The Doom Bar of Padstow
Over the ages the Cornish people evolved their own unique traditions, folklore and legends full of smugglers, pirates, giants and mermaids. One such example is the folktale of the Mermaid of Padstow which offers an explanation of how the Doom Bar, a large sandbar, that has accounted for many shipwrecks, was created.
The Doom Bar of Padstow lies in the estuary of the River Camel on the north coast of Cornwall. It is a sandbar that has been a hazard for ships for many centuries wrecking many that sailed accidently upon it, or were forced by storms. The term, Doom Bar is derived from Dunbar Sands which it was once called and dunebar, or sand dune. A part of the eastern part is thought to have been above water in the distant past and covered in forest about 4,000 years ago that was eventually covered by sand and dunes and a rise in sea levels the cause of which is unknown. The area it covers and its shape can vary depending on wind and tides and there are several traditions and legends about how it was created and two involve mermaids.
The Mermaid of Padstow
Mermaids are strange creatures and can be perilous for humans who encounter them. They are sometimes seen as harbingers of doom bringing storms, drownings and shipwrecks. Sometimes they are immoral temptresses winning the hearts of young men and luring them into the sea to their deaths, or never to be seen again on land.
One folk tale told by Enys Tregarthen tells how a curse from a dying mermaid created the Doom Bar in revenge for her murder by a local man named Tristram Bird. According to the tale He had brought a new gun and gone down to Hawker’s Cove to shoot seals with it. As he was hunting he found a beautiful young woman sitting on a rock, singing a sweet song and brushing her hair with a golden comb.
Mr Bird was entranced by her song and beauty and fell in love with her. Approaching her he begged her to be his wife but the woman refused. Deeply hurt by her rejection he shot her with his gun. It was only then he realised that she was a mermaid and that had been the reason for her rejecting him. There was nothing he could do to save her and as she died she cursed the harbour from Hawker’s Cove to Trebetherick Bay laying a “doom bar” across it. Immediately a terrific storm hit the estuary and when it subsided a bar of sand lay across it covered by wrecked ships and dead sailors. Ever since then the Doom Bar of Padstow has been causing a hazard for shipping ever since.
Another tradition told in the ballad, The Mermaid of Padstow a local man called Tom, or Tim Yeo killed a seal which turned out to be a mermaid. Another explanation given by John Betjeman tells how a mermaid was found by a local man who fell in love with him. He being mortal could not be with her in the sea for long. She could not stay on land for long and so they were doomed to remain separated. Nevertheless, she was desperately in love with him and tried to entice him beneath the sea to live with her forever. He was not ready for such a fate and rejected her but she tried to pull him in the sea to be with her. He only escaped by shooting her. Enraged by pain and rejection she grabbed a handful of sand and flung it towards Padstow. From this handful of sand, more sand accumulated around it and the Doom Bar grew to what it is now.
Since records began in the 19th century there have been over six hundred shipping incidents on the Doom bar and most of these have resulted in wrecks. Two of the most notable wrecks on the Doom Bar was HMS Whiting, in 1816, a 12 gun Royal Navy warship ran aground there and in 1895, the Antoinette, a three masted sailing vessel of 1,118 tons, making it the largest vessel to be wrecked so far. To make it safe for navigation the vessel was blown up with explosives resulting in a cloud of sand and smoke that could be seen for miles. However, in February 2010 the shifting sands revealed the remains of a large wooden vessel believed to be the Antoinette
As with many folk tales the legend of the Mermaid of Padstow strives to explain the creation of a natural feature of the local environment in simple terms. Many a good ship has floundered on the Doom Bar and even in modern times it needs to be approached with care and respect or it can prove perilous. The same can be said about mermaids for they too can be perilous!
© 13/01/2016 zteve t evans
References and Attributions
Copyright January 13th 2016 zteve t evans