When people talk about Bideford Bar, they are referring to a sand bank that forms a barrier to the Taw and Torridge Estuary, which runs between the tip of Northam Burrows and the south western corner of Saunton Sands.
Navigating the Bar
Safely navigating the bar was and still is a tricky feat and represented danger to both visiting vessels and even local sailors, who were sometimes caught out. Vessels usually had to wait for the tide to give them enough ‘draught’ or water beneath them, to lift them over the bar. Braunton sailors, adept at negotiating the bar, came to be known as ‘bar men’ and during 2001 they were involved in a project called Beating the Bar, in which their memories were brought to life.
Much more information is available at Braunton Museum, which also houses artefacts that were once used on their ships.
Navigational aids have improved in recent years and nowadays, vessels entering the estuary must align themselves with two lights placed strategically on the hillside at Instow, in order to find safe passage.
Looking out over the wide estuary you will see where the rivers meet the Atlantic Ocean at the once infamous Bideford Bar – a shallow sand bank that separates the ports from the open Ocean. Periodically big swells track across the Atlantic Ocean and huge waves break right across the mouth of the shallow Bar – many ships have foundered here in the past; so close to the safety of the sheltered estuary.
Probably the only advantage offered by the bar was the plentiful supply of gravel that could be dredged from it and sold. Around ten barges were kept at Braunton for this purpose and relied on the tides to lower them onto the bar and other nearby sand banks, allowing them a limited time to shovel the gravel up, onto the barges by hand, before the vessels could float again and make their way back to Velator.
Sam Mitchell is one local resident who remembers the back-breaking toil of loading the barges which, by the time they were full, amazed onlookers by their ability to float!
The bar was responsible for a great many wrecks and over the centuries hundreds of lives have been lost there and nearby on Saunton Sands and Northam Burrows.
Earliest known records of wrecks in the area began in January 1627 when two unidentified vessels were wrecked and their goods cast ashore. Two more unidentified ships followed before, on 28 November 1735, the Johannah and Mary was wrecked on Bideford Bar. She had been carrying tallow, wool and linen and was on her way from Bristol to Africa. Martha followed, on her homeward journey from the Carolinas, and Amoretta laden with tobacco from Virginia. Salisbury ran aground laden with rum, sugar and general cargo from Jamaica and had only four survivors.
For the next two hundred years, the cycle continued, seeing the loss of a wide range of ships – Penguin, Revenge (both sailing from Appledore to Newfoundland), Dieppe Packet, Union, Charles, Britannia, Cwmgwily, Susanna, Prosperous, Beulah, Three Brothers, Seaflower, Sally, Three Brothers (different ship), Juba (carrying palm oil from Africa), Phoebe, Two Patricks, Scourrier, Mary & Alicia, Endeavour, Alfred Emma, Bee, followed by an identified brig whose entire crew was lost, Kitty (who lost all but one member of crew), followed by another unidentified vessel and Hawke.