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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

River Avon Moor to Sea 20

The River Avon reaches the sea at Bantham and it has taken me nearly two years and nineteen previous episodes to get here. I started this epic journey on Dartmoor at the Avon Dam after I had developed my idea to photograph and document the history of life on and along this littlest river Avon in England.

One of nine river Avons in Britain, I had no idea when I started this project that it would take so long and it is no exaggeration to say I have battled snow, rain, floods, and droughts, as well as potholes and roadworks, dead ends, impassable green lanes, mud, padlocks on doors, enjoyed great welcomes and raised suspicious questions. I have been welcomed into people's homes and wandered around many an ancient church, sometimes with my own personal guide, and have driven over, and walked across many different bridges.

In this final part of the trip, however, I will cross the river by boat, for the first time, in fresh water that has just arrived from the summit of Dartmoor just at the point where it mixes with salt water from the Bahamas, Cuba, the tip of Florida and the Gulf of Mexico as the Gulf Stream travels the great Atlantic Ocean to warm the shores of Western Britain.

It is both riverside and seaside. As I finished part 19 I mentioned that the bay itself is notorious for drownings and shipwrecks so I'll also cover some of that history in this section.

The tide was low back in late September 2023 when I took these photos revealing the beaches of silt on the Bantham side and sand on the Bigbury side. This view is looking up river.

While this view looks down river.

This 1960's map gives an idea of where we are in relation to the bay. These photos were all taken in the area marked ferry. An arm of sand dunes shelters this part of the river. At Cockleridge you will see the view out of the river mouth to Burgh Island.

Bantham is built on a steep hillside overlooking the river. I have described Bantham and some of its history in an earlier post here.This is one of the many lime kilns that line the lower parts of the river.

Oxford Journal - Saturday 23 February 1754

Letters from Plymouth give an Account, that the 'Betty', Cpt. Cready, bound from Dumfries for London, had been drove into the River Avon, in Bigbury-Bay, by contrary Winds, but had the good Fortune to ride out the Gale, and sailed out the 14th instant. A great Number of Country People were assembled, with Axes, and other destructive Implements, in order to cut her to pieces and plunder the Cargo, expecting every Hour that she would be drove ashore ; but, happily, they were disappointed.

As an interesting side note, in case you were wondering about the seemingly random upper case letters in the above account, they are not typos by me or the journalist, and I have copied them from the original text.

Why are random words capitalized in old texts?

They aren't quite random, although it may appear so to us. In the 18th Century capitalisation was used for proper nouns like names, which we still use today: France, Fred, Ford, etc. However, they also capitalised anything they wanted to make special note of, particularly nouns or nouns under discussion.

Between 1750 and around 1880, Bantham became a regional centre for the pilchard trading industry during the Cornish pilchard-boom.

North Devon Journal - Thursday 10 September 1857

Devon and Cornwall. Death by Drowning —Roger Pepperell, the sexton of Aveton Gifford Church, was drowned on Thursday night last. It appears that the deceased and two others, who had been out catching pilchards, were returning about midnight, bound for Bantham, but getting amongst the breakers (the boat being deeply laden,) she was swamped. The two other men in the boat were saved clinging to the boat.

Today fishing is strictly controlled.

Most of this area around Bantham forms a private estate, the Bantham Estate. This is the Coronation Boathouse.

Bantham’s history dates back to Neolithic times. There is evidence of a Bronze Age settlement and a Roman and post-Roman settlement including a trading port at Bantham Ham. It is a scheduled ancient monument recognised by Historic England because of its national importance.

For much of its history, Bantham was a farming and fishing village, although incomes were often supplemented by ‘wrecking’ – taking the spoils from ships that foundered in the often dangerous waters off Bantham’s coast.

Twentieth century additions include Coronation Boathouse, which was built in 1938 to celebrate the coronation of King George VI by the Estate’s owner at the time, Commander Evans. He also built Villa Crusoe, Cockleridge House and Ham Cottage to create homes for his three daughters.

Bantham has always been a private estate. Today, it is managed in the same careful and respectful way as its sister estate, Great Tew in Oxfordshire, in order to maintain the strong heritage and community of the village and its surroundings.

