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Kilve Natural History

Follow this walk to find out more about both the fossils and geology of this important section of coast and the species and habitats which thrive here today and some of the natural remedies and curious folk lore linked to their history.

Welcome to the Kilve Beach Heritage Natural 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 this place.

Route - From the Oil Retort in Kilve beach car park, this trail journeys down to the sea and a stunning vantage point of the Bristol Channel.

To delve deeper into the local history, then please visit the tourist information centres at Watchet and local libraries.

Length - 0.4 miles / 0.6 km total, allow one hour at an amble.
Access - path is flat, gravely and suitable for wheels.
Directions - This trail begins at the Oil Retort in the car park at the end of Sea Lane, Kilve. TA5 1EG What3words address ///cured.canny.healthier 51.191421, -3.2253140
Chapter one

The Stream

The stream alongside the car park is part of the River Holford which rises 7 kilometres south in the Quantock Hills. It would have been used in the past to power various water mills along its length. The trees lining the stream include alder, poplar, willow and oak, all of which were vital resources in our recent history; from basket making to the production of charcoal, from cart wheels to cricket bats.

After the car park the stream slows down and is lost in a dense area of willow carr, before it enters the sea under the pebble ridge at Kilve Pill. Just behind the hedge on the other side of the stream is a sewage works which treats waste water from the village and surrounding homesteads so that it is clean when it is discharged into the sea. In the past the sewage from Kilve would have no doubt drained directly into the stream!

Today the stream's good water quality means it has diverse freshwater life, including many tiny invertebrates. You really need a net and tray to catch them, but if you crouch down by the river bank and peer into the water you may see them darting about feeding on dead leaves and algae.
Chapter two

Poplar Trees

To the side of the Oil Retort are white poplar trees which are often referred to as 'the talking tree' or 'the whispering tree' due to the rustle of their leaves. It is said that in Greek Mythology Hercules after destroying The Cacus, a fire breathing giant, made a wreath out of poplar leaves, the insides of which turned white as they pressed on his sweaty brow whilst the outer darkened due to the heat of the Underworld.

Pliny the Elder, the Roman philosopher writing around AD 50, suggested poplar be used instead of oak for shields as it is a lighter and more pliable and can be steam bent like willow. In some cultures the catkins or red flowering cases are called Devil's Fingers, and if you were to pick them you would receive seven seasons of bad luck. The only way to lift this hex would be to tuck the catkin behind your left ear or between your toes when you slept.
Walk up to the top of this car park for the next chapter to reveal. Note this is the furthest point from the beach in this trail.
Chapter three

Willow Trees

Further along this road opposite the Chantry is a willow tree which now stands where the carp pond was once likely located. This pond would have supplied food for the monks to be eaten only on 'fish days'.

Willow trees often thread their character in tales and myths of old. The Greek poet Orpheus carried willow branches on his adventures in the Underworld. He was also given a lyre by the god Apollo. It is interesting to note that the sound boxes of harps and lyres were usually carved from solid willow wood.

Other uses for willow include baskets, house partition walls, coracle frames and charcoal manufacture.

Willows come in many varieties. The white willow, so called due to the white underside of its leaf, is commonly used for cricket bats. Extracts from other willow varieties have been used to help rheumatism and 'diseases of dampness' perhaps due to their natural affiliation to watery locations.

In both bark and leaf resides the active compound salicin, whose usefulness has been known for some time with its most common synthesised form today being Aspirin. The healer and philosopher Pliny the Elder, who observed the eruption of Mount Vesuvius around 79AD, noted the medicinal uses of willow with a distillation of the bark being useful to lower the temperature of fevers.

A large willow variety is more commonly known as crack willow or widow's willow. These names refer to its tendency to drop branches without notice and therefore steal husbands from their wives! 

Perhaps it would not be wise to sleep beneath a willow today.
Turn around and walk down to the stream under the trees on your left. Follow the stream along a short distance to the oak trees where the next chapter will reveal.
Chapter four

The Lightening Tree

The image above depicts three tree samples, from the left ash, then turkey oak (with hairy acorn cups) and finally hazel.

