Guide to the Bris­tol Chan­nel

From chic city wa­ter­fronts to rugged in­lets, this vast stretch of wa­ter has some­thing for ev­ery­one, says Peter Cum­ber­lidge

Practical Boat Owner - - Contents -

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With 300 miles of mag­nif­i­cent coast­line, the Bris­tol Chan­nel is surely the finest grand gulf around Bri­tain, fun­nelling in dra­mat­i­cally from the At­lantic to the River Sev­ern. From a boat you ex­pe­ri­ence an ex­tra­or­di­nary range of land­scapes, made more spec­tac­u­lar by one of the largest tidal ranges in the world.

On the English side, Ex­moor meets the es­tu­ary in a won­der­ful frieze of hills, farms, weathered cliffs, wooded bays and for­got­ten havens where coast­ers once traded. Fur­ther down, Corn­wall’s quaint har­bours and rugged in­lets are steeped in ro­mance. Over in Wales, tra­di­tional pit val­leys run down to the sea, with mari­nas and chic wa­ter­fronts where coal docks once flour­ished. Out to the north-west,

Mil­ford Haven is a glorious ex­panse of shel­tered wa­ter, with two mari­nas and an­chor­ages ga­lore.

The streams are pow­er­ful in the up­per Chan­nel, where sand­banks abound, but fur­ther west they are no trick­ier than North Brit­tany and the pi­lotage is sim­pler. Those who go boat­ing here in­stinc­tively work tides and weather to ad­van­tage and are alive to all the moods of th­ese fascinating waters. They un­der­stand how winds and streams af­fect cru­cial head­lands and they al­ways have a Plan B ready.

Chat­ting to lo­cals for this ar­ti­cle, I learnt that Bris­tol Chan­nel boat­ing is in ex­tremely good heart and that many dif­fer­ent kinds of boats are reg­u­larly mak­ing pas­sages here in all di­rec­tions. Cer­tainly, none of the folk I spoke to would swap their fan­tas­tic, sparsely pop­u­lated cruis­ing grounds for the crowded south coast.

The Up­per Chan­nel

Por­tishead Ma­rina lies at a strate­gic cross­roads at the head of the Bris­tol Chan­nel. Cardiff Bay is a fairly easy leg down­stream, start­ing on the early ebb. Up­stream the ma­jes­tic Sev­ern glides in­land un­der its two high bridges, thread­ing vast dry­ing sands to­wards Sharp­ness lock and the Glouces­ter ship canal. To the east, the River Avon winds up to Bris­tol, cut­ting through Avon Gorge and un­der Brunel’s elegant sus­pen­sion bridge. In Bris­tol’s Float­ing Har­bour you can moor at at­trac­tive quays near the heart of the old quar­ter.

As you leave Por­tishead bound sea­wards, the tide will usu­ally be brim­ming high, with no sand vis­i­ble across the es­tu­ary – four miles wide up here. Turn­ing down through Bris­tol Deep, you feel the vibes of history in this strait, where sail­ing ships once ar­rived from the Caribbean with sugar, rum or to­bacco on their re­turn from slave trad­ing. It is still busy with con­tainer ves­sels, tankers and car-car­ri­ers pushing to and from Avon­mouth.

The Welsh coast is quite low above Cardiff, but the English side has gen­tle downs as far as Cleve­don, where a splen­did Vic­to­rian pier is still used by large plea­sure boats, in­clud­ing the iconic pad­dle-steamer Wa­ver­ley. Up ahead, a nar­row head­land juts out from We­ston­super-Mare, and be­yond it two is­lands – Steep Holm and Flat Holm – stand in mid-Chan­nel like war­ships at an­chor. Steep Holm is a pri­vately-owned na­ture re­serve which you can visit on sched­uled boat trips from We­ston har­bour. Flat Holm is an­other re­serve, where an old bar­racks houses the Gull and Leek pub! North-west of Flat Holm, Lav­er­nock Point shel­ters a buoyed chan­nel Cur­rently ViceCom­modore of

Lyd­ney Yacht Club,

David Phillips is well known around the Bris­tol Chan­nel. Orig­i­nally a dinghy sailor, he later ac­quired the bare steel hull of a Van de Stadt 40 cut­ter/sloop and, be­ing a farmer, had her stand­ing on his land for 12 years while he slowly fit­ted out. Now this sturdy ship is seen all around the Chan­nel, par­tic­u­larly in se­cluded an­chor­ages. Tenby is a favourite haven and in quiet weather Cas­tiard can dry out along­side the jetty. David has cruised the Devon, Corn­wall and South Wales coasts and across to Ire­land.

lead­ing to Cardiff Bay en­trance locks.

The locks op­er­ate 24/7 and you can get through the bar­rage at vir­tu­ally any tide ex­cept dead low Springs. Pe­narth Quays Ma­rina is in­side to port and the city sights are on the north side of the bay. You can’t miss the mil­len­nium arts cen­tre, whose bur­nished cop­per roof per­fectly en­hances Cardiff’s Vic­to­rian brick pier­head build­ing and Richard Rogers’ grandiose Welsh As­sem­bly. The short-stay pon­toons at Mer­maid Quay are close to the ac­tion and all the restau­rants.

