Tuesday, 6 October 2015


In 7000 BC the shoreline around Stolford and Hinkley Point extended three miles further out than it does now, but by 3800 BC the woods on the shoreline were becoming submerged due to a surge of water.  The remnants of this ancient submerged forest are still visible during exceptionally low tides, as was the case earlier this year during the lowest tides for two centuries, when submerged forests around the Westcountry coast were exposed, including the one at Stolford and at Minehead to the west.  Stolford is part of the civil parish of Stogursey, a village just inland with a castle dating from at least the 12th century, chosen as a base by William de Courcy, Steward to Henry I.  The moated 17th century gatehouse, which is all that is left of the original castle, is now available as a holiday let through the LandmarkTrust. 

Back in August 2011 in my piece about Sizewell and Minsmere, I found myself marvelling at the juxtaposition of a monstrous nuclear power station and a tranquil nature reserve.  I am reminded of that now as I turn my attention to Hinkley Point, which is a popular spot for birdwatching.  The birds frequenting the Point include Brent geese, Eurasian Wigeon and Northern Pintail, while the fields inland host Meadow Pipit and Merlin among others, and the sea defence boulders are visited by migrant Northern Wheateaters and wintering Black Redstarts.  Bordering on all this feast of feathers is the Hinkley Point B nuclear plant, a successor to the decommissioned Hinkley Point A.  Hinkley Point B was begun in 1967, but due to a series of hiccups did not start generating electricity until 1976.  Hinkley Point C was given planning consent in March 2013, and George Osborne recently raised eyebrows by inviting the Chinese to participate in the development of this new plant.  What could possibly go wrong...?

For those who are curious about what goes on in a nuclear power station there is a Visitor Centre at Hinkley Point B with interactive displays, and tours of the plant can be arranged, all for free. 

Map of the area. 

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Hinkley Point Power Station from the Quantock Hills. Photo by Anthony O'Neil, via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 29 September 2015


Earlier this week it was reported that no less than four vehicles had become stranded in the sea off Burnham-On-Sea in one day, caught out by very high tides.  Unfortunately, this is a regular occurrence along this stretch of coast, which is a victim of the notorious Bristol Channel tidal range, the second highest in the world.  In Bridgwater Bay, where Burnham-On-Sea lies near the mouth of the River Parrett, there are extensive mud flats, and at low tide the sea can recede for over one and a half miles.  There was a particularly tragic incident in 2002 when a five-year-old girl died on the mud flats, and following this there was a campaign to fund an inshore rescue hovercraft.  There are now two hovercraft, named after the victim and her sister.

Flooding has been a recurring theme over the years.  The Romans once inhabited the dunes behind the river, having come here to try to reclaim the Somerset Levels.  In 1607 the town was seriously affected by a flooding event so severe that communities from Barnstaple to Gloucester were hit, as well as the entire South Wales coast.  There is a theory that the phenomenon which caused this catastrophe was actually a tsunami rather than an ordinary storm.  The sea bank at Burnham-on-Sea was breached, resulting in the inundation of around 30 villages, with attendant loss of life of humans and farm animals.  More serious flooding occurred in 1981, and following this a large concrete wall was built in a bid to prevent further disasters.

Burnham-on-Sea is a traditional family oriented resort, with sandy beaches offering donkey rides in the summer and a pier with amusements which holds the record as Britain's shortest pier.  The main beaches are Berrow Beach and Brean Beach.  Apex Park to the south of the town is a leisure and wildlife park with a variety of ducks and other waterfowl, walking trails, picnic spots and a range of activities for the kids.  Adults may want to turn to the Burnham andBerrow Golf Club for their amusement.

For a list of events in Burnham-on-Sea see here.

Webcam of the seafront and pier.

Map of the area. 

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Burnham's cute little pier. Photo by Ken Grainger, via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 22 September 2015


In early August this year the BBC Points West local news show reported mysterious goings-on on the seafront in Weston-Super-Mare.  There appeared to be a Hollywood production underway judging from the signs which had popped up in the vicinity of the Tropicana, a disused lido, but nobody knew for sure what was going on.  Then all was revealed: it was a pop-up exhibition by the Bristol graffiti artist Banksy called Dismaland Bemusement Park, a "sinister twist on Disneyland" with huge sculptures and a 'fairy castle' plus members of staff being wilfully miserable and unwelcoming, in other words the very antithesis of the real thing.  This was a departure for Banksy, who is normally known for his witty and topical street art to be found in edgy urban settings (see the Bristol post from 24 August).  The exhibition, which ends this weekend, has proved a huge success and has really put Weston on the map, providing a boost for local businesses.  So whatever you may think of Banksy, Weston certainly owes him a lot.  

