Tag Archives: Steep Holm

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

Steep Holm during the Second World War

Steep Holm during the Second World War

The refortification of Steep Holm and neighbouring Flat Holm began in July 1941 to protect convoy ships lying at anchor in the Bristol Channel waiting for high tide to enable them to unload their cargoes at the various ports along the Severn Estuary.

On Steep Holm two jetties were constructed, an iron one at the Landing Beach on the east coast and a smaller stone one at South Landing. 

Steep Holm Wartime Jetty
Remains of the wartime jetty at South Landing 

Two batteries were built on the top of the island.  Steep Holm North was on the site of the Victorian Summit Battery in the north west of the island and had clear views across to Flat Holm and Lavernock Point on the Welsh coast.  Steep Holm South was on the site of Garden Battery in the south east of the island, which had views over the whole of Bridgwater Bay. Each battery had two separate emplacements for 6 inch ex-Navy guns.  The batteries were roofed with “plastic armour”, which was a bituminous cement mixed with flint and granite chippings.

A rocket launcher was constructed at Split Rock Battery.  Observation posts were built at Rudder Rock and Steep Holm South Batteries.

South Battery Steep Holm
Steep Holm South Battery
Steep Holm Flat Holm from Rudder Rock Observation Post
Flat Holm from Rudder Rock Observation Post
Steep Holm Plastic Cladding
Remains of the plastic armour roof at Steep Holm South Battery

Two instrument pillars were built, one at each battery.  Royal Artillery spotters mounted their Depression Range-Finders on them, which enabled them to observe targets and correct the fall of fire.  They were surrounded by blast walls.

Steep Holm Instrument Pillar at North Battery
Instrument Pillar at Steep Holm North Battery

The remains of the inn and Cliff Cottage were demolished to make way for a narrow gauge railway, which was used for winching wagons of sand, cement, supplies and equipment up the Zigzag Path from the Landing Beach to the summit and across the plateau to Steep Holm North Battery.  A separate track was also laid from the South Landing up to the summit. The railway track used had been captured from the Germans on the Western Front during the First World War.  Three winch houses were built at the top of the three sections of the Zigzag Path.  An open winch was constructed at the top of the path down to the South Landing.  Indian soldiers with mules transported stores from ships to the summit of the island until the narrow gauge railway was completed.   The mules were later used to pull the wagons along the level sections of the narrow gauge railway.

Steep Holm Railway Line up the ZigZag Path
Railway Line up the ZigZag Path
Steep Holm Railway Track to South Landing looking down on the Searchlight Post
Railway Track to South Landing looking down on the Searchlight Post
Steep Holm Winch Top of South Landing
Remains of the winch at the top of the path leading to the South Landing

Up to 300 men were stationed on Steep Holm during the construction phase. Officers were housed in the Victorian barracks but lower ranks had to live in tents until Nissen huts were constructed. 

Four searchlight posts were built around the island: at South Landing; above Calf Rock; above Rudder Rock and on the north coast to the north east of Steep Holm North Battery. The purpose of these was to look out for German E-boats sailing up the Bristol Channel.  The top of the island was too high to allow the searchlights to pan across the sea, so the searchlight posts were built low on the cliffs.  Long flights of concrete steps had to be built to reach two of them.  There were 120 steps leading down the Rudder Rock searchlight post and 208 steps down to the post on the north coast. The posts and the steps to them were painted with zebra camouflage to disguise them.  Two Generator houses were built to power the searchlights.

Searchlight Steps Steep Holm
Steps leading down to 208 Steps Searchlight Post on the North Coast
Steep Holm Searchlight Post South Landing
Searchlight Post South Landing
Steep Holm Generator House 2
Generator House: this powered the Rudder Rock and 208 Steps Searchlight Posts
Steep Holm Rudder Rock Searchlight Post
Rudder Rock Searchlight Post

Two 3,200 gallon water tanks were erected on the top of the island, one for fresh water and one for salt water.  Water was pumped up to the summit from a supply ship.

The refortification of Steep Holm was completed by October 1942.  However the ex-Navy guns were never needed against enemy ships and they were useless against air attacks.

By the end of 1943 the threat to ships in the Bristol Channel had reduced significantly, so the island was relegated to “care and maintenance” status and most of the troops were moved off the island.

After the end of the Second World War German prisoners of war dismantled and removed most of the railway winches and trolleys and demolished the wartime piers.

Further reading:

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

The Steep Holm Guide and Trail.  Published by the Kenneth Allsop Memorial Trust, 2014

Steep Holm’s Pioneers: Stan and Joan Rendall. Published by the authors, 2003



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