Once a luscious area of woodland attached to the mainland, the infamous Doom Bar has been transformed over 4,000 years to become one of the most deadly sand bars in history.
Lying at the mouth of the River Camel, Doom Bar is one of three huge sand bars in the Camel estuary. Made up of sand and sediment derived from broken down shells, its hulking frame sits low in the water and is submerged at high tide – glowering beneath the surface like a crocodile in wait.
Once part of the mainland, surveys of Doom Bar have revealed the remains of old trees that indicate the area was a huge wooded plain some 4,000 years ago. Perched little above sea level, the forest was overcome by rising waters and the relentless battering of wind and sand, eventually dislocating and all but lost to sea – save for the Doom Bar, a treacherous mound of sand.
Having claimed lives for hundreds of years, the Doom Bar has gained deserved notoriety. Up until the twentieth century, the presence of the bar forced passing ships between its submerged bulk and the cliffs of Stepper Point. Particularly dangerous in gales, a huge number of ships were caught in its clutch and countless lives lost. Even today, despite dredging to widen the channel, it remains one of the most dangerous obstacles sailors must navigate in the waters around the UK.
All that said, if you stay at one of our luxury cottages in Padstow and ask some of the locals about the Doom Bar, they may well give you another version of its origins. This one a little more intriguing.
Cruel temptresses or misunderstood beauties, mermaids have taken a central role in Cornish folklore. Featuring in many tales from around the county and beyond, they are entwined in maritime history and have been a source of fascination since time immemorial. One such mermaid is even linked to the creation of Doom Bar.
Varying slightly with different adaptions, the Mermaid of Padstow is a popular legend. One tale told by Enys Tregarthen describes how the Doom Bar was created in revenge. According to the story, a local man called Tristram Bird went down to the beach at Hawker’s Cove. He had bought a new gun and intended to hunt seals, but as he approached the shore he overheard a mermaid singing. Enraptured by her voice and beauty, he fell instantly in love and asked the mermaid to marry him. Alas, she refused and in a fit of jealous rage, Tristram shot her with his gun. As the mermaid died, she cast a curse that would raise a terrible sand bar from Hawker’s Cove all the way to Trebetherick Bay.
In another version that turns the story on its head, the poet and writer John Betjeman penned how the Mermaid of Padstow fell in love with a local man. So absorbed by her love, she begged him to join her in the sea. Unable to accept, the man rejected her advances, whereby she tried to drag him into the water instead. Struggling to escape, the young man grabbed his gun and shot at the mermaid, piercing her skin. Overwhelmed by pain, the mermaid grabbed a handful of sand and flung it towards the estuary, creating the foundation of Doom Bar.
Whichever story is your favourite, the dire warnings surrounding Doom Bar cannot be underplayed. Even today, it remains a serious danger and continues to claim lives. As for the mermaids, well, it’s best not to get too close either!