Tag Archives: Bristol Channel

Steep Holm’s Inn

In June 1830 Steep Holm was sold by William Willes to John Baker, a Somerset solicitor.  On the east coast of Steep Holm he built a small harbour around the Landing Beach, an inn just above the high tide level and a cliff side cottage higher up to house boatmen, fisherman and labourers.  Cliff Cottage and the inn were both nearing completion by July 1832.  The inn was built of island stone and rendered.  It was three storeys high with a castellated roof balustrade and a small walled garden.  The lower storey was built directly against the rock face.  On the north side a large water catchment tank was built.  In October 1833 John Baker sold the island to Colonel Charles Kemeys Kemeys-Tynte.

Steep Holm Inn and landing beach
Inn and landing beach

In the early 1840s John and Betty Harse leased Steep Holm for a few years.  Betty ran the inn while John farmed.

The tenancy of Steep Holm was acquired by Frederick and Mary Harris c1846.  They moved to the island with their children Emily, Mary, Frederick Henry and Rosa.  Fred Harris was an accomplished sailor and he ferried visitors to and from the island in his own boat.  Sailors, waiting in the Bristol Channel for high tide to enable them to sail into Bristol or the Welsh ports, also frequented the inn.  In 1851 Rosa Harris drowned off Steep Holm, aged 4½ .

In 1854, while on a trip to the Newport area, Fred exchanged his Newfoundland dog for a young Russian bear.  In 1857 the bear severely injured a young Italian governess called Ann Caroline Besozzi, who was visiting the island.  In 1858 a civil action was held at Bristol Assizes to obtain compensation for the governess.  Fred Harris was ordered to pay her £50 in addition to the court costs for both sides.  He failed to pay and the following year he was called to Taunton County Court where he pleaded insolvency and the judge believed him, although in reality he had transferred all his assets to other people.

In 1859 there was a great storm in the Bristol Channel.  Fred Harris’s boat Mystery was badly damaged and Steep Holm’s harbour wall collapsed, which made it much harder for people to land on the island.  The wall was never rebuilt.

In 1866 the inn was enlarged by the building of an adjacent three storey annexe to house workers building the forts on the island.  The inn prospered from 1866-8 with all the extra resident customers.

Steep Holm Annexe ruins at low tide
Annexe ruins at low tide

By 1871 Fred and Mary Harris were managing the Royal Claremont Pier Hotel in Weston-super-Mare, which was renamed Harris’s.  The Steep Holm Inn was being run by Frederick Henry’s wife Ann.  In 1872 their daughter was born on the island.  She was named Beatrice Steep Holmes Anne Cooper Harris.

In May 1884 Frederick Henry Harris was summoned to Axbridge Petty Session Court to answer charges of selling alcohol without a licence.  He argued that Steep Holm was not part of Somerset and that in the 38 years his family had run the inn they had never been asked to obtain a licence.  The case was dismissed but the Inland Revenue appealed to the High Court and in 1885 they won.  The Harris family gave up their tenancy of the island the same year but soon after they leased Flat Holm and ran an inn there.

Mrs Caroline Davies and her two adult sons Harold and Wallace/Wallis rented Steep Holm in 1885. They ran day excursions and fishing and rabbit shooting trips to the island and also grew crops and raised farm livestock.  However their business was not a success and they sold their stock and equipment to Thomas Henry Waite-Hall from Glastonbury the following year.  He had left the island by 1891 and the inn was closed for the last time.

By the 1930s the inn was derelict and during the refortification of the island in 1941 the walls of the inn and annexe were demolished to make way for a narrow gauge railway.  The walls were rebuilt and the inn reroofed in the early 1980s by the Kenneth Allsop Trust for use as a wardens’ depot and store but it proved to be too damp to be of much use.

Inn and Annexe ruins at low tide
Inn and Annexe ruins at low tide
Annexe ruins at high tide, Steep Holm
Annexe ruins at high tide
Steep Holm Inn from the shingle spit at low tide
Inn from the shingle spit at low tide

Denny Island

Denny Island is a small rocky island in the middle of the Bristol Channel, three miles north of Portishead and halfway between Avonmouth and Redwick near Newport.  It lies at the southern end of the Bedwin Sands.  These are part of a huge complex of sandbanks collectively known as the Welsh Grounds, which are exposed at low tide. The boundary between England and Wales runs along the southern foreshore of the island, which is located in Monmouthshire for administrative purposes.

In 1373 Edward III granted a charter to Bristol, which made it a county of its own separate from Somerset or Gloucestershire.  Denny Island is referred to in the charter as Dunye.  This may mean that the name meant “island shaped like a hill” in Old English.

