When arriving in Brixham, the first thing to remember is that it is primarily a working fishing port. The Fishmarket used to lie alongside the inner harbour, but in more recent health & safety conscious times, a modern purpose-built market has been constructed which now separates the general public from the fishing harbour.
If you feel cheated in not being able to wander around and watch all the activity, then there is a viewing platform where you can see most of the harbour and the boats that are in port. For a better idea at what happens on the other side of the gates, I can highly recommend one of the early morning tours of the market, although during this year of Covid, I don’t believe they’ve been running them. You may also like to read my post, Brixham and Fishing for a better understanding of what the industry means to the town.
Even if you don’t get to see the fishing harbour, you can always take a stroll around the Inner Harbour and Marina to the Breakwater, and in this post, I’m going to point out one or two things of interest to look out for along the way. Just as a word of warning, it’s not possible to do a circular walk as there is no access across the harbour from one side to the other, which means that you’ll need to retrace your steps.
The tidal Inner Harbour is used for boats needing repairs and by mostly small craft, the exception being a replica of Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind. The original replica (!) was built for the 1961/62 television series, The Adventures of Sir Francis Drake, which was filmed around Torbay and Dartmouth. In 1963 it found a permanent home here in Brixham as a tourist attraction, but in 1987 it sank on its way to Dartmouth for restoration, and a replica of the replica was built the following year.
The current owners of the ship bought it in 2018 after the death of the previous co-owner, Jackie Robinson. Her husband and partner, Neil Worrell, turned down an offer of half a million pounds from a buyer in San Francisco because he wanted the ship to stay in Brixham. Reading between the lines, it sounds as though it went to a local family for less than £200,000.
Its authenticity may be in question, but the Golden Hind has been a big attraction in Brixham ever since it arrived, and from what I can gather it sounds like most people love it – both adults and kids alike, especially during ‘Pirate Week’.
Oddly enough, Brixham had nothing to do with Drake’s ship, but a Dutch ship by the name of the Brill certainly did. I have no idea where it ended up, but it was the ship that helped bring about the Glorious Revolution.
After King James II of England & Ireland (VII of Scotland) came to the throne in 1685 there was a distinct threat that he would try to revert the kingdom back to Catholicism. His opponents therefore decided to encourage the protestant William of Orange to deal with the problem, as they considered he had a justifiable claim to the throne through his wife Mary – and so, on 1st November 1688, he set sail on the first stage of his journey to become King of England.
Along with around 15,000 Dutchmen and some 5,000 horses he landed the Brill at Brixham on 5th Nov, stating that “The Liberties of England and the Protestant Religion I will Maintain”. He spent his first night in an old fisherman’s house in Middle St. and then moved on to Exeter. By the time he reached London James had fled to France and on 11th April 1689 he became joint monarch as William III with his wife Mary.
It was the last successful invasion of England and the only time that there’s officially been a joint monarch. In reality it was William who pulled the strings and his wife played second fiddle, but not everything went his way, as there was considerable resistance from the natives of Scotland and Ireland where many people supported James. Eventually he dealt with the ex-King once and for all when he defeated him at the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland on 1st July 1690. James fled back to France for the last time, but the legacy of that battle had repercussions for many years to come.
There are two landmarks that commemorate William’s arrival in Brixham, and both can be found around the Inner Harbour. Firstly, there’s a monument near the old fish market, which says “On this stone and near this spot William Prince of Orange first set foot on his landing in England Fifth November 1688”, and although this obelisk is probably the most important from a historical point of view, it’s the statue opposite the Bullers Arms that seems to attract the most attention. This statue of King Billy (as he’s known in some communities of N. Ireland and Scotland) was erected on the 200th anniversary of his landing and each year on a Saturday close to Nov 5th a Loyal Orange Lodge from Plymouth hold a commemorative weekend. It has to be said though, that it’s only a place of pilgrimage for a relatively small number of people.
Before we continue along the harbour, I want to show you a building that’s just up around the corner. At the end of the Strand, walk past the Blue Anchor (if you can), and turn left into King Street, where opposite the New Quay Inn, is a shop called Destiny, but I haven’t brought you around here to spend some of your hard-earned cash on crystals and tarot cards: Instead, I want you to take a look at the building’s quirky shape.Whether it’s true or not I can’t be sure, but there’s a tale attached to this building which you might find interesting.
It centres around a young man’s request to marry a certain gentleman’s daughter. Not impressed by the young man, he told him that he would see her in a coffin first. Depending on which story you read, the young man either bought, or built, this unusual building and called it The Coffin House. The idea seemed to have paid off because on explaining to his potential father-in-law that his wish had been granted, he relented and gave the couple their blessing. The shop may be currently called Destiny, but it’ll be forever known as the Coffin House.