North Devon Journal - Thursday 13 December 1838

Shipwreck and Melancholy Loss of Life. —Kingsbridge, Nov. 26, 1838. A Belgian Brig, 'Le Euphasie,’ Captain Valoke, outward bound, was wrecked on our coast in the course of yesterday, all hands perished: from daylight this morning the coast guard and the villagers were busily engaged gathering the fragments of the wreck, and about 11 o’clock in the forenoon were horror struck at seeing another vessel, a fine brig, making direct into the Bay with her sails tightly clued up, and at the mercy of the waves, which were running mountains high: in a very short time she was in Bantham Bay, about half tide and very near the shore, but such was the raging of the sea that nothing could be done for her, the poor sailors taking to the rigging, and every wave dashing over them, out of 11 hands only 3 were saved. She was the fine brig 'Barbary,’ Newcastle, Cap't Nicholls, of 265 tons register, laden with rapeseed and oil, from Church in the Black Sea, bound to Falmouth to wait orders.

They were 10 weeks at sea, and last evening about four o'clock they made the Lizzard, shortly after this the Capt. was washed overboard, but by great exertions was got on deck again, where he lay until the ship struck, insensible ; the chief mate (the Captain's brother) was drunk during the whole night, the Capt. laying on the starboard of the quarter deck insensible from injuries received as above, and the mate on the larboard of the quarter deck insensible from drink, consequently there was no one to manage the ship.

It is needless to observe that both Capt. and mate met with a watery grave. The vessel is gone to atoms, and not a particle of her cargo saved. The greatest praise is due to the officers and men of the coast guard at Bantham for their exertions in saving the lives of the three survivors. We cannot close this hasty sketch without offering our thanks for the exertions, both temporal and spiritual of the Rev. Mr. St. John, of Bigbury, who was unremitting in his exertions during the whole of the day: the three poor fellows saved are doing well. - From a Correspondent

Bantham Estate was bought in 2015 for £11.5 million for which you get 728 acres of farmland, 20 cottages, a shop, your own beach and the access to the river. The river bed itself from the mouth here at Bantham up to its highest tidal reaches belongs to the Duchy of Cornwall, which means that this has also changed hands, after the recent death of the Queen, transferring from the previous Duke of Cornwall, now King Charles, to the new Duke of Cornwall, Prince William.

I took these photos at the end of September because the aim was to take this ferry across before the service stopped on the 1st of October for the winter. I arrived early not knowing what to expect, only to find the ferry tethered in mid stream. I was curious as to how the system worked, as the tide was low and the water was some distance from the quayside.

This is a good sign, a man and his dog. It turned out to be the ferryman Duncan and his black Labrador called Bear.

Boats are complicated as I have started to realise and you often need a boat to get to a boat, so that part is now explained.

Clearly I am going to get muddy as this is a seaweed and silt route to get on board. If you are planning on doing this don't bring high heels. In fact this service is mostly used by walkers using the South West Coast Path, so walking boots are customary. This is also why the service is seasonal. If you are walking the path out of season there is a 9 mile detour up to the nearest bridge at Aveton Gifford and back down the other side.

Newcastle Courant - Saturday 03 March 1739

We hear from Exeter, that Philip Davies and John Vivian, two of the Ringleaders in plundering the Dutch East- India Ship, lately lost in Bigbury-Bay, were brought to the County Gaol under a strong Guard of Soldiers.

As I was the first passenger of the day, at the tail end of the season, I was also the only passenger, so Duncan became my guide and local historian for the journey.

This was an unusual sight, pheasants scuttling about on seaweed covered rocks. They are more usually seen throwing themselves in front of traffic on busy roads, where they often tempt fate several times if they are not flattened on the first attempt.

The river is lined with large desirable properties most of which have a boat, slipway or boathouse.

The Pink Salmon House at Jenkins Quay, part of the estate, and recently restored.

I had intended to stay on the ferry and return straight away as I was concerned about being stranded on the other side but Duncan insisted I should have a bit of an exploration on the other side and he would come back to collect me. I am glad I did.

This is the other side, Cockleridge Ham and I can imagine that at some point in the past that is exactly what was harvested right here, cockles. Where the ferry goes to and from depends on the tide level and the current of the water which can flow in either direction.

