SOMERSET COAST PATH
Stage 4: Kilve Beach to Bridgwater
Friday, July 29, 2016
I returned to the village of Kilve on a rather gloomy Friday morning, stopping briefly at the village stores to top up my supplies before heading off down Sea Lane to rejoin the Somerset Coast Path. From the small car park at the end of the lane, I took a track to the right of the brick oil retort where I had ended the previous stage of the walk, skirting around to the seaward side of the Kilve Cricket Club and passing what appeared to be a tyre dump to reach the low cliffs overlooking Kilve Beach (picture 1).
The track hugs the clifftop for the next two kilometres, climbing over a low peak and then over a second, where the view opens out over Bridgwater Bay and the Bristol Channel (picture 2) as the track descends towards a coastguard lookout tower. Far out in the channel are the two rounded humps of the islands of Flat Holm and Steep Holm, the former belonging to Wales and the latter to England. A little closer, across the bay, is the imposing bulk of Brean Down and to its right the northernmost of the Mendip Hills, both more than seventy kilometres away on the coast path, though only a fraction of that as the crow flies.
On reaching the lookout, the track turns inland while the Coast Path continues ahead on a grassy clifftop path above Lilstock Beach for another kilometre with the menacing bulk of the Hinkley Point Nuclear Power Stations growing gradually larger ahead (picture 3). Just after passing a sunken pillbox (picture 4), a fingerpost directs the path a short distance inland to run along the length of a narrow meadow behind the cliffs, which slope away from the coast here.
After about 500 metres, the route returns to the clifftop above a section of Lilstock Beach where the tilted, alternating layers of limestone and shale, covering most of the beach since Watchet, finally give way to shingle (picture 5). From here, the route sticks to the grassy clifftop path for a couple of kiloemtres as it heads onto Hinkley Point.
Well short of the two original power stations, Hinkley A and B, the path reaches the north-west corner of the construction site of the new Hinkley C power station, covering about five times the area of its neighbours. A fingerpost bears a sign explaining that the next 2.4 kilometres of the coast path are closed for the duration of the multi-year construction project, with the route diverted around the inland side of the site, approximately doubling the distance.
Fortunately the diversion is well signposted, heading inland down the western edge of the site to a fingerpost where the route turns left across the southern edge of the site (picture 6) to reach the access road of the original power stations. About 550 metres along the road, the route turns right through two sets of gates into a sheep-grazed field. I initially missed this turning as the fingerpost had fallen over in the long grass beside the road.
A rough track heads along the left edge of the field and two more, now directly inland from the original power stations (picture 7). At the end of the third field, the route continues ahead over a stile beside a wooden gate, following a stretch of enclosed path for about 500 metres before turning left along the eastern perimeter of Hinkley B to return to the coast (picture 8) after almost five kilometres.
Now on the edge of the huge, flat expanse of the Somerset Levels, the coast path now follows a wide track alongside the sea defences with the slightly sinister presence of the nuclear power stations gradually receding over one's left shoulder (picture 9). After one and a half kilometres the track passes to the seaward side of the hamlet of Stolford (picture 10), before continuing to parallel the shoreline across Catsford Common (picture 11) and Wall Common, where the track eventually merges into a narrow tarmac lane (picture 12), three kilometres from Stolford and still a kilometre short of the next village of Steart. All along this stretch of the path the flatness of the landscape makes for a feeling of isolation and a big blue sky.
The quiet village of Steart is spread out along the lane and after passing by the simple Church of St Andrew (picture 13) the lane starts to angle inland away from the shore. After bending right then left around a sheep-grazed field, the Coast Path bears left into a grassy car parking area surrounded by trees. At the back of the carpark is a stone monument, unveiled in 2006, marking the eastern end of the West Somerset Coast Path (picture 14). The newer England Coast Path continues however, joining a grassy path to the left of the monument and heading along the edge of a field towards the shore.
An obvious path heads north-eastwards onto Steart Point (picture 15), separated from the water's edge by a wide strip of marshy land. A kilometre after joining this path is a wooden gate near the tip of Steart Point where the Coast Path splits into separate summer and winter routes, and the River Parrett Trail also begins.
The summer route heads across a rough field to the tall wooden tower of a bird hide (picture 16), where I stopped to eat my lunch and admire the views from the top.
The top level of the bird hide looks out over the trees and across the marshes at the mouth of the River Parrett (picture 17), an important feeding and breeding area for a variety of migrating birds.
On leaving the bird hide, the Coast Path begins the long stretch upstream to the lowest crossing point of the River Parrett in the town of Bridgwater. The path soon finds itself heading through long grass on the edge of the Steart Marshes, just outside farmers' fields (picture 18).
After a little over a kilometre, I discovered that the route had changed since my map had been printed. In 2014, a 200 metre section of the floodbank was removed, allowing the tides to flood 400 hectares of low-lying land and gradually transforming it into a new area of tidal marshland (picture 19), managed by the Wildfowl and wetland Trust. Consequently, the Coast Path and River Parrett Trail now follow a newly-constructed path along the landward edge of the new marshes (picture 20), passing close to Steart village once again. This change adds about 2.5 kilometres to the original distance, and left me needing to lift my pace to complete the day's walk before dusk.
Along this new path are two large bird hides; the Polden Hide (picture 21), about 400 metres before the path rounds the western tip of the new marshes, and the Mendip Hide, a similar distance beyond the turning.
About 800 metres from the Mendip Hide, the path finally rejoins the floodbank beside the River Parrett (picture 22). A broad track atop the floodbank runs upstream for one and a half kilometres to reach the village of Combwich (picture 23), where an odd conical structure, a little reminiscent of a 1970's space capsule, overlooks the little harbour (pucture 24), the site of a port since Roman times.
Unfortunately, the time lost to the diversion around the Steart Marshes left me no time to explore the village, as I still had around twelve kilometres walking to go and just over two hours left until sunset.
One hundred metres beyond the harbour, the Coast Path is signposted to the left across a stream and left again along a lane. A similar distance along the lane a signpost points onto a driveway on the right, where a narrow enclosed path heads left after about 20 metres. This path crosses one more lane before returning to the floodbank beside the Parrett (picture 25). From here, the path follows the floodbank all the way upstream to Bridgwater.
On the next bend in the river I passed an odd little construction of four pieces of wood stuck in the ground (picture 26). Unfortunately, I have no idea what their significance might be.
After pausing to take a picture of the view across the flat pastures of the Somerset Levels (picture 27), I decided to put my camera away and concentrate on covering the remaining distance to Bridgwater before dark. The grassy path along the top of the floodbank made for pleasant walking, though there were no more sights of particular interest. Due to the number of twists and turns in the river's course as it snakes its way across the Levels, the end of the walk was still deceptively far away from the point where the industrial buildings on the outskirts of Bridgwater first came into view on the opposite bank.
Eventually, I approached the bridge that carries the A39 Western way over the River Parrett about a quarter of an hour after sunset, leaving the Coast Path at the crossroads on the other side of the bridge with my GPS showing 40.9 kilometres covered from Kilve Beach. Another 15 minutes walking along the industrial East Quay took me to the town centre, where I was staying in the Tudor Inn.