Weston-Super-Mare is a typical seaside resort, with a long promenade and a vast sandy beach.  However, if you go there expecting to dip your toes in the water you could be in for a disappointment if your visit coincides with low tide because due to the vagaries of the tides in the Bristol Channel the sea is so far out at low tide that you need a powerful set of binoculars to see it beyond the huge expanse of mud stretching as far as the eye can see.  The mud presents a potential danger for those who are tempted to walk out to the water's edge.  However, there is a nice safe area for swimming in the form of a large marine lake at the northern end of the promenade. 

The Grand Pier, originally opened in 1904, has been devastated by fire twice in its  history, in 1930 and again in 2008, when the pier was all but destroyed.  However, the local community was determined to keep this iconic focal point of their seafront and after a multi-million-pound revamp it was reopened in 2010.  There is another pier which remains in a bad way called the Birnbeck Pier, which has been listed among the top 10 most endangered Victorian buildings in Britain.  Other attractions include the SeaQuarium where sharks and rays can be observed swimming underwater and an Observation Wheel on the seafront, and there are boat trips and donkey rides.  At the southern end of the bay is Brean Down, run by the National Trust and described as a 'natural pier'.  There is a Victorian fort on the Down as well as the site of a Roman temple. Also at this end of the bay, in an area called Uphill, is the start of the Mendip Way, a long-distance trail which runs for 50 miles to Frome.  

Weston has often been at the receiving end of unkind remarks in the past.  Bill Bryson painted a particularly dreary picture of a rain-sodden evening in Weston in his book Notes From A Small Island, an evening he was forced to fill with a long, drawn-out meal in a Chinese restaurant followed by a session in an amusement arcade in an attempt to stay dry.  However, I believe that if you catch the town on a nice sunny day it makes a perfectly pleasant spot for a day out or a summer break.  There is plenty going on in Weston, especially in the summer months, with events ranging from a sand sculpture festival to a food festival.  For a list of events in the town see here

Map of the area.

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The beach and the Wheel.  Photo by Jonathan Billinger, via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 17 September 2015


During the location-spotting frenzy which followed the initial showing of the Broadchurch crime series on ITV it was West Bay in Dorset that got all the attention.  However, what some may not realise is that Clevedon also put in an appearance.  The shots featuring the tortured-looking local priest outside his church were filmed at St Andrew's Church in Clevedon, while Hill Road featured as Broadchurch's High Street.  Scenes featuring the hotel, newspaper office and a local newsagents were also filmed there.  Meanwhile, in cinematic circles, Clevedon had its moment of fame at the end of The Remains Of The Day.  The final scene in the film was set in Clevedon and was also filmed there.

Clevedon was a very popular resort in Victorian times, and the most striking reminder of that era is the pier, which in 2013 won the Pier Of The Year award given by the National Piers Society. Work began on the pier in 1867 with not only pleasure in mind but also commercial use, as the arrival of the railway meant it was feasible to start up a steamer service to South Wales. That said, it was made to look extremely elegant, with intricate ironwork both underneath and at the end, where there is a pavilion and shelters. It was nearly demolished after it failed a stress test in 1970, but has been saved by fund raising and heritage grants. Other attractions on Clevedon's seafront include ornamental gardens and a Victorian bandstand.

The area known as Salthouse Fields is a popular recreation area during the summer months, with a miniature railway, crazy golf and other amenities.  This spot gets its name from the salt mining that began in the area during the 17th century.  The salt mine that was set up at that time is now a pub called The Salthouse, set in an elevated position with sea views.  Just outside Clevedon and close to the M5 motorway is the National Trust owned Clevedon Court, a 14th century manor house.  The property lies on Court Hill, which is a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its fascinating geology.  Another historic property on the edge of town is Walton Castle, a 17th century fort on Castle Hill, nowadays a popular wedding venue.   

Map of the area. 

