Sunday, 1 December 2019

Brean Down Fort

Brean Down is a headland, which juts out into the Bristol Channel at the eastern end of Bridgwater Bay.  It is composed of carboniferous limestone and is a continuation of the Mendip Hills (as are the islands of Steep Holm and Flat Holm).  The highest point on Brean Down is 97 metres above sea level and is marked by a trig point.

Brean Down has been occupied for different purposes for thousands of years:
  •  Neolithic people lived and farmed there.
  •  Bronze Age people lived, farmed and buried their dead on it.
  •  A hillfort was built on it by Iron Age people.
  •  A temple and a settlement were built on it in Roman times.
  •  In the post Roman period people buried their dead in a cemetery on it.
  •  In medieval times and later, part of it was managed as a rabbit warren.
  •  In the post-medieval period people lived on it.
  •  In Victorian times a fort was built at the western end and work on a harbour was started but never completed.
  •  It was fortified during the Second World War.
In the 1850s concern grew in Britain about the strength of the French Navy and it was believed that war between France and Britain might be imminent.  Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, became Prime Minister for the 2nd time in 1859. Palmerston and his Secretary of State for War (Sidney Herbert) established a Royal Commission on the Defence of the United Kingdom in 1859 to examine the ability of Britain to defend itself against an attempted invasion by a foreign power and to advise the British Government on the remedial action required. 

The Commission reported back in 1860 and recommended the building of forts to protect naval bases and other strategic locations around the coasts of Britain and Ireland.  In the Bristol Channel Brean Down, Steep Holm, Flat Holm and Lavernock Point were to be fortified in order to protect the ports of Bristol, Avonmouth, Cardiff and Newport.

In 1862 four acres of land at the western end of Brean Down were requisitioned and a fort was built here.  It was completed by 1870.  The fort had a garrison of 60 men and was protected by seven 7" cannons.  These were located in three batteries:
  •  West Battery - this had 3 cannons and 2 underground magazines
  •  North West Battery - this had 3 cannons and 2 underground magazines
  •  North East Battery - this had 1 cannon and a magazine
There were also barracks and quarters for officers.  

Both Viscount Palmerston and Sidney Herbert died before work began on Brean Down Fort. By the time the fortifications were completed, the threat from the French had diminished. The island’s heavy guns were never fired in anger.  In July 1900 a soldier called William Haines fired his rifle into one of the West Battery's magazines, in an apparent attempt to kill himself, and it exploded and destroyed the battery.  After the explosion the fort was decommissioned and the guns were sold for scrap in 1901. Brean Down Fort was run as a café by the Hillman family between c1905-7 and 1936-9.  

Brean Down Fort was refortified during the Second World War.  Two gun positions were built: one on the site of the ruined West Battery and the other over part of the North West Battery.  They were armed with 6" ex-naval guns. The barrack blocks were reused but the windows were partly blocked to give protection from blasts.  New barracks were built on the east side of the Victorian fort.  Experimental weapons were trialled at the fort and the short length of launching rail, which can still be seen is evidence of these trials.

Most of Brean Down (147.5 acres) was given to the National Trust by Axbridge Rural District Council in 1954.  A further 3.7 acres were given to them by the Major Aldermen and Burgesses of Weston-super-Mare in 1963 and in 2000 3.4 acres at Brean Down Cove were acquired by the National Trust from MD & M Matthews.  In 1993 Sedgemoor District Council and English Heritage planned to restore the fort as a visitor centre and holiday cottage but these plans never came to anything, due to a lack of funding from the National Trust.  In 2002, following renovation work, Sedgemoor District Council gave Brean Down Fort to the National Trust.

Further reading:

Brean Down Fort: Its History and the Defence of the Bristol Channel by Nicholas van der Bijl, Hawk Editions, 2000

The south coast of Brean Down

Looking west down Brean Down

Trig point on Brean Down - looking north east across Weston Bay towards Worlebury Hill

Brean Down Fort

Victorian gun battery and entrance to one of the underground magazines

Second World War searchlight position at the west end of Brean Down


Second World War Searchlight position and launching rail for experimental weapons

Searchlight position, Brean Down

Gun emplacement, Brean Down Fort

Inside the Victorian barracks

Second World War Battery Command Post


Brean Down Fort with the site of the Second World War barracks below it

Six Lewis gun emplacements on the north coast of the eastern end of Brean Down overlooking Weston Bay
These were possibly used for training purposes.

The South coast of Brean Down

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