Old folk rhyme

'Fairy folk, are in old oaks'

Oak trees are also referred to as lightening trees, perhaps due to their shape in later years resembling a lightning bolt, or the preponderance for them to be struck by lightning. Whatever the reason, once an oak has been struck, then its timber would become very valuable as a charm to ward off lightening. Often these ‘oak charms' can be found carved into the shape of acorns and installed as banister ends on stair wells.

In recent years a large mature oak came down in a storm near Crowcombe, which is about 12 miles east of Minehead. When the tree crashed down its two main limbs broke open, and when they cut the tree up they found, hidden in the fork of the main trunk, a civil war musket, most likely hidden there in the 17th Century.

Oak Apple Day, or Royal Oak Day, was a formal public holiday celebrated in England on 29 May to commemorating the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660. The story goes that the future King Charles II had escaped the round head army at the battle of Worcester (1651) by hiding in the branches of an oak tree. After his restoration it became traditional to wear a sprig of oak on his birthday. Failure to do so risked being pelted with bird's eggs or thrashed with nettles.

Parliament declared 29 May a public holiday in 1660 and Oak Apple Day was formally abolished in 1859, but in some parts of the country today it is still celebrated with alternate names of Shick Shack Day and Nettle Day.
Chapter five


Old medieval rhyme

'Even ash I thee do pluck
hoping thus to bring me luck
If no luck thee brings to me
then I wish I'd left thee upon the tree'

Ash trees have distinctive leaves which look like ribs running from a single stalk. The final leaf generally grows from the tip, making the ash tree leaves odd in number. However, look carefully and you may sometimes find one growing with an even number of leaves.

Ash trees are steeped in folklore and custom. You can cure warts with hot sap applied from a burning stick, which is purported to work within three days! They have great healing and cleansing power too. A tree planted near your house would provide protection from witchcraft as 'neither curse nor hag could abide the tree.' Ash staves are also used in 'glatting' or eel hunting which we will talk about more later in this walk.
Continue down the stream a short way.
Chapter six

Freshwater Shrimp

Freshwater shrimp (Gammarus pulex): Sometimes known as 'scuds', these small crustaceans, which can grow up to 15 millimetres long, have curved, flattened grey-green or orange-brown bodies with seven pairs of legs and two pairs of antennae. Abundant in slow moving, oxygenated water, they crawl around amongst the gravel on the stream bed. 

They can also swim, which they do lying on their sides - hence their other common name of 'side-swimmers'. In Spring, males hold on to smaller females as they move through the water so they can fertilise the eggs carried in the females' brood pouches.  Eggs hatch in 21 days but the young remain in the pouch until the female moults.

The image of the shrimp above was sampled here from the waters at Kilve August 2019.
Chapter seven

Mayflies and Mayfly Nymphs

As you walk along the riverbank on a warm summer day the small insects you may see dancing above the water are probably mayflies. They will have been dancing over the river for thousands of years, being one of the first winged insects to evolve, with fossils dating back over 300 million years (long before the dinosaurs). Many different mayfly species are found in Somerset, but they are all characterised by having three tails. They range in size 5 to 20 millimetres.

The larvae of the mayflies are known as nymphs and they live a fully aquatic life. They look similar to the adults but have no wings and have small gills along their sides. After living in the stream, the nymphs moult and emerge from the water as winged adult flies forming the mating swarms which dance above the surface.

The name mayfly is said to be linked to the time of year they take flight but this is quite misleading because they can appear throughout the year with some species having a second batch emerging in early autumn. The name more probably comes from the habit of one species, Ephemera danica, which emerges as adults when the mayflower or hawthorn is in bloom. They are also known as day-flies due to some species having an adult life-span of only a single day, or even just a few hours compared with their larval underwater stage which can last for about a year. The sole purpose of the adult is to find a mate and for the female to lay eggs back into the stream.

Along with many other insect populations, mayflies are declining in the UK although it still not clear why.

