Nov 192018

Doom Bar sounds like it ought to be a sketchy nightclub that you frequent only if you have no regard for life or limb, but, in fact, it is a sandbar at the mouth of the Camel estuary on the north coast of Cornwall that has been a danger to shipping for centuries. On this date in 1911, two ships, Island Maid and Angele, foundered on Doom Bar. All five of the Island Maid’s crew were rescued, but all but the captain of the Angele perished. The Doom Bar has accounted for more than 600 beachings, capsizings and wrecks since record keeping began early in the 19th century, the majority of which are wrecks.

The bar is composed mostly of coarse sediment carried up from the seabed by bed load processes, and it has been shown that there is a net inflow of sediment into the estuary. This inflow is aided by wave and tidal processes, but the exact patterns of sediment transport within the estuary are complex and are not fully understood. There is only a very small sediment contribution from the River Camel itself: most of the river’s sediment is deposited much higher up the estuary. A large proportion of the sediment in Doom Bar is derived from marine mollusk shells, and as a consequence it includes a high level of calcium carbonate, measured in 1982 at 62%. The high calcium carbonate content of the sand has meant that it has been used for hundreds of years to improve agricultural soil by liming. This use is known to date back to before 1600. High calcium carbonate levels combined with natural sea salt made the sand valuable to farmers as an alkaline fertilizer when mixed with manure. In a report published in 1839, Henry De la Beche estimated that the sand from the Doom Bar accounted for between a fifth and a quarter of the sand used for agriculture in Devon and Cornwall. He also stated that around 80 men were permanently employed to dredge the area from several barges, removing an estimated 100,000 long tons (100,000,000 kg) of sand per year, which he said he had been “assured by competent persons” had caused a reduction in height of the bar of between 6 and 8 feet (180 and 240 cm) in the 50 years before 1836. An estimated 10 million tons of sediment was removed from the estuary between 1836 and 1989, mostly for agricultural purposes and mostly from the Doom Bar.

There is a submerged forest beneath the eastern part of the Doom Bar, off Daymer Bay. It is believed to be part of the wooded plain that existed off the current Cornwall coast before it was overcome by sand dunes and beach sand during the last significant rise in sea-level, which ended around 4,000 years ago. Exposed as they are to the Atlantic Ocean, the sands of the area have always been prone to sudden shifts: several houses were said to have been buried one night during a powerful storm. According to tradition one such shift led to the formation of the Doom Bar during the reign of Henry VIII (1509–1547), causing a decline in the prosperity of Padstow. Today, the sandbank covers approximately 0.4 square miles (1.0 km2), linking the beaches near Harbour Cove by sand flats, although the actual size and shape varies.

The name “Doom Bar” is a corruption of the older name Dunbar which itself derives from dune-bar. Although the bar was commonly known as “Dunbar sands” before 1900, the name “Doom Bar” was used in 1761 (as “the Doom-bar”), and it was also used in poetry, and in House of Commons papers in the 19th century. According to local folklore, the Doom Bar was created by the Mermaid of Padstow as a dying curse after being shot. One local legend says that a Padstow local, Tristram Bird, bought a new gun and wanted to shoot something worthy of it. He went hunting seals at Hawker’s Cove but found a young woman sitting on a rock brushing her hair. Entranced by her beauty, he offered to marry her and, when she refused, he shot her in retaliation, only realizing afterwards that she was a mermaid. As she died she cursed the harbor with a “bar of doom”, from Hawker’s Cove to Trebetherick Bay. A terrible gale blew up that night and when it finally subsided there was the sandbar, “covered with wrecks of ships and bodies of drowned men”.