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Clevedon Pier. Photo by mattbuck, via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 4 September 2015


Portishead, which lies near the mouth of the River Avon just eight miles from Bristol, was a fishing port during a previous existence dating from the 14th century.  There are still iron rings visible in the High Street where the boats used to moor.  Later, in 1497, Portishead played a key part in the discovery of the New World when the navigator John Cabot sailed from here in a small caravel called The Matthew bound for North America.  A replica of TheMatthew can be seen in Bristol; I had the pleasure of seeing it in action on a recent visit, taking passengers on a trip around the harbour.  Another chapter in Portishead's history came with the establishment of the Docks, which were used to service coal-carrying ships which were too large to enter Bristol Harbour.  During the war Portishead Radio, a station which existed from 1928 to 2000, played an important part in maintaining communications with British merchant vessels and with patrol aircraft in the North Atlantic. 

The Docks are now gone, and the present-day Portishead is largely a commuter town for people working in Bristol.  The focal point nowadays in the Marina with a variety of bars, restaurants and cafes surrounded by residential apartments.  Residents and visitors alike have at their disposal a Victorian High Street, a Boating Lake and and open-airswimming pool in the summer months, while a walk out to the the Portishead Point Lighthouse at Battery Point offers stunning views across to Wales.  The lighthouse was built in 1931 and is a mere 9 metres high.  Nearby attractions include the Gordano ValleyNational Nature Reserve and the Clevedon Coast Path. 

Music lovers may have heard the name Portishead before: one of the bands typifying the 'Bristol Sound' (see previous post) named themselves after the town when they formed in 1991 and they also bestowed the name on their second album.  The Portishead scene is enlivened by a number of events through the year, including a carnival, a flower show, a raft race and a Victorian Evening in the run up to Christmas.

Map of the area. 

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Portishead Point Lighthouse. Photo by Roger Cornfoot, via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 24 August 2015


Bristol is, strictly speaking, not actually on the coast, being some miles from the mouth of the River Avon.  There are no sandy beaches or towering cliffs, no watery horizons to gaze out at.  However, I felt I had to include it in my blog, partly because I love the place, and partly because the city has such a strong maritime heritage that it would seem wrong to leave it out.  Prior to the Norman conquest Bristol was a Saxon settlement, hence the origin of its name: Brycg stowe or 'place by the bridge'.  Then along came the Normans, who were responsible for the motte and bailey which formed the origins of the castle, the remains of which can be seen in Castle Park.  By the Middle Ages, the city had been transformed into the second most important port in the country after London.  Wool from the surrounding rolling meadows of the West Country was shipped out to the Low Countries, where it was turned into cloth to be shipped back over, then later it was home-produced cloth that made the city rich, whether being shipped out of the port or sold in the local shops and markets.

One of Bristol's major tourist attractions is the SS Great Britain, one of seven sites in the city associated with the greatest British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel.  The ship was launched in 1843 and after a varied and chequered career which included multiple trips around the globe she was abandoned in The Falklands.  Then, after a long campaign to bring her home, she was brought back to her original berth in 1970, watched by crowds of emotional onlookers.  Now she is fully restored and open to the public.  Another piece of transport history associated with Bristol is that of Concorde, since one of the two prototypes was built at BAC in Filton, Bristol. Concorde made its debut in 1969 and went into regular service several years later.  Unfortunately the dream of supersonic flight embodied by Concorde came to an end when, for various reasons, not least a devastating crash in 2000, Concorde was taken out of service.  The last Concorde came 'home' to Bristol in 2003, greeted by crowds of people lining the the Avon Gorge, where the plane made a spectacular fly-past.  Many of the local people looking on expressed great sorrow that they would never see the plane up in the air again.  Planning permission has recently been granted for a new Aviation Heritage Museum at Filton Airport, where the last Concorde will be on display. 

The SS Great Britain

One of the more regrettable facets of Bristol's past began at the end of the 17th century with the advent of the Slave Trade.  The city's merchants were granted the right to trade in slaves in 1698, and this human trafficking continued until the abolition of slavery in 1807.  During this period over 2,000 Bristol ships set sail on slaving voyages, an average of 20 per year, with captured African slaves changing hands for cash or bartered goods.  There is a concert hall in Bristol called Colston Hall; this, along with several streets and other buildings in the city, is named after Edward Colston, who made his fortune largely on the back of the Slave Trade.  Bristolians have agonised over the city's slaving past, to the point of debating whether to pull down the statue of him in Colston Avenue - in the end they decided against it.  Visitors can find out more about the city's role in the Slave Trade as well as other aspects of Bristol's past at the M Shed on Princes Wharf.

