Downs (sea area)

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Looking out from North Foreland
A Deal Lugger going off to storm bound ships in the Downs - Thomas Buttersworth
Timeball Tower, Deal, Kent

The Downs are a sheltered roadstead in the English Channel or North Sea off the east coast of Kent, between the North Foreland and the South Foreland in Kent. The town of Deal is on the coast facing the Downs. The Downs are a famed naval anchorage, taking advantage of the shelter provided between the shore of Kent and the Goodwin Sands.

In 1639 the Battle of the Downs took place here, when the Dutch navy destroyed a Spanish fleet which had sought refuge in neutral English waters. From Elizabethan times, the presence of Downs helped to make Deal one of the premier ports in England, and in the 18th century, it was equipped with its own telegraph and timeball tower to enable ships to set their marine chronometers.

The anchorage has depths down to 12 fathoms (22 m).[1] Even during southerly gales some shelter was afforded, though under this condition wrecks were not infrequent. Storms from any direction could also drive ships onto the shore or onto the sands, which — in spite of providing the sheltered water — were constantly shifting, and not always adequately marked.

The Downs served in the age of sail as a permanent base for warships patrolling the North Sea[2] and a gathering point for refitted or newly-built ships coming out of Chatham Dockyard and formed a safe anchorage during heavy weather, protected on the east by the Goodwin Sands and on the north and west by the coast. The Downs also lie between the Strait of Dover and the Thames Estuary, so both merchant ships awaiting an easterly wind to take them into the English Channel and those going up to London gathered there, often for quite long periods. According to the Deal Maritime Museum and other sources, there are records of as many as 800 sailing ships at anchor at one time.[3]

In the present day, with the English Channel still the busiest shipping lane in the world, cross-Channel ferries and other ships still seek shelter here.

The Downs are the final destination in the sea-song Spanish Ladies:

The first land we sighted was call-ed the Dodman,
Next Rame Head off Plymouth, Start, Portland and Wight;
We sailed by Beachy, by Fairlight and Dover,
Until we brought to by the South Foreland light.

We will rant and we'll roar like true British sailors,
We'll range and we'll roam all on the salt sea.
Until we strike soundings in the channel of old England;
From Ushant to Scilly is thirty-five leagues.

Then the signal was made for the grand fleet to anchor,
And all in the Downs that night for to lie;
Let go your shank painter, let go your cat stopper
Haul up your clewgarnets, let tacks and sheets fly!

Outside links


  1. The United Kingdom Hydrographic Office Goodwin Sands/South Sand Head Assessment GS1/2006 (
  2. Robson, Martin (2005) The Battle of Trafalgar, Conway Maritime Press. p. 29, 36, 158 ISBN 0-85177-979-4
  3. Kingsdown and Ringwould: A History and Guide Third Edition, Edited by David Harding, Kingsdown and Ringwould Twinning Society (1999) pp 61-64