The great Brean Down harbour scheme

The River Axe embodies the history of North Somerset. From the limestone caves of its source come remains from the days when huge

The River Axe embodies the history of North Somerset. From the limestone caves of its source come remains from the days when huge, now-extinct monsters came down to drink its water, and the first primitive man to reach these parts saw his face mirrored in it. It rises in Wookey Hole Cave, whose diabolical secrets include evidence of cannibalism, and the legend of its witch. With the arrival of the earliest sea-borne adventurers to these islands, the Axe became known as 'The River of Sorrows, a line which dispossessed people strove to hold against intruders. The Axe has been a river of death, and never more so than when it was the route by which the Vikings in their dreaded long-boats came pillaging, burning and killing. While man has at times dreaded the cargo of the River Axe, he has also harnessed its waters to serve his own purposes. Its power was used to drive mills to grind corn and make paper, and the stream was diverted to supply the moats and fishponds of a bishop's palace.Below Crook Peak is the site of the vanished port of Rackley, which was in use in Roman days and for centuries onwards. Uphill was a port in Viking times, and for many centuries thereafter. From Uphill the river sweeps on past Black Rock, and merges with the Bristol Channel. At low tide its course may be seen running parallel with Brean Down. The most ambitious scheme to link the harbourage facilities of the Axe to man's service was the great Brean Down harbour scheme.The construction of a breakwater at the end of Brean Down which, coupled with the shelter of the Down and the fairly deep channel made by the Axe would, it was thought, make possible the creation of a great port.The cost was put at £350 000, which was very big money indeed in the 1860s when the scheme was promoted. Today it strikes one as a fantastic idea, but it was not so outlandish in times when the West coast ports were much less developed than they are today, and when ocean-going ships were small and of shallow draught.There was great industrial expansion everywhere, and the South Wales coalfields in particular had a great export trade. The Brean Down harbour scheme had the backing of eminent authorities. In 1841 Captain Claxton, RN, and Captain Richard Drew, one of the elder brethren of Trinity House, giving evidence before a House of Commons Select Committee, spoke of the difficulties and dangers of navigation above the Holms, and strongly urged the use of Brean Down as a harbour. They said that no other site in the Channel had the same advantages for a harbour that would be accessible at all states of the tide.Then there was the opinion of Admiral Evans, who was appointed by the Post office Inquiry Commission to examine the harbours from whence mails were despatched from this country. He reported: "To take England, Ireland and Scotland together there is no part of the Kingdom in my opinion, so well suited for a packet station as Brean Down."At the time the port of Uphill was dealing with 16 418 tons of Welsh coal a year, while 456 707 tons were being sent to other Bristol Channel ports. Further, 112 713 tons were being exported around Land's End to Southampton, Poole and other places. These coasters often took seven days to do the voyage, and freightage accordingly was high.Then there was the view of an eminent engineer, Sir John Coote, who in 1861 declared that London was nearer New York, via Brean Down, than via Liverpool by several miles.So in 1861 the Brean Down Harbour Company was incorporated with a capital of £350 000. The proposals included a breakwater, docks, and a light railway running the length of the down and linking with the main line. Curiously enough, although Weston at that time was developing swiftly as a fashionable seaside resort, there was no opposition on the grounds that the docks scheme might in any way be harmful to amenities. Residents' heads were no doubt turned by the grandiose thoughts of the port proving a great link with the western world.In view of the fact that the project eventually fizzled out like a damp squid, it was perhaps significant that the foundation stone laying ceremony took place on Guy Fawkes' Day! It was on Saturday, 5 November 1864, a bright, sunny morning, that crowds gathered on Knightstone island to watch the gaily decked little paddle steamer 'Wye' leave for Brean Down with its two hundred passengers, including the company's directors, prominent townsmen - and the Town Band. The band was playing and the artillery of the local volunteers boomed a salute as the boat set out across the Bay, the crinolined ladies on board waving to the cheering crowd.The 'Wye' stopped just off the Down, and the foundation stone, suitably inscribed, was moved from aft to forward, where a small crane and pulley had been placed.The stone was