Friend of Brean Down's wildlife for 40 years

PUBLISHED: 12:17 02 March 2006 | UPDATED: 08:58 24 May 2010

The enchanting sweep of Brean Down, with Steep Holm in the background.

The enchanting sweep of Brean Down, with Steep Holm in the background.

On the northern slopes of Brean Down lies the ruin of what the passer-by will rightly judge was once some form of habitation. It was the retreat of Mr Harry Cox, who for some 40 years was the friend and protector of the Down's wildlife. The Down was their

The top of Steep Holm can be rached only by a steep path leading from the pebbly beach that faces Weston.

On the northern slopes of Brean Down lies the ruin of what the passer-by will rightly judge was once some form of habitation. It was the retreat of Mr Harry Cox, who for some 40 years was the friend and protector of the Down's wildlife. The Down was their sanctuary and his.His home was Bella Vista, Clifton Road, Weston, but he spent most of his time on the Down, at first in a wooden shack, and later in the more substantial retreat, the remains of which survive. Night after night from Weston's promenade the light of Harry Cox's Aladdin oil lamp could be seen gleaming on the Down. When storms blew up Harry, from his window on Weston Bay and the Bristol Channel, was on the look-out for shipping in trouble. He was a protector of human life as well as wildlife, and on several occasions was of great assistance in phoning information that speeded the rescue of those in trouble at sea. He also kept life-saving gear, which he often used to haul to safety climbers who got into difficulty on the Down.More often than not Harry was the Down's only human inhabitant. Days passed when he never saw a soul, except through his telescope trained on the mainland. There were nights when he paced the wind-swept Down in darkness to investigate reports of craft thought to be in trouble, and there were the hours he spent cliff-hanging studying the Down's wildlife and taking photographs, of which he built up a superb collection.What was there to see? The Down was closed to the public during the Second World War, when it was used by the team of Admiralty secret weapons experts based on Birnbeck Pier. Someone wrote to the Mercury in 1944 suggesting that the war years had resulted in all the wildlife being driven from the Down, but Mr Cox penned a refutation: "Bird life here has never been more numerous, more varied, more interesting, than it is today."The raven and peregrine one hears or sees almost any day; kestrels hover as though suspended from heaven, as is their manner; mallard, Sheldrake, teal, and widgeon waddle about in the mud, and long-legged waders stalk about in it."Never have so many goldfinches, greenfinches and linnets been seen as they haunt the southern slopes of the Down and adjacent meadows. Residents on the farmlands agree that never have they seen such great flocks of lapwings wheeling about overhead and then dropping down to carry on their digging for victory campaign."Many people misjudged Harry's character. They even thought him surly and unwelcoming. True, he often remonstrated with trippers who dumped their litter, and was angry when he found people raiding the nests of rare birds or pulling up the roots of not-so-common wild flowers. He had no liking for boys engaged in vandalism on the Down, but he was always ready to give talks to schoolchildren. But he would spend hours on the Down in the company of those genuinely interested in natural history. By no means an isolationist, he was a most engaging lecturer, being not only most informative and illustrating his talks with slides made from his photographs, but also showing a delightful, dry sense of humour.In pre-war years Harry often broadcast for the BBC. He wrote articles for natural history magazines and a nature feature for a national paper. He also got together a series of remarkable photographs for use in a stereoscopic instrument, the Vivascope, which once had a vogue in schools all over the country.A linking commentary was written by F. A. Knight, author of Seaboard of Mendip. In days long before those of television, one can picture youngsters peering fascinated at the three-dimensional pictures of the birds and flowers of Brean Down.Harry Cox was born at Stow-in-the-Wold, and became interested in wildlife during his years in the Cotswold country, When he came to Weston in 1911 he was attracted to Brean Down, with its ravens and other rare birds, and a stopping place for many migrants.He persuaded the Bird Society, afterwards the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, to get the promontory scheduled as a bird sanctuary. The Society later bought the Down for £1,000 and appointed Harry as its guardian.His wardenship was interrupted for five years following the start of the 1914-18 War, and his army experience took him to France, India and Mesopotamia. He joined the Army on his 45th birthday in 1915, and he used to recall jocularly that when over 70 he became attached to the Royal Navy as an auxiliary coastguard.Not all wildlife was welcome on Brean Down, but one can appreciate that Harry did not relish the task of having to deal death to some of it.There was the time when a complaint was made to the Somerset Agricultural Committee that badgers and foxes were finding Brean Down a sanctuary, and doing much damage in the district.The badgers seemed to be in impregnable places between the rocks, and to try to deal with them Harry borrowed a poison gas plant from the Weston Borough Engineer, but without success.So far as foxes were concerned, at one time every winter about 30 local farmers, with dogs, took part in a fox shoot over the Down.Brean Down was not Mr Cox's exclusive interest. Islands also fascinated him. He knew every nook and cranny of Lundy, and was also familiar with other lonely, bird-haunted islands around the coast from the Hebrides to the Scilly Isles.He took a 21-year lease of Steep Holm, and fitted up quarters for himself in the derelict barracks buildings. The approach to the top of the island is by a steep path leading from the shingle beach that faces Weston.To keep his island safe from intruders, and in particular to protect the rare wild peony that grows there, Harry had a gate put across this path. It was his claim that Steep Holm was the only island in the world that could be locked up!You can see him unlocking this gate in the picture I took many years ago when I joined a party of Newport naturalists he conducted over the Holm.In his talks on Steep Holm Harry was fond of telling the island's ghost story.Three Weston yachtsmen spent a night on the island. They set their beds down in the main room of the barracks, which are about 60 feet long. After they had gone to bed things began to happen.The wind got up and made weird noises. Doors creaked, and it was really eerie. Then they thought they heard footsteps.There was a tap on the door. In the half-light they saw that the door which had been closed, begin to open. No-one dared speak. Then a ghostly white figure appeared. One of the yachtsmen gave a shriek, and the figure in white vanished.When they examined the door next morning they found that although it was rather heavy to move it had a faulty latch. But imprinted in the mud outside the door was a cloven hoof! What was the explanation? Had Old Nick paid them a visit? Their visitor was no-one so distinguished. It was a white goat which had been left on the island by previous occupiers.Possibly these occupiers were the family party of five including a fourteen-month-old baby whom Mr Cox allowed to reside on the island in the barracks buildings for a time. They took a herd of goats with them.The party had an interesting method of signalling to the mainland. If all was well no signal would be displayed. If assistance was needed, but not urgently, a large white board would be exhibited on the cliff top. If the need was urgent the white board would have a black disc in the centre.From his hut on Brean Down Mr Cox kept watch on the island each day, through his telescope, to ensure prompt action if help was needed.Harry used to cycle to Brean Down from Weston along the roundabout route leading off the Bridgwater road at the Anchor Inn, Bleadon. One day on cycling back to Weston he did not feel well. Aged 79, he resolved to stay at home for a time and take things quietly. A couple of days later he was found dead in his room. Brean Down has had no resident 'watcher' since Harry Cox died in 1949.Admirers have put a memorial to him on Steep Holm. So far as Brean Down is concerned, one feels one can regard as his memorial one of Britain's rarest wild flowers, the white rock rose, which still blooms profusely on the Down in spring. It has white, delicate petals and a very pure yellow centre. Harry Cox loved it, and devoted some of his most brilliant photography to picturing its beauty.This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on November 12, 1971

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