Katy Stickland speaks to a variety of experts to find the best historic sailing site in Britain and provides you with all the pilotage information you need to get there
The rich and colourful history of the British Isles means that almost every part of these islands has a unique story waiting to be discovered, and no doubt these shores offer some of the best historic sailing sites in the world.
Our experts have chosen harbours and anchorages which take you into the heart of some of these historic sailing sites and landmarks.
From anchoring underneath prehistoric standing stones and sailing past one of Henry VIII’s great Tudor forts, to paying homage to the graves of First and Second World War warships and cruising in the footsteps of the Anglo-Saxons, many of these places have played a pivotal role in shaping
the history of the British Isles.
Hopefully this small selection of historic destinations will help you find out more about the past on your doorstep over a long weekend or become the focus of a longer voyage to sail back through history this summer.
Want to learn more about sailing the British Isles? Get Yachting Monthly’s Sail The British Isles book from Amazon.
Scapa Flow, Orkney
Recommended by: Jonty Pearce
Covering an area of 125 square miles, Scapa Flow is the largest natural harbour in the Northern Hemisphere. With a history dating back to the Vikings, the scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet after the First World War and the loss of HMS Royal Oak to a 1939 U-boat attack add to its fame.
Its strategic location inspired adoption as the Admiralty’s principal anchorage during both World Wars; enclosed within surrounding islands of Hoy, Burray, Graemsay and South Ronaldsay, its security was reinforced by blockships sunk at strategic entrances during the First World War and by the concrete block Churchill Barriers linking Burray and South Ronaldsay to the mainland.
Aside from being a wreck-diving mecca, the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre, Stromness Museum, and the Italian Chapel make essential outings. Graveyard of fleets, cradle of ancient communities and haven for diverse wildlife, the waters of Scapa Flow will not disappoint.
Occupying the south of the Orkney archipelago, Scapa Flow’s approaches are beset with strong tides. The Churchill Barriers closed the sounds on the east side, and the infamous Pentland
Firth abuts the southern entrance.
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Many yachts, especially those coming from Cape Wrath, prefer the western Hoy Sound entrance where tidal streams can reach 4 knots; as ever in these islands, tidal planning is as important as meteorological forecasts.
Pentland Firth is renowned for its overfalls and tidal races; careful timing in good conditions is needed for the crossing.
Although some areas of Scapa Flow prohibit anchoring, there are still many good options including Long Hope, Widewall Bay, St Mary’s, Burray and St Margaret’s Hope, where there is a village.
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Lewis, Outer Hebrides
Recommended by: Miranda Delmar-Morgan
Lewis has been settled since 6,000 BC and there are many ancient and prehistoric sites.
The Neolithic site at Callanish at the head of East Loch Roag has a ring of standing stones dating back 5,000 years. There is a spectacular anchorage at Bratanish Mor beneath them. There is a smaller circle at Steinacleit, 20 miles to the northeast.
Scotland’s tallest standing stone, Clach An Trushal, is at Ballantrushal. The 7m high Iron Age broch at Dun Carloway is visible when you sail into Loch Carloway and is one of the best in the country.
The 78 intricately carved ivory Lewis Chessmen were found in a wooden box in a stone chamber on the beach at Uig in 1831. They are thought to have originated from Norway’s Trondheim in the 12th century.
Stornoway has a deep water entrance and safe marina. Lewis has many inlets and lochs providing safe anchorages. Access to the west coast is gained either by rounding the Butt of Lewis in calm weather or else by transiting the Sound of Harris. There is an anchorage north of Stornaway in Broad Bay, or nearer to the Butt at Port of Ness.
Skye has several safe havens from which to traverse. Loch Maddy on North Uist is a useful point from which to leave for the Sound of Harris.
The Little Minch can get very rough, and tides can run hard, creating overfalls around the Shiant Islands.
