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Dec 1, 2020 | Area Guides, Salcombe

Sitting comfortably in South Devon’s Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Salcombe has many hidden secrets behind its breathtaking scenes. The harbour is the Pandora’s Box of Salcombe, with tonnes of history and wildlife for you to explore. Salcombe Harbour is home to a whole breadth of history. From shipwrecks to stories of smuggling, the harbour’s past is full of exciting tales of Devonshire. 

Salcombe and its surrounding area is more than just spectacular views and warm weather. We adore Salcombe for the very reason that many local Devonians do, the rich history behind our town. Though, technically Salcombe sits upon a ria, not an estuary!

Shipwrecks in Salcombe Harbour



Our history here in Salcombe begins in 1244, where the name was first seen in writing. Until the last century, Salcombe’s main income came from fishing, smuggling and shipbuilding. The harbour has seen many voyagers come and go over the years and consequently, the shores of Kingsbridge Estuary are home to many haunting shipwrecks, going as far back as The Bronze Age. 

There are only three known Bronze Age shipwrecks in Britain and Salcombe’s harbour is home to one of the fleets that must have crashed on British shores centuries ago. The Bronze Age ship was found to be filled with weapons and jewellery made in what would have been France three centuries ago. It is a little known fact that Salcombe Harbour is the home to this shipwreck and it is also the oldest known shipwreck in the world. Over 300 pieces were recovered within the wreckage, but whose to say there isn’t more treasure hiding in our waters?

One of the most famous ships to meet it’s demise in Salcombe was called The Herzogin Cecilie, who sailed for over 30 years before becoming a wreckage in Salcombe’s shores. Also known as The Duchess, the ship was travelling towards Ipswitch through a dense fog when she hit Ham Stone Rock and was eventually beached at the mouth of Kingsbridge Estuary. After floating for almost three years, in 1939 The Herzogin Cecile finally capsized and sank. She had a long career but in the end all the fittings from The Duchess were sold to a local scrap merchant for £225. 

At low tide, you can just about spot the beautiful wreckage sitting just seven metres under the water. It’s extremely popular with divers and casual swimmers alike.

Kingsbridge Estuary

Salcombe’s own estuary is a drowned river valley, meaning that though Kingsbridge Estuary has made its name as such, it should really be called a ria! Formed after the last Ice Age, it is believed that Salcombe’s ria is older than Salcombe itself. When visiting our town upon the estuary it is a must to get out and really explore the mysterious waters. Not only for the ghost ships that have made their home on the sand, but also for the amazing wildlife.


The estuary is a part of the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty as well as being classified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The ria is a highly productive ecosystem, which allows for many different types of birds, fish and wildlife. Historically, Kingsbridge Estuary has been a popular setting for bird spotters looking to witness a Cormorants, Mute Swan, Mallard or Shelduck in their natural habitat.

However, if bird watching isn’t your favourite pass time, the estuary has so many different activities, such as paddle boarding or boat tours! Though the way that Salcombe has made its living has changed drastically over the past few centuries, water will always be the centre point. In Salcombe, our ria is our pride and it’s natural beauty will surely blow you away. 

If you love the hustle and bustle of old English market towns and gorgeous sea views, Salcombe is really the destination for you.


Salcombe harbour has been the way that many Devonians made their living throughout history. Whether it be fishing in the winter or farming in the summer. However, a more lucrative trade was also popular in Salcombe’s harbour. Smuggling became popular due to the high customs and duties on imports in the 1700s. Moreover, because Salcombe was the first fishing port in the area it made for the perfect spot to create an illegal ‘free-trade’ market. There are hundreds of stories that local business owners will tell you about the free-trade market, but one infamous smuggler who almost got away was George Willis. 

After the Napoleonic War ended, coast guards began to really focus on stopping smugglers in Salcombe and Hope Cove, doing whatever it took to end the illegal trading. In June of 1818, the guards received a tip that there was a group of men hauling liquor onto horses from the cove. The coast guards left not a single moment before heading to the smugglers. Of the group, only one man was caught! With the others escaping on foot with their smuggled products. One of these escapees was George Willis, who famously continue to smuggle regardless of the coast guards attempts for years. Until, his smuggling past finally caught up with him a few years later. After being caught in the act, he was issued a £2000 fine (equivalent to almost £200,000 today) and kept in police custody until he could pay off his debts.  With no way to repay for his crimes, Willis ended up going mad in custody and losing his mind completely…

Smuggling has since faded into South Devon’s history, as time went on less and less people thought smuggling was worth the risk after hearing of George Willis’ harrowing story. Salcombe has a whole lot more of history on offer as well, to discover more read our Devon’s Hidden Past blog post.


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