For centuries, the Doom Bar was regarded as a significant danger to ships—to be approached with caution to avoid running aground. When sails were the main source of power, ships coming round Stepper Point would lose the wind, causing loss of steerage, leaving them to drift away from the channel. Sometimes, gusts of wind known colloquially as “flaws” blew over Stepper Point and pushed vessels towards the sandbank. Dropping anchor would not help, as it could not gain a firm hold on the sand. Richard Hellyer, the Sub-Commissioner of Pilotage at Padstow, gave evidence in 1859 that the Doom Bar was regarded as so dangerous that in a storm, vessels would risk being wrecked on the coast rather than negotiate the channel to Padstow harbor.

In 1761 John Griffin published a letter in the London Chronicle recommending methods for entering the Camel estuary during rough weather, particularly while north-northwest winds were blowing and described the bolts and rings he had fixed to the cliffs to assist ships trying to enter the harbor. Mooring rings were still there in 1824, and around 1830, three capstans at the base of the cliffs and bollards along the cliffs, by which means boats could be warped safely past the bar were installed.

In 1846, the Plymouth and Padstow Railway company took an interest in trying to remove the Doom Bar, hoping to increase trade through the harbor at Padstow. The plan was to create a breakwater on the bar, which would stop the build-up of sand, and the railway would transport sand from the nearby dunes to where it was needed for agricultural purposes elsewhere in the south west. However, neither the breakwater nor the railway was built, but the issue was re-examined by the 1858 British Parliamentary Select Committee on Harbours for Refuge.

During the 20th century the Doom Bar was regularly dredged to improve access to Padstow. By the 1930s, when Commander H.E. Turner surveyed the estuary, there were two channels round the Doom Bar, and it is thought that the main channel may have moved to the east side in 1929. By 2010 the original channel had disappeared. The estuary is regularly dredged by Padstow Harbour Commission’s dredgers, Sandsnipe and Mannin.

In 1827, the recently founded Life-boat Institution helped fund a permanent lifeboat at Padstow, a 23 feet (7.0 m) rowing boat with four oars. The lifeboat house at Hawker’s Cove was erected two years later by the Padstow Harbour Association for the Preservation of Life and Property from Shipwreck. Reverend Charles Prideaux-Brune of Prideaux Place was the patron. In 1879, four of his granddaughters and their friend were rowing on the Doom Bar and saw a craft go down. They rowed out to save the drowning sailor. All five girls received a Royal National Lifeboat Institution Silver Medal for their bravery.

Despite the safer eastern channel and improvements in maritime technology, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution still deals with incidents at the Doom Bar. In February 1997, two fishermen who were not wearing lifejackets drowned after their boat capsized. Two anglers had been killed in a similar incident in 1994. On 25th June 2007, the Padstow lifeboat and a rescue helicopter rescued the crews of two yachts in separate incidents from the area.

Doom Bar has lent its name to a bitter (4.0% abv) brewed by Sharp’s Brewery originally at Rock, a village on the estuary opposite Padstow and in Burton-upon-Trent. It is the brewery’s flagship beer, accounting for 90% of sales and with an output of 24,000,000 imperial pints (14,000 kl) in 2010. In 2011, sales increased by 22%, making it the UK’s fastest growing beer for three years in a row. In June 2013, Doom Bar bitter became the number one UK cask ale, by volume and value.

In honor of Padstow, Doom Bar, and Cornwall, here is a recipe for Cornish Game Hen marinated in a beer brine, and then roasted.

Doom Bar Cornish Game Hen


2 Cornish game hens
12 oz Doom Bar bitter
¼ cup kosher salt
2 tbsp white sugar
1 tbsp whole cloves


Combine the beer, salt, sugar, cloves, and 1 cup of water in a saucepan. Heat over medium heat, stirring constantly until all the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat and let cool.

Place the hens in sealable plastic bags, and divide the beer brine between them. Squeeze out the air, seal tightly, and marinate in the refrigerator overnight.

In the morning remove the hens from the brine and let them air dry.

Preheat the oven to 450°F.

Place the hens on a rack in a roasting pan, and roast until golden brown and cooked through (about 40 minutes).  Serve with roast potatoes and other roast vegetables.