Derry, Northern Ireland
Recommended by: Norman Kean
In 1608, as part of the ‘Plantation’ (colonisation) of Ulster, the City and Guilds of London sponsored a colony at the old settlement of Derry, and renamed it Londonderry.
In 1689, by then a walled city, it withstood an eight-month siege by the forces of the deposed King James II, and so became an iconic place in the Protestant and Unionist tradition in Ireland. But by the late 20th century its population was two-thirds Catholic and Nationalist, and it became a flashpoint for sectarian strife.
Derry (as almost everyone calls it) has always produced more history than it could consume locally, and its walls still stand intact. Its museums, historic buildings and murals are fascinating and it also has a strong literary tradition, with the poet Seamus Heaney and the playwright Brian Friel.
A place of paradoxes; the politician John Hume, the chief architect of peace in Northern Ireland, was a Derry man and MP for the city.
Derry stands on the River Foyle, 15 miles from the open sea, at the head of Lough Foyle, a wide shallow inlet with a maintained deep channel to the city’s commercial docks.
The old riverside quays at the city itself have been rehabilitated, and there is a marina right in the city centre. The channel is best taken with a favourable tide – streams run at 3.5 knots at springs in the narrow entrance to the Lough. The fishing port of Greencastle, at the entrance, offers a useful stopover to await the tide.
Recommended by: Katy Stickland
Sitting on the cliffs overlooking the Solway Firth, the Senhouse Roman Museum (www.senhousemuseum.co.uk) is housed in Maryport’s former Royal Naval Reserve Station and features the oldest collection of Roman artefacts in Britain.
Many of these were recovered from the adjacent Roman fort and settlement which was a command and supply base for the coastal defences at the western end of Hadrian’s Wall.
The finds discovered here include the country’s largest collection of military altar stones, used for Roman cult practices, and religious sculptures, most prominent of which is the Serpent Stone. The museum, which is just a 15-minute walk from the harbour, also has a reconstruction of the shrine from the fort’s headquarters, which was rebuilt by the Emperor Hadrian.
The collection was started by the Senhouse family in the 1570s, who also developed the small fishing village into a coal port in the 18th century. The town’s history is told through the exhibits at the Maryport Maritime Museum www.maryportmaritimemuseum.com
Being so close to the Solway Firth with its strong tidal streams and shifting sandbanks, approach to Maryport needs care. The harbour is also drying, especially west of the South Pier, so passage planning is essential.
Keep 1.5m off the coast until in the offing to avoid sand banks and rocky outcrops. The tidal stream is 2-3 knots in either direction. Flood stream begins at HW Liverpool -0300 and the ebb at HW Liverpool +0100.
The Robin Rigg wind farm is 7m WNW of Maryport Entry to Maryport Marina, at the mouth of the River Ellen, is through a gate which is open 2.5 hours either side of HW. It folds down and forms a sill at 3.2m above chart datum. Maryport Marina (VHF CH. 12) or Maryport Harbour (www.maryportharbour.co.uk)
Caernarfon & Menai bridges, North Wales
Recommended by: Jonty Pearce
The south end of the Menai Strait has been well guarded throughout history; an Iron Age hill fort, the Roman fort of Segontium, and Edward I’s great Caernarfon Castle (www.cadw.gov.wales) can still be visited.
At the northern end Beaumaris Castle stands firm; between the two fortresses, the treacherous waters separating the Druid’s Isle of Yns Mon from the mainland are crossed by Thomas Telford’s soaring Menai Suspension Bridge and Robert Stephenson’s 1850 Britannia Tubular Bridge, still guarded by four hidden 25ft long 8-tonne stone lions.
The old slate terminus of Port Dinorwic and its narrow-gauge railway to the extensive inland slate mines can still be traced, while from Caernarfon the heritage narrow-gauge Welsh Highland Railway also had its origins in the slate industry before developing into a passenger service to Porthmadog, a recommended tourist trip.
For stately home grandeur, the National Trust’s Plas Newydd on the Anglesey shore of the Strait is a must: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/plas-newydd-house-and-garden
Running southeast/southwest, the Menai Strait and Caernarfon can be accessed from either end.
