Posted by: Kevan Manwaring | January 24, 2010

Brean Down

Brean Down

24th January

Hawthorn on Brean Down

A sunny Sunday is not to be wasted by staying in and working. After weeks of bad weather, I had itchy wheels, and so leapt at the opportunity of going on my first rideout of the year. I packed some lunch, togged up and set off … after a false start. I was hoping to take the Legend out on its first spin of O Ten, but the battery in the Triumph was flat after nearly two months sitting on my drive, and so I fired up the Zuki, fresh from its MOT.

It felt great to finally escape the city, to turn the wheel and blow away those cobwebs! The run to Brean is very picturesque, if windy, along the A368 via Chew Valley. Parts of it, with chocolate box villages nestled amidst steep wooded hills remind me of ‘little Switzerland’. With all the hairy bends its slow riding so you are forced to enjoy the view.

Leaving the Mendip range, you then have to negotiate the big sheds of Weston Super Mare – dreary, but you soon pass these, heading south. The turn to Brean is easy to miss – and the ride is frankly, bizarre, zigzagging back and forth without any clear reason – and disconcertingly heading away from Brean towards Brent Knoll. Finally, it hits the coast road that takes you past caravan parks and crazy golf type places. But it’s all worth while in the end – the headland of Brean Down looms into sight, looking stunning on a sunny winter’s day. I park up and grab a much needed cuppa, as my head had gone numb!

The sunlight on the sea was dazzling – it was so good to see the coast. Brean is the nearest decent stretch for me in Bath. I climbed the steep steps, sweating in my leathers, but the view was worth it. Spectacular panorama over the Severn Estuary, looking glorious today in the sun. I sat and ate a sandwich – just as well, as my rumbling stomach must have been audible from Wales – 2.30pm being a bit late for lunch for me. A ‘boost’ on the way stopped my blood sugar levels from completely crashing.

I walked along the south side, topping up on Vitamin D in the sunlight. A notice in the cafe mentioned someone had lost an engagement ring on the Down, and so I couldn’t help but scan the grass. It would’ve been nice to have found it for them. Imagine!

It gave the place a certain numinosity to know I was walking where Violet Firth, aka Glastonbury mystic author Dion Fortune, had walked. And also where they shot scenes for the Shekhar Kapur movie ‘Elizabeth: The Golden Age’, Brean Down providing an unlikely stand-in for the White Cliffs of Dover. To think of the delectable Cate Blanchett riding here, in full armour with a false leg (so she could appear to be riding side-saddle), surrounded by hundreds of extras, cap-a-pie, also gave the place a certain layering of weird glamour.

Brean Down – a long finger of carboniferous limestone pointing out into the Severn – is a like a 3-D history lesson. From the 300 million rock (cousin of Gower Peninsular, on the Welsh side), forced up into its present ridge 230 million years ago; to the remains of animals from the end of the last Ice Age (auroch, giant deer, reindeer, Arctic Fox, bison, mammoth, wolves and lemmings), 14 to 10 thousand years back – and the first signs of human habitation; a worked giant deer antler from 10,000 BC; to Iron Age settlement – a hill fort from 300BC; to a Roman temple 370AD (which must have inspired occult writer Dion Fortune, who based the temple in her 1930s novel The Sea Priestess there); to the Napoleonic fort, Victorian follies and WW2 gun battery and secret weapons testing; right up to the National Trust primping of the present day. An amazing place.

Yet despite millennia of human activity on the headland, it still feels like nature’s own, a wild place, if not true wilderness, with an impressive array of plants (include the lovely named White Rock Rose, growing in its most northerly location); butterflies; birds and animals. A sign on the way up said ‘Beware Steep Cliffs and Goats’. I didn’t see any today, but their were plenty of walkers out enjoying the sun, and I did meet a couple of young ‘rock monkeys’, who started chatting to me as I stood on the site of the Roman temple, having a moment’s connection with my personal spirituality.

I felt an edifying sense of peace and space. We get so hemmed in by life, and forget to look outside of our respective boxes. Visiting a place like Brean Down gives you a perspective on things. The stoic longevity of such a place helps one to endure, to keep going, to weather all that life throws at you. You leave feeling ‘lighter’.

I descended for a final coffee before I hit the road. I sat on the sea wall and watched a man trying to get his dog, a young Alsatian, to come back. The dog clearly wanted to keep on playing, gamely leaping back, head down to front paws, dropping a ball in front as if to say ‘come play, the sun is out, it is a good day to be alive – work can wait.’ This dog wanted to have its day. Alas, the chain awaits and we all get called back, eventually – but it was worth bearing the cold to blast away the winter blues.

Such an excursion – a walk somewhere beautiful – makes one feel like the end of the week has been ‘marked’ in some way, providing a break from the routine of the week. Stepping off the wheel briefly, creating a sense of hiatus. Sacred time, before the mundanity of Monday kicks in again.

I enjoyed the fast ride home – taking the A38 and A4 – through the lengthening shadows and low golden light. Hitting the traffic lights of Bristol, the night swiftly fell and the temperature dropped. I was glad to get back. It is one of the pleasures of such an experience to return home to a long soak, warm fire, a big mug of Earl Grey, hot buttered crumpets with cinnamon, and a peaceful mind as one slides into Sunday night, with a good book or good film to ease the brain into blissful oblivion.

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