Saturday, 4 February 2012

Brean Down Fort (1870 - 1945)

One of my favourite battlefield walks is just a short drive from my home in Somerset, England. Brean Down is a spectacular rocky outcrop that juts out into the Severn Estuary. On a clear day and after a steep climb, it is possible to see the Black Mountains in Wales, the North Devon coast, the Somerset Levels and the urban sprawl of Weston Super Mare. It is a beautiful place - devoid of cars and abundant in wildlife. It also has a fascinating military history. In particular Brean Down Fort at the tip of the peninsular.

Brean Down Fort with 1941 hardstanding in the foreground
The Fort was built in the 1860s - part of a grand scheme of defences devised to see off the threat of a French invasion. Such fortifications have since become known as Palmerston's Follies on account of the fact that they became obsolete within just a few years of being built as a result of large scale improvements in naval gunnery. Brean Down Fort was home to three 7 inch rifled muzzle loading guns. Working with similiar batteries on the Welsh coast and on the islands of Steep & Flat Holm the fort served to protect the city of Bristol from raiders navigating up the Severn Estuary. The fort was destroyed in 1900 by a rogue artilleryman who discharged his weapon down the ventilation shaft leading to No. 3 magazine. The site was rendered unusable and remained out of use until WW2.

No. 2 Gun Position - WW2 era
Some forty years later, following the outbreak of WW2, Brean Down Fort was reshaped to incorporate just two gun positions. Each one housing a 6 inch Naval gun served by the men of 365 & 366 Coastal Batteries respectively (Royal Artillery 571 Coastal Regiment). 

There is another aspect to Brean Down's military history which is particularly interesting. This was its' usage as a base for the intriguingly named Department of Miscellaneous Experimental Weapons. Amongst the weapons tested, one of the more well known was a ship launched 'bouncing bomb'.

Searchlight bunker and rail track for 'bouncing bomb'
The best way to visit Brean is to take a circuit around the hill starting from the beach car park on the southern side. The steps are daunting but once up on the top turn left and head towards the fort. There is plenty to explore including old observation posts, searchlight batteries and a giant concrete directional arrow on the top of the ridge (for friendly aircraft). Brean Down Fort can be confusing with WW2 buildings and fortifications built on top of Victorian structures but there is plenty to see and it doesn't take long to figure out which structure relates to what era.

Lewis Gun positions above Weston Beach 
To complete the walk take the military road on the north side of the down. This will take you past numerous hard standings which mark the locations of various WW2 buildings (now gone) and half way down the road, the Victorian era Brean Fort Gatehouse. Further on still there are six brick built Lewis Gun positions overlooking the bay and the huge crest of mud and sand that is Weston Super Mare beach. As can be seen in the picture above the walk is excellent for dogs. Watch out for the goats though - a recent addition courtesy of the National Trust.

To see my full Brean Down photograph portfolio click here.