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Levelling with Somerset

Renowned hills, an approved school, drainage ditches, traditional seaside resorts, land reclamation, three nuclear power stations, acres of mudflats and indiscernible paths sum up a hot and fly-ridden week.

Waved off by staff based at the Naval Regional Headquarters, I began by walking through Portishead, a town very definitely of two halves: an older part with elegant houses and parks, and a newer part of large housing estates acting as an annex town to nearby Bristol.  With its heritage in fishing and as a commercial port I wasn’t surprised to come across the former National Nautical School overlooking the Bristol Channel on the town’s outskirts.

Created in 1869, the Nautical School was initially a training school for young boys from Bristol aged between 10 and 15. The school could take 350 pupils, many of whom came from poor or delinquent backgrounds; the courts often assigned boys to the school.  The idea was that it would be classed as a school to provide training and a stable home for youngsters. Initially afloat in HMS Formidable, many of its pupils went on to join the Merchant Navy, while others opted for the Royal Navy.

The school latterly moved ashore in 1906 to a purpose-built building opened by Princess Helena, Queen Victoria’s third daughter.  During the rest of its lifetime its role changed more than once, including being an approved school, before its ultimate closure in 1983.  Designated a Grade II listed building at time of closure, the National Nautical School was subsequently converted into luxury apartments within a gated community, now known as Fedden village.

Continuing down the coast towards Somerset’s traditional seaside resorts, I’d the limestone Mendip hills to my left, while ahead further south, the Quantocks rose up to greet me.  In between lie the Somerset Levels, through which the rivers Axe, Brue and Parratt flow – all would subsequently be riverside walks for me. The Quantock hills were the first site to be designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1956. This AONB consists of heathland, oak woodlands, ancient parklands and agricultural land.

Descending the hill into Clevedon I saw the town’s elegant pier before me. Described as ‘the most beautiful pier in England’ by Sir John Betjemen, it celebrates its 150th anniversary this year.  My next resort of Weston-super-Mare has two piers: Birnbeck which has fallen into decay and the Grand Pier which was rebuilt after fire ripped through its pavilion in 2008.  Nearby, despite a chilly wind blowing, donkey rides were proving popular with children on half term. I didn’t join them!

Later, walking around the river Axe banks, I clambered up onto Brean Down from where I’d lengthy views of Brean and Berrow Sands towards Burnham-on-Sea.  Burnham also boasts a pier building but I was more interested in finding the mouth of the Brue, from where I headed upstream to cross at Highbridge.  Still in the bowl of the Somerset levels, criss-crossed by drainage ditches, the Brue banks subsequently took me back seawards, this time towards the mouth of the adjoining River Parrett.

The River Parrett disgorges its chocolate milkshake-coloured water twice daily out into Bridgwater Bay, close to Burnham-on-Sea.  I’d not been looking forward to this part of the walk but knew thick, sticky grey mud would not let me cross the Parrett’s mouth, measuring barely 22 metres across.  Instead I’d no choice but to take the long route around – 23 miles!

My monotonous 23-miler saw me traipse along seawalls, grazed banks, and later grassy banks where I fought through waist-high thistles, grass and nettles.  Although not particularly enamoured with my tedious walk up to Bridgwater and back down the other side, only an agile crocodile would have dared venture across those 22 metres of thick mud.

My return riverbank led me out onto the Steart Peninsula where the seawall was deliberately breached in 2014 with the aim of returning 260 hectares of reclaimed land to its natural state. With the first extra high tides of the following year, the whole area was flooded; waters deposited silt over the original marshes creating new mudflats which have become a haven for wildlife.

Within 6 months of flooding oystercatchers, curlews and other birds were recorded as feeding back in these once dry areas. Wildlife habitats have been restored and this carefully planned piece of engineering will ensure nearby communities are protected from flooding. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust has since provided viewing points for the many birdwatchers who visit. 

Walking westwards the huge outline of Hinkley Point power station site loomed ever closer. Knowing that a new station (Hinkley C) is currently being built, I was aware there would be diversions ahead.  Hinkley A station is being decommissioned but Hinkley B, which I passed, is still operational.  Only as I neared the end of my diversion did I see the extent of building works for Hinkley C – the size of 240 football pitches! 

Heavy machinery, groaned, clanked and churned through the excavated land. Those excavations alone will produce enough soil to fill 1,300 Olympic size swimming pools. Earlier I’d seen the newly built eco-friendly accommodation campus, which will soon become screened by a massive tree-planting project.  The site also comes complete with its own Bat House!

Ahead lay West Somerset’s undulating coastline, leading me towards Minehead. En-route I crossed mud-like beaches and climbed up and down many slopes, passing through Blue Anchor Bay and on into Watchet, approached from Splash Point. Below I could hear Dave Milton, the local town crier in full cry announcing Watchet’s Flea Market! 

While wandering through the town I learned that artist JMW Turner had visited the town in 1814 while working on a commission to do drawings that would be engraved and placed in a book entitled ‘Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast of England’. His completed sketches of early Watchet are held in the Tate Gallery while one of his most famous paintings, The Fighting Temeraire, can be seen in the National Gallery, London.

Later that afternoon I arrived in Minehead, just as the last steam train of the day pulled into West Somerset’s Railway terminus.  With a hiss and snort it had reached its final destination of the day, and so had I.  After a tough walking week, including three 20-milers as well as maintaining a daily physio exercise regime, I too am looking forward to a rest in the sidings!

I’m now poised to start the 630-mile South West Coast Path - Land’s End here I come!

See Photo Album No 75 – Levelling with Somerset 

See Photo Album No 76 - Farewell to Wales (So many memories)