible, thus cutting off a considerable amount of lane walking (although on the downside it does mean missing the alpacas). With the new route delivering hikers back to the coast earlier, it now makes sense to include a circuit of Brean Down (as Harri has done).
We joined then left a second nature reserve – Bleadon Levels – dropping down to join Brean Down Way. Definitely the biggest improvement to the England Coast Path in these parts, the new cycle path means it is now possible to cross the River Axe at Brean Cross Sluice (also the site of the improbably named Great Bird Screen of Brean). The level terrain meant we’d speeded up considerably and we were growing weary. With amazing presence of mind, Harri had packed four little bottles of continental beer in his rucksack (kept cool with ice packs) … it was time to rest and enjoy our first drink of the day.
Unfortunately, a single male hiker going in the same direction had motored past us a few minutes earlier and now he was sitting on the only bench in sight. It seemed daft to walk past, so I politely asked if we might join him. I’m very glad he said ‘yes’. This fascinating 64-year-old (really, he was slim and fit enough to pass for fifteen years younger) had abandoned the nine-to-five lifestyle at 38 and had since walked across many of the world’s deserts, including places which are now off-bounds for foreign tourists. He lives in a caravan on the far side of Weston, having invested the proceeds from his Cheltenham flat all those years ago; however, he continues to spend a great deal of time travelling. We’re useless at asking for people’s names – and anyway I’m not sure he’d have been so open with us had we been able to trace him again – but it was refreshing to talk to someone who’d rejected the whole family/property/career model and had been prepared to take a chance and live life on his own terms. I was almost sorry when we had to get going again.
Back at the beach, I was feeling excited about revisiting Brean Down. When you’re standing on the cliffs along the Glamorgan Heritage Coast, Brean Down looks like an island. It’s not, but the surrounding land is so low that, from a distance, it ‘disappears’ at sea level, leaving the two-kilometre long promontory looking like another Bristol Channel island.
We ignored the long flight of steps up to the headland and instead followed a steep narrow lane which emerged on the northern slopes of the down. The views from up here are magnificent in all directions and it’s well worth walking the length of Brean Down to explore Brean Down Fort. There’s evidence that people have lived on Brean Down since the Stone Age, and apparently the remains of a Roman temple lie near the steps.
Back on the beach, we paddled in warm, shallow waves and I tried to ignore the fact the water was a muddy brown colour rather than the turquoise of the Algarve waves. The suspended alluvium silt certainly didn’t seem to be putting anyone else off bathing; there were people of all ages and shapes standing and splashing around at the water’s edge.
On previous visits, we’ve never had sufficient time to climb up to St Nicholas Church at Uphill, but today was different. Having (mostly) retraced our steps along the cycle path and through the nature reserves, we climbed a stile to head uphill, first passing a folly (and several startled rabbits) before reaching the clifftop church and its sloping graveyard. Unfortunately, the church itself was locked but we were able to wander around the graveyard, marvelling at the extensive views towards Uphill and Brean Down, Weston Bay and the Mendip Hills. Amazingly, St Nicholas has been partly in ruins since Uphill’s new parish church opened its doors in 1844 and yet it remains mostly intact, a centuries-old landmark which is visible for miles around.
The England Coast Path
Unlike the Wales Coast Path, which was jointly developed by Wales’s 22 local authorities, the England Coast Path is very sensibly being overseen by one public sector organisation, i.e. Natural England. When completed (if all goes to plan, the proposed finish date is 2020), it will incorporate 11 existing coastal trails in England, including the West Somerset Coast Path and South West Coast Path. The energetic will be able to follow England’s coastline for an incredible 2,795 miles (4,500 km), making it the longest waymarked and managed coastal trail in the world.
The best thing about the England Coast Path is that it’ll have National Trail status from the outset (amazingly, something the Wales Coast Path lacks), which means it will be properly maintained for posterity.
Will we have a stab at walking it? It’s unlikely we’ll tackle the entire trail for the usual reasons of time and money. That said, we’d love to finish the South West Coast Path … or preferably, start it again and finish it this time around.
England Coast Path: Severn Estuary to Bridgwater Bay by Harri Garrod Roberts is available in digital format from Amazon for £1.99.