Bristol Channel

The Bristol Channel is a major inlet in the island of Great Britain, separating South Wales from Devon and Somerset in South West England. It extends from the lower estuary of the River Severn (Welsh: Afon Hafren) to the North Atlantic Ocean. It takes its name from the English city of Bristol, and is over 30 miles (50 km) across at its widest point. Long stretches of the coastline of the Bristol Channel, on both the South Wales and West Country sides, are designated as Heritage Coast, including Exmoor, Bideford Bay, the Hartland Point peninsula, Lundy Island, Glamorgan, Gower Peninsula, South Pembrokeshire and Caldey Island.


The Bristol Channel is an important area for wildlife, in particular waders, and has protected areas, including National Nature Reserves such as Bridgwater Bay at the mouth of the River Parrett. At low tide large parts of the channel become mud flats due to the tidal range of 15 metres (49 ft),[2] second only to Bay of Fundy in Eastern Canada.[3][4] Development schemes have been proposed along the channel, including an airport and a tidal barrier for electricity generation, but conservation issues have so far managed to block such schemes.

The largest islands in the Bristol Channel are Lundy, Steep Holm and Flat Holm. The islands and headlands provide some shelter for the upper reaches of the channel from storms. These islands are mostly uninhabited and protected as nature reserves, and are home to some unique wild flower species. In 1971 a proposal was made by the Lundy Field Society to establish a marine reserve. Provision for the establishment of statutory Marine Nature Reserves was included in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and on 21 November 1986 the Secretary of State for the Environment announced the designation of a statutory reserve at Lundy.[5] There is an outstanding variety of marine habitats and wildlife, and a large number of rare and unusual species in the waters around Lundy, including some species of seaweed, branching sponges, sea fans and cup corals.[6]

The Bristol Channel has some extensive and popular beaches and spectacular scenery, particularly on the coasts of Exmoor and Bideford Bay in North Devon and the Vale of Glamorgan and Gower Peninsula on the Glamorgan coast. The western stretch of Exmoor boasts Hangman cliffs, the highest cliffs in mainland Britain, culminating near Combe Martin in the "Great Hangman", a 1,043 ft (318 m) 'hog-backed' hill with a cliff-face of 820 ft (250 m); its sister cliff "The Little Hangman" has a cliff-face of 716 ft (218 m). On the Gower Peninsula, at its western extremity is the Worms Head, a headland of carboniferous limestone which is approachable on foot at low tide only. The beaches of Gower (at Rhossili, for example) and North Devon, such as Croyde and Woolacombe, win awards for their water quality and setting, as well as being renowned for surfing. In 2004, The Times "Travel" magazine selected Barafundle Bay in Pembrokeshire as one of the twelve best beaches in the world. In 2007, Oxwich Bay made the same magazine's Top 12 best beaches in the world list, and was also selected as Britain's best beach for 2007.

Coastal cities and towns

The city of Swansea is the largest settlement on the Welsh coast of the Bristol Channel. Other major built-up areas include Barry (including Barry Island), Port Talbot and Llanelli. Smaller resort towns include Porthcawl, Mumbles, Saundersfoot and Tenby.

There are no cities on the English coast but the resorts of Burnham-on-Sea, Watchet, Minehead and Ilfracombe face directly onto the Bristol Channel, whilst Barnstaple and Bideford are sited on estuaries opening onto Bideford Bay at the westernmost end of the Bristol Channel. The city of Bristol, originally established on the River Avon but now with docks on the Severn estuary, is one of the most important ports in Britain and gives its name to the Channel which forms its seaward approach.


There are no road or rail crossings of the Bristol Channel so direct crossings are necessarily made by sea or air, or less directly by the road and rail crossings of the Severn estuary. The Channel can be a hazardous area of water because of its strong tides and the rarity of havens on the north Devon and Somerset coasts that can be entered in all states of the tide. Because of the treacherous waters, pilotage is an essential service for shipping. A specialised style of sailing boat, the Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter, developed in the area.

Paddle steamers

P and A Campbell of Bristol were the main operators of pleasure craft, particularly paddle steamers, from the mid-19th century to the late 1970s, together with the Barry Railway Company. These served harbours along both coasts, such as Ilfracombe and Weston-super-Mare.

This tradition is continued each summer by the PS Waverley, the last seagoing paddle steamer in the world, built in 1947. The steamer provides pleasure trips between the Welsh and English coasts and to the islands of the channel. Trips are also offered on the MV Balmoral, also owned by Waverley Excursions.

