DANCE ON LOCATION 022: The Palmerson Fort, Brean Down, Somerset, UK

We reach the finale of Season 2 of footSTEPS with this extended dance film in various locations around The Palmerston Fort at Brean Down in Somerset - a fort built to protect Britain against a possible Napoleonic invasion.

Managed by the National Trust, Brean Down is a natural pier extending a mile and a half into the Bristol Channel in Somerset, UK. It is ripe with British history extending back thousands of years, and provided a combination of natural and urban elements to engage with in one of our outdoor dance films.

DISCLAIMER: This film was recorded prior to COVID-19 restrictions being tightened in the UK in September 2020.

Whilst archaeological evidence suggests that human life has existed on Brean Down since around 10,000 BC, our main interest in this site was The Palmerston Fort at its very tip. Now a ruin, the fort was initially built in the 1860s to defend Britain against the prospect of a Napoleonic invasion. You could argue that it acted as an effective deterrent for Bristol, because although 50 members of the Royal Artillery were stationed here, the fort never saw any military action, and was therefore considered a waste of money by the public.

This, combined with an accident which took place at the beginning of the 20th century, ultimately lead to the fort being decommissioned. A soldier fired his gun down a ventilator shaft and, as a result, the gunpowder magazine exploded. Contributors to the 'Abandoned Spaces' website have speculated about the reasons for the soldier's actions: some suggest that the soldier wanted to commit suicide, others say that it was an act of rebellion against disciplinary action for being late to work. He was the only person hurt in the explosion, but significant damage was inflicted upon the building.

The accident wasn't the absolute end to the fort's military use, however. It was also used as a coastal artillery battery in the second World War (and strangely as a café between 1905 and 1939!). During World War II, Brean Down was essentially used for target practice - a series of six light machine guns, known as Lewis Guns, were installed and used for training, with soldiers firing at targets in the bay at Weston-Super-Mare.

After being left to ruin following World War II, restoration of the site began in the 1980s, and the National Trust took over in 2002, whilst the remains of the other historical sites on Brean Down (the Roman temple, and Iron-Age Hillfort) are now hidden under the ground beneath visitors' feet. Whilst little archaeological artefacts were found at the Roman temple, it is believed that the temple was used to worship the goddess of the nearby River Severn, known as Sabrina (or by her Celtic name of Hafren). The prehistoric finds in the area include the remains of Woolly Rhinos and Mammoths. I find it truly mind-boggling to imagine the British Isles inhabited by such creatures!

In more recent years, The Palmerston Fort has also been used as a filming location, specifically for episode 2 of the BBC's 2008 drama "Bonekickers". The site is one of the National Trusts unmanned sites, free to walk around and experience what life might have been like in the fort through the ages.

The Dance

As we explored this site, it became clear that there were two distinct parts to The Palmerston Fort - the older Victorian fort, and the smaller buildings which were added in more recent times, appearing much more industrial than the others. It felt as if the site had a split personality, and so we made the decision to turn this season finale into the longer, two-part film that you see here.

I enjoy the opening focus on my shadow, to reveal me on the mound-filled hill, making strong and steady movements. Watching it back, I find myself reading into this - seeing the history that is hidden underneath the hill as somehow raising up through my feet, into my legs and torso and manifesting itself in my movements. As we move into the first set of buildings, framing my frame in the doorway, the camera peaks at me through nooks and crannies. I see more references to time past here - the camera with its inventive angles is a window through time, and the dance is time's vessel.

I notice a repeated motif of sinking movements - my pelvis sinking towards the floor, feet spread apart and grounding my whole body. One of my favourite moments is in my crouching down in that smaller room, fingering my knees, with the bright green of moss on the wall behind me. My wrists wind outwards before I execute an almost elegant placing of my hands and forearms between my legs. Momentarily my arms then flow through the air above my head once more.

There's something aesthetically pleasing in the reveal of the ocean through the window, before I quickly turn to focus on the metal supports now holding up the building. Here, I used my arm movements to emulate the simultaneous straightness and roundness of those completely rusted poles.

The first part of the film ends with a sort of rush towards an earlier history, as I propel myself some way down the slope, acknowledging the Victorian fort beyond me in a dance-styled salute.

The film cuts to reveal me inside the Victorian fort. I explore the walls around me with my palms, reaching into the air as if drawn towards the spirits of those who once lived here. My movement switches periodically between this reaching for ghosts and a more aggressive stance - jumping into the air and stomping my feet down heavily, or spreading my legs wide, knees bent and arms making waving motions towards the floor.

There is still strength in these movements, but it is a different kind of strength than that seen in the first half of the film. This strength is on the offensive, whilst the strength portrayed on the hill above appears as a more reflective, internal kind of strength.

I move at speed across the fort - it's as if something is drawing me into that final building. There's so much to play with there - the open boxes to crawl into, and speculate about what they held, my hair becoming tangled in the cobwebs. The fort is still alive to wildlife, as well as an image to history.

My movements build to a final, furious crescendo, ending Season 2 of footSTEPS - our English season - with a flourish.

You can watch the entirety of Season 2 here. Very soon we'll be documenting the making of Season 3 of footSTEPS. This season returns to Wales, UK, and features dance films on an abandoned film set in the woods, at a limestone quarry, and moving through a light installation in a tunnel in Barry. Stay tuned for more!

In the meantime, we've made quite a few dance films in heritage sites so far, and you can check them out in the below posts:

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