The calm, serene walk along the Otter Estuary towards Budleigh Salterton makes it hard to believe that this river was once a busy channel for fishermen and vessels. In fact, it is believed that Anchoring Hill is so named because 800 years ago it served in the same way a lighthouse would, guiding mooring ships towards the anchorage at Otterton and helping them follow a safe course round the corner of Catson. Sea fishing off the coast of South-East Devon from Exmouth to Axmouth was a major occupation 800 years ago. Large fish markets were open in Otterton in 1086 and Sidmouth in 1214, where people would come from far to purchase sea fish and transport them further inland. The Prior of Otterton at this time benefitted from being the first to select the fish he wished to buy for a discount – or take as tithe. Perhaps most fascinating is the