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Map of the Bristol Channel
Sunrise looking North East up the channel from Minehead, showing Steepholm and Brean Down

The Bristol Channel is a major inlet in the island of Great Britain, separating South Wales from Devon and Somerset in South West England, and extending from the lower estuary of the River Severn to the North Atlantic Ocean. It takes its name from the English city of Bristol and is over 30 miles (50 km) across at its widest point.

The Bristol Channel, on both the South Wales and West Country sides, has Heritage Coast including Exmoor, Bideford Bay, the Hartland Point peninsula, Lundy Island, Glamorgan, Gower Peninsula, South Pembrokeshire and Caldey Island.

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 aforementioned magazine's Top 12 best beaches in the world list, and was also selected as Britain's best beach for 2007.



The International Hydrographic Organization defines the limits of the Bristol Channel as "a line joining Hartland Point [in Devon] (51°01′N 4°32′W / 51.017°N 4.533°W / 51.017; -4.533) to St. Govan's Head [in Pembrokeshire] (51°36′N 4°55′W / 51.6°N 4.917°W / 51.6; -4.917)".[1]

The upper limit of the Channel is between Sand Point, Somerset and Lavernock Point in South Wales. East of this line is the Severn Estuary. Western and Northern Pembrokeshire and North Cornwall are outside of the limit of the Bristol Channel, and are considered part of the seaboard of the Atlantic Ocean.


The channel from Barry, Wales
The Bristol Channel coast at Ilfracombe, North Devon, looking west towards Lee Bay

At low tide large parts of the channel become mud flats due to the tidal range of 15 metres (49 ft),[2] second only to Bay of Fundy in Eastern Canada.[3][4] 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. 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.

Major 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.[5] 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.[6]

The Bristol Channel has superb beaches and spectacular scenery, particularly on the coast of Exmoor and Bideford Bay in North Devon and the likes of the Vale of Glamorgan and the 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 gigantic "Great Hangman", a 1,043 ft (318 m) 'hog-backed' hill with a cliff-face of 820 ft (250 m); its sister cliff "The Little Hangman" has a cliff-face of 716 ft (218 m). On the Gower Peninsula, at its western extremity is the Worms Head, a serpent shaped island of carboniferous limestone which is approachable at low tide only. The beaches of Gower (at Rhossili, for example) and North Devon's Bideford Bay (and Woolacombe for example) win awards for their water quality and setting, as well as their famoussurfing. The recognised eastern demarcation between the Bristol channel and the Severn estuary is a notional line drawn between Lavernock point in South Wales and Sand point in North Somerset.

One of the unqiue features of Wales and the West Country is that, apart from the north-facing hog-back cliffs of Exmoor, a good chunk of Wales and the West Country is a west-facing, Atlantic facing coastline meaning that a combination of an off-shore (east) wind and a generous Atlantic swell produces excellent surf along the beaches of the Heritage coasts of the Vale of Glamorgan, Bideford Bay and Gower and, along with the Atlantic coasts of Pembrokeshire and Cornwall, the Bristol Channel coasts are the centre 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.

Coastal cities and towns

The Bristol Channel from Llantwit Major near Barry on the Glamorgan coast
Satellite view of the Bristol Channel

The Bristol Channel is a dangerous area of water because of its strong tides and the rarity of havens on the north Cornish and north Devon coasts that can be entered in all states of the tide. A sailor's rhyme goes "Twixt Hartland Point and Padstow Bay is a sailor's grave by night or day." 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.

In the Severn Estuary, in-shore rescue is provided by two independent lifeboat trusts. These are Severn Area Rescue Association and the Portishead and Bristol Lifeboat Trust[2], while in Burnham-on-Sea the Burnham-On-Sea Area Rescue Boat (BARB)[3] 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.

The city of Bristol, situated on the River Avon, gives its name to the Channel and was once one of the most important ports in Britain. There are still docks in the city centre, but these are largely now given over to leisure use. Bristol's dock activity has now been transferred to the nearby Severn estuary at Avonmouth Docks and Royal Portbury Dock. Resort towns on the Bristol Channel include Weston-super-Mare, Burnham-on-Sea, Watchet, Minehead and Porlock in Somerset; and Ilfracombe, Bideford and Barnstaple in Devon.

The city of Cardiff is on the northern side of the estuary, with Cardiff Bay protected behind the Cardiff Bay Barrage. Further west is the city of Swansea. Important ports on the Welsh coast include Milford Haven, a major oil import terminal. Resort towns and villages on the Welsh coastline include Penarth, Llantwit Major, Mumbles and Barry with Barry Island.



Road and Rail

There are no road or rail crossings of the Bristol Channel. The bridges and tunnel of the Severn crossing are located near the point at which the River Severn becomes generally known as the Severn Estuary.

