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History of Brean Down

View of the square buildings of Palmerston Fort, Brean Down, with the sea in the background
Palmerston Fort at Brean Down | © National Trust Images/John Miller

A walk on Brean Down will take you on a journey from Neolithic man through the Roman era to the peninsula's vital role defending the South West during the Second World War. Discover more about the history of this unique stretch of the Somerset coast.

Ancient Brean

The earliest signs of life on Brean Down date back to 10,000 BC. Evidence of extinct creatures such as mammoths and woolly rhinos has been uncovered here.

Humans have been living, farming and fighting on the down since the Stone Age. Signs of the early settlers are still visible today.

Ancient field systems and the archaeological remains of a Roman temple lie near the steps on Brean’s south side. There used to be an Iron Age hillfort on the east side – you can still see its banks and ditches.

The Palmerston Fort

Brean Down's coastal fort was built to defend the country against a possible Napoleonic invasion. It was later rearmed during the Second World War and used for experimental weapons testing.

The fort is now a ruin, but you can still wander around the buildings and imagine what it must have been like living and working on the down.

Concrete inside of Palmerston Fort gun emplacement
Palmerston Fort gun emplacement | © National Trust Images/Lis Ford

Defending the nation

There is evidence of Brean’s military past all over the down. Gun platforms are just one example of the important part it has played in defending the Bristol Channel over the years.

In the Second World War, bomber planes practised flying around Brean and the Somerset coast. There is a large concrete arrow on the top of the down, which used to be painted white. It was used to direct planes to their practice ranges.

During the war, soldiers practised shooting at targets in the bay at Weston-super-Mare. The machine gun emplacements can still be seen today.

Volunteers climbing down the stairs towards the beach from Brean Down in autumn
Heading towards the beach at Brean Down | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

The hidden Roman temple

Few people know that when they walk across the top of the down they are walking over a Roman temple. It is on the top of the first high point you see when you have climbed the concrete steps.

There is nothing to see there now, but it lies just below the ground between the path and the mound of a round barrow. Known as ‘The Potter’s Mound’, the barrow is where an important person in the Bronze Age was buried, long before the Romans came and built their temple here.

The temple was excavated in 1958, revealing that it was seemingly little used after it was built in c. 340. Around 50 years later it was pulled down by the Romans and the stone carted away, some of it used to build a small hut beside the barrow.

The hut could have been for an early Christian hermit of the same generation as St Patrick, who would have lived a simple life of prayer in this barren place.

View of the square buildings of Palmerston Fort, Brean Down, with the sea in the background

Discover more at Brean Down

Find out how to get to Brean Down, where to park, the things to see and do and more.

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History 

Learn about people from the past, discover remarkable works of art and brush up on your knowledge of architecture and gardens.