The Queen, The Lady's Newspaper - Saturday 03 August 1895

of the Avon........ It will not do to attempt to wade it. But a shout will soon excite the attention of one of those fishermen, busy over their boats below the little white hamlet of Bantham opposite, who, for a small consideration, will ferry us over to the eastern shore. There is nothing to see and less to do at Bantham, but the one row of cottages is perched pleasantly enough on the summit of a low green cliff. I shall never forget Bentham, for, wonderful to relate, I once lunched off ham and eggs there instead of bread and cheese, the usual pabulum.

This is a good view of the village of Bantham which is essentially one single street with a small shop and a pub, The Sloop Inn.

Caledonian Mercury - Saturday 27 February 1768

A letter from Oreston, in Devonshire, dated Feb. 14, "This week two ships were wrecked in Bigbury-bay, in the port of Dartmouth : they both came from the Mediterranean, and liable by an order in Council, to perform 40 days quarantine; but, as usual, the country people fell in plundered, and carried off whatever they could lay hands on : and had there been an actual plague on board, it would have been the same ; for they were laden with silks and other goods subject to airing. One day or other those unwary people may bring ruin on the kingdom.

At the mouth of the river, the beach is exposed to the effects of the open sea and erosion from storms. On the horizon filling the gap in the middle of the bay is Burgh Island with its distinctive white Art Deco Hotel of Agatha Christie fame. These concrete remains were a previous attempt at minimising the effects of erosion but the sea always wins, given enough time.

To start at the beginning or anywhere in between..........

Part One, The Avon Dam, the ruins of Brentmoor House and the ruins of the Naptha Distillery at Shipley Bridge.

Part Two, Didworthy Bridge, the ancient Lydia Bridge, and the riverside walk to St Petroc's church in South Brent.

Part Three, St. Petroc's church, South Brent, the Sanctuary Ring, 14th century wood carvings, the story of Harry Hems, and a brutal and bloody murder.

Part Four, A walk around South Brent with its railway history and ancient and unusual Toll House, a former coaching inn and a listed telephone box, amongst many diverse architecture styles through the ages.

Part Five, This was one of my favourite excursions, to photograph the workshop of a violin maker, there are also a couple of interesting bridges.

Part Six, Sewage treatment rears its ugly head followed by the Turtley Corn Mill, and the amazing ancient Cobbly Walkway.

Part Seven, Two old churches, unique in different ways and one of the oldest tennis clubs in the world.

Part Eight, Another toll house, the remains of The Primrose Line, ancient bridges and Diptford Church, The Battle of the Bees and the man who discovered Titanium.

Part Nine, The village of Diptford, ancient crosses, old mills and bridges, one that has existed for over a thousand years, and what is a Clam Bridge?

Part Ten, The 17th century Gara Bridge and a two and a half thousand year old hill fort.

Part Eleven, The 16th century Topsham Bridge, South Devon Chilli Farm and old Loddiswell railway station with its honesty art gallery.

Part Twelve, A garden centre at a mill and the 13th century Loddiswell church, The Strokestown Ambush, a gun carriage funeral and a Breeches Bible.

Part Thirteen, The village of Loddiswell, Peek Freans Biscuits, the fight against slavery, the first cycle accident in the village and Loda's Well.

Part Fourteen, Bridges galore with "New Bridges" becoming old bridges, floods, old railway remains, a guard dog of sorts and a tragic suicide.

Part Fifteen, A 13th century church, and a bombing raid after a severe case of mistaken identity, a brutal slaying and beheading, salmon poaching and tales of honour and bravery with several great escapes.

Part Sixteen, Aveton Gifford village, apple scrumping, John Wesley, and fake police officers.

Part Seventeen, A bloody battle involving 10,000 men, some fast traffic and permissive paths, a record breaking sturgeon and runaway horses.

Part Eighteen, Tides, floods, police chases, accidents and fires, rescues and yodelling and lost packages.

Part Nineteen, An 11th century church, the Relief of Lucknow, marines and penguins, stunning stained glass and the forgotten war in Portuguese East Africa.

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