From the Iron Age to the Middle Ages, Axmouth Harbour was the most important harbour in the West of England.
The natural harbour of the River Axe estuary was at that time a much wider and deeper inlet. Then the mouth of the Axe was nearly half a mile wide with the eastern bank approximately where it is now and the western bank being close to the main town buildings. Seaton’s parish Church, St. Gregory’s which is now inland, was built on the western bank of the estuary. To the north of the church there was a landing dock on what was known until very recently as “Merchants Roads”. The estuary was as today tidal but deep enough to allow ships to navigate up river past Axmouth as far as Colyford.
Seaton and Axmouth were important ports in the South West for trade and shipbuilding throughout the Middle Ages up until the 14th century when heavy storms caused a land slip at Haven Cliff to fall and partially block the estuary.
In 1346, Seaton was still a port, but shingle movement from West to East probably started about 1350, and completely or partially blocked many rivers in East Devon and Dorset. Indeed, it was reported that the River Otter was “Clean Barred” by 1450.
By 1450, work had begun on a new harbour and digging a channel through the shingle to re establish the deep water shipping access, but this was in vain as the tidal currents soon swept up more shingle to replace that which had been taken away.
As the river mouth narrowed (indeed at one stage it was completely closed, with water percolating under the shingle to get to the sea), the effect of the tide was much reduced, resulting in rapid growth of salt marshes from Seaton right up to and beyond Colyford.
The change to the estuary mouth resulted in silt brought down by the river to be deposited in the estuary instead of being carried out to sea and the previously wide and deep river inlet ‘silted up’ preventing shipping from reaching Axmouth village one mile up river.
Despite these problems it has been estimated that Axmouth Harbour accounted for on sixth of Devon’s trade during the 16th century.
In 1659, plans were made for a reclaiming bank to stop the constant flooding of the salt marshes, and work was begun in 1660. By this time the local salt marshes were becoming important – so much so Henry VIII was able to sell the town to John Frye, a landowner from nearby Membury. Salt water was evaporated in “Pans” – shallow scrapes lined with clay – and when sufficiently reduced, removed by buckets and boiled. It took approximately 50lbs of brine to produce 1 lb of salt.
In 1806 Mr Hallet the owner of Stedcombe Manor and the Ship Inn, set about making improvements to the harbour mouth by building a new dock on the rocks of the eastern bank, diverting the river into a deeper channel followed by a dock on the western bank.
This improvement to the harbour enabled ships of up to 100 tons to load and unload and there was a regular weekly passenger boat to London. Axmouth Harbour continued as a working port up until the building of the Seaton Branch Railway Line in 1868 which made goods bought in by sea uncompetitive.
The building of a toll bridge over the river in 1877, 400m from the river mouth to replace the ferry finally stopped any future plans of developing the harbour facilities to enable taller shipping to continue further up river.
Axmouth harbour today is a small, drying harbour dependent upon the tides so that boats can only enter or leave at high tide and is used mainly for recreation and by local fishing boats.
Visitors can walk on both sides of the harbour; on the western bank is the yacht club with its clubhouse, floating jetties and slipways. Yachts and many other types of small boats are stored on land here particularly during the winter months.
To cross the river, walkers can still use the old toll bridge which was built in 1877. This three arch bridge was one of the first to be built in concrete and is the oldest surviving example of its type. The toll house, also built of concrete is on the western side of the bridge.
The path runs alongside the harbour quay to the river mouth, on the quay is Seaton Tackle Shop which sells fishing tackle and bait, it also has a terrace café which serves drinks and snacks.