If you walk down Quay Lane next to the New Quay Inn, it will bring you back out onto the harbour. At the other end of the car park you’ll come to a statue called ‘Man and Boy’. It’s not of any real significance as such, but to me, not only is it a fine sculpture, it also represents what the local community is all about. The people of Brixham took eight years to raise the funds needed for local sculptor, Elizabeth Hadley, to construct it. It was finally unveiled on 26th November 2016, and is a welcome addition to the harbourside.
Just a few yards away is another example of the Brixham community spirit. Pride of Brixham volunteers spend many hours tidying up and planting odd corners of the town to make it look more attractive, and the Mayflower Garden shows how much passion they have and the amount of effort they put in.
Not very far along from the Mayflower Garden, and opposite the Prince William bar, is the pontoon where the Heritage Fishing Boats are usually moored up. I spoke about these boats in my Brixham and Fishing post that I’ve already mentioned, and so I don’t intend to go into it again here, but I do suggest you walk down the pontoon to have a closer look at them.
Many harbours include a marina these days, and Brixham is no exception, but if like me, you’re more of a Captain Pugwash than a Chay Blyth, then the boats here may only be of passing interest.
At the end of the marina is probably the most important boat of all – the Torbay lifeboat. As you can imagine, it has quite a history, and in excess of 3,000 lives have been saved since it was opened in 1866, and there’s a tale as to why it became necessary to have a lifeboat stationed here in the first place.
Torbay offers natural protection to ships from prevailing south-westerly storms, and quite often we know when a storm’s brewing by the number of ships sheltering in the bay. On the evening of 10th January 1866 such a storm blew up and around 70 ships took refuge, but during the night the wind changed direction to a north-easterly and also increased to hurricane strength. With no lifeboat in Torbay, it meant that the Teignmouth lifeboat had to be brought by road to launch a rescue. They saved 11 men from two ships, but according to the RNLI Torbay Lifeboat website, the storm wrecked at least 40 boats and took almost a hundred lives.
The same year, the Brixham Lifeboat was established, although it took another seven years before it found a permanent home here next to the Breakwater. The station currently has a Severn Class All Weather Lifeboat called the ‘Alec and Christina Dykes’ as well as an Inshore Lifeboat: So far this year, both vessels have been involved in 86 call-outs.
The Inshore Lifeboat launches from the adjacent slipways, which were purpose-built as LCT (Landing Craft, Tank) ramps in preparation for the D-Day Landings in 1944. They were first used for Operation Tiger, and then, along with the ramps in Torquay Harbour were used to transport US troops to Utah Beach in Normandy, one of the five beaches used in the Normandy Invasion on D-Day. The ramps are now Grade II listed by English Heritage.
As I indicated earlier, Torbay is a natural haven for ships sheltering against the prevailing south-westerly winds, but when the wind changes to the opposite direction things can be very different, as the gale of 1866 proved.
A pier, built in 1804, added some protection for the harbour from the north-easterlies, but as the ships got bigger and the harbour became busier, something more substantial was needed, and so in 1843, work started on constructing the Breakwater. Unfortunately, before the end of the year, the funds ran out, and construction was stopped after building 427 metres, which was less than half the length of what it is now. It begs the question therefore, as to whether the 1866 gale would have been quite so catastrophic to Brixham if it could have been completed in one go. In the end, it was 1916 before it reached its current length, the same year that the present lighthouse was built.
This protective arm is half a mile long, and a great place to stretch your legs. It’s also a good spot to watch the fishing boats coming and going, but unless you intend to swim back, a walk along to the lighthouse means that you’ll have to walk all the way back.
Whether you walk along the Breakwater or not, you’ll still need to walk back around the harbour the way you came because as I said at the beginning, a circular walk isn’t possible. If you want to chill out for a while before heading back there’s a nice little bistro tucked away in the corner next to the small beach. It’s a nice spot in nice weather, but in 2018 it got smashed to smithereens by Storm Emma. Thankfully, it’s now fully recovered – or at least from the storm damage, if not the Covid pandemic.
Retracing our steps back around the harbour at least means that the harbour can be seen from a different perspective and I recommend that you find your way up to Berry Head Road where you can have some of the best views of all.
Evening time is one of my favourite times to walk around the harbour. When the sun goes down and the lights come on is around the same time as when the visitors go home and the night crowd have still yet to come out.
I think it’s only fair to remind you once again that Brixham is primarily a fishing port, and fishing is without doubt a tough job requiring tough people. As you can imagine, it’s not unheard of for fishermen to try and drink the local pubs dry when they return to port, so bear that in mind when looking for a place to finish the day off with a glass of something.
Torbay has three harbours, but Brixham has always been my favourite, especially on winter nights when the boats groan and the wind whistles through the forest of masts. There’s something quite therapeutic about it, but at the same time I like to spare a thought for those who are still at sea while I’m heading for the Blue Anchor or somewhere, and try to remember to leave some beer in the barrels for when they get back. Cheers!
POSTED – OCTOBER 2020