Adventures by train – Somerset lighthouse hunting

Lighthouse hunting by train

Station: Highbridge & Burnham

Travel time from London:  2 hours 30 minutes

Travel time from Bristol: 40 minutes

Author’s adventure tip: This adventure by train is likely to involve mud (and water if you get the timing wrong). We recommend boots and a keen eye on the tide times.

Five apps that can help you stay safe outside.

Practicalities: Both Highbridge and Burnham have plenty of cafes. We loved the old-world cosiness and the carrot cake at The Front Parlour on Burnham seafront.

Highbridge and Burnham Station doesn’t have toilets or refreshments but there are public loos at Apex Park and on the Esplanade near the pier. This is definitely an adventure for low tide and please be careful not to wander too far from the shore. Those signs talking about the mud are telling the truth.

A family walk to England’s shortest lighthouse

Your train adventure

Arriving at Highbridge and Burnham station, you might be forgiven for thinking you’re in the wrong place for an adventure. Even the nearby River Brue looks uninteresting at this point. Its brown waters reminded me of my adventure by train along the Birmingham and Worcester Canal.

Just a short walk from the rather ordinary high street however and you’ll find yourself in a strange world of winding mud channels, stranded boats and sluices. You’ll also be on the hunt for four rather unusual lighthouses. I visited in April.

Your lighthouse odyssey

If you associate lighthouses with high cliff tops and lonely rocks, you’re in for a surprise when you get to Burnham. The only high points on this landscape are the man-made ones, and they’re all relatively short. In other words.

You’re in for a very flat walk.

Looking at the mudflats today, it’s hard to believe that Bridgewater Bay was once full of ships loading and unloading their cargo via the River Parrett. It was a dangerous journey because, unlike the rocks that threatened shipping around other harbours, the mud banks here have always had a tendency to move.

And catch unsuspecting captains unawares.

Which is where the lighthouses came in. Stories suggest that the channel’s first guiding light was placed in a window by a wife who was anxious about her husband. This later progressed to a higher light being placed in the tower of St Andrew’s Church.

Day Mark, Round Tower and St Andrew’s Church

Today you can just about spot the Rear Range light next to the weathervane in the church tower. Easier to see is the Front Range light on a metal post on the seafront (between the two lamp posts). Even more obvious (if you’re on the beach) is the red stripe on a white background on the sea wall. This acts as a daymark during daylight hours.

But is surprisingly easy to walk past.

Eventually (1801) the curate suggested building the Old Round Tower lighthouse right next to his house. This was decommissioned in 1832 when the 30-metre High (or Pillar) Lighthouse was built. At that time the Old Round Tower was reduced in height and had castellations added to prevent it from being confused with the new lighthouse. You can find the Old Round Tower lighthouse today just next to St Andrew’s Church.

High Light and Low Light.

Low Light Lighthouse – Burnham-on-Sea

Burnham’s High Light lighthouse is still a Grade II listed building but no longer functions as a lighthouse. It is however, beautiful to look at and amusing to spot amongst the more modern houses that surround it. When it was commissioned in 1832, High Light worked in conjunction with the Low Light lighthouse on the beach. At the time they lined up to mark a safe channel through the mud flats.

But as early as 1844, the mud had shifted.

Over its time Burnham’s High Light lighthouse used different light patterns (both leading and sector lights) to guide boats. High Light was deactivated in 1993 but it still functions as a daymark, helped by the broad red stripe down its front.

Britain’s most unusual lighthouse?

Low Light Burnham-on-Sea

If you were asked to draw a lighthouse, you wouldn’t draw the Low Light at Burnham-on-Sea. Perched on legs above shifting sand and mud, it looks as though it might wander around at will and has become an iconic Somerset landmark.

Which you can visit at low tide.

First lit in the 1830s to work with the High Light, Low Light was decommissioned in 1969 but reactivated in 1993 (when High Light was decommissioned). Its white flashing light, red/white/green sector lights and distinctive red stripe still guide boats today and it is operated by Sedgemoor District Council.

Five top tips on how to write walking routes.

Your lighthouse walking route

Copyright Ordnance Survey 2023

This walking route starts at Highbridge & Burnham train station.

Your walking route on OS Maps (with gpx): Burnham-on-Sea Lighthouses

This 10.6 km (6.5 miles) circular walking route takes you through the history of Burnham’s fascinating lighthouses. You’ll be walking on roads and along the beach so aim for low tide and wear something warm.

