Man to whom Brean Down was paradise

Elderly Westonians may recall Mr Harry Cox, former lessee of Steep Holm and for many years the Society for the Protection of Birds' warden on Brean Down

Elderly Westonians may recall Mr Harry Cox, former lessee of Steep Holm and for many years the Society for the Protection of Birds' warden on Brean Down. His passion for studying and protecting the wild life of Brean Down almost amounted to fanaticism. Look at the picture of the shanty hut he had on the promontory - galvanised iron side and roof, a small chimney for his stove, a few yards of garden, rough fence, and the wicket gate. It was for this place night after night, winter and summer, that for years he forsook the comforts of his home at Weston, and so often at unvarying modest pace pedalled his bicycle along the lengthy, tortuous road to Brean, and climbed over the steep cliff to enter his eyrie to keep watch.When darkness fell we knew Harry was in residence because the light from his Aladdin lamp was a little beacon shining against the dark outline of the Down. No one knew more about Brean Down than he. He sought out where the ravens, peregrine falcons, kestrels and many other varieties of the Down's rich bird life nested, but mostly he kept his secrets. Alone he would fix ropes and lower himself over steep cliffs to observe them at nesting time and, sometimes after hours of patient watching, take some of the superb photographs with which he illustrated his lantern lectures.As a lecturer Harry had a voice like a corncrake. He was in many respects a severe man, especially in the protection of wild life, but his lantern slides, his vivid descriptions, and here and there his flashes of witty comment made him a most popular, much sought speaker.He was especially interested in teaching children about wild life, and parties who visited the promontory were not only shown around it but taken into his hut to see his photographs and have the thrill of looking around the Down and the Bristol Channel through his telescope. To boys seeking to find and rob birds' nests, and botanists after specimens of the Down's rare flora Harry Cox was a feared enemy. He was most caustic to wrong-doers.But he also kept life-saving gear and many a foolish young climber who got himself into difficulties was rescued by him, sometimes at risk to himself. He also did what often has to be done today - haul out of the mud those who think they can walk from Weston to Brean Down across the River Axe estuary at low ride.He was concerted with the protection of those at sea, and on many a stormy night paced the Down on the look-out for shipping in trouble. On rough days, too, with binoculars or telescope he kept an eye on pleasure boats and other craft about the Channel. During the War when well over 70, he became attached to the Royal Navy as an auxiliary coastguard.To visitors to the island who were really keen to know something about its history he was a ready guide, and spent many hours conducting parties around and pointing out the various varieties of birds, but with cautious reference to the whereabouts of their actual nesting places!Born at Stow-on-the-Wold Mr Cox's interest in natural history developed during his years in the Cotswold country. On coming to live at Weston in 1911 he was at once attracted to Brean Down which, in addition to having rare birds breeding here, was a stopping place for many migrants.He suggested that the Bird society, which later became the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, could get authority to have the Down made a bird sanctuary and he would see that the law was respected. His wishes we granted and he became the Down's official guardian. He himself built his 'tin shack'. There was vandalism, of course, in those days, and Harry's frail shelter suffered from it. Eventually it was replaced by a stone building, the remains of which are still to be seen near to the main path on the Down's northern slopes.Harry never had a radio link with the mainland and it was some years before the Post Office engineers carried out the arduous task of providing a telephone link with his hut.He did manage to get the postman to call, a service unlikely to be accorded to such a remote dwelling today. Writing about this in a series of nature notes he used to contribute to a daily paper, Harry in a Spring-time comment wrote: "At this time of year the postman who delivers letters to my hut has a reward for the stiff climb he had to make to get to the top of the Down."His path is so bespangled on both sides with one of Britain's rarest flowers, the white rock rose, Helianthemum polifolium. It is a lovely creeping plant with white petals and a very pure yellow centre. The blossoms are so delicate, however, that they fall to pieces when plucked."Largest areas of the southern slopes of the Down are covered with this beautiful carpet. In places it peeps up to the crest, peeps over, shivers, and goes no further. It doesn't like the side on which my hut is built - the northern."One can only hope the postman, when he saw his mail, included a letter for Harry, shared the naturalist's enthusiasm, and thought the climb up the Down well worth while for a glimpse of the White Rock Rose!In 1914-18, after serving with the 'Sportsmen's Battalion' (24th Royal Fusiliers) in France, Mr Cox took a commission in the Worcesters and then transferred to the Somerset Light Infantry with whom he went to India. Later, after joining the India Army Reserve, he was posted to Mesopotamia in charge of Persian hired transport. Contracting malaria, sandfly fever, and jaundice, he was sent back to India and spent months in hospital.His Mesopotamia experiences sometimes were the subject of his lecturing in later years.In addition to his association with Brean Down Harry Cox had a life-long interest in visiting island around the British coast. Many of his photographs used for his lantern lectures and for the stereoscope series about which I wrote last week, were obtained on these visits.Some of the best pictures were taken at the 300-foot mass of volcanic rock, the Bass Rock, in the firth of Forth. In a caption to a picture of gannets on the Bass he refers to his friend, Mr Campbell, the chief lighthouse keeper, "who tells me he has a bird sitting on the one egg and the other bird asking pretty plainly to be allowed to take its turn at sitting, but the one in possession always seemed reluctant to vacate and often a little gentle force was applied and the occupant actually pushed off the nest."For some years Harry was a lessee of Steep Holm, and gave it the distinction of being the only island in the world that could be locked up. At that time Steep Holm was only scalable by the steep path leading up from the pebbly beach that faces Weston, and at its foot Harry erected a barrier of spiked railings, and a gateway to which he held the key.I recall paying a visit to the island with Harry and a party of Welsh naturalists one June. It was nesting time for seagulls, and one could scarcely walk anywhere without stepping into a nest. Fledglings scattered into the bracken at almost every step one took along the paths.All the time we were there hundreds of angry seagulls wheeled overhead sustaining vociferous protests. Some of them even dived down to within a foot or so of one's head.Harry told us of his efforts to preserve the island's wild peony, the only British habitat of which is Steep Holm. It was not thriving well at the time, and in showing us a clump he stressed that no specimens must be picked.Just before we left Harry alleged that a peony had been picked. He was very angry. No one in the party would admit to the deed, and the boat journey back to Weston was made without a word being spoken by anyone. An enjoyable day's outing ended most unfortunately.Harry Cox knew much about Brean Down which he kept to himself. He was aware of its associations, by way of finds, linking it with habitation long centuries ago. One wishes he could have lived to share in the thrill of the discovery on the promontory of the site of a Romano-British temple.He would also have shared with delight the satisfaction that Steep Holm is now assured the permanent protection he would have wished for it, since it has been bought and will be preserved as a memorial to the naturalist Kenneth Allsop.* This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on November 17, 1978

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