Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Tales of Old Somerset - Mud, Blood, Oil and Dragons - by Rob Bayliss

Unlike its neighbouring West Country counties (with the possible exception of Weston-Super-Mare and Burnham-on-Sea) Somerset isn’t renowned for its beaches. Not until Minehead, and beyond, do we find the beloved golden sands we always picture in our mind's eye. For most of the coast there are
darker and redder beaches leading to treacherous mud flats extending some distance from the shore. This stretch of sea is the Bristol Channel, which has the second largest tidal range in the world. The water is coloured brown with silt from the outflow of the great river Severn from the topper most end of the Bristol Channel, not to mention the River Parrett that drains the levels, Somerset’s marshy heart. Not until you travel west to Porlock, below Exmoor, does the sea finally lose its muddy colouring and the sand become yellow, as it meets the Atlantic.

Looking across the waves you can see the coast of Wales and in the Bristol Channel you can see the two islands: Steep Holm, as the name suggests a tall island of cliffs and, the equally descriptive Flat Holm (in Welsh: Ynys Echni), the most southerly part of Wales. Both islands were once used as religious retreats. St. Cadoc lived as a hermit on Flat Holm for seven years while his friend St. Gildas found refuge from the world on Steep Holm, prior to later founding Glastonbury Abbey.

The river Parrett lazily meanders into the sea, forming the Steart Peninsula, now a major nature reserve for the birds that wade in the rich silts of Bridgwater Bay. Looking westward from here along the coast can be seen Hinkley Point nuclear power station. Whereas looking inland are the tall Quantock Hills. A short distance southward along the Parrett lies the village and port of Combwich. Prior to the construction of the M5 motorway, it was here that building materials were landing for the construction of Hinkley Point.

Combwich itself has a little known place in history: in 878AD the Viking Ubba, brother of Ivar the Boneless and Halfdan Ragnarsson, landed here with 23 ships and some 1,200 warriors. In a stronghold called Cynwit, possibly in the nearby village of Cannington, the king’s representative Odda and local thegns took refuge, forcing the Vikings to attack them. The Wessex forces overcame the Norsemen and even captured Ubba’s raven banner. It was a remarkable victory, all the more so as it was one of the few that was achieved without the presence of Alfred the Great. Ubba’s campaign seems to have been coordinated with that of Guthrum’s. If it had succeeded Alfred’s lines of supply and communication as he gathered his forces at nearby Athelney would have been fatally exposed. On such throws of the dice are kingdoms won and lost.

Following the coast westward from Bridgwater Bay the Quantock Hills fall towards the sea. At Kilve compressed layers of limestone and shale are clearly visible in crumbling cliffs. The village of Kilve consists of three original settlements, centred around the original hamlet of Putsham, that follow Holford stream down to the sea. On the way can be found the ruins of Kilve Chantry, founded in 1329. It fell into disrepair long before the Dissolution of the Monasteries and was later used as a barn and even as a smugglers' store, prior to it being consumed by fire in 1848. Legend has it that this fire was deliberate, consuming barrels of contraband spirits as the revenue men drew near.

Further downstream is a brick resort, a relic of the expected Somerset oil boom of the 1920s that never was, extracting oil from the local shale rocks. Kilve Pill marks the point where the stream reaches the sea. It was used as a tiny port importing Culm (an inferior coal) to be used in lime kilns.

Below 40-feet-high cliffs the more resilient stratas of rock stretch out into the sea in pavements, revealing fossils of amonites. These causeways carry an interesting local legend. Within Putsham Hill there once lived a particularly fiery dragon called Blue Ben. He used to emerge from a tunnel between Kilve and Putsham so as to swim in the sea and cool himself down. He built the causeway in order to avoid the mudflats. The devil watched Blue Ben and, discovering his lair, harnessed him and rode him along the streets of Hell. Poor Blue Ben suffered terribly with the heat of the hellfires and, after being released after one such sortie, hurried along his causeway in order to cool off. Too eager, he slipped off it, fell into the mud and drowned. 

Obviously Blue Ben was an attempt to explain the geography of the causeways, but perhaps the legend of a fiery dragon who lived under the local hill contained some folk knowledge of the oil in the shale rocks as well? (Especially as the shale has a blue tinge!) The legend of Blue Ben may well have faded from folk memory, but enjoyed a revival in the 1800s when an Ichthyosaur was discovered at nearby Glastonbury. You can imagine the scene when a local heard of the discovery:  "One of they ancient reptiles, that them scientists talk about, you say? Don't be daft; 'tis obvious, 'tis the remains of Blue Ben himself!"

Rob Bayliss is an admin with The Review and author of the Flint and Steel, Fire and Shadow series. Book one, The Sun Shard, can be purchased from Amazon and Amazon UK. He is also a contributor to Felinity, a collection of cat-inspired flash-fiction stories. If you would like Rob to review your book, please see our submissions tab above.


Rob is very generously offering a paperback copy of Felinity for one lucky winner! To get your name in the hat, simply comment below. Facebook users may also comment at this blog's associated thread. 


  1. What a fantastic collection of knowledge! And I'm sure it doesn't surprise you that I am absolutely smitten with Blue Ben and the possibility that people long ago may have known of the oil beneath their land. Superb!

  2. I'm with Lisl, Rob. Loved this post, so engrossing. Having been to Somerset on numerous occasions, I had no idea about the possibility that so long ago, people would have had an idea that there was oil there. I always admire local historical knowledge, and the telling of it, or the reading of it, is always fascinating.

  3. Thank you Louise & Lisl.I'm a great believer that folklore often conceals some actual facts. I've spent many a happy hour walking at Kilve and loved the legend of Blue Ben. It was looking at the history of the shale retort that I wondered if there was a reason why this Dragon was centred here, was particulary fiery, and was blue like the rocks. lol

  4. Fascinating rob, always loved kilve, and spent much time photographing it in black and white! X

  5. Beautiful pictures. I have always heard about mudflats, but never realized how extensive they stretched or how treacherous, they could be.

  6. Dragons are noted for their tendency to guard treasure. If against the evidence ,Blue Ben or any of his offspring have survived in seclusion, I hope they may help guard area you have described from depredations or nuclear mishaps.