Paddle steamers

P and A Campbell of Bristol were the main operators of pleasure craft and particularly paddle steamers, from the mid-1800s to the late 1970s, also the Barry Railway Company. These served harbours along both coasts, such as Ilfracombe, Clevedon 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.

Catamaran ferry

The Chamber of Commerce and industry in North Devon have espoused a new ferry service across the Bristol Channel linking Swansea to Ilfracombe in particular.[7] Other proposes include a ferry link between Penarth and Minehead and a link between North Devon and Ireland.[7] A new ferry service linking Swansea and Ilfracombe, served by catamaran ferries will begin operating in Easter 2010. The new company which will be operating the ferries is Severn Link.[8]

Renewable energy

The Bristol Channel which is linked to the Severn Estuary has the potential to generate more renewable electricity than all other UK estuaries. If harnessed, it could create up to 5% of the UK’s electricity, contributing significantly to UK climate change goals and European Union renewable energy targets. The Severn Tidal Power Feasibility Study was launched in 2008 by the UK Government to assess all tidal range technologies, including barrages, lagoons and others.[9] The study will look at the costs, benefits and impacts of a Severn tidal power scheme and will help Government decide whether it could or could not support such a scheme. Some of the options being looked at may include a third road crossing.

1607 flood

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 Welsh side from Laugharne in Carmarthenshire to above Chepstow on the English border. Cardiff was the most badly affected town. There remain plaques up to 8 ft (2.4 m) 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 and disputed. It had long been believed that the floods were caused by a combination of meteorological extremes and tidal peaks, but research published in 2002 showed some evidence of a tsunami in the Channel.[10] 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 a storm surge. It has been shown that the tide and weather at the time were capable of generating such a surge.[11]


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.[12]

Swimming Records

Ilfracombe to Swansea

The first person to swim the 30.5 nautical miles (56.5 km; 35.1 mi) from Ilfracombe to Swansea was Gethin Jones, who achieved the record on 13 September 2009, taking nearly 22 hours.[13]

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.[14]


  1. ^ "Limits of Oceans and Seas, 3rd edition + corrections". International Hydrographic Organization. 1971. p. 42 [corrections to page 13]. Retrieved 6 February 2010. 
  2. ^ "Severn Estuary Barrage" (PDF). UK Environment Agency. 31 May 2006. Retrieved 2007-09-03. 
  3. ^ 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.,M1. 
  4. ^ "Coast: Bristol Channel". BBC. Retrieved 2007-08-27. 
  5. ^ "Lundy Island Marine Nature Reserve". Retrieved 2007-09-05. 
  6. ^ "Lundy Marine Nature Reserve". Retrieved 2007-09-05. 
  7. ^ a b North Devon Ferries - The Story So Far
  8. ^ New ferry service to link Swansea with Devon
  9. ^ "Severn Tidal Power". Welsh Assembly Government. Retrieved 2008-09-01. 
  10. ^ 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)". Archaeology in the Severn Estuary 15: 81–89. 
  11. ^ Horsburgh, K.J. and M. Horritt (2006) The Bristol Channel floods of 1607 – reconstruction and analysis. Weather, 61(10), 272-277.
  12. ^ Farr, Grahame (1954). Somerset Harbours. London: Christopher Johnson. pp. 49. 
  13. ^ South Wales Evening Post, 15 September 2009
  14. ^ Western Daily Press, 27 August 2008 - Surprise at pier for Channel swimmer Gary [1]

External links

Coordinates: 51°18′00″N 3°37′00″W / 51.3°N 3.6166667°W / 51.3; -3.6166667

Travel guide

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikitravel

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Bristol Channel is a tidal estuary in the United Kingdom.


Dartmoor National Park

Pembrokeshire National Park

Vale of Glamorgan







Bristol, (Visitor moorings available at the City Docks and Portishead Marina).

Cardiff, (Visitor moorings available at Cardiff Bay and Penarth Marina).

Newport, (Visitor moorings available at Newport & Uskmouth Sailing Club).

Swansea, (Visitor moorings available at Swansea Marina).

Towns & Villages


Milford Haven






Other destinations

Caldy Island




Get around

The Bristol Channel is a tidal estuary on the South West of Britain. It accomodates pleasure vessels throughout many marinas and tidal harbours from St. Ives in Cornwall in the West, to Sharpness in the East on the South side England, and from Milford Haven in the West to Chepstow in the East on the North side Wales. There is also a large quantity of commercial traffic serving the larger ports at Bristol, Newport, Cardiff, Barry, Port Talbot, Swansea and Milford Haven.

Stay safe

When sailing in the Bristol Channel don't forget that this is a very challenging sailing area with very strong tidal currents, with the second highest tidal range in the world next to Bay of Fundy.

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Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary


Proper noun

Wikipedia has an article on:


Bristol Channel

  1. an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean between South Wales and England; an extension of the estuary of the River Severn


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