A Celtic trail

Pe­narth Quays is the first in a string of Welsh mari­nas that can help you down-Chan­nel in man­age­able hops past an in­creas­ingly im­pres­sive coast­line. You might see this as a Celtic trail which even­tu­ally leads, af­ter cross­ing St George’s Chan­nel, to Ire­land. Round­ing Lav­er­nock Point from Cardiff, you soon pass the en­trance to Barry, still a busy port and pi­lot sta­tion. On a clear day there are tan­ta­lis­ing glimpses south to­wards the Quan­tock Hills. Off Break­sea power sta­tion you keep out­side a squat con­crete cais­son and carry on to Nash Point. Here, in quiet weather, lo­cals dodge in­side Nash Sand and then round Tusker Rock to where Porth­cawl’s small but pleas­ant ma­rina is ac­ces­si­ble three hours each side of high wa­ter. Be­yond Porth­cawl you can stay in­side Ken­fig shoals to emerge into Swansea Bay by the back door. Orig­i­nally yacht own­ers, the Ken­nys bought Tri­ton af­ter Mike had back trou­ble and she proved ideal for the Bris­tol Chan­nel. Her two 150hp Cum­mins 4BTs give 7-8 knots on 3gal/hour and she’ll do 10-11 knots if needed. Mike de­scribes her as “a tough seaboat and a com­fort­able coun­try cot­tage!”

On Fri­day af­ter­noons Mike and Su­san of­ten head for Por­tishead, an easy 17-miles in most weath­ers. Then they might go up to Bris­tol, which has good wa­ter­side bistros. They like Watchet if the tide suits, a very friendly har­bour Mike says, even if you sit in soft mud near low wa­ter. They en­joy week­ends in Swansea and are fans of Porth­cawl, where they are one of the larger boats. The en­trance is nar­row, Mike told me, but you just have to line up and go for it!

Swansea and the Gower

At the head of Swansea’s ap­proach chan­nel, you enter the mar­itime quar­ter through the River Tawe bar­rage lock and a ma­rina lock with a swing-bridge. The ma­rina has ex­cel­lent fa­cil­i­ties, a beach just op­po­site and a pleas­ing mix of new and old build­ings around the basins. There are dozens of pubs, cafés and restau­rants. On the south-west side of Swansea Bay, Mum­bles Head is a dis­tinc­tive land­mark, its humped islets shel­ter­ing the old pier and lifeboat slip.

Con­tin­u­ing west from Swansea, keep well off Mum­bles Head and then out­side the red buoy guard­ing Mixon shoal. The Gower Penin­sula has high golden cliffs and spec­tac­u­lar sandy bays pop­u­lar with hol­i­day­mak­ers. Its south coast has day­time an­chor­ages and stun­ning beaches at Oxwich Bay and Port Eynon. Off the south-west cor­ner, a mem­o­rable an­chor­age called ‘The Kitchen’ lies in­side the long jagged islet of Worm’s Head. BRIS­TOL CHAN­NEL BOATERS Mike and Su­san Kenny Boat Nep­tune 36 Clas­sic Tri­ton Berth Pe­narth Quays Ma­rina, Cardiff

Tenby and Saun­der­s­foot

On the west side of Car­marthen Bay, Tenby is a pop­u­lar sea­side town which has kept its tra­di­tional charm. Colour­ful houses look across to­wards Cas­tle Hill and the lifeboat slip. The har­bour dries to sand, but within two hours of HW you can lie along­side the break­wa­ter quay. A cou­ple of miles north of Tenby, Saun­der­s­foot har­bour also dries, but there are some new de­tached pon­toons off the en­trance, nicely shel­tered in west­er­lies and north-west­er­lies.

South of Tenby, Caldey Is­land is a green and pleas­ant re­treat for a com­mu­nity of Cis­ter­cian monks, whose Ital­ianate abbey has views across the is­land and back to the main­land. In quiet weather you can an­chor off Caldey’s north shore and land at the trip­per boat slip.

Round to Mil­ford Haven

From Caldey to Mil­ford Haven is 20 miles, while a di­rect pas­sage from Swansea is al­most 60 miles. The Haven is a fab­u­lous stretch of shel­tered wa­ter and many lo­cal boats rarely ven­ture out to sea. The en­trance is nearly two miles wide and chan­nels lead east and west of var­i­ous rocky shoals. In­side to port you can an­chor, moor or use the pon­toon off Dale vil­lage, a rest­ful place where sail­ing dinghies tack about and walkers stride along the cliff paths. The Grif­fin pub is on the wa­ter­side.

Op­po­site Dale the es­tu­ary turns east to­wards Mil­ford ma­rina, with bays and in­lets on both sides. Here you feel the scale of this nat­u­ral har­bour where World War II con­voys once gath­ered be­fore cross­ing the At­lantic and whal­ing ships an­chored in the days of sail. This reach also ab­sorbs huge tanker jet­ties with ease and on Mil­ford quay the mar­itime mu­seum tells all th­ese sto­ries well.

