The north coast of Devon and Somerset have a lot in the way of beauty. If you’re after classical beauty by the way of rolling hills of heather or a landscape shaped by the twisted roots of old English Oaks, the little nook found at the southern strait of the Bristol Channel has it all. But while it holds all of these stereotypical English landscapes close to it’s chest, it also hides some more alien vistas.
Just off of the A39, between the better known Bridgwater and the famous-for-it’s-castle Dunster lies the little hamlet of East Quantoxhead. Turning off the main road, a tiny lane will lead you past a smattering of traditionally thatched cottages, slipping you back in time only slightly. Within the hamlet you’ll find a duck pond, usually home to a sprightly gaggle of geese, and a church where you can park your car for a kind donation. This Grade II listed building dates all the way back to the 14th century, a long way but not as far back as the estate itself.
The land was granted to Ralph Paganel, a Norman knight, after the conquest in the 10th century. Unbelievably no part of the estate has been sold since this original grant, the land being handed down from generation to generation where it now lies in the hands of the Lutterells. A male ancestor married into the Paganel family some centuries ago in 1207 and since then the Lutterells have had East Quantoxhead as (one of their) homes, for over 800 years.
Leaving the hamlet itself and it’s cluster of historic buildings, winding down the footpath towards the sea takes you through the furrowed fields of the estate and past the gardens of the manor house. Opened only a few times a year the gardens of the Court House, as the manor house is better known, is a beautiful thing, with hidden benches and secluded spots to secrete yourself away into. For the more numerous days when the gardens are not open to the public (the house has never been) the cliffs at the end of the footpath more than make up for the mystery. While fairly shallow cliffs, they’re no white cliffs of Dover, they descend toward the beach in a tigerstripe of colour; a testament to the millennia that went into their formation. The stone beach itself wouldn’t look out of place in the Christopher Nolan movie Interstellar, as the varying rates of denudation of the shale and limestone that make up this areas geology gives way to seemingly unnatural landscapes.
Another consequence of this limestone/shale bedrock is the combination of an ancient seabed (from the limestone) layered with brittle rock (from the shale or flint). This means that fossils dating back to the Cretaceous and even the Jurassic period are often spotted and just as easily removed, to be added to amateur collections or just entertain the kids on the way home. The tight spiraled curves of the ammonite are the most commonly spotted fossil on the coast of Somerset and East Quantoxhead is no exception.
The varying rates of erosion have led to a shallow rockpool-heavy environment, meaning it’s one of the English coasts most diverse environments.
While appearing barren, the many angles of the rock pools and the dense cover of the seaweed in places provide a very versatile habitat, if not demanding. Animals such as the shore crab, Carcinus maenas, use this as their hunting ground. Picking at passing detritus in the swells of the changing tide or actively seeking out beached isopods and other microfauna in the fields of algae that stretch from tide line to the sea if you know where to look. This makes it a great place to take the younger family members crabbing, scampering (carefully!) across the rocks in search of their next crab-likley-ecosystem instead of the usual stood-in-the-same-place mundanity of crabbing from a pier.
On the return walk from the beach to the duck pond the Court House really comes into view. Nestled amongst the auburn trees and grey skies of winter at our time of visiting, it looks dramatic against the backdrop of the Quantock hills, where an Iron Age fort is located. On occasion, deer can be seen vaulting the fences separating the hay bales from the sea and foxes finding gaps in electric fence.
The area surrounding East Quantoxhead is just as worthy of an explore as the parish itself, and easily done. The coastal path extends both east and west, past the old limekilns towards Kilve and in the opposite direction toward the other Luttrell estate, Dunster. Limestone for the kilns was one of the old imports to this area, with a small harbour actually active near East Quantoxhead for the purpose of importing limestone and the export of alabaster over 100 years ago. Pirates were also thought to have been highly active in this area, with the south-west being an area of high smuggling activity around this time and for centuries before, with Bristol at it’s center.
But whether you have all day or just an hour to give, this little coastal treasure off of Somersets busiest A road is able to divulge something. Be it the strange beauty of the areas immediate geology or the thrill of the hunt (live or fossilized) that brings you here, it’ll be likely another reason that keeps you here as this coast is full of treasures. Smuggled or otherwise!
[All photographs copyright of Robbie Sidhu]