Beaches and mud-flats below the Quantock Hills
The steep-sided Mendip and Quantock Hills frame a coastline where the sea retreats well over 2 miles in some places. Low tide exposes huge areas of sand to the north of the River Parrett’s estuary and, to the south-west, vast mud-flats where sea-birds congregate. Further west are small bays between reefs of rock. Inland, an intricate network of canalised rivers, streams and ditches drains areas reclaimed from the sea.
Set in a tranquil patchwork of fields between the A39 and Bridgwater Bay, this beautiful hamlet has belonged to the Luttrell family since shortly after the Norman Conquest. Their home, Court House, is not open to visitors. Quaint, stone-built cottages – some thatched, others with ruddy pantiles – stand near the duckpond. A 10 minute walk from the pond leads to a beach of rocks and smooth shingle.
To the east, a lane runs from Kilve to a small parking area from which a similar beach with many long, low-tide rock pools can be reached in a couple of minutes. Low cliffs are vantage points for views of aircraft attacking targets moored offshore. Red flags fly when the range is in use. The lane passes the ivy-clad ruins of a chapel that was burned out in the 19th century. The blaze was thought to have been fuelled by a consignment of smuggled liquor.
EAST QUANTOXHEAD Low, crumbling cliffs above the bench half a mile from East Quantoxhead stretch -westwards towards Blue Ben.
Narrow lanes wander northwards from the Bridgwater road to a small, scattered hamlet from whose car park a 2 minute walk leads to the sea. There is a broad band of smooth shingle, but the falling tide uncovers a large area of sand. Eastward views along the low, turf-topped cliffs are dominated by the pale grey buildings of the nuclear power station at Hinkley Point.
The sea deserts this tiny, isolated hamlet at low tide, slipping away to leave a vast expanse of treacherous, glistening mud deposited by the River Parrett. From the seawall, local fishermen can be seen traversing the shore with contraptions known as ‘mud horses’ which prevent them sinking as they race against the returning tide. Thanks to the mud horse – a device unique to Stolford – the hostile conditions yield a harvest of shrimps, prawns and the occasional salmon. There is room to park by the sea-wall, where the mud-flats are backed by shingle and slabs of seaweed-covered rock.
Stolford adjoins Bridgwater Bay National Nature Reserve, which includes Stert Island and extends up the Parrett estuary as far as Combwich. Embracing just over 6,000 acres of mud-flats, saltings and farmland, it is an important feeding and roosting ground for many wildfowl and waders which flock there in the autumn and winter. Birds likely to be seen include shelducks – which visit the bay to moult in summer – wigeon and white-fronted geese. Most of the reserve is ‘open’, but nobody is allowed on Stert Island from November to March, and a permit obtainable from the Warden is needed at other times of the year. Fenning Island can only be visited at high tides at weekends. Though the mud-flats appear safe to walk on, they can be treacherous.
High tides sometimes flood the village streets, but at low water the River Parrett is reduced to a narrow channel flowing between high banks of dark mud. A few boats moor in a creek which flows into the river.
Abandoned quays and derelict landing stages are reminders that up to the 18th century this was a busy little port, in the days when the River Parrett was one of Somerset’s main commercial arteries. The town still flourishes, but the coasters have gone, just as the building of the M5 has removed the traffic jams for which Bridgwater was once notorious.
The town’s most famous son, Admiral Sir Robert Blake, is commemorated by a statue in the Cornhill, and the house where he was
ASHORE BY MUD HORSE
Some fishermen at Stolford use a unique wooden-framed vehicle called a ‘mud horse’ to reach their shrimp nets far out on the mud at low tide. The task of emptying the shrimp nets of the catch and repairing torn nets is a race against time. Without his mud horse to support him and his catch the fisherman could not reach the shore before being engulfed by the incoming tide.
The mud horses can be seen in use in the Parrett estuary from April to December, and shrimps are sold at some cottages in Stolford during the summer. born in 1599 is now a museum. Blake became Member of Parliament for Bridgwater in 1625, and as a Parliamentarian was one of Cromwell’s outstanding commanders during the Civil War. He successfully defended Bristol, Lyme Regis and Taunton against the Royalists, and in 1649 destroyed most of Prince Rupert’s fleet off Spain.
There are livestock and produce markets, both on Wednesday.
Burnham’s roots delve back to Saxon times, but the most significant figure in the small town’s history is the enterprising Rev. David Davies. At the start of the 19th century he was granted Parliamentary permission to build a lighthouse and levy tolls on ships using the port of Bridgwater. Hoping to turn Burnham into a fashionable spa, he sank wells-on the shore. Opinions about the waters varied considerably – one disgruntled visitor said they smelled like a cesspool blended with bad horseradish – but the venture established the town as a seaside resort.
Most of the beach is sandy, but areas of mud are exposed in some places at low water, when swift currents make it unsafe to bathe. There are views across the mouth of the River Parrett to the Stert Island bird sanctuary. As well as the usual seaside attractions, a regatta is held in August and a carnival in November. There is fishing from the shore for skate, codling, whiting and conger eels. Activities include water-skiing and sailing.
SENTINEL ON STILTS The lighthouse on the beach at Burnham-on-Sea was built in the 1800s to warn ships of sandbanks, but is no longer used.
A small holiday village which merges with Burnham-on-Sea, Berrow nestles behind sand-dunes and a golf course which lead to the sandy ‘desert’ of Berrow Flats that sweeps from Brean Down to the mouth of the River Parrett. Views inland are dominated by the grassy cone of Brent Knoll, once islanded by marshes, on whose summit the outlines of an Iron Age fort are clearly visible. The isolated hill was also used as a place of refuge when Vikings raided the coast in the 8th century. used by an anti-aircraft unit during the Second World War.
A bird sanctuary was established on Brean Down in 1912. Among the many birds which may be seen are the skylark, jackdaw, rock pipit, peregrine falcon, various gulls and many autumn migrants. Pollock, cod, bass and conger eels are among the fish likely to be caught from the rocks.
A world apart from Brean’s holiday camp and caravan sites is the nearby St Bridget’s
Church, which is believed to have been founded by Irish monks in the 6th century.
The present building dates from the 13th century.
A long, low ridge which broadens out into extensive dunes towards Berrow overlooks an immense sandy beach where bathing is safe at high tide. Set back from the northern end of the beach, sheltered by Brean Down, is a tropical bird garden. headland whose 159 acres have been owned by the National Trust since 1954. It was the site of a Roman temple, excavated in 1957, and retains traces of a field system believed to date from the Iron Age.
At the seaward end of the. headland are the ruins of a fort built in 1867 when there were fears of a French invasion. It housed 50 men and was armed with seven muzzle-loaded cannon. The fort was abandoned after the magazine exploded in 1900, but was