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Sense of Place, Sense of History: Study Your Own Panorama; Look Closely at Its Make-Up; My Burnham-On-Sea

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I love to investigate the history and geography of my home town, my area and my country, England, as well as other parts of Britain.

Sense of Place

Stand in a favourite spot or look out over familiar scenery. Look left and right, look to the horizon, look skyward, be aware of what’s at your back. In short, survey the 360 degree panorama before you.

Explore not just the superficial but the depth, the detail, the elements you see, feel and taste. Search for colours before you, contrasts of light. Search for shapes, sizes and contours.

Do you have a sense of the place around you?

What is Sense of Place?

Is it just a physical position of buildings, scenery or events? For me, it is somewhere I feel part of, or am interested in, in turn becoming a part of me, its soul part of mine.

Having a sense of place is appreciating your surroundings, understanding what has happened there, what is happening and what might happen.

Can you follow the paths which open up to you, trace a line through the earth; can you see past the horizon to the future?

Sense of History

Not only can a place talk to you of ‘now’, but it can show you signs of those who came before you. Physical signs in its make up, notional signs in its history, clues in street names or dialect. Not only do we need to look around us, we need to be conscious of who has gone before, why they trod that path and what consequences affect us.

We make our own history. We make our own future, so affecting the future of others.

I look into the history of each place I live. Every detail gleaned pulls me further into the consciousness of where I am, asking me to belong, offering me a home. It enfolds me, comforts me, warms me; only then can I truly call it home.

I’d like to show you my panorama, my sense of place and history, my home.

My Panorama

I took the photos above whilst standing in a spot I tread nearly every day, the promenade* of a small Somerset town called Burnham-on-Sea. Some people derogatorily refer to it as ‘Burnham-On-Mud’.

There are indeed treacherous mud-flats and those who walk the beach and promontories must be aware of the long tidal reach and the sinking sands. The waters flow in faster than walking pace; if you fall foul of the sands you can easily perish. It is the second highest tidal reach or range in the world (the first being in the Bay of Fundy, Canada). Tidal ranges up to 15 metres occur regularly in the Severn Estuary.

It’s cheating slightly, too, to refer to the town as ‘on-sea’. The waters are the mingling of two rivers, flowing far out into an estuary of yet another river, The Severn.

I love this place. From here I can cast my gaze from the merging of two rivers southwards, round past the Quantock Hills in the South-West to the Mendips in the North, across river and sea westwards to Wales and inland north-eastward to my ‘Home Hill’.

The sea dominates. Today it’s calm. Another day it can rattle and roll. The wind quiffs the waves, splatters the crests across the face of the air, then pushes them to the land to drizzle and salty-soak the animate and inanimate indiscriminately. Elemental moods are what draws me to the sea; it has no favourites, it has no pity, it doles out life and death on a whim.

It smells of seaweed, salt and exploration.

Come, explore this place of mine.

Rivers Parrett & Brue

We’ll start with a stroll along the prom, southwards to the marina. Just look at that mountain range of mud! Smell its density! Here is the confluence of the Rivers Parrett and Brue.

The Brue is small, working its way from West Wiltshire, westward across the Somerset Levels, under bridges, through sluice gates and out into this estuary via mud flats carved out over the millennia.

It has some personal significance for me as, on its journey, it flows past the end of a certain paddock behind a school boarding house in the village of Mere. I have wandered down to the Brue on a summer’s evening, watched the swallows dipping for insects and seen an albino blackbird perch on a fence close to this river. Such magic occurs infrequently; I was privileged.

Steart Island

Across to Steart

Across to Steart

Across the Parrett to Steart

Look over the coarse grass-covered mud bank and you’ll see the flowing waters of the Parrett swallowing the Brue. The Parrett has its source in Dorset and flows through the Somerset Levels, through the once port of Bridgwater. Follow your gaze across its waters to Steart Island, a nature reserve which dictates the river’s course as it winds around the furthest stretch of Steart to flow into Bridgwater Bay and ever onward into the Bristol Channel. The sea broke through the Steart peninsular, creating this island, allowing it independence and isolation.

The Parrett is prone to frequent flooding in winter and at high tides, often affecting huge areas of the Somerset Levels, much of which are below sea level.

