When people think of Torbay, they tend to think of the hustle and bustle of Torquay and Paignton. In this article we look at the less explored town of Brixham, on Torbay’s southern edge.
Of the three main towns that make up Torbay, Brixham is by far the one with the most eccentric charm and character, where you can sit in a pub and listen to the local Devon accent in all its glory being spoken by the local fishermen, and there’s nothing like experience a hot summer’s day by Bixham harbour when the tide goes out!
First mentionen in Mediaeval times “Brioc’s village” has always had close links with the sea, and particulary the fishing industry. Like many Devon fishing villages and towns it comprises of many houses clinging to the hillside around the all important harbour.
Originally the area comprised of two communities, the fishing community by the harbour (known as Fish town) and the farming community on the hills above (known as Cow Town). Now these two have joined to become the single Brixham community we see today. Brixham’s chance to become famous in the British history first came on 5th November 1688 when the protestant king, William of Orange, landed with his Dutch army. He had been invited by the English parliament to take over as King of England from the useless and catholic King James II who had recently fled the country. As he got out of the boat and set foot on the harbour wall he announced to the confused crowds “I have come for your goots, for all your goots”. Little did he know that over 300 years later the whole area would be full of foreign visitors using strange English to try to communicate with the locals!
57m above the harbour is Berry Head, marking the western end of Tor Bay, the limestone cliffs are home to many seabirds and on top you can find the remains of two Napoleonic forts built in 1803 on the remains of an Iron Age fort. The impressive buildings were constructed to defend the area in case of invasion from France. They were never needed, though the man they were built to protect us from, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, did stop in the bay on his way to exile on St. Helena.
Brixham has also been touched by history in the 20th century. In 1944 boats from the harbour sailed to take part in the D-Day landings in Normandy. You can also visit a replica of the Golden Hind which goes back to a much earlier era of sailing when Sir Francis Drake circled the globe.
In the Middle Ages, Brixham was the largest fising port in the south-west of England and, through the hard work and determination of the deep-sea fishermen, they were able to help with the setting up of the fishing industries of Hull, Grimsby and Lowestoft. It is not surprising that Brixham is also known as “The Mother of Deep-Sea Fisheries”.
By the end of the 19th century there were over 300 trawlers (fishing boats) in Brixham and the produce they brought back was sent all over the country to be sold.
The dangers of the fising industry were dramatically brought to the public attention on the night of the 10th January 1866 when a terrible storm hit the south coast of England. In those days the trawlers were powered by sail, not engines and 50 boats were caught out on the open sea away from the protection fo the harbour. To make matters worse, the waves were so huge that they swept away the light at the end of the breakwater; as a result the captains couldn’t see the entrance to the harbour. Over 100 fishermen lost their lives that night and when dawn came the wreckage of the boats was spread along the coast for three miles.
On hearing of the tragedy the local people and the folk of Exter gave money to set up what eventually became the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s Torbay lifeboat.
There is another, little known, industry that also made its mark on Brixham in the form of limestone quarrying. This stone was taken from the cliffs and used to build the all important breakwater, houses and roads in the town. It was also sent off to be used in steel making for the car industry. This valuable rock proved to be important for both the fishing and farming industry in the area because, once burnt in limekilns, the stone was reduced to powder and used on the land as a fertiliser.
Ochre was also extracted from quarries around Brixham. It was originally used to cover the sails of their boats to protect against the saltwater. Being red in nature it gave the boats their characteristic red sails. In 1845 it was discovered that this same mineral could be used in a similar way to protect metal from rusting, and as a result the world’s first anti-rust paints were produced in Brixham.
In the past 20 years the fishing industry in Britain has declined dramatically, though Brixham is still major part of the British fishing industry it now relies heavily on tourism to keep the local economy strong. In order to bring the town into the 21st century over the next three years it will be undergoing a multi-million pound regeneration.
The present fish-market will be improved with state-of-the-art equipment, improved access and auction facilities with access for tourists to a restaurant and fishmongers. Offices and new business will be encouraged to re-locate to the new business units and office development at Oxen Cove, and future buildings plans will include the opening of a new supermarket, multi-storey carpark and houses in the town centre.
A visit to Brixham will give you the chance to visit a number of historic sites. You can wander around the network of narrow alleys and lanes that remain from the earliest days of the town’s history. Near the old fish-market you can find the monument commemorating the arrival of King William of Orange. If you climb up to Battery Gardens you can visit structures that were built during the Second World War for the defence of the town. If you’re feeling very energetic you can walk along the 1 kilometer long breakwater for wonderful views of the town and across the bay to Paignton and Torquay.
If it’s natural history you want, then we recommend a visit to Berry Head National Nature Reserve, high above the town with superb coastal views, rare flowers and the famous sea-bird colonies.
For those who appreciate art you may like to visit The Breakwater Art Gallery where local artists from “The Shoal of Brixham Artists”, regularly display their work.
-> Stagecoach operates a regular bus service from Torquay, Paignton and Newton Abbot into Brixham on the 12 and 12 A bus, these buses can be caught at Paignton bus station and will take you into Brixham town centre.
If you fancy arriving in Brixham by sea you may like to catch one of the regular ferries that travel from Paignton to Brixham and Torquay to Brixham, but these usually only run from April to the end of October – weather permitting.
This is an article from LAL Torbay’s monthly student magazine StopPress.