From the north, Puffin Sound accesses the safe waters round Beaumaris, while from the south Caernarfon Bar has to be crossed before a convenient secure berth might be sought in Caernarfon’s Victoria Dock.
Between the two ends lie the swift rocky channel of the Swellies, though its passage is straightforward as long as the recommended tidal timings are strictly observed.
Caernarfon Bar’s channel is well buoyed but should only be attempted 3hrs either side of HW in favourable wind and wave conditions. www.caernarfonharbour.org.uk
Charlestown, southern Cornwall
Recommended by: Ken Endean
Charlestown’s gated basin, carved from solid rock, was created for shipping copper ore from nearby mines and later used for china clay.
The Georgian UNESCO-listed harbour has barely changed in the last 200 years making it an ideal film location, and it has featured in TV shows like Poldark.
It is now under new ownership and is the base for a small fleet of historic vessels, including the topsail schooner Anny and tall ship Kajsamoor, offering day trips and cruises under sail.
The town also has a shipwreck museum and several pubs and restaurants.
The small, tidal outer harbour is unsuitable for mooring, other than for very short stays, and a berth in the basin involves gate fees and possibly waiting for spring tides. Also storm damage repairs mean that access will be restricted during 2021.
For visiting yachts, the best option is to anchor off the harbour and row ashore – to the beach or into the outer harbour.
St Austell Bay is fairly free of natural hazards although there is an area of mussel farm buoys between Charlestown and Black Head.
In the approaches, the Gwineas and Cannis rocks are well marked.
The anchorage off Charlestown is well protected from the west and north, with Polkerris an alternative for an overnight stop if the wind looks likely to veer towards east.
Other anchorages for westerly winds are off Portmellon and Gorran Haven, while Mevagissey and Fowey harbours are close at hand if a bad weather refuge is required.
Hurst Castle, Solent
Recommended by: Ken Endean
Hurst Castle has guarded the Solent’s western entrance for nearly five centuries. Go there because it is a fine combination of Tudor and Victorian military architecture. Go there because the adjacent anchorage is one of the best in the Solent. And go there now, because otherwise you may be too late!
In February 2021 part of the fortification collapsed after being undermined by the sea, and a shift in coastal erosion patterns threatens the rest of the structure.
Henry VIII commissioned the original castle and Charles I was imprisoned there at the end of the English Civil War. The Victorians added long wing batteries, to combat the early ironclad warships, and it is part of the east wing that has collapsed.
Fortunately, most of the historic interest can be found in the central and western sections and when English Heritage has tidied up the damage those parts should again be open to visitors. www.hurstcastle.co.uk
The anchorage on the east side of Hurst Spit is protected against winds from north, south and west, with reliable holding and depths shallow but adequate for most cruisers.
Alternatively, there is room for a few boats to anchor inside Keyhaven Lake, or it may be possible to borrow a mooring there.
Row to the beach to visit the castle. For a pub meal, take your tender up the channel to Keyhaven and visit The Gun Inn.
Classic Boat Museum, Cowes
Recommended by: Ken Endean
On visiting this museum, real boat lovers may think that they have died and gone to heaven. It is run by enthusiasts – all of them volunteers – and has a marvellous collection of more than 80 full-sized craft, including lifeboats, working boats, classic launches, racing powerboats, canoes and dinghies, with a squadron of Uffa Fox designs.
These are housed in the museum’s Boat Shed in West Cowes. In the Columbine Building in East Cowes, there is a large ‘Gallery’ section, a valuable attraction in itself, housing dozens of models and an extensive archive of documents and photographs.
If you are searching for an old edition of Yachting Monthly, or perhaps Brassey’s Naval Annual, you are quite likely to find it here.