Four miles up­stream from Mil­ford, Ney­land Ma­rina is a de­light­ful base for ex­plor­ing the Haven. Be­yond it, the valley winds in­land be­tween wooded shores and shy vil­lages within Pem­brokeshire Na­tional Park.

The outer is­lands

Sev­eral small is­lands lie out to the west and Skomer is quite easy to get to in quiet weather. Grey seals live around this na­ture re­serve all year and in spring and sum­mer you’ll see puffins, ra­zor­bills, kit­ti­wakes and guille­mots. Boat crews are welcome pro­vided they land only at North Haven and pay the land­ing fee that helps fund this idyllic re­treat. You can an­chor in South Haven without go­ing ashore, a beau­ti­ful in­let usu­ally more pro­tected from swell.

Watchet Ma­rina

Apart from Por­tishead, the English side of the Chan­nel has one other ma­rina at Watchet, 30 miles down­stream. Watchet town has nar­row wind­ing streets, a nostalgic es­planade and some con­vivial pubs. Un­for­tu­nately the ma­rina basin is prone to silt­ing and at many of the berths you set­tle into soft mud. Some larger boats tend to avoid Watchet for this rea­son, but there are fre­quent week­end vis­i­tors, es­pe­cially from Cardiff. The har­bour is fringed by a rocky fore­shore that dries for half a mile, so try to come in within an hour of high wa­ter.

Watchet to Il­fra­combe

The English side of the Chan­nel has some gems when the weather is right and can eas­ily be savoured on week­end trips from the Welsh mari­nas. Por­lock Weir is on Ex­moor’s ru­ral fringes, not quite 30 miles across from Swansea. Here, a nar­row chan­nel cuts through a shin­gle beach to a tiny dry­ing har­bour where a few boats moor op­po­site the An­chor Ho­tel and a row of cot­tages where pi­lots once lived. In quiet weather you can an­chor off the en­trance chan­nel, a tran­quil spot as the tide falls away.

Fur­ther west, Combe Martin used to shel­ter sail­ing coast­ers and smug­glers, and then Water­mouth Cove is an un­ex­pected hide­away with a sur­pris­ing num­ber of res­i­dent boats. En­ter­ing be­tween Wid­mouth Head and Bur­row Nose, you can an­chor just in­side. Il­fra­combe is a cou­ple of miles on from Water­mouth, a time­less buck­e­tand-spade sea­side town whose mostly dry­ing har­bour is of­ten used as a stag­ing post. To­wards Neaps there’s enough depth to stay afloat in the en­trance, be­tween the outer pier and Lark­stone beach. Near high wa­ter you can go in along­side a quay.

Lundy Is­land

Lundy lies out in fast tides, 10 miles north-north­west of Hart­land Point. Owned by the Na­tional Trust, this true es­capists’ is­land has a fine col­lec­tion of old build­ings, in­clud­ing the 13th-cen­tury ru­ins of Marisco Cas­tle. Il­fra­combe is a good jump­ing off point for Lundy, so pick a quiet day and ap­proach near slack wa­ter. The usual an­chor­age in west­er­lies is off the south-east land­ing jetty, north of Rat Is­land and the south light­house. It’s an ac­tive puff up the cliff path to the top, but the views down to the

an­chor­age and across to the Devon main­land are spec­tac­u­lar.

Down to Pad­stow

Fur­ther down-Chan­nel, Clovelly’s amaz­ing minia­ture har­bour is in Bide­ford Bay, and at Bude an old barge canal meets the sea via a sandy es­tu­ary and lock. Port Isaac is pretty, but Pad­stow is the next proper port of call, 35 miles south of Hart­land Point. This cosy basin is tucked well into the Camel es­tu­ary op­po­site Rock vil­lage. Aim to ar­rive off Step­per Point an hour be­fore HW and then fol­low the buoys up to the har­bour gate. Moored in the heart of town, you have pubs and cafés to hand, in­clud­ing Rick Stein’s ubiq­ui­tous seafood eater­ies. The es­tu­ary and its golden beaches pro­vide a sooth­ing out­look.

Cardiff Bay at Pe­narth BRIS­TOL CHAN­NEL BOATERS David Phillips Boat Van de Stadt 40 Cas­tiard Berth Lyd­ney Dock

Old and new at the cen­tre of re­ju­ve­nated Cardiff Bay

LEFT Land­ward view of the an­chor­age called ‘The Kitchen’ which lies in­side Worm’s Head on the Gower Penin­sula BE­LOW Por­tishead Ma­rina

Aerial view show­ing the en­trance to Mil­ford Haven on the Pem­brokeshire coast

Lined with cheer­fully-painted build­ings, the pretty har­bour at Tenby

Il­fra­combe’s in­ner har­bour on the North Devon coast

ABOVE The south­east land­ing on Lundy Is­land LEFT Port Isaac, a Cor­nish gem

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