Quantocks & Exmoor

Just glance back up the River Parrett to a gentle patchwork background of hills. These are the Quantocks, offering rocky Jurassic coastline, exposed heathland summits and deep wooded combes, as well as undulating farmland and pretty, cosy villages. It was the first area of England to be designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), falling within the guidelines of ‘its distinctive character, natural beauty and cultural heritage are so outstanding that it is in the nation’s interest to safeguard them’.

Allow your eye to be lured further south-westwards to get a peek at the heights of Exmoor, a wild, often bleak moorland. It is partly in West Somerset, part North Devon. If a clearing of the mist greets you, you’ll see Dunkery Beacon, its highest point, looming down across the bay. You might see Carver Doone astride his horse upon the beacon, preparing a skirmish through dark combes and rough heather to cause mischief; he’s off to kidnap Lorna**. Inhale the aroma of succulent heather or a whiff of damp bog ready to squeeze the life out of any living creature.

One of my favourite stories is ‘Lorna Doone’ by RD Blackmore. It follows the lives of Lorna and of John Ridd in times when Exmoor was truly a place of isolation, danger and harsh living. It appeals to my romantic nature and one look at Dunkery Beacon recalls the story.

Cast your eye down to the coast where the dark outline of Hinkley Point Nuclear Power Station, equally as menacing as Carver Doone, glares at you. I try to ignore it but it dominates that small stretch of coastline, a true blot on the landscape, to my mind. Any misty, wet weather can oft times hide it in clouds of mirk and mystery; out of sight, out of mind.

Somerset to Devon

The coastline snakes on past pretty coastal villages, the most charming being Watchet. Difficult to see from where we stand on the prom, but the fishing harbour is delightful, with pavement cafés and clanging yacht masts vying with the noisy colour of fishing boats. The aroma of coffee mingles with local mackerel.

The West Somerset Railway also runs along this coast, starting near Taunton and ending in Minehead; it is a re-established old line, thanks to volunteers and tourism. I’ve travelled this line with enchanted grandchildren. It runs past Dunster Castle, a National Trust venue in a mediaeval village with an old market cross; delightful and full of ‘olde worlde’ shops selling old fashioned sweets and fudge as well as offering mouth-watering traditional cream teas.

The furthest your gaze can reach is to the headland in Minehead, where Somerset meets Devon. In my mind’s eye the road then takes you up the steep, twisty bank of Porlock Hill, not for the faint-hearted.

I’ve driven that route over rugged Exmoor many times to Lynmouth and Lynton. That’s worth a visit for Lynmouth harbour, the typical old fishing port and for the walk from Lynton through the Valley of the Rocks, whence precipitous views take you on a dizzying walk along the cliffs. No one can match the agility of the local goats skipping on the slippery rocks.

Take the funicular railway straight up the cliff-side. The Victorians built this, opened in 1890, to connect the lower town of Lynmouth to the cliff-top town of Lynton. It rises 500 feet with a gradient of 57% and is well worth the ride for the stunning views across the bay. It’s a fully working listed heritage monument, as well as the steepest fully water-powered railway in the world.

As the UK's only fully water-powered railway, it is one of just three examples left in the world.

To the Sea

The promontory at Minehead eclipses any further coastline, preferring to point to the Bristol Channel. Tankers ply their trade North to Avonmouth Docks, fishing boats chance the waves and fickle currents and the occasional tourist boat explores the inlets and smugglers’ coves. The channel narrows quickly, bringing the shores of Wales and England closer together until they meet the zip of the Severn River. Even when deceptively calm, the deep sea-paths' strong currents brook no challenge, leave no lee-way.

Because the waters are channeled into this relatively narrow gap, on particularly high tides the Severn Bore is created. The single wave can reach a few metres and brave hearts surf it in a race to remain upright until it diminishes. Spectators gather in their hundreds and line the shores, no matter the weather.

Wales, Steep Holm & Flat Holm

Concentrate your gaze on the opposite coast; you find the contrast of Wales with its industrial chimneys, docks and pleasure rides at Barry Island. You glimpse Cardiff on a clear day.

You cannot ignore two islands mid-channel; Steep Holm and Flat Holm.

Steep Holm belongs to England. It is a nature reserve and a bird sanctuary. Its cliffs, rising vertically from the waters, are topped with a thatch of grass. Access is by chartered boat.

