Cruising the Bristol Channel: Exploring Britain’s finest grand gulf

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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

The English Coast

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, usually savoured on day trips from the Welsh marinas. Porlock Weir is on Exmoor’s rural fringes, less than 30 miles across from Swansea.

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Swansea to Ilfracombe is an easy passage for a day trip

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 bucket-and-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.

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Lundy Island is owned by the National Trust

Lundy island

Lundy lies out in fast tides, 10 miles NNW of Hartland Point. Owned by the National Trust, Lundy 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 a fair haul up the cliff path to the top, but the views down to the anchorage and across to the Devon mainland are spectacular. A chap I know at Neyland, Alan Davies, comes over here on day trips with his Sealine SC35.

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.

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Clovelly’s wonderful miniature harbour

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.

Pilots & guides

The Blue Book Guide to the Bristol Channel is produced by the Bristol Channel Yachting Association and available from some local chandlers or online, priced at £10 plus postage.

Peter Cumberlidge’s Bristol Channel and River Severn Cruising Guide is published by Imray, priced at £29.50 plus postage.

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