All these tiny invertebrates are food for other larger insect larvae, fish and birds. One bird you might see diving into the stream to feed is a dipper, a small dark bird with a white front. If you are really blessed then you may also see a kingfisher darting along the stream.
Chapter eight

A Crown of Kingfishers

According to the ancient Greeks, kingfishers built their nests on a raft of fish bones which was becalmed by the gods for this very purpose. Their nest with eggs laid inside would be incubated by the warm weather and upon naturally becalmed waters as it drifted out to sea.

The Greek name for kingfisher is halcyon, leading to the term ‘halcyon days' which was originally a reference to the calm and fine weather at this time in Greece. We now use the term to refer to fondly remembered times in our past.

Kingfishers actually nest in holes they dig into vertical river banks and don't use any nest materials at all.

Before you move on, please place a small pebble on the ledge of the information board. This is the simplest way to gauge how many people are truly walking and reading the trail.
Take the road to the right of the Oil retort and walk down through the woods to the lime kilns inside.
Chapter nine


Hazel trees can be found dotted in the hedges rows and amongst the willow and oak near the lime kilns in this wood. The Celts believed that the fruits from the hazel tree gave one wisdom and inspiration. There are numerous variations on the ancient tale that nine hazel trees once grew around a sacred pool, dropping nuts into the water that were then eaten by the highly venerated salmon. These great fish then absorbed the wisdom from the hazel tree.

A druid teacher, in his bid to become omniscient, caught one of these special salmon and asked a student to cook it, but not to eat it. Whilst this student prepared it on the fire a blister formed on the fish's skin, and the pupil used his thumb to burst the hot fat. The juices splashed onto his hand and quick as a flash he sucked his thumb to cool it. Immediately, on placing his thumb in his mouth, he absorbed the great fish's wisdom. The boy was called Fionn Mac Cumhail, or Finn McColl, and is often the central character in many traditional celtic stories.

Culpepper's Herbal, first published in the mid 1600's, has this to say about hazel:

Oovemment and Virtues. They are under the dominion
of Mercury. The parted kernels matie into an electuary,
or the milk drawn from them with mead or honied water,
is good to help an old cough, and a little pepper put in
draws rheum from the head. The dried husks and shells,
to the weight of two drams, taken in red wine, stays lazness
and womens' courses, the skins answer the same purpose.
Continue onto the beach where the stream emerges from the wood in a pool.
Chapter ten

The Rocky Shore

The rocky limestone ledges that stretch out below the shingle ridge provide an excellent seashore habitat for a wide variety of marine animals and seaweeds. There are lots of rockpools, cracks and crevices which are teaming with life when you look closely.

Some of the species you are likely to find include limpets, anemones, shore crabs, bladder wrack, barnacles and sea lettuce. 
Chapter eleven

Common Limpet

Common Limpet (Patella vulgata): Limpets, large dome-shaped snails that can live over 15 years, are important herbivores, feeding on microscopic algae which covers the rocks. They feed by scraping their sandpaper-like tongue (radula) across the rock surface. The radula is covered in many iron toughened teeth which acts like a file and is one of the toughest biological materials known. Each sweep of the radula removes fine algae and leaves a grazing mark on the rock. 

Using their large muscular foot, limpets clamp tightly to the rocks at low tide to prevent drying out. As limpets settle down, they rotate the shell and grind it into rock which produces a good fit but also, on death, leaves a scar on the rock surface. The sexes are separate but as in many snails they often begin life as males changing to a female as they get older. Sperm fertilise the eggs externally in the seawater. The eggs hatch into planktonic larvae which live in the sea for several weeks before settling out on to the shore. 
Chapter twelve

Beadlet Anemone

Beadlet Anemone (Actinia equina): Anemones are carnivores feeding upon crabs, shrimps and small fish. Their 200 or so sticky tentacles are covered with stinging cells that paralyse their prey and pass it to their mouth.

This anemone species can survive on the upper parts of shores in rockpools or even in moist crevices. It does this by retracting its tentacles reducing its surface area and trapping water inside its body. Its mucus covered body reduces water loss yet further.

