Three of England's oldest shipwrecks can still be seen on sand and mud in Devon

By Culture24 Reporter | 15 August 2016

A medieval fishing boat and two 18th century merchant ships on sand and mud have been given protected status

A photo of a large shipwreck on sand on a sunny day in devon
A close up of part of the Axe Boat's hull, showing the main structural upright timbers on the port side and the stringer, or strake, which are the structural timbers running lengthwise along the boat's side© University of Southampton
A medieval mercantile vessel known as the Axe Boat which has been submerged in a mud bank on the west side of the Axe River in South Devon for centuries has become one of three boats in the county to be given protected status by English Heritage.

A photo of a large shipwreck on sand on a sunny day in devon
A wooden bowl found on the Axe Boat© Devon County Council
The boat, which saw use in the fishing trade, was only discovered in 2001 following changes to the flow of the river which allowed archaeologists to date its wood and size up a Y-shaped framing timber and “crook’d floor” – indicating that it was built between 1400 and 1640, when Axmouth was a major port accounting for 15 percent of England’s shipping trade.

A photo of a large shipwreck on sand on a sunny day in devon
The newly protected Westward Ho! wreck, Sally, on Northam Burrows Sands© Historic England
Two other wrecks, both dating from the 18th century, were most recently spotted during the winter storms of 2014, lying a few hundred metres apart on the sands at Northam Burrows County Park.

A photo of a large shipwreck on sand on a sunny day in devon
Sally ran aground on the sands in 1769© Devon County Council
Westward Ho! – the village retains its exclamation mark from the bestselling mid-19th century book by Charles Kingsley – is the home of the large and clearly recognisable skeleton of the Sally, a Bristol-bound ship which ran aground while carrying a cargo of port wine from Porto.

A photo of a large shipwreck on sand on a sunny day in devon
© Historic England
A smaller ship, lying at an angle suggesting the spoils of a storm, is thought to have been Severn Trow, a little merchant ship travelling the Bristol Channel coastline around 200 years ago. Around 11,000 vessels are known to have met a similar fate in English waters in the late 18th century, but few of these commercial ships have ever been found.

A photo of a large shipwreck on sand on a sunny day in devon
© Dr Roderick Bale (UWLAS) for Historic England
“The fact that they’re often visible to the public gives them a whole added significance,” says Mark Dunkley, a Maritime Archaeologist for the group who helped identify the wreck sites during an investigation of Devon’s shipwreck remains.

A photo of a large shipwreck on sand on a sunny day in devon
© Dr Roderick Bale (UWLAS) for Historic England
“It’s quite rare that such old maritime fabric can be seen by anyone who isn’t a diver.

“Despite the effects of environmental decay and the passage of time, substantial portions of their lower hulls survive, allowing us to determine what type of vessels they were and the role they played in Devon’s coastal economy.”

All three of the wrecks are on public land, although visitors are being advised to check local tidal conditions first.

Want to visit? Follow the AONB directions for Northam Burrows Country Park.

  • Axmouth wreck is visible from the nearby road bridge B3172, the main road into the Devon coastal town of Seaton.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three more places to see shipwrecks in

Shipwreck Museum, Hastings
an interesting and varied collection of artefacts from several wrecks, including a unique collection of wooden rudders from the 15th to 18th centuries and live radar pictures of shipping in the English Channel.

Tower Museum, Derry
The permanent exhibition, An Armada Shipwreck – La Trinidad Valencera, narrates the story of La Trinidad Valencera, one of the largest ships in the Armada Fleet. In 1588 it foundered in Kinnagoe Bay in Co. Donegal during a violent storm and was discovered nearly 400 years later by divers from the City of Derry Sub Aqua Club.

Charlestown Shipwreck and Heritage Centre, St Austell
Originally a dry house for china clay on underground tunnels, which visitors can still tour, the centre tells the history of diving, salvage and shipwrecks from the earliest times to the present day. Displays include large collections of minerals and early mining equipment giving insights into industrial and social heritage.
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