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Burnham-on-Sea

Find out what the old Somerset words ‘bamfoozle' and ‘loblolly' refer to. What happened when a war time bomber crash-landed on the beach; plus the rescue of the ships' crew (and dog) from the stricken vessel The Nornen over 120 years ago.

Welcome to the Burnham-on-Sea hidden history Storywalk along the England Coast Path. This trail is designed to be like a skimming stone of interesting facts, myth, history and tales linked to this location. The walks are designed to be read aloud to family and friends and to embellish your experience of the area.

Route - from the visitor information centre, this trail journeys north along the seafront, past the pier, St Andrew's Church and finishes at Manor Gardens.

To delve deeper into the local history visit the local museums, library and information centre.

Length (out and back) - 1.2 mile / 2km allow 1 hour or so at an amble.
Access - easy, level throughout.
Directions - this trail begins at the Tourist Information Centre on the southern Esplanade seafront. TA8 1BU What3words address ///dries.petal.rally 51.232980, -2.9998920
 
Chapter one

Dialect

The old Somerset words ‘bamfoozle' (pronounced baam'feo'zl) means simply to play tricks and ‘loblolly' (pronounced laub'laul'ee) is the worst kind of meat for making greasy soup!
Chapter two

Bomber Crashes on the Beach

It was New Years Eve, the last day of 1943, when an American B17 Flying Fortress crash landed on Burnham beach after limping home from a bombing run over German occupied France. The raid was expected to be ‘low exposure' so the planes flew lower than normal, but the 296 planes met with heavy resistance and suffered heavy casualties.

After the first target of Bordeaux was shrouded in cloud, they flew on to Cognac before turning for home, but as they flew over the Brest Peninsula they were attacked again. Now with one engine smoking and all the crew except pilots in crash positions they limped home across the South West. Too low to bail out and desperate to land they spied the sands of Burnham-on-Sea and made a ‘wheels up' landing. When they finally skidded to a halt, the crew emerged unscathed and were able to walk away from the plane without even getting their feet wet!
Chapter three

Tidal Pools

Just to the south of the jetty here a tidal paddling and boating pool was installed in 1921, it was gifted to the town by the Quaker Joseph Braithwaite in thanks that his sons were returned safe from the First World War. After nearly 90 years bringing joy to the town and visitors the pool was removed in 2010.
Directions - With the sea to your left walk along the Esplanade to the slipway where the next chapter will reveal. Note - refresh this page whenever the distance counter gets a little sleepy or use the 'help' button on the bar below. But as you walk perhaps discuss what the old Somerset dialect word ‘culch’ (pronounced kuul'ch) might refer to.
 
Chapter four

Dialect

The old Somerset dialect word ‘culch' (pronounced kuul'ch) refers to broken oyster shells.
Chapter five

Steams Up!

The railway and jetty, not to be confused with the pavilion on the pier further along, were completed in the same year and opened with much fanfare and celebration on 5th May 1858. The first train ran along the extended branch line from Highbridge at 9am and was reported to be carrying a

‘tolerable load of passengers'

On the day the town band were said to be in good form, there was a regatta out in the bay and celebrations all across town. Festivities included a procession, donkey races, ballad singers and even a greasy pole with a leg of mutton at-top for those who could actually scale it!

The Iron Duke steamer arrived at 10 am from Cardiff and ‘she steamed into the new basin gallantly amid cheers of the spectators' and ‘those who did venture enjoyed an unruffled passage of two hours and would certainly enjoy an agreeable day at Burnham', reported the Bridgwater Mercury and West Counties Herald papers.

All in all the launch of the railway branch line was quite a celebration.

The image above depicts donkey rides on the sands 1907 and is copyright The Francis Frith Collection.
Chapter six

Train Crash!

Some 50 years later on, in 1914 a train approaching Burnham station skipped the rails. The photograph above depicts the gathered crowds posing for the photograph. The driver looks quite calm and unruffled despite the shock which must have been quite a ride!

Across the road on your right, you can see a monument of railway buffers which were reinstalled to commemorate the end of the branch line. The line apparently did continue right onto the jetty and it is said that the rails were cemented over and are actually still in situ.