Although they are attached to the surface they can creep slowly along and can get quite territorial, nudging each other until one moves. They reproduce asexually by budding internally to produce many small genetically identical anemones. 
Chapter thirteen


The European Eel (Anguilla anguilla): If you are really lucky you might find an eel on the beach which has been temporarily trapped in a pool or could be on its way to the sea from the stream beyond the pebble ridge. These are a different species to the Conger Eel, and are an important part of both marine and freshwater ecosystems. They feed on dead and decaying animals – helping to recycle nutrients.  They are also important food for otters and for birds such as herons and egrets. European eels have an extraordinary life cycle.  They start as eggs in the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda and spend 18 months floating on ocean currents towards the coasts of Europe and North Africa.  They enter rivers and lakes as baby eels known as elvers or ‘glass eels' (due to their transparency) and spend anything from 5 to 20 years feeding and growing into adult eels. They then return to sea and swim 3000 miles for over a year back to spawn in the Sargasso Sea.

The Somerset rivers and wetlands are ideal habitat for eels. However, human made barriers are now found across many rivers meaning that across Europe eels can only access 10% of the habitats they used to.  Numbers as a result have reduced by 90 – 95% over the last 40 years making eels now officially ‘critically endangered'. 
Chapter fourteen

The Shore Crab

Shore Crab (Carcinus maenas): Crabs are highly mobile carnivores and scavengers and will eat most other seashore animals especially sea snails, which they hold in one claw and then snap off the edge of the shell to get to the softer parts. 

Their carapace has a variety of colours which can reflect the habitat they live in, although as they age, they become mainly green and then red when they are fully mature. They are very adaptable animals able to cope with varying salinity and temperature and can be found quite high up the shore where they avoid stress by sheltering under seaweed and stones. 

The crab's abdomen is folded under the body and in males is narrow whereas the female it is wider. If you find a crab and carefully turn it over see if you can work out which sex it is. When the female is fertilised, she lays up to 200,000 eggs which she the carries underneath the abdomen. The hatched larval stage lives in the plankton, going through a series of moults before settling on to the shore.

There is a coastal tradition for newly wed fishermen to wrap a red ribbon around a crab claw and bury it beneath the marital home lintel or door step on the night of the wedding. This not only preserves the sanctity of the union but guarantees the safe passage of the husband home from working on the sea.
Chapter fifteen


These tiny conical shelled structures (5-10 millimetres) stuck to the open rocks are crustaceans - relatives of shrimps, crabs and lobsters. They are made up shell plates around a central opening which is sealed up at low tide. At high tide feathery modified legs stick out of the plates and sweep back and forth filtering food (plankton and detritus). 

Barnacles start life as a planktonic larvae which settle out on the shore after about six weeks. The young barnacle wanders about on the shore looking for a suitable place to attach. Once the animal has found a good spot it stands on its front end, permanently glues itself down and then grows into an adult staying in the same spot for the rest of its life. 

Several different species of barnacle are commonly found on Somerset shores, but most of them are not as abundant far up the Bristol Channel as Kilve, may be due, in part, to the muddier waters on this shore, however there are plenty of individuals of the non-native star barnacle (Austrominius modestus). This arrived in the English Channel from Australia in the 1940's, probably brought over in the holds of ships. It has spread quickly around the UK coast. Unlike native barnacles it has a tolerance of silty water and lower salinity. 
Chapter sixteen

Bladder Wrack

Bladder Wrack (Fucus vesiculosus): this common seaweed is one of four species of brown wracks found at Kilve. It has pairs of air bladders in its fronds which allows it floats up towards the light at high tide, whilst remaining firmly attached to the rocks by a small pad called a holdfast. 

The wracks flop over into a moist heap during low tide to reduce water loss. There are separate male and female plants with swollen reproductive structures located at the ends of the fronds containing sperm or eggs. Once the eggs are fertilised the females release many tiny spores into the plankton which eventually settle on rocks and grow into adult wracks. 
Chapter seventeen

The Sea Lettuce

Sea Lettuce and Gut Weed (Ulva spp): These closely related light green algae either form flat sheets (sea lettuce) or long crinkly tubes (gut weed). They are often more abundant in the summer as they need more light than brown seaweeds. 

They can survive less salty water and like high nutrient levels. In early summer nitrate levels can become very high due to fertiliser run off from farmland. This can cause an explosive green algae, growth which is often seen at Kilve where the freshwater stream runs down the shore. 

