SOMERSET COAST PATH
Stage 5: Bridgwater to Brean
Sunday, July 31, 2016
After a day off for bad weather I returned to the Coast Path on a bright Sunday morning, rejoining the route by the A39 bridge that provides the lowest crossing point of the River Parrett on the northern fringe of the industrial town of Bridgwater. From the crossroads at the south-eastern end of the bridge a grassy path by the upstream side of the bridge leads down the riverbank, where the route of the Coast Path turns under the bridge to begin the long trek back downstream along the right bank of the Parrett (picture 1).
The walking is easy, on a wide grassy path atop the floodbank. For the first couple of kilometres there is a long series of small industrial units just off to the right of the path, partially screened from view by vegetation. Being Sunday morning these were all quiet and easily ignored.
On the second bend in the river after setting off, I passed the first of five World War 2 pillboxes positioned on the riverbank (picture 2), all of them on this side of the river. After the first pillbox, the snaking course of the river takes it around three sides of an industrial estate with a number of larger units (picture 3).
Passing the last pillbox and leaving Bridgwater, the path atop the floodbank heads northwards, roughly parallel with the busy A38 for about a kilometre to the small industrial settlement of Dumball (picture 4).
A few hundred metres short of Dumball, a padlocked gate blocks further progress along the floodbank and the path is forced to divert thirty metres to the right to join a tarmac pavement beside the busy A38. This leads northwards to cross a bridge over the King's Sedgemoor Drain, a tributary of the Parrett. Between the bridge and the Parrett is a large sluice that prevents the tidal waters of the river flowing up the tributary and into the Somerset Levels, much of which are marginally below sea level.
Just beyond the bridge a Coast Path signpost points across the forecourt of Wessex Plastic Recyclers to the edge of Dumball Quay (picture 5). A metal kissing gate at the far end of the quay leads into another industrial site, where the rails of a long-disused quay railway are still embedded in the concrete. Another gate beyond the end of the concrete finally takes the Coast Path back into open countryside, atop the floodbank once more, with the Quantock Hills in the distance across the river.
It isn't long before the path starts to pass old pillboxes again (picture 6). The River Parrett was obviously considered to be an important route into Somerset's industrial heartland and worth defending.
For the next couple of hours the path sticks to the top of the floodbank, with few specific points of interest; just a lovely stretch of quiet and easy riverside walking with plenty of colourful wildflowers lining the path and the sounds of birds foraging in the mud of the river while the tide was out.
After about two kilometres the path passes a small cluster of houses at the end of a quiet lane that comes down from the large village of Pawlett, situated on a slight rise about a kilometre to the north. After passing close to a house built right up against the floodbank (picture 7) the path quickly regains its former solitude with little for the walker to do but count off the distances on occasional signposts and admire the views of the distant Quantocks (picture 8).
An hour's walking further downstream, after negotiating a very long sweeping right-hand bend in the river, I passed opposite the village of Combwich (picture 9), which I had walked through rather hastily a couple of afternoons previously. Beyond Combwich, the Parrett makes another long sweep to the right and widens significantly, leaving a wide strip of marshy land between the floodbank and the deep channel of the river (picture 10).
After another hour's walking, I reached the Huntspill Sluice (picture 11), which serves a similar purpose to the one at Dumball, this time keeping sea water out of the man-made Huntspill River. Beyond the sluice the path quickly returns to the floodbank, which offers views across the water to the Steart Point at the mouth of the River Parrett (picture 12).
Twenty minutes walking beyond Huntspill, I reached the next obstacle on the Coast Path, in the form of the wide, marshy mouth of the River Brue (picture 13), which separates the fertile farmland of the Somerset Levels from the sprawling seaside resort town of Burnham-on-Sea. The Coast Path heads upstream beside the Brue, passing the beached hulk of large wooden fishing boat (picture 14) before reaching another sturdy sluice bridge that provides a crossing to the village of Highbridge (picture 15).
Coming off the bridge, the path briefly turns left before a narrow path heads along the far side of the first house to turn right on a lane that heads up to a junction with another lane. Turning left, the path follows a short stretch of gravel path parallel to the lane before bearing away on a broader gravel path, now heading back downstream beside the Brue (picture 16).
Before long the path is running alongside a massive holiday park, though this is mostly hidden by a band of tall scrub. Near the mouth of the Brue, the path passes by a small marina, where about thirty boats were moored, joining the southern end of Burnham-on-Sea's long seaside promenade. Here I encountered the first people I had seen out walking since setting off from Bridgwater, around five hours and 22 kilometres ago.
The promenade, which was completed in 1987 to prevent a recurrence of a flood six years earlier, heads northwards alongside Burnham's sandy beach (picture 17), which is so wide at low tide that the town has earned the nickname of Burnham-on-Sand. After about 400 metres the promenade finally leaves the holiday park behind and the seafront Esplanade becomes gradually busier approaching Burnham's short but seemingly very popular pier (picture 18). An information panel nearby claims that this is the shortest seaside pier in the UK.
The promenade eventually ends at a neat flower garden opposite two fine 19th-century curved terraces (picture 19). The road bends around the end of the second terrace to reach the top of a slipway where a Coast Path signpost points down onto the sandy beach (picture 20).
Almost a kilometre north of Burnham an unusual lighthouse stands in the middle of the beach on nine wooden legs (picture 21). Built in 1832, this is officially the Burnham-on-Sea Low Lighthouse, but is usually called the Lighthouse on Legs. There is also a High Lighthouse, about 800 metres inland, also built in 1832 but deactivated in 1993 and turned into a private residence.
Leaving the lighthouse behind, the Coast Path continues along the wide expanse of Berrow Flats (picture 22), which is backed by extensive sand dunes that hide the many holiday parks lining the road behind the dunes. The long beach runs for another nine kilometres up to the limestone headland of Brean Down, which soon comes into view as the coastline curves slightly to the right (picture 23). Brean Down sticks out around two kilometres into the Bristol Channel, pointing towards the islands of Steepholm and Flatholm, both made of the same limestone as Brean Down. All three outcrops were once part of the Mendip Hills.
At intervals along the beach there are areas marked out by posts where cars can drive down an park on the sand. I wonder how many drivers leave their cars on the beach too long and run afoul of the incoming tide.
The Coast Path goes all the way along the beach to the foot of Brean Down, but today I wasn't going that far. Instead I left the beach a couple of kilometres short of Brean Down, as I drew level with the village of Brean, having covered another 31.6 kilometres of the Coast Path according to my GPS.
A path through the dunes soon led me to a road junction by the Brean Village Hall (picture 24). The village has only a few dozen houses, but is dominated by several large holiday parks, which between them have several thousand chalets. I didn't have much time to explore the village though, as there was only a short wait to catch a bus back to Burnham and onwards to return to my accommodation in Bridgwater.