The majestic building on the corner is the Reeds Arms, now The Reed Arms Wetherspoons and was built in 1850 by George Reed. George was a well respected philanthropist in the history of Burnham, instrumental in works to extend the train line here as well as building the jetty for steamers. He laid foundation stones for the school on the seafront, made preparations for a town sewage system and gas works, and even had a steam ship named after him. Much of these works were financially banked-rolled by him and it could be said that his investments in the town were crucial in making Burnham-on-Sea the place to visit and live.

This storywalk will end at The Manor Gardens, which were the grounds to the manor George Reed built and lived from 1838 until his death in 1869.
Directions - Continue along either the Esplanade path or adjacent sand at the top of the beach. But as you walk perhaps discuss what the old Somerset dialect words ‘perventive man’ (pronounced purvai'nteev-mae-un) might refer to.
 
Chapter seven

Dialect

The old Somerset dialect words ‘perventive man' (pronounced purvai'nteev-mae-un) is simply a coast guard, i.e. a preventative man, especially when it comes to smuggling!
Chapter eight

The Children's Corner

This part of the beach is known as Children's Corner, the swing boats, and rides have long been a feature here probably due to the ease of access from the slipway. It is also the highest part of the beach so will remain dry for the longest time as the tide rises. The postcard above, copyright of The Francis Frith Collection was taken in the 1960's as part of the local space race.

The recreational facilities on the sands began in the mid 1800's, at one time bathing tents were available to hire, which in later years became more solid sheds. These could be moved into the water, where you could change in private and then enter into the water without hardly revealing an inch of skin!
Chapter nine

The Nornen

To the north of here, just around the dunes, lies the carcass of the Nornen, a ship wrecked by storms in 1897. March gales blew southwesterly up the channel bringing high seas, snow and sleet, and many ships found themselves in distress along with the Norwegian vessel.

She had been sheltering in the waters around Lundy but found her anchors dragging as the storm surged forth forcing her towards Berrow mud flats. All on board fought hard to desperately save her but they were fighting a losing battle.

The ship was spotted just off Gore sands on the 3rd March, her sails run into rags by the gales. The Burnham lifeboat was launched, a wooden boat powered by the muscle of 10 oarsmen (pre-engine). All risked their lives to battle through the seas and winds, but despite the gales, the lifeboat managed to get alongside the stricken vessel just as it was being driven onto the sand. The ship's crew of ten, together with their dog were rescued and brought safely to land at Burnham that afternoon.

Over the coming months attempts were made to refloat The Nornen but without success and she was eventually sold for scrap. The bones of the ship can be easily seen today and surprisingly, are even visible on google earth.
Directions - Continue along the Esplanade or top of the beach, but as you walk perhaps discuss what the old Somerset dialect word ‘halsening’ (pronounced aal'zneen) might refer to.
 
Chapter ten

Dialect

The old Somerset dialect word ‘halsening' (pronounced aal'zneen) is the prediction of evil, and ‘halseny' (pronounced aa'lznee) is the use of a hazel rod to divinate or dowse. The use of hazel rods to dowse is still practised today most often in conjunction with deciding where to sink a new well!
Chapter eleven

The Somerset Tsunami

Low-lying places in Devon, Somerset and Gloucestershire were flooded late January 1607 with Burnham-on-Sea bearing the brunt. The flood waters reached inland past Glastonbury, some 15 miles from here sweeping everything away in its path.

Across the channel the Welsh towns and coastline were also hit badly extending from Laugharne, Carmarthenshire to above Chepstow, Monmouthshire. In Kingston Seymour, not far north from here, the All Saints' Church was filled to a depth of 5 feet and a chiselled mark remains to this day showing that the maximum height of the water was 7.74 metres above sea level.

Brean was wholly swallowed up by the waters with seven out of the nine houses destroyed along with 26 of the inhabitants perishing. It is estimated some 2,000 or more people were drowned that day, houses and villages were swept away and an estimated 200 square miles of farmland flooded.

Whether the flood was a rare storm surge or Tsunami is highly debated, though all experts agree it is an important reminder of why we should carefully consider plans when building in low lying areas. Some scientists now forecast the sea level could be over 1m higher by the end of the 21st century which would have serious implications for the Berrow, Burnham and Highbridge area.

Image above is from a London pamphlet or chapbook printed 1607 raising awareness of the flood in the west at the time.
Chapter twelve

BARB - Hovercraft

Burnham sands can be treacherous often due to the shifting mud banks and the daily wash of the tides. The local rescue teams have a suite of vehicles including a hovercraft which are essential to provide effective support for all who find themselves in difficulties on the beach or out on the water.