These are one of many types of seaweed that are edible with the right preparation!
Walk up the grassy headland eastwards (with the channel on your left).
Chapter eighteen

The Bristol Channel

From here there is an excellent view across the Bristol Channel to South Wales' Glamorganshire coast which, if you ever visit it, looks strangely familiar to the Somerset coast with the same geological rock series outcropping there creating similar cliff and beach profiles.

The channel's brown colour is due to the vast quantities of sediment being carried into it from the River Severn and other local rivers. 10,000 years ago, during the last ice age the channel would have been a vast river valley lined with coniferous forests. Until recently the channel would have been far busier with ships travelling up, down and between the English and Welsh sides carrying coal, limestone, slaves and other goods.
Chapter nineteen


Many of the rock layers are rich in fossils of marine animals. In particular many different species of ammonite can be found, the most common being the usually highly flattened Psiloceras planorbis, which is found all along the foreshore. 

With a bit of searching, fossilised oysters (Gryphaea), often descriptively called ‘Devil's Toe-Nails', can be found loose on the shore. Marine reptile fossils have also been discovered including the bones of ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs.

Kilve has strict restrictions on hammering and collecting of ammonites from the rocks so as to preserve the specimens, which would otherwise be smashed by collectors, however, loose reptile remains and other fossils can still be collected at this site.

The image depicts an ammonite fossil on Kilve beach, can you find it!
Chapter twenty


The coastal geology of Kilve is part of the same rock sequence that make up the much more famous Jurassic Coast of Dorset and although we do not have World Heritage site status here the area is part of a geologically important site of special scientific interest (SSSI). The cliffs and foreshore are part of Blue Lias formation (Lower Lias) deposited in the early part of the Jurassic made up of sequences of limestone, mudstone and shale. 

The rock sequence has been subjected to much faulting and inversions of geological sequences over long periods of time with veins of crystalline calcite filling in some of the fault lines.

The limestone layers form regular block-like ‘pavement' which are interspersed with grey shales with a relatively high organic content. These shales were derived from ancient plankton laid down in low oxygen conditions and are now the source of oil deposits. 
Chapter twenty-one

Coastal Birds

Herring gulls, black-headed gulls, little egrets herons and cormorants can all commonly be seen on the shore at Kilve feeding on marine life and especially on the many fish that live just off the coast such as cod, bass and eels. You might also see and hear oystercatchers, large black and white waders with a long orange bill (see image) that it uses to knock limpets and other snails off the rocks.
Chapter twenty-two

The End

Thank you for reading this Kilve heritage trail, the sister Storywalk here, about Kilve's history and heritage begins at The Blessed Virgin Mary's Church in Kilve.

Alternatively there are more Hidden History Storywalk trails along the Somerset Coast Path from Minehead to Brean Down England Coast Path.

Or just head down onto the beach and try to find some crabs or search for a Devils Toenail fossil.
Chapter twenty-three



1 Kingfisher - Nigel Phillips of The Somerset Coast

2 Willow illustration - The Welcome Collection / Science Museum London

3 Ash / oak / hazel - C Jelley

4 Freshwater shrimp - C Jelley

5 Mayfly - Nigel Phillips of The Somerset Coast

6 Common limpet - Nigel Phillips of The Somerset Coast

7 Shore crab - Nigel Phillips of The Somerset Coast

8 Star barnacles - Nigel Phillips of The Somerset Coast

9 Bladder wrack - Nigel Phillips of The Somerset Coast

10 Sea lettice - Nigel Phillips of The Somerset Coast

11 Ammonite - Wooley

12 Herring gulls - Nigel Phillips of The Somerset Coast

Content written by Mark Ward of Somerset Wildlife Trust, Pat Woolley of Kilve Parish Community and Christopher Jelley of Storywalks.

These trails have been devised by Christopher Jelley, Kilve Parish Council and Somerset Wildlife Trust ‘Somerset's Brilliant Coast' project which is funded by Hinkley C Community Impact Mitigation Fund, The Somerset Wildlife Trust and the National Trust. 
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