Bristol Channel

Bristol Channel

Bristol Channel, inlet of the Atlantic Ocean, c.85 mi (140 km) long and from 5 to 50 mi (8.1-80 km) wide, stretching westward from the mouth of the River Severn and separating Wales from SW England. Its chief bays are Carmarthen and Swansea in Wales and Barnstaple (or Bideford) and Bridgwater in England. Many cities are on or near the channel; among the largest are Bristol, Newport, Cardiff, and Swansea. Along the coast of S Wales is a great concentration of economic activity, and Bristol Channel serves as a major shipping corridor. Milford Haven, a major oil-importing center, has a harbor that can accommodate large modern tankers.

The Bristol Channel (Môr Hafren) 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 (Afon Hafren) to that part of the North Atlantic Ocean known as the Celtic Sea (Môr Celtaidd). It takes its name from the English city of Bristol and is over 30 miles (50 km) across at its widest point.

The lower limit of the Bristol Channel is drawn between St Govans Head in Pembrokeshire, Lundy Island, and Hartland Point in Devon. The upper limit 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, although Bude in North Cornwall during the industrial era was often called by sailors on their way to Cardiff as "the gateway/entrance to the Bristol Channel".

The Bristol Channel, on both the South Wales and West Country sides, has more miles of Heritage Coast seaboard than any other stretch of water in the United Kingdom. Heritage coastlines include 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 best 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 Bristol Channel and nearby Celtic Sea beaches of Wales, North Devon and North Cornwall are acknowledged by many travel magazine writers as the best in the U.K. for sand and water quality.


At low tide large parts of the channel become mud flats due to the tidal range of , second only to Bay of Fundy in Eastern Canada. 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. 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.

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 excellent surfing. 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 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 above Avonmouth, river rescue is provided by Severn Area Rescue Association, while in Burnham-on-Sea the Burnham-On-Sea Area Rescue Boat (BARB) 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.

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 Welsh capital, 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 with a fine marina. 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.

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 the UK’s climate change goals as well as the European Union's renewable energy targets. A Severn tidal power feasibility study is, in 2008, currently being undertaken by the UK Government to assess all tidal range technologies (including barrages, lagoons and others). 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 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 has shown evidence of a tsunami in the Channel.


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.


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