At nine o’clock on the morning of Tuesday the twentieth of January sixteen o’ eight, a wall of water twenty-eight feet high swept up the Bristol Channel at thirty miles per hour . Houses “on the cliff top” in Appledore “were not simply flooded they were overtopped causing them to collapse”. Then, after striking with its full force upon Instow, the wave continued up the Taw into Barnstaple. “It overtopped the Pill Bridge” and flooded many houses in Mayden Street, Crockstreete, Wilstreet,Maiden Street and Southgate Street. “It cast down the whole house whereon James Frost did dwell whereby himself was slayn with the fall of the roof & two Children lying within bed were slayn with the falling of the Walls”. Locals claimed that the water was “five or six feet greater than the highest tides of living memory”. Low lying areas on either side of the Bristol Channel, including the Somerset Level were inundated for ten days.
Although, some must have lost their lives in Appledore and Instow, there appears to be no record of it. However, at Appledore, a fully laden ship of sixty tons was swept well above the highest tide mark “far enough to make its salvage unlikely”. Damage must have been substantial in both localities and residents became wary of building close to the sea; the oldest house in Appledore was not built until seventeen fifty and in Instow sixteen forty.Known for centuries as ‘the great storm’, this event is now believed to have been a local sunami emanating from a known geological fault in the Irish Sea. Doctors Simon Haslett and Ted Bryant have found convincing evidence on Northam Burrows and four other places along the Bristol Channel. It might be added that, over the past hundred years, the sea has washed away four hundred yards of the Northam Burrows or approximately twelve hundred acres.Could it happen again? That is the question, in 1860 a strong tremor shook “substantial buildings in Barnstaple” and again on Friday 1st of June 2001. Those who “heard the rumbling”say the walls and floors shook and windows rattled. One man described the rumble as “like an overloaded washing machine”.
According to seismologists, this ‘significant’ tremor at 3.6 on theRichter Scale had its epicentre eighteen or nineteen miles West of Hartland Point. Britain experiences between two hundred and three hundred tremors a years although few are felt.In many parts of the country, and North Devon in particular, there is an ever increasing search for building land and one can only hope that, in future, no one will tempt fate by building along the Tarka Trail.