The museum started life on the quay at Newport, then moved into the two old industrial buildings down-river in Cowes. www.classicboatmuseum.com
The main entrance to Cowes is well marked. Check with the Cowes Harbour Commission (www.cowesharbourcommission.co.uk) for the latest notices before arriving.
North of Cowes there is a precautionary area; yachts must keep clear when vessels over 150m LOA are in transit.
Strong cross currents of up to 3 knots can occur in the outer fairway. There is a small craft channel from the east. Visitor moorings are available at Cowes Yacht Haven and Shepards Wharf Marina in West Cowes and East Cowes Marina on the other shore. The floating bridge connects West and East Cowes.
Upriver, the Folly Inn has pontoons and Newport has drying pontoons alongside its quay.
River Deben for Sutton Hoo
Recommended by: Jane Russell
The Suffolk rivers are a lovely cruising ground that offers rich and varied historic pickings within reach of some delightful moorings and anchorages.
Richest pickings of all, quite literally, were the excavations of the Anglo-Saxon royal ship burial mound at Sutton Hoo – one of the world’s greatest archaeological discoveries.
Just a ghost was really all that remained of a great ship, its timbers dissolved yet the detail captured by the earth around it. But at its centre was a burial chamber that contained an unbelievable collection of treasure, now housed in the British Museum.
The site of the burial mounds is a National Trust property, with exhibitions, including treasure replicas, a full-size ship sculpture and a viewing gallery. And all within 90ft-ship-towing reach of the River Deben at Woodbridge. Check www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sutton-hoo for updates on access and opening times.
The entrance to the River Deben has a scary reputation, but don’t be put off! Go to www.eastcoastpilot.com and download the latest River Deben entrance chart. Even then, go in on the buoys – don’t trust the chartplotter.
Enter on the second half of the flood. With 2m draught you will need more than a neap tide to get all the way upriver and over the sill into the Tide Mill Yacht Harbour in Woodbridge.
From there it is a three-mile walk each way via the bridge at Melton, or take the train one stop to Melton, then walk. Or you could anchor above Waldringfield and dinghy upriver – all the way to the bridge if tide allows.
Hartlepool and Staithes
Recommended by: Lester Sher
The port town of Hartlepool is well positioned to explore the North Yorkshire coast, including Staithes.
With a history all too predictable in the North East, the old trades of coal, shipbuilding and timber have disappeared from Hartlepool but there has been investment in the town’s marina and
the historic quay.
This is a faithful reproduction of an 18th century seaport portraying the exciting experience of what life was like at the time of Admiral Lord Nelson. It houses the National Museum of the Royal Navy (www.nmrn.org.uk), featuring the Leda-class sailing frigate HMS Trincomalee.
Once one of the largest fishing ports in the Northeast, Staithes is 16 miles south of Hartlepool. Huddled cottages, winding streets and towering cliffs give the village a unique charm, and it has a long history as an artists’ colony. Known as the Staithes Group, members were inspired by French Impressionists. The village was also once the home of Captain James Cook.
The approach for Hartlepool is not safe in heavy seas from the E and SE.
From the south, clear the Longscar E Cardinal Buoy, one-mile south of the Heugh. From the north, round the Heugh with a minimum clearance of two cables, much more in large seas.
The approach channel to the marina is dredged to chart datum, which limits access especially at springs. Contact Hartlepool Marina VHF Ch 80 or by phone 01429 865744.
Staithes harbour dries out and is dangerous in strong onshore conditions. Enter on a bearing of 225º. Adequate depth HW +/- 2. Limited visitor berths on the South Breakwater. Check for availability email@example.com/01947 840110
Pick up a copy of Sail the British Isles book from Yachting Monthly
From the makers of Yachting Monthly comes this essential guide to sailing around the UK and Ireland. Every iconic location in the British Isles is covered here, from peaceful ports like Dartmouth to sailing hotspots such as the Isle Of Wight. Perfect for planning a long weekend getaway or an ambitious break on the waves, Sail The British Isles is perfect for any boating enthusiast who is itching to discover their next adventure.