Bristol Channel

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Map of the Bristol Channel
Sunrise looking north east up the channel from Minehead

The Bristol Channel is a major inlet in the island of Great Britain, cutting deeply between the West Country and South Wales. It extends from the lower estuary of the River Severn to the North Atlantic Ocean. It is over 30 miles across at its widest point. On its coasts are several counties; Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire, Glamorgan and Monmouthshire on the northern shore and Somerset, Devonshire and Cornwall on the southern.

The Channel takes its name from the City of Bristol. In Welsh it is known as Môr Hafren: the "Severn Sea", the name which the Bristol Channel bore even in English until the modern age. It is in essence an extension of the Severn estuary, and where one ends and the other begins cannot in seriousness be defined.

Long stretches of the coastline of the Bristol Channel, on both its northern and southern shores are designated as Heritage Coast, including Exmoor, Bideford Bay, the Hartland Point peninsula, Lundy, the Gower Peninsula, South Pembrokeshire and Caldey Island.


The International Hydrographic Organization, which does try to define the indefinable, has decided that for its purposes the western limits of the Bristol Channel are "a line joining Hartland Point [in Devon] to St Govan's Head [in Pembrokeshire]".[1] This places Cornwall outside the defined limits of the Bristol Channel, and part of the seaboard of the Atlantic Ocean.

The upper limit of the Channel conventionally is between Sand Point, Somerset and Lavernock Point in Glamorgan, east of which is deemed the Severn Estuary, though it is but a suggestion in a fluid definition.


The channel from Barry
The Bristol Channel coast at Ilfracombe

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 50 feet; in all the world second only to Bay of Fundy in eastern Canada.[2][3] 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 and preserve the Bristol Channel.

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.[4] 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.[5]

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-foot 'hog-backed' hill with a cliff-face of 820 feet; its sister cliff "The Little Hangman" has a cliff-face of 716 feet. 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 Bristol Channel from Llantwit Major
Satellite view of the Bristol Channel

The City of Swansea is the largest town on the coast of the Bristol Channel. Bristol itself is not on the channel but some way inland, connected by the River Avon. Its port though, Avonmouth is on the open channel or the Severn estuary. The major towns include:

Barnstaple and Bideford are sited on estuaries opening onto Bideford Bay at the westernmost end of the Bristol Channel.

Avonmouth is one of the most important ports in Britain.


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.

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 and the Portishead and Bristol Lifeboat Trust.[6]

1607 flood

Pamphlet on the floods

On 30 January 1607 (New style) thousands of people were drowned, houses and villages swept away, farmland inundated and flocks destroyed when a flood hit the shores of the Channel. The devastation was particularly bad on the northern shore side, from Laugharne in Carmarthenshire to above Chepstow in Monmouthshire. Cardiff was the most badly affected town. There remain plaques up to 8 feet above sea level to show how high the waters rose on the sides of the surviving churches. It was commemorated in a contemporary pamphlet "God's warning to the people of England by the great overflowing of the waters or floods."

The cause of the flood is uncertain. It had long been believed that the floods were caused by a combination of meteorological extremes and tide|tidal peaks, but research published in 2002 showed some evidence of a tsunami in the Channel.[7] Although some evidence from the time describes events similar to a tsunami, there are also similarities to descriptions of the 1953 floods in East Anglia, which were caused by no more than a storm surge. It has been shown that the tide and weather at the time were capable of generating such a surge.[8]

The Bristol Channel Mission

In 1835 John Ashley was on the shore at Clevedon with his son who asked him how the people on Flat Holm could go to church. For the next three months Ashley voluntarily ministered to the population of the island. From there he recognised the needs of the seafarers on the four hundred sailing vessels in the Bristol Channel and created the Bristol Channel Mission. He raised funds and in 1839 a specially designed mission cutter was built with a main cabin which could be converted into a chapel for 100 people, this later became first initiative of the Mission to Seafarers.[9]



Much of the coastline at the western end of the Bristol Channel faces west towards the Atlantic Ocean meaning that a combination of an off-shore (east) wind and a generous Atlantic swell produces excellent surf along the beaches. The heritage coasts of the Vale of Glamorgan, Bideford Bay and Gower are, along with the Atlantic coasts of Pembrokeshire and Cornwall, the key areas for surfing in the whole of Britain. Although slightly overshadowed by the Atlantic coasts of North Cornwall and West Pembrokeshire, both Gower and Bideford Bay nevertheless have several superb breaks—notably Croyde in Bideford Bay and Langland Bay on Gower—and surfing in Gower and Bideford Bay is enhanced by the golden beaches, clean blue waters, excellent water quality and good facilities close by to the main surf breaks.


The high quality of the landscape of much of both coasts of the Bristol Channel means that they are popular destinations for walkers. Sections of two national trails; the South West Coast Path and the Pembrokeshire Coast Path follow these shores along with various other shorter waymarked recreational routes. A continuous coastal path is being developed along the entire Welsh shore under the auspices of the Countryside Council for Wales.

Swimming Records

Ilfracombe to Swansea

The first person to swim the 30½ nautical miles from Ilfracombe to Swansea was Gethin Jones, who achieved the record on 13 September 2009, taking nearly 22 hours.[10]

Penarth to Clevedon

The youngest person to swim the Bristol Channel from Penarth to Clevedon is Gary Carpenter who at age 17 on August Bank Holiday 2007, swam the channel in 5 hours 35 minutes making him the youngest and fastest swimmer of the Bristol Channel. Gary Carpenter's coach Steve Price was the first ever person to swim from Penarth to Clevedon back in 1990.[11]


  1. "Limits of Oceans and Seas, 3rd edition + corrections". International Hydrographic Organization. 1971. p. 42 [corrections to page 13]. Retrieved 6 February 2010. 
  2. Chan, Marjorie A.; Archer, Allen William (2003). Extreme Depositional Environments: Mega End Members in Geologic Time. Boulder, Colorado: Geological Society of America. pp. 151. ISBN 0813723701. 
  3. "Coast: Bristol Channel". BBC. Retrieved 2007-08-27. 
  4. "Lundy Island Marine Nature Reserve". Retrieved 2007-09-05. 
  5. "Lundy Marine Nature Reserve". Retrieved 2007-09-05. 
  6. Portishead and Bristol Lifeboat Trust
  7. Haslett, Simon K.; Edward A. Bryant (2004). The AD 1607 Coastal Flood in the Bristol Channel and Severn Estuary: Historical Records from Devon and Cornwall (UK). 15. 81–89. 
  8. Horsburgh, K.J. and M. Horritt (2006) The Bristol Channel floods of 1607 – reconstruction and analysis. Weather, 61(10), 272-277.
  9. Farr, Grahame (1954). Somerset Harbours. London: Christopher Johnson. pp. 49. 
  10. South Wales Evening Post, 15 September 2009
  11. Western Daily Press, 27 August 2008 - Surprise at pier for Channel swimmer Gary [1]