The Burnham Area Rescue Boat (BARB) crew are all volunteers and you can often see them training on the sands, performing drills with the ‘mud technicians' and practising extraction techniques for when people, animals and even vehicles get caught in the treacherous mud. When the hovercraft first came into service in 2003 up to 50 people were rescued that year, and since then hundreds owe their life to this service and dedicated volunteers.
Directions - Continue along the Esplanade or top of the beach. Refresh this page when the distance counter gets a little sleepy or use the 'help' button on the bar below. But as you walk perhaps discuss what the old Somerset dialect word ‘spranking’ (pronounced sprang'keen) might refer to.
 
Chapter thirteen

Dialect

The old Somerset dialect word ‘spranking' (pronounced sprang'keen) is simply a watering can!
Chapter fourteen

Shortcomings of Burnham Pavilion Pier

Burnham pier is listed as Britain's shortest illuminated pier even though the bandstand pier at Weymouth is actually a little shorter, but this is only because their local council deliberately blew part of it up in 1986! The pavilion sits on concrete pilings made from Welsh granite and was the first of its kind in Europe.

A promenade deck and docks were never added making it impractical for ships to land passengers and is debated whether this was indeed ever part of the original designs.

The pier itself was built in 1911 just before the First World War employing the pioneering, ‘modern' construction technique of concrete - although of course the Romans had used concrete extensively 2000 years before! But the use of this material for this purpose at the time was so contentious that locals thought it would simply be washed away with the vicious tides of the Bristol Channel. Dissenters were proven wrong as the pier has remained strong to this day and has supported thousands of performances to eager audiences throughout its lifetime.
Chapter fifteen

Sea Fever

This poem by John Masefield was originally published in Salt-Water Ballads in 1902. He sailed on a windjammer, a four masted, ironclad ship to New York in 1895. The sight of international sailing vessels hailing to and from both Cardiff and Bristol would have been a common sight from here at the turn of the 20th century.

Sea Fever

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.
Directions - For the next chapter walk along the Esplanade or if you are currently on the beach then walk up the sea wall access just after the pier to be on the Esplanade. As you walk perhaps discuss what the old Somerset dialect word ‘girdly’ (pronounced guur'dlee) might refer to.
 
Chapter sixteen

Dialect

The old Somerset dialect word ‘girdly' (pronounced guur'dlee) refers to a sneer or ugly grin.
Chapter seventeen

Entertainment on the Sands

The beach has been the perfect venue for various entertainment over the years, including sandcastle competitions, horse races and the traditional seaside donkey derby. The image above from 1939 depicts Freddie Fays Frolics whose daily performances were at 11am, 3pm and 7pm throughout the season. The whole family, including his son-in-law were all stars of the show which included singing, dance, and acrobatics.

But not all has always been perfect at here, Kivner Terrace to your right, one of the first purpose built beachfront hostels before there was even an Esplanade, was requested to only flush their waste in the night due to complaints from visitors! At that time, the raw sewage and general waste was just flushed though the sea wall and out onto the beach!
Chapter eighteen

The Lighthouse on Legs

‘A Guide Or Hand-book to Burnham and Its Neighbourhood' published in 1859 commented -

‘the writer has heard merry children, while sporting on the sands, call this smaller beacon, the lighthouse on legs'

First lit in 1832, the Low lighthouse ran for 137 years warning of the shifting muds and sands to passing sailors. The lighthouses replaced a simpler one on the tower of St Andrew's Church and together, the narrow beams from both High and Low lighthouses were used to navigate vessels into the mouth of the River Parrett. Additional red lights with narrow beams were added in 1866 to guide boats from Highbridge Docks out and along the shifting water channel.

Today the Low lighthouse is still an important functional maritime structure, Grade II listed and maintained by Sedgemoor District Council. But more importantly, it is a picture postcard mascot which is unique to this coast and Burnham-on-Sea.

Perhaps you might like to post a ‘lighthouse on legs' photo of your own, to the Storywalks Facebook Page?
Directions - Continue along the Esplanade, cross the road and through the arches into Marine Cove Gardens, but as you walk perhaps discuss what the old Somerset dialect word ‘strammy’ (pronounced straam'ee) might refer to.
 