I could go on and on about Bristol's past, but let's move swiftly on to the present.  One of the things I love about Bristol is that it has made so much of its harbourside areas.  Parts of the city almost resemble Amsterdam, with a heady mix of waterside and floating bars and restaurants, and even a floating theatre called Thekla occupying a former cargo ship.  The waterfront is also home to two of the city's most popular arts venues, the Arnolfini and the Watershed, both of which also have excellent cafes.  The Arnolfini can be reached by a rather unusual bridge, Pero's bridge, a bascule bridge built for the Millennium with two huge horns as its centrepiece - it is sometimes referred as the 'Horned Bridge'.  Also near the waterfront is Millennium Square, home to the At Bristol Science Centre.

The Harbourside, with Pero's Bridge

You need to be fit to explore Bristol properly on foot because some of its most attractive areas are quite a way uphill, most notably Clifton, which is almost a town in itself.  To get there you have to make a steep ascent of Park Street, with the Cathedral at the bottom and the venerable Wills Memorial Tower of Bristol University at the top.  If you don't want to walk it, there is always the hop-on hop-off bus which tours the city's main areas of interest.  Once in Clifton, you have a choice of attractions: the attractive streets crammed full of shops, pubs and restaurants, Bristol Zoo, the vast green expanses of  The Downs or the Avon Gorge crossed by the Clifton Suspension Bridge - another Brunel triumph.  The bridge towers 300 feet over the Gorge, providing some impressive views along it.  However, on a more sombre note the bridge has also been the scene of many suicides over the years.

Not surprisingly for such a vibrant and varied city, Bristol has a rich cultural scene.  During the 1990s the city became known in music circles for what was commonly referred to as the Bristol Sound, characterised by bands such as the quirky Portishead and the dark, edgy but utterly magnificent Massive Attack.  As for the visual arts, it was Bristol that gave rise to the shadowy graffiti artist known as Banksy, who has managed to keep his real identity a secret in spite of the fact that his clever and often politically motivated works appear overnight in highly public urban spaces.  In 2009 a Banksy exhibition at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery had people queuing for up to six hours to gain entry.  Bristol is also home to the Oscar-winning creators of Wallace and Gromit, Aardman Animations.  This summer 70 different Shaun the Sheep sculptures have been distributed around the city, an event named Shaun in the City, a repeat of a similar event two years ago when 80 Gromit sculptures were scattered around the city's streets, all in different designs.  The sculptures have proved a magnet for children, who love having their picture taken hugging Shaun or secreting themselves in between his legs.  

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Shaun in suspension!

There are many festivals held in Bristol throughout the year, too many to list here.  However, one festival which deserves a special mention is the International BristolBalloon Fiesta, a fitting event for the city which gave rise to the first modern hot-air balloon in Western Europe, the creation of members of the Bristol Gliding Club.  This year's Fiesta was so popular that the traffic volumes caused chaos throughout the city, prompting the organisers to rethink how future events will be organised.  For a list of events in the city see here.

Map of the area. 

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Rainbow city

Amsterdam? No, Bristol.

Saturday, 1 August 2015


If you find yourself barrelling down the M5 on the way, perhaps, to a holiday in the West Country, you will be carried high above the mouth of the River Avon by a long motorway bridge, giving extensive views of Avonmouth on the east bank and The Royal Portbury Dock on the west bank, the latter characterised by rows of brand new vehicles as far as the eye can see in the Dock's huge car storage compounds.  The scene laid out below the motorway bridge is overwhelmingly industrial, however there are people living in the area, and they sometimes suffer from their surroundings.  Last summer the local inhabitants were driven mad by a fly infestation caused by inappropriate handling of large amounts of waste material being held at a nearby facility.  Some were driven to adorning their houses with fly-catching adhesive strips in a desperate attempt to kill off the winged invaders.  Surprisingly, in amongst all this industrial landscape there is a nature reserve, the Avonmouth Pools Reserve at the Sewage Works, which provides an unlikely haven for birds and ducks including pochard, tufted duck, teal and shoveler.

Map of the area. 

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Avonmouth Docks. Photo by Sharon Loxton, via Wikimedia Commons.