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Somerset May 2022

Somerset. We got there in the end. This club visit to Somerset was originally arranged for May 2020 but we all know what happened; things were still uncertain a year later but third time lucky.

Eighteen of us, with Peter Creed as leader and expert, stayed from Sunday 29 to Tuesday 31 May in the Grange Hotel at Brent Knoll, just east of Burnham and south of Weston Super Mare (or ‘Aggie on horseback’, as a sailor might refer to it).

Because the area is only a couple of hours drive from West Oxfordshire, it was a two and a half day visit and we met at lunchtime on the Sunday in the NT car park at Sand Point, a rocky limestone peninsula north of Weston overlooking Sand Bay.

On the way up to the top, the poisonous properties the hemlock we passed aroused an unusual amount of interest. Nearby, several dark bush cricket nymphs were basking on leaves at the base of a wall. On top of the ridge, it was grey and rather windy. There was a large number of typical limestone plant species and Brenda, as ever an indefatigable recorder, noted over a hundred during the couple of hours we spent up there. Peter found us some honewort, a small white umbellifer, rare in the UK, on a slope above a drop onto some rocks. Pink sea campion was growing at the top of the cliffs and we found a lot of ivy broomrape parasiting the ivy growing at the base of exposed rocks. Several whitethroats were singing from the tops of bushes on the slopes below us, allowing us to get a good look at them. Because it was rather cool there were not a lot of insects to see except, notably, a small copper and an ichneumon (a parasitic wasp) Pimpla rufipes. Most of us were unfamiliar with the area and we spent some time speculating what the ruins attached to the headland further south might be, but with no definite conclusion.

After raising our eyebrows at a group of lads having a barbecue at the trig point, we went back down and walked along a path by the salt marsh. The hemlock water dropwort, another poisonous umbellifer, growing near the sea wall also raised a certain amount of interest. Large patches of sea milkwort (a member of the primrose family with small mauve flowers) were growing on the edge of the salt marsh. We found some very delicate hare’s-tail grass on a small sandy area, along with common broomrape. A reed warbler was singing in a clump of reeds as we walked back to the car park; with the north wind in our faces, it felt distinctly cool for the time of year.

After supper at the hotel, John Baker gave us a brief introduction to the geology of the area – with handouts and specimens! – an unexpected educational bonus, for which we thank him.

It was overcast the following morning when we set off to visit three sites in the Levels. The first was Catcott Nature Reserve where we were met by Nigel Phillips, a friend/colleague of Peter’s, and also known to several members of our group because he once worked for BBOWT.

The reserve is managed by Somerset Wildlife Trust and has a variety of (mainly wet) habitats and several hides. We walked slowly along a peaty track towards an area of wet scrub where Peter was hoping to find some of the larger and more colourful soldier flies. On the way we found some alder leaf beetles; chiffchaffs and blackcaps were singing and yellow flags were flowering in the wetter places; it started to rain gently. Large bushes of sweet gale (bog myrtle) were growing in the area of wet scrub and there were a few southern marsh orchids. Disappointingly, the weather had confined the soldier flies to barracks we saw only a black colonel (Odontomia tigrina), which is quite rare. However, a cuckoo and a garden warbler were singing, and someone found the most delicate latticework cocoon of a hypera pollux weevil. A marsh harrier flew by as we walked back to the cars.

Bird song at Catcott including Garden warbler and Cuckoo (S. Morton)

Our next stop was Shapwick Heath NNR, a short walk down the road from the Avalon Marshes Centre where we ate lunch. The sun came out and it was quite warm for a while. On the way, I was horrified to see that commercial peat extraction was still happening at a couple of places.

The highlight at Shapwick was the wet woodland and, although the plant list is short at only fourteen species, the royal ferns were impressive, some growing to five or, perhaps, six feet, giving the woods a prehistoric atmosphere. Several willow warblers were singing. A buff tip resting on some grass was conspicuous (and much photographed) although it would have been perfectly camouflaged on a nearby silver birch.

Passing a reconstruction of a Neolithic track (the Sweet Track), we continued to the Decoy hide overlooking a large pond where there were several great-crested grebes, one with a chick on its back and a couple of males engaged in a standoff. A Cetti’s warbler was singing and there was a brief visit by a marsh harrier. It started to drizzle slightly.

Our last visit that day was to Westhay, where we simply walked to a hide not far from the car park. The heavens opened for fifteen minutes or so. Apart from a Cetti’s (there seem to be a lot of them this year) singing loudly, there wasn’t a lot to see, although two great white egrets flew by on the way back to the car park.

A front passed over whilst we were having breakfast the following morning; rain came down like stair rods. By the time we were ready to leave, however, it was clear and sunny, but with a stiff north west breeze. A few of the party left to do their own thing; the rest of us set off for Berrow and Brean, on the coast just north of Burnham.

After some difficulty parking in Berrow, we crossed the golf course to the dune slacks where the star attraction was the lizard orchids, which were quite numerous and mainly in full flower. There were also some bee orchids, and southern marsh orchids by a boardwalk through a marsh.

Making a brief stop at Berrow church to admire the southern marsh orchids in an adjacent field, where we also found another dark bush cricket nymph, we visited Berrow Dunes Local Nature Reserve, a SSSI of dune slacks and ponds, managed by Somerset Wildlife Trust and Sedgemoor district. The dune slacks were covered in evening primroses in flower; Peter pointed out the rather rare sea-buckthorn bracket fungus on the base of a sea-buckthorn. The real aim of our visit, however, was to look for two uncommon species: dune brittlestem, a fungus which grows on sand (!) and, even more exotic, a rare species of tiger beetle which lives on the strand line. We were lucky with the first and found a lot of the fungi by the fence where the dunes joined the beach. Alas, after poking around beneath several piles of seaweed on the tide line, all we found were sand hoppers – a pity because tiger beetles are really rather spectacular.

We then moved on to Brean. We got well and truly sand-blasted by the wind as we walked through the car park, though that didn’t seem to deter folk from sitting in deckchairs on the beach. After a quick lunch in the NT cafe we tackled the steep, and slightly vertiginous ‘zigzag steps’ to the top of Brean Down, about 300 feet almost vertically (or so it felt). But the effort was worth it, both for the views inland to Glastonbury Tor, and over the Bristol Channel, as well as the flora.

View from Brean Down, Brent Knoll on right, Glastonbury Tor in the left distance.

Like Sand Point, Brean Down is a limestone peninsular. The most spectacular plant was white rock rose, which grows there and only one other site in Devon. Its scientific name, Helianthemum apenninum, suggests that it’s a native of Italy, or southern Europe. Another curiosity was Small-flowered Buttercup, Ranunculus parviflorus, with flowers 3 – 4 mm across and almost too small to see. Instead of the steps, we came back down by a relatively gentle track. Navelwort (aka wall pennywort) was growing on rocks and three hares galloped across the fields below.

Arriving back at the NT cafe just after four thirty, we were a few minutes too late for an ice cream. After thanking Peter for his efforts and expertise, we then dispersed and headed back to Oxfordshire.

Whilst up on Brean Down, we had again been intrigued by the ruins attached to the promontory at Weston; again, we didn’t reach any conclusion. However, the mystery was resolved by Maggie C. a couple of days later. It turns out it was the Old, or Birnbeck Pier, which was closed in 1994. There is a Wikipedia article here. During WWII it was used by the Directorate of Miscellaneous Weapons Development. The article on DMWD is also worth reading to see the fun (?) that they had and the crazy contraptions they came up with.

John Cobb, July 2022

Full species lists can be found here.