hoisted into mid-air and lowered into the water by Lady Wilmot, wife of Sir JE Earley Wilmot, chairman of the company, who at that time lived in Swiss Villa, a large house which formerly stood in the Swiss Road locality.A salute was fired by the Volunteers, crowds in the small craft gathered around cheered, and prayers were offered by the Rev W W Rowley of Emmanuel Church.Lady Wilmot in an appropriate speech observed: "Here we find a vast promontory extending far into the sea, well sheltered from the gales prevalent in this district, and with capabilities for a deep-water harbour at comparatively trifling cost."On the ground immediately in front of us, Her Majesty's Government propose to erect a powerful battery of artillery (this was a reference to the Brean Down Fort then under consideration) which, with corresponding works on the Steep and Flat Holms and on the Welsh coast, will constitute an effective defence of the Severn and of the rich trading centres lying within its gates ...."May stone upon stone be placed at the bottom of the great deep without delay or interruption, and without injury from storm and tempest, till the port of Brean Down appears above the waves in its full symmetry and strength, capable of accommodating the largest vessels and being an emporium of commerce from every quarter of the globe."After the speech, those on board the 'Wye' drank a toast in champagne, and subsequently there was a luncheon at the florally decorated Town Hall, at which the hope was expressed that the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, would open the completed scheme.A day of celebration ended with fireworks in Roger's field (the site of the Winter Gardens), which included a 'Brean Down Harbour' set-piece. There were also bonfires on the sands.By next morning the foundation stone had disappeared! It was but two and a half feet long and just over a foot thick, and had been attached to a buoy or cask surmounted with a flag bearing the letters 'BDH' (Brean Down Harbour). The buoy had proved a little too buoyant and had floated off down the Channel, carrying the stone with it! It was recovered off Steep Holm.Many regarded this incident as a bad omen. The scheme did not proceed well. The contractor found the winter storms more than a match for him, and then he himself met with an accident which proved fatal. No other contractor could be found to take over.But the scheme's backers did not easily give up hope. In 1887 there was another attempt to revive it, and an engineer was appointed. In 1889 the 'New York Press' devoted a long article to the project headed 'Five Days to England'. It stated: "The intention is to construct a new harbour that will still further reduce the distance between England and the United States. The new port is only a few miles from Bristol and 140 from London."Later in 1889 there was a crowded meeting at Weston Assembly Rooms to consider proposals.The engineer, Vincent Lawson, told this meeting that there was nothing to stop them from obtaining an Act of Parliament and laying down a separate railway from the Down right into Weston Station. Their present plans, however, showed a junction with the main line at Lympsham, but they were in no way bound to that, and the Great Western Railway had offered them every support. It would also be a perfectly simple matter to construct a bridge over the River Axe, and they hoped one day to have a tramway-line running right through from the harbour to Weston.Alas for these hopes. The capital proved hard to raise, and one by one the chief exponents of the scheme died. Soon the dreams and ideas for the great Brean Down harbour scheme were as lost and gone forever as the waters of the Axe when they meet the sea.Now there is yet another "great Brean Down scheme" - the Severn Barrage scheme has reared its head again. It seems that the quiet beauty of this, the last uninvaded part of Weston's coastline, cannot be left in peace for long. Yet again it is proposed to construct a transport route across the delicate limestone vegetation that includes rare plants still surviving from a time when the shelter of the headland offered the only refuge from the advancing Ice Age, across the remains of the Roman temple that once exploited the natural beauty of the Down to encourage a sense of awe at the Infinite Deity that created it. The long trek to sit on the promontory and gaze across the channel, listening to only the waves and the seabirds, may yet be intruded upon by less appealing sights and sounds, and the many more voices of those who need expend no energy to reach the spot. Whatever the outcome of this next attempt of man to exploit the Down for his own purposes, long after his monuments and follies have passed away the Axe will continue its silent, unperturbed journey to the future. JILL BAILEYThis article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on August 31, 1962

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