Peter Cumberlidge shares the secrets of this vast and glittering cruising ground, home to some of the richest vistas and most fascinating boltholes in Britain
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 their 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.
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Chatting to locals for this article, I learnt that Bristol Channel boating is in extremely good heart and that many different kinds of motor boats are regularly making passages here in all directions. Indeed, this is a natural habitat for motor boats, which can take full advantage of the right conditions to get about efficiently. Certainly, none of the folk I spoke to would swap their fantastic, sparsely populated cruising grounds for our crowded south coast.
The upper channel
Portishead Marina lies at a strategic crossroads at the head of the Bristol Channel. Cardiff Bay is an easy hop downstream on the early ebb and upstream the majestic Severn glides inland under its two high bridges, threading vast drying sands towards Sharpness lock and the Gloucester ship canal.
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Opposite Portishead, 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 leg 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 for pleasure boat trips. Up ahead, a narrow headland juts out from Weston-super-Mare and beyond it, two islands – Steep Holm and Flat Holm – stand out 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 leading to Cardiff Bay entrance locks.
The locks operate 24/24 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 Centre of art, 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 of 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.
Swansea & 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.
Tenby & 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 two 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 town, with bays and inlets on both sides. Here you feel the grand 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 Marina quay, the maritime museum tells all these stories well.
Four miles upstream from Milford, Neyland Yacht Haven 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 west of Milford Haven 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 growling 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.