First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Where the Severn Estuary merges with the Bristol Channel is a moot point, but the tidal water is always full of energy, swirling in purple and chocolate at high tide, then retreating with the ebb to expose vast sand and mud flats.
Off Steart Point the turbid River Parrett enters the tideway. At low tide the mud flats here stretch two miles out into the estuary, a haven for feeding birds. But flood tides are another story. The mud and sand are swallowed up, the Bristol Channel brims, and inundation can threaten the farmland and small settlements along the coast and far inland.
We set off at low tide along the coast path from the scattered hamlet of Steart. The dimpled miles of mud flats gleamed. The distant island of Steep Holm appeared marooned in mud and sand. In the southwest the Quantock Hills stood beyond the giant cranescape of half-finished Hinkley Point nuclear power station, while in the east rose the green whaleback of Brent Knoll and the long spine of the Mendip Hills.
The shoreline path ran on rabbit-riddled sands, turf and crunchy pebbles. A pale yellow bloom on one of the coastal fields turned out to be a solid mass of cowslips. Wild birds were everywhere – greenfinches and linnets on the bramble stems, shelduck assiduously hoovering the mud for crustaceans with sideways sweeps of their bright red bills, and a reed warbler complaining with unending chittering in the reedbeds.
At Steart Point a tall hide looked out across this remote landscape of flat fields, far hills, upstart knolls and tidal flats. From here the River Parrett Trail led back inland, the mud-slimed banks of the Parrett shining silver in the sun and wind. Here the Wildfowl & Wetland Trust had been working with Environment Agency to create anti-flooding buffer zones with flood banks built to encourage new saltmarsh to grow to the seaward – a bold initiative that works with nature rather than trying to strongarm it into submission.
We followed the trail down to where a breach has been cut in the Parrett’s defences. New mud, marsh, reedbeds and creeks show the effectiveness of the work. Pochard cruised a big pool where three herons stood on one leg apiece and regarded us with grave suspicion.
A grassy path led back to the shore. The morning mist shredded away to reveal the hills of South Wales far across the rising tide, and a flight of golden plover flickered low over the rapidly vanishing mudflats where the Parrett met the sea.
How hard is it? 6 miles; easy; shore paths
Start: Steart car park, Steart, Bridgwater TA5 2PX (OS ref ST 276459)
Getting there: A39 (Bridgwater-Minehead); at Cannington, right (‘Hinkley Point’, then ‘Steart Marsh’). Pass Steart church; car park in 500m on left (gate).
Walk (OS Explorer 140): From car park follow green lane north to sea wall (274460). Right (‘Steart Point’) for ⅔ mile. At Steart Point, right past tall hide (283467); right (‘Wall Common’). In 150m, left (kissing gate/KG); follow River Parrett Trail/RPT. In 700m at Manor Farm, ahead along road (278462); by Dowells Farm, left (276458, KG, RPT) to river wall; left to breach and hide (280454). Return to KG; dogleg left/right along river wall (‘Steart Gate, Polden Hide’), following RPT. Pass turning to Steart Gate car park (267454); in ½ mile, signpost ‘Polden Hide 0.71’ points left (261449), but keep ahead to cross road. On between 2 marker stones on grassy path to shore (254451); right (‘Steart’) to car park.
Accommodation: Malt Shovel Inn, Cannington TA5 2NE (01278-653880, themaltshovelinn.com)
Info: wwt.org.uk/steart-marshes (01278-651090)