Catamaran ferry

The Chamber of Commerce and Industry in North Devon have espoused a new ferry service across the Bristol Channel linking Swansea to Ilfracombe in particular.[7] Other proposals include a ferry link between Penarth and Minehead and a link between North Devon and Ireland.[7] A new ferry service linking Swansea and Ilfracombe, served by catamaran ferries was supposed to begin operating in Easter 2010. However, due to a delay in establishing landing facilities and an overnight lay-over berth in Swansea this has now been postponed.[8] The new company which will be operating the ferries is Severn Link.[9]

Marine rescue services

The Burnham-on-Sea Area Rescue Boat (BARB)[2] uses a hovercraft to rescue people from the treacherous mud flats on that part of the coast. A hovercraft was recently tested to determine the feasibility of setting up a similar rescue service in Weston-super-Mare. There are also RNLI lifeboats stationed along both sides of the Channel. In the Severn Estuary, in-shore rescue is provided by two independent lifeboat trusts, the Severn Area Rescue Association (SARA) and the Portishead and Bristol Lifeboat Trust

List of shipwrecks in the Bristol ChannelA number of ships have run aground or sunk in the Bristol Channel, a stretch of water between southern Wales and Somerset. Cardiff, Barry and Penarth were once the largest coal exporters in the world and the channel received significant traffic at the beginning of the twentieth century during exportation.

In 1948 there were 24 known wrecks in the Bristol Channel, but by 1950 14 had been cleared by demolition. One ship, a tanker of over 10,000 tons that was sunk off Nash Point, required the use of 129 tons of explosives by HMS Tronda to break-up the wreck

Lizzy - 1854

The ketch, Lizzy, was wrecked at Gore point, near Porlock Weir. The ship, built in Appledore, was spotted in trouble off Lynmouth in a storm during 1854. The ship had lost her masts, and was in very bad condition. A fishing boat was sent out to rescue the crew, as Lynmouth possessed no lifeboat at this time. The boat managed to reach the stricken ketch, rescue the crew and get back to Lynmouth safely. The weather then began to improve, and a fresh crew, together with the original skipper of the vessel, went out to attempt to salvage her. They improvised with a scrap of sail, and managed to get safely around Foreland Point. They sailed on all night, only just managing to keep the ship afloat. Finally, when they got to Gore Point,just a mile from Porlock weir, they sank in shallow water. The remains of the ship lie submerged just off the point today.

Eiffel Tower - 1894

The Eiffel Tower was a ship that ran aground at Cold Knap Point in Barry in south Wales in 1894. Owned by the Dunedin Steamship Company of Leith, and skippered by a Captain Campbell, the Eiffel Tower ran aground in thick fog. She was refloated at high tide the same day and towed to Barry Dock for repair.

Verajean, 1908

The Verajean was an exporting ship that was driven ashore at Rhoose point near Barry in south Wales in 1908. The ship was stranded for a fortnight, and to lighten it, its cargo of coal bricks was unloaded onto the beach. Grateful residents filled their coal cellars with enough fuel for two winters.

Cambo - 1912

The Cambo was an exporting ship that sunk at Barry in South Wales in 1912.
After hitting the Eastern breakwater and running aground, the badly damaged Cambo was towed off by tugs. Later that day, she caught fire and sank. She was later refloated and repaired at Barry Docks.

Bengrove - 1915

The SS Bengrove was a steamer type collier ship owned by the United Kingdom. Thousands of people on shore witnessed the ship explode and sink in the Bristol Channel on Sunday, 7 March 1915.[4]

The ship left Barry at approximately 4:00 a.m. under sealed orders and carrying a cargo of 5000 tons of coal. Later that day[5] at about 5 miles off the coast of Ilfracombe in the Bristol Channel an explosion occurred midship under the vessel. The ship's siren was activated and the crew entered the lifeboats, the siren was heard on shore and the Ilfracombe coast guard dispatched lifeboats to the area. There were 21 other steamers in the area when the explosion occurred, six of them offered assistance to the foundering vessel. All 33 crewmen were saved and taken to Ilfracombe pier. Early reports were unsure what caused the explosion with speculation pointing to a mine or torpedo[4], however it was determined to have been struck by a torpedo from German submarine Unterseeboot 20 (1912).[6][7]

Pilton - 1924

The Pilton was a ship that ran aground on Sully Beach in 1924. Owned by WJ Tatem of Cardiff, the Pilton ran aground during gale force winds in December 1924. She was aground for three months, and provided a steady source of income for Sully caterers from visitors.

Pelican - 1928

The steamship, Pelican grounded in Minehead, Somerset on 22nd June, 1928. The ship was grounded on an unmarked reef, known as the Gables, which circles Minehead bay while sailing from Port Talbot to Highbridge. The crew of five were rescued by the Minehead lifeboat.

Tafleburg, 1941

The Tafleburg was a ship that ran aground in Whitmore Bay in Barry Island in south Wales on 28 January 1941. The Whale Factory Ship struck a mine in the channel and was beached to the West of Cold Knap Point. On 28 March she was refloated and moved to Whitmore Bay. She landed on a sand bar and broke into 2 sections. She was later repaired.

Walter L M Russ - 1945

The steamer Walter L M Russ ran aground on 15 July 1945 at Grassholm and was wrecked. Nine crew were rescued by the Angle Lifeboat.