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