Steep Holm’s website states:

‘The occupation of Steep Holm stretches probably… as far back as the Stone Age, before rising sea levels isolated it from the mainland and turned it into an island.

The Vikings used it as a secure base from which to raid the mainland.

In 1150 the Augustinian Priory of St. Michael was established there. Warreners bred rabbits for meat, and fur to trim the robes of noblemen. In the 1700s its fisheries landed half a ton of fish a day – the main supplier to Bristol Fish Market.

A hotel and inn built in the 1800s provided illicit liquor for thirsty sailors. There were smugglers, and probably pirates too.

The Victorians fortified the island – their six gun emplacements, complete with cannons remain largely intact. Massive gun batteries were built in WWII, together with searchlight posts, and rocket launcher sites.

Purchased in 1976 as a living memorial to Kenneth Allsop, a broadcaster, author, and passionate campaigner for conservation causes, Steep Holm is a nature reserve, bird sanctuary, and Site of Special Scientific Interest due to its rare plants, including the May flowering wild Mediterranean Peony.

It’s the perfect getaway for peace and quiet (at least when the gulls have finished rearing their young) with.… views of the Bristol Channel and the Somerset and Welsh coastlines. Walk the cliff tops, ramble around the military buildings, explore the underground ammunition stores, get involved with an archaeological dig, or simply while away the day on a rugged and beautiful island.’

How could you resist such an invitation?

Flat Holm, belonging to Wales, is further into the Severn Estuary and, as its name implies, is flatter and supports a lighthouse. Flat Holm also has military installations and was the island which received Marconi’s first radio signals across the Bristol Channel from Brean Down, which we’ll come to later.

Lighthouses Galore!

Now swing round to the north of the beach. You will see an intriguing white structure with legs. This is the Lowlight, an early lighthouse with 9 wooden legs buried firmly in the sands, legs which are washed by the waves as the tide flows. It is totally different to any other I’ve seen. It has a broad red stripe on its seaward face, continuing up to that side of the square box on its roof. This stripe lines up with the sky-scraping ‘Highlight’, a lighthouse on the road northward from Burnham. From your position on the prom, glance to the East of the beach and you will see the Highlight peeking out above the rooftops.

I said ‘galore’ but there are just three; the ‘Lowlight’, the ‘Highlight’ and the Little Round Tower behind the prom which was the original guide for sailors in these treacherous currents, when the vicar decided that a beacon on top of the church was not enough.

Brean Down & Fort

Take your eyes back to the Lowlight, then look over the top of the dunes. There is a headland just visible. That is Brean Down. Climb to the top of this National Trust landscape and you will experience a marvellous panorama of the bay, the sands, Brean and Burnham right across to Brent Knoll to the east of the prom at the southern end. I have walked to the end of Brean Down, invigorating even on a calm, sunny day! If you are adventurous enough you reach a fort.

The current buildings were constructed in the 1860s as one of the Palmerston Forts to provide protection to the ports of the Bristol Channel and was decommissioned in 1901. During World War II it was rearmed and used for experimental weapons and rocket testing, the only remaining evidence of which is a short length of launching rail for the launch of the seaborne bouncing bomb designed specifically to bounce to a target such as across water to avoid torpedo nets, anti-submarine missiles and the acoustic emitter (designed to confuse noise seeking torpedoes).

Guglielmo Marconi conducted experiments for wireless transmission and moved his equipment to Brean Down. He set a new distance record of 14 kilometres (8.7 mi) for wireless transmission over open sea. His target was Flat Holm, as mentioned earlier.

Back to Town

Closer now, looking northward and eastward you see the town.

Burnham-On-Sea is small as towns go, a seaside resort particularly popular with holiday-makers from the Midlands and Wales.

We are proud to boast the shortest pier ever! In fact, it’s called the pavilion; I suppose the iron supports which save it from the tide allow its label of ‘pier’ but it’s debatable.

The buildings are no more than four stories high and local regulations do not allow anything higher, quite rightly. Mostly Victorian, they are friendly, have open faces and pleasing outlines (as long as you ignore the amusement arcade!). There are gardens and the prom runs right along the front for a good mile or so.

The tide cannot tumble over the top, cannot threaten as it used to, for there is a remarkable curved wall to thwart the waves. They are turned back from whence they come, no longer having the power to inundate, kill, or evacuate folk from their homes.

Look down o