From Glastonbury the best way to Brent Knoll is over the Moors, through Meare, Westhay, Burtle and Mark. Park by the church. The top of the Knoll is quite accessible, involving a 450ft/137m climb. Take a drink and snack and some binoculars.
Brent Knoll is a prominent hill, once an island, in the western Levels. Noticeable from Glastonbury Tor and also while driving past it on the M5 motorway en route to Devon. It has some similarities to Glastonbury: a domineering hill, an upland plateau under it, and gentle slopes down to what once were the waters and marshes of the Levels. In ancient times Brent Knoll has clearly been safe haven to a tribe for centuries, comfortably supporting 300 people. An island from which any approaching visitors can be seen miles off.
Brent Knoll village is a pleasant, slightly twee, elongated village with character - worth sniffing around some of the back corners such as the church. A signposted footpath leads from there up the Knoll. It's a manageable climb, and well worth it. The top is flattish, with banks around the perimeter - comfortable for ten Celtic roundhouses within the banks. The view is amazing - a complete panorama. The only problem is that the M5 motorway passes close by down below, pervading the place with motor noise. The cars look like streams of ants, down there below.
The main dwellings on the island would have been lower down, on the plateau below the Knoll, where timber, cultivation and herding possibilities were plentiful. Ample game and fish would be gained from the marshes. Boat contact with the Mendips, and seaward toward Brean Down and inland alongriver to Glastonbury, was the only way to access Brent Knoll in prehistoric and Celtic times.
Brent Knoll as seen from Glastonbury Tor
Brent Knoll from Brean Down
The hilltop settlement atop Brent Knoll
River Parrett and Quantocks from Brent Knoll
The Mendips from Brent Knoll
This place would provide a good life to ongoing generations of a deserving tribe. Their island would have been both central and isolated - you would be able to see approaching boats long in advance. It has been occupied at least since the later Megalithic period or Bronze Age, with significant occupation during the Celtic period. The Romans would have had to fight hard to take this place - it's naturally defensible.
Tradition has it that it was formed with an errant shovelful of soil thrown here by a giant while digging out the Cheddar Gorge. In Roman and Arthurian times it was known as the Mount or Isle of Frogs - presumably because the frogs on the Levels gave everyone for miles around a headache in summer evenings! In Arthurian legend the knight Ider was supposed to have ridden here on a horse and killed three giants here - though how he got his horse over here when in Arthurian times the water levels were high is anybody's guess.
It was a prominent beacon hill throughout time. It could have been dedicated to Bran the Blessed in Celtic times - one of the protector-deities of Albion, the Britannic Isles. Inwardly, I've always had the imagery of crows and crows' nests here - and Bran was connected with ravens.
As a hilltop settlement, I find this place not to be as uplifting or happy as others such as Westbury Beacon or Cadbury Castle. Something dark or oppressive might have happened here sometime. But it's not negative - I'd call it 'occult' perhaps. But the 360° panorama is remarkable, and there's a place-memory of a good life here too, a safe haven, an island paradise in the Summerlands.
It might have been slightly cosmopolitan too, since it lies alongside the River Axe, into which spilled the River Brue from Glastonbury - thus bringing a stream of interesting people past it. Not just a few druids, healers, preachers and saints! Boats visiting the Mendips and Glastonbury from the Mediterranean - Phoenician, Greek and Roman - will have borne wine, olive oil and precious items, taking back with them lead, silver and textiles.
'The Romans', of course, were Spaniards, Arabs, Greeks, Germans and North Africans. They, or the romanised British of the times, built a temple atop the Knoll. An urn with coins from the 100s CE was found there. Later, the Saxons will have come - though they mainly came from the east and pervaded the mainland.
The Vikings, coming from the west by sea, would have found Brent Knoll a fine base for harrying and trading with the Levels - defensible yet well-placed for boat contact with the whole area. There was a crucial battle here between the Saxon English and the Danes in 875, which the Saxons won. In medieval times it was probably a quiet backwater. Water on the marshes levels were lower, allowing more saltmarsh pasturage. The island was always affected by periodic inundations of the Levels, during times of high tides and rainfall. The tsunami of 1607 flooded the Levels with 12ft of water, bringing great loss of life. Occasional floods defined the edge of safely habitable land, and the increasingly drained and desalinated marshes served as hunting, foraging, fishing and grazing lands.
NEXT: Brean Down