Explore Braunton - The Most Biodiverse Parish in England

The Reclamation of Braunton Marshes

As mentioned, most farmers had grazing rights within the parish in addition to their allotted farm land. Much grazing took place on an area known as Braunton Marshes, which is to the south of the Great Field, between the farmland and the Taw Torridge Estuary. At that time, it was a dangerous area with rather poor quality grazing.


In 1808, Braunton Marshes were visited by a man called Charles Vancouver, who was preparing to publish a report for the Board of Agriculture.

Braunton Marshes, 2007He estimated that, in their current state, the marshes were worth as little as £10 but that, if they were reclaimed from the sea, they could fetch up to £3 per acre. The suggestion was, perhaps unsurprisingly, well received by local landowners and by 1811 a scheme was in place to enclose the marshes, drain them of saltwater and provide what became a rich and fertile grazing land.

Marsh Commissioners

The County Engineer James Green was employed and three Marsh Commissioners were appointed to oversee the project. Details of the construction work are scant but there is no doubt that the engineering work involved was expertly carried out.

Engineering Work

The level of water in the network of drainage ditches (some sixteen miles altogether) was designed to be gravity-fed and to this day is accurately controlled by a system of sluice gates.

Braunton Marshes, 2006A bank was built (one hundred feet thick) to protect the newly-enclosed area from the ravages of the sea and this was known as the Great Sea Bank. At first livestock was banned from the embankment in case they caused it to subside. Pigs were particularly mentioned in the strict regulations, as being rooting animals they were thought to be particularly troublesome and anyone who allowed his pigs to wander on or near the bank was fined 10/- per animal. Later, when the grass took root on the bank, sheep were recognised as the most effective means of keeping it short and are still used for this purpose today.

By 1815 the first phase of reclamation had been completed and the responsibilities of the Marsh Commissioners were transferred to the Marsh Inspectors, who would oversee the maintenance and management.

Main Quay

Until the 1850s, the main quay was situated at the neighbouring village of Wrafton, but it was reached by a shallow winding channel that was unsuitable for large vessels. It was desirable therefore to straighten the approaching channel and this was made possible during the 1850s as part of an ambitious project undertaken by the Williams family, who had recently purchased the Heanton estate.

Modern day Braunton Pill, 2007The plans included straightening Braunton Pill, reclaiming further tidal lands at Velator and Wrafton, enclosing an area known as Horsey Island; in doing so relocating the quay to Velator. This second phase of reclamation works was completed by 1857, at a cost of £18,000 (the equivalent of more than £1 million today) and the new quay was thought to have been opened in 1870.

Sailors' Memories

Some of Braunton’s sailors have fond memories of the area in the 1940s and Sam Mitchell remembers a regular visitor:

"There were no brambles there then, ‘tis like a junk store out there now, but when us went out there t’was lovely. Old Mother Ashton used to come out there to the Big quay with her cows, put the cows there eating the grass and do her knitting and then take them home again. It used to be lovely flat ground; used to do the sails, used to do the salmon nets there..."

More about Velator Quay’s hey-day can be found in the section about shipping.

Braunton Marsh Management Study

Much more about Braunton Marshes in contained in the Braunton Marsh Management Study, which was commissioned during 2007. It is full of fascinating information and can be accessed here (3.58mb, pdf).

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