Brean Down and Steep Holm
Brean Down is not well known as a sacred site, and driving there can be bizarre, leading through caravan parks and seedy holidaymaking areas of the chips and popcorn variety. But once you're up there on the Down (don't be deceived, it's an Up!), it is one of the more inspiring locations in the South West.
It is managed by the National Trust as a nature reserve and historic site – it is home to various rare flowers and butterflies, and it reminds of Ireland or Wales rather than Somerset. As a sacred site, at the 'right' moment and in benign weather, the summit of Brean Down is a brilliant place for going inside yourself in meditation - crown chakra stuff.
Brean Down in ancient times | picture National Trust
Settlement and use of Brean Down probably goes back to the ice ages some 11,000 years ago. The remains on the top are megalithic - two sacred enclosures (archaeologists call them a field system and a hillfort) and one temple mound. It is a distinctly 'vibrational' sacred site - an inspiring hike. A WW2 fort, going back to Napoleonic times, dominates the end of the Down.
To get there from Glastonbury, take backroads over the Levels through Meare, Westhay, Burtle, Brent Knoll and Berrow (just north of Burnham on Sea). Then follow the coast road north through Berrow and Brean to the Down, and park in the car park at the end (£1.50 on busier days).
There are a two cafes useful for refreshments after the walk, though take your own snacks too, for the far end of the Down. The walk is 2-3 miles and it feels like more, but it's well worth it. You can return along the old road from the fort at the end.
The first bit involves a climb up some 150 or more steps – gets your heart pumping. At the top you're immediately confronted with a fantastic view, including the Victorian Weston-super-Mare seafront to the north, the coast of South Wales with the Brecon Beacons behind and, the west Somerset coast with the Quantocks and Exmoor behind.
Eastwards you see a view along the axis of the Mendips, including direct sightlines to a number of hill settlements (see Tower Head), south-eastwards to Brent Knoll and Glastonbury Tor, and a wide sweep around the Severn Sea (Bristol Channel), including the islands of Steep Holm and Flat Holm. This is just the beginning, gladly taken in while catching your breath after climbing the steps!
Brean Down goes back to Megalithic times and before – a worked deer antler was found here, dating back to 10,000 BCE. Around 3,000 BCE farming communities existed in the area, and it's logical that Brean Down was recognised as sacred. Bronze Age remnants, around 4,000 years old, have been found at the eastern end, aside the River Axe, which emerges into the sea here - this might perhaps have been the site of a jetty or hamlet.
The sacred enclosure at the summit
Archaeologists define the small ridges atop the summit of the Down as a field system, or agricultural terraces, but I believe they were a series of stages in a sacred enclosure moving up to the summit. If you're sensitive you can sense a distinct energy-shift at each stage as you climb.
These banks might have been converted to defensive positions after the Roman invasion – the Romans sought the lead of the Mendips, and Brean thus became strategically important since lead-carrying boats will have passed it. A 'Romano-British' temple was built on the eastern knoll of the Down around 340 CE, in the later Roman period, but it seems to have been used only for a generation or two. It was built close to a Bronze Age mound of greater antiquity. In ancient times this was probably a place for acolytes and hermits, not for ordinary people doing ordinary things. But it was the last stop on the river journey from Glastonbury and Cheddar, and thus significant as a stopping place.
Brean Down, as seen from Glastonbury Tor
It was once a rocky island – it was the first port-of-call if sailing from the west upriver to Glastonbury. It will have been a stopping place for a succession of interesting people – including, if you believe it, Jesus and Joseph, as well as a succession of well-known Welsh and Irish saints. Subjectively, I have a sense of a more ancient traffic passing up the west coast of Britain from Cornwall to Scotland, using Brean as a stopping place. In Megalithic times, the coast of the Irish Sea was really the centre of activity in Britain, as evidenced by the stone circles and ancient remains of Cornwall, Wales, Ireland and the west of Scotland - generally older than Stonehenge, Avebury and other major English sites.
Flat Holm, with Wales and the Brecon Beacons behind
Brean Down commands a prominent position in the Severn Sea. It is well worth stopping on the summit of Brean Down, not only for the impressive view but also to imbibe the earth energies at this spot – this is a fine place for mystical experiences, especially if you visit at times when other walkers aren't there. It was one of the favourite local spots for the Glastonbury occultist Dion Fortune. I once had a very profound experience there, in a silent winter blanket-fog, which took me back to megalithic times, gave me a strong sense of connection with, with dramatic views of the Viking-named islands of Steep Holm and Flat Holm. the Isle of Man, Arran and Iona, and shed significant light on my personal relationship with Glastonbury, upriver, where I now live.
Further down at the end of the promontory is an old 'Palmerston fort', first built in the 1860s to protect the Bristol Channel and rebuilt in WW2. It saw no action during WW2 - a seriously boring, windy post - but it was the test site for a number of secret weapons. The only major action seen was a soldier who accidentally blew himself up in an ammunition store. There is a tidally exposed rock platform off the end of the Down which, during incoming and outgoing tides, creates dramatic tidal currents and waves – nature's power at its best. At times, on stormy days, the waves can be stirring to witness.
Brean Down is reminiscent of many of the Atlantic headlands you see on the west coasts of Ireland, Wales and Scotland, and a fine contrast to the tamed, green, soft landscape of Somerset - it's hard and wild. Small trees are bent with the wind, and windward parts are quite bare, while leeward parts harbour fairy-like thickets of hawthorn and scrub, home to many small birds. Especially good to visit if Glastonbury is crowded or suffering one of its down moods.
The Down is formed of Carboniferous Limestone, same as the Mendips – and its next outcrop westward is the Gwyr (Gower) peninsula just past Swansea in South Wales.
Go visit Brean Down - it's a hidden jewel.
Steep Holm rises 250ft out of the Bristol Channel, a carboniferous outcrop and continuation of the Mendip Hills. It is now a nature reserve run by the Kenneth Alsop Memorial Trust. It is reached by an hour's boat trip from Weston super Mare - visitors are taken to help finance work trips to the island (see website below for information).
A day on this island is special. It feels very isolated, yet it is surrounded by the shores of the Severn Sea - with Exmoor, the Quantocks, the Mendips and the Brecon Beacons as bacdrops. It is rich in flora and fauna, and remarkable fast tidal channels pass close to the island. It is quiet, atmospheric - and one of the succession of islands ancient and medieval seafarers will have passed when sailing to Glastonbury (to be followed by Brean Down, Brent Knoll, Nyland Hill and Panborough Hill before reaching Glastonbury).
It was used by ancient people, the Romans, occasional hermits, Vikings and monks. It hosts no known ancient sites, just the remains of a small medieval priory, but it is a natural site par excellence, and well worth a visit.
Steep Holm website
NEXT: Ebbor Gorge