Denny Island has an area of 0.24 hectares and is covered in scrub vegetation. It becomes much larger at low tide, due to the Bristol Channel having the second highest tidal range in the world.  Strong tidal currents and the danger of quicksand on a rising tide make the island almost impossible to land on.

The island provides a roost for seabirds.  Small colonies of cormorants and great black backed gulls and a few pairs of rock pipits nest on the island.

View of Denny Island
Denny Island, Bristol Channel from Portishead

Steep Holm Island

Steep Holm: an Introduction

Looking north towards Rudder Rock at the west end of the island

Steep Holm has been owned by the Kenneth Allsop Trust since 1976.   It is situated in the Bristol Channel 5 miles west of Weston-super-Mare.  It is approximately 800 metres long by 300 metres wide and the highest point on the island is 78 metres above sea level.  It is a nature reserve and a Site of Special Scientific Interest.  It is made of the same carboniferous limestone as Brean Down and the Mendip Hills. 

The island was called Ronech by the Celts, Steopanreolice by the Saxons and Steep Holm by the Vikings.  Holm is an Old Norse word meaning a small island, especially one in a river, estuary or lake or one close to the mainland.

Roman artefacts have been found on the island and there are remains of a Roman signal station above Rudder Rock.  There was an early Christian monastery on the island, which St Gildas and his fellow monks used as a place for prayer and meditation in the 6th Century.  In the 9th century the Vikings used the island as a base from which to raid the mainland.  There was a small Augustinian Priory on the island in the 12th Century but it had closed by 1260.

East coast of Steep Holm showing the 19th Century inn and the current Landing Beach.

From c.1315 the island was owned by the Lords Berkeley, who set up a rabbit warren on the island to supply meat and fur.  Part of the chapel site was rebuilt as a cottage to house the warreners. The warren lasted for around 300 years despite several changes of ownership. 

From 1699-1830 the island was owned by the Freke Family from Bristol and rented out to tenants who fished and collected sea bird eggs.  In 1776 stones from the old priory were used to build a cottage.

Ruined Farmhouse

In 1830 entrepreneur John Baker from Weston-super-Mare bought Steep Holm.  He built a harbour, inn and Cliff Cottage.  In 1833 he sold the island to Colonel Charles Kemeys-Tynte and it was owned by his descendants until 1976.  The island was let to a succession of tenants who lived by farming, fishing, boating, inn keeping and smuggling.  From 1838-1885 the Harris family were innkeepers on Steep Holm.  The inn was enlarged in 1868 and a new farmhouse was built near the 1776 cottage.  The inn had closed by 1891 due to damage caused by storms and lightning.

Steep Holm was fortified with six large batteries in the 1860s to protect against the threat of invasion by the French.  The barracks were completed in 1867 but the garrison had closed by 1901. 

Coastguards were stationed on Steep Holm during the First World War.  In 1940 the island was requisitioned by the Admiralty.   From 1941-1943 around 300 soldiers were stationed on the island and Nissen huts were built to house them.  There are remains all over the island of batteries, barracks and searchlight posts.  There was even a small railway line for hauling equipment up the steep slopes to the top of the island and the remains of this can still be seen in various places. 

One of the Victorian batteries

Thousands of herring gulls and smaller numbers of lesser and great black backed gulls nest on Steep Holm every summer.  Cormorants can be seen on the cliffs.  Slow worms and muntjac deer live on the island but are much harder to spot. Steep Holm and Flat Holm are the only places in the UK where the wild peony has naturalised.

Regular day trips to Steep Holm run from Knightstone Harbour at Weston-super-Mare during the summer months, depending on the weather and the tides.  These are organised by the Kenneth Allsop Trust.  More information can be found on the trust’s official website: http://www.steepholm.org/  

Steep Holm at sunset from the northern end of Sand Bay

Further Reading:

Lending and reference copies of the following books are available in various North Somerset libraries.

Steep Holm: a case history in the study of evolution: edited by Kenneth Allsop Trust and John Fowles.  Kenneth Allsop Memorial Trust / Dorset Publishing Co., 1978

Steep Holm: a survey: Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society. SANHS, 1981

Steep Holm Wildlife: Rodney Legg. Wincanton Press, 1990

Steep Holm: Legends and History: Rodney Legg. Wincanton Press, 1993

Steep Holm at War: Rodney Legg. Wincanton Press, 1991

Steep Holm: Allsop Island: Rodney Legg.  Wincanton Press, 1992

Steep Holm’s Pioneers: Stan & Joan Rendell.  Published by the authors, 2003

Steep Holm Diary, 2001-2006: Howard Smith. Garret Press, 2006

Steep Holm: the story of a small island: Stan and Joan Rendell: foreword by John Fowles.  Alan Sutton, 1993

The Steep Holm Guide: the history of the island off Weston-super-Mare: Rodney Legg.  Wincanton Press, 2nd revised edition 1995