Chapter nineteen

Dialect

The old Somerset dialect word ‘strammy' (pronounced straam'ee) refers to a person telling lies!
Chapter twenty

Marine Cove Gardens

Marine Cove Gardens remain close to their original designs from 100 years ago, the initial Lutyens-Jekyll inspirations are easy to see today but in the early 1800's this area was just dunes keeping the sea at bay.

The local vicar, Reverend Davies had aspirations for the health and well being of Burnham visitors by creating a spa retreat a little further up the Esplanade at Steart House. These gardens were created as an extension to this ‘Daviesville complex' and patrons along with locals were welcomed to walk here.

Burnhams' mineral spa baths were promoted to have 'every usual appliance for convenience, comfort and restoration of health'. The spa had two springs, one a 'saline or tonic, the other sulphureous or alternative.'

Waters were pumped into the baths in the basement room during high tide, and there was also a reading room and pump house where the waters could be consumed. Burnham's waters were widely believed to have superb healing properties to rival those of Harrogate and Bath.

The Marine Cove Gardens were opened officially to the public in 1927 and are today supported by a voluntary group of ‘friends'.
Directions - Walk through the arch to St Andrews Church. Refresh this page when the distance counter gets a little sleepy or use the 'help' button on the bar below. But as you journey perhaps discuss what the old Somerset dialect word ‘wivery’ (pronounced wuv'uree) might refer to.
 
Chapter twenty-one

Dialect

The old Somerset dialect word ‘wivery' (pronounced wuv'uree) means to hover.
Chapter twenty-two

The Leaning Tower of Burnham

Sand acts more like a fluid under compression, so when the builders of St Andrew's Church decided to erect a bell tower, there was a certain limit to how high it could actually be before toppling right over! Today the tower is lilting quite considerably despite heavy buttressing.

Previous to the Low and High lighthouses, which were built in 1832, the church tower used to maintain a lantern for ships enabling vessels to avoid the treacherous mud around Stert Island in the darkness.

Just inside the porch is ‘a scratch sundial' (not to be confused with the more modern one close by) and is thought to date this part of the church to as early as the 1200's.

Why not venture inside the church to see two sculptures behind the altar which were commissioned by James II. They were once part of the chapel at Whitehall Palace designed by Sir Christopher Wren but Queen Anne thought they would sit better in Westminster Abbey so were relocated, that is until the Bishop of Rochester (Vicar of Burnham for 27 years) relocated them to their current home.

Much has changed in the town over the lifetime of St Andrew's, and this once tiny parish of Burnham, home to just a few dozen families, has today swelled to over 20,000 people.
Chapter twenty-three

An Autumn Storm

Two years before the Nornen was wrecked there was a terrible storm which caught many that cold, dark autumn night of 1895. Several vessels were waiting in Bridgwater Bay just off Burnham beach for the rising tide to carry them up to Burnham Docks (pictured). But the storm came with such ferocity there was no safe harbour to be found.

Burnham lifeboat was on standby knowing many were in difficulty, but in the pitch darkness with the driving rain it was hard to know what was going on. But by the light of the morning the fate of several stricken ships could easily be seen. The steam ship Tender was capsized just off Burnham beach and two vessels were sunk in the river just below Highbridge Pill. A ketch and a further vessel some five miles out were also in difficulty and the steamer Bulldog had run ashore on Berrow sands just to the north.

During the night, the might of the tide with the storm surging behind had run a terrible toll on the ships trying to get to harbour. Many ships had indeed managed the tight passage into the Huntspill River only to be wildly jostled together and crushed to pieces. Sailors had flung themselves off boats in the darkness as their boats were carried on the surge.

The Burnham lifeboat boat rowed from vessel to vessel in the bay and found many of the craft abandoned. Some crews had thankfully made it to safety, but others were not so lucky.
Directions - Walk through the church yard and out the main gate. Walk through to Manor Road, then left to the pedestrian crossing which will take you safely into Manor Park where our Storywalk will conclude at the bandstand. But as you walk perhaps discuss what the old Somerset dialect words ‘badabed’ (pronounced bae'ud ubai'd) and ‘bedale’ (pronounced baid ae'ul) might refer to.
 
Chapter twenty-four

Dialect

The old Somerset dialect word ‘badabed' (pronounced bae'ud ubai'd) refers to someone who is so ill they are unable to leave the bed, whereas ‘bedale' (pronounced baid ae'ul) refers to alcohol which is reserved for a new birth, or the mother during childbirth!
Chapter twenty-five

The Manor Park Gardens

The Manor gardens have a rich history, they were originally set out by George Reed with extensive glass houses for growing orchids. Today there are many mature tree specimens in the park, all are testament to the foresight to his generous philanthropy.

George arrived in Burnham in the late 1830s and spent over 30 years investing in the community and it seems only right to have started this tour by The Reed Arms. George had helped attract and finance much of the building developments which have made Burnham what it is today. There is scarce an Edwardian property which didn't have a foundation stone laid by him.

Orchids were a passion for George and after his death (1869) these gardens continued to be maintained for many years. Two of the gardeners, John Bodger and his son worked here for a time before emigrating to the US where they set up business as seed growers. The John Bodger and Son Seed Company of California grew to be the largest seed suppliers in the states.

During George Reed's time, these personal Manor gardens were open to the public by appointment but were finally opened for the enjoyment of all on 12th June 1905. The bandstand pictured (copyright of The Francis Frith Collection - 1913) is to your right, and during World War II a German Messerschmitt fighter plane was on display here to raise funds for the war effort. Norman Gobey Collection
Chapter twenty-six

Horse Chestnut

The Horse Chestnut or conker tree is an easy one to identify in these gardens, with its long loping leaves and broad dense canopy. The cascades of blossoms in spring are often referred to as lanterns or candles and their autumn fruit of conkers peeking out from velvet spiky gourds are unmistakable.

During World War I, the Royal Navy needed large volumes of the solvent Acetone to make Cordite which is used as a smokeless gunpowder for firing artillery. Initially the Acetone was made using a bacterial fermentation of grain, however grain was in short supply, fortunately a Mr Chaim Weizmann had developed a technique to ferment Acetone from Horse Chestnuts, an alternative source of starch. So school children were asked by the Ministry of Munitions to gather tons of these nuts from far and wide, which were then stored in six huge silos at Holton Heath in Dorset, at the Cordite Factory.

If you suffer from Arthritis may it be recommended that you place two in your trouser pockets to help this chronic condition, it would be interesting to find out whether this is so!
Chapter twenty-seven

The End

This brings us to the end of this Storywalk although there are many others of these along the Somerset stretch of the England Coast Path. Feel free to post a picture on the Storywalks Facebook of your family or group enjoying the trail.

Capture Burnham has more information about the town, buildings and people including a great Heritage map with mobile friendly pages. You have probably noticed the QR codes along our trail, these open pages from the Capture Burnham website about specific landmarks and buildings close by.

These trails have been researched and written by C Jelley and Dr Helen Blackman. They have been made possible by grant funding from the England Coast Path scheme, managed by Somerset County Council and the Rights of Way team.
Chapter twenty-eight

Directions

Retrace your steps along the Esplanade or alternatively walk Burnham high street which runs parallel.
Chapter twenty-nine

Acknowledgements

Images - in order of display. Every effort has been made to ascertain permission for all copyrighted images, for any omissions please contact Storywalks.


1 - B17 Bomber on Burnham-on-Sea beach - photograph - 1943 - Anon

2 - Donkeys on Burnham-on-Sea beach - photograph - postcard - 1907 - Copyright Francis Frith Collection

3 - Train derailment at Burnham-on-Sea station - Anon

4 - Dan Dare Space Ship Pony Cart - photograph - postcard - 1960 - Copyright Francis Frith Collection

5 - The Nornen - photograph - Anon

6 - Tsunami - Woodcut - 1606 Chapbook - public domain

7 - Burnham-on-Sea pier - photograph - postcard - 1918 - Copyright Francis Frith Collection

8 - Freddie Fay's Frolics - photograph - postcard - 1939 - Copyright Francis Frith Collection

9 - Burnham lighthouse - photograph - Charles Pearson

10 - Marine Cove Gardens - photograph - postcard - 1939 - Copyright Francis Frith Collection

11 - Highbridge wharf - slide - Somerset Heritage Centre - A/CSY/WH/07

12 - Bandstand Manor Park Gardens - photograph - postcard - 1913 - Copyright Francis Frith Collection
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