And of course, leave absolutely no trace.

Don’t be disappointed when you leave Highbridge & Burnham Station. This ordinary-looking place hides some exciting history and is perfect to explore on foot.

You won’t find the navigation difficult but, if you do become disoriented, the sea and the River Brue are there to catch you (in land navigation terms these are known as catching features but we don’t recommend you enter either of them). As you get closer to these wide open marine spaces, you’ll find yourself admiring a very specific light quality. It’s one I’ve only ever seen in places with big tidal expanses.

River Brue Low Tide
  1. Find the beach

Follow the roads towards Burnham, crossing at the roundabout, and heading along the right side of Apex Leisure Park. As you exit the park, turn left and continue until you meet the Esplanade. Here you’ll find the beach if not the sea. Turn right (north).

2. Time for church

Head along the Esplanade until you spot the tower of St Andrew’s Church. Take the opportunity to pause and spot the light in the church tower, the light on the street post and the shortened remains of the Round Tower.

3. Low tide beach walk

Taking notice of the warning signs, follow the steps down onto the sand. On the seawall find the red stripe and white background of the navigation daymark. If you’re wondering what the grey square is, have a search for older photos of the daymark and remember those shifting sands. As you walk up the beach, keep close to the shore and see who spots the Low Light lighthouse first.

4. Inland to High Light

Before you draw level with Low Light lighthouse, look out for a footpath that leads off the beach. Follow this across the dunes until you meet the road. Keep going to meet the main road then turn left and walk for about 200 metres until you see High Light on the left. You’ll have to wander round the houses to view it’s seaward red stripe.

5. Back to the beach and Low Light

There are two paths back to the beach. The one you came up to High Light on and one that’s a bit further north. At or near low tide you can walk over to Low Light and admire its legs and broad red stripe.

Definitely a selfie spot!

6. Up the River Brue

Cross back to the shore here (to avoid the mud) then walk back along the beach. Continue past the pier and follow the England Coast Path signs round the holiday village and up the River Brue. Arriving at low tide, it’s hard to imagine the mud-stranded boats here ever have enough water to float.

7. Flood management

When you reach the new housing the footpath continues towards the station but it’s worth diverting to look at the sluice gates, which can be opened or shut to help control flooding.

Find out more about how the Somerset Moors flood defences work and how water is moved around through the use of spillways, sluice gates and pumping stations. It’s impressive stuff when you consider that these areas were once only grazed in the summer (hence the name ‘Somerset’).

8. Back to your train station

Cross the sluice or walk along the Clyce (an old word for sluice) and return to the station. If you’ve crossed to the south side of the river, you’ll need to cross back at Brue Bridge because the railway bridge is not available for pedestrians.

Plan your own walking route with OS Maps

Author’s adventure

Simple adventures

I really enjoyed this adventure, partly because I met up with a friend I haven’t walked with in ages but also because it’s always a pleasure to find interesting things in ordinary locations.

Alien environments

I arrived at Highbridge station an hour early so took the opportunity to explore up the south bank of the River Brue. After chatting to a very friendly local, I found the wreck and sluice and started to feel at home in the slightly odd low-tide mud environment that feels unique to this section of the English coast.

Chatting away

We had plenty to talk about but did manage to remember to stop when we reached St Andrew’s Church. It was fun to spot the light in the tower and on the street post as well as the castellations of the Round Tower.

It’s behind you!

Heading onto the beach after that it took me a moment or two to spot the bright red stripe of the daymark on the sea wall (I have no idea why, it’s not easy to miss).

Mud glorious mud

Our walk up the beach was lovely. We had a couple of showers (and I had to stop for a rather public wee) but the changes in light as we approached Low Light were stunning.

Something missing

It was as we admired Low Light that our search went a bit awry. We were so busy taking photos I forgot to refer to my carefully prepared image to see what High Light actually looked like. Having concluded (incorrectly) that we would be able to see it from the beach, I decided that a grey castellated building just above the shore must be the one. I duly took photos.

But had definitely missed the point

On the train on the way home I realised I had been so busy looking for quirky un-lighthouse-shaped lighthouses I had managed to miss one that was the traditional shape, stood high above the houses, was painted bright white and had a red stripe down the middle.

Luckily we were heading to visit Mum in Worcestershire later that week so I got the opportunity to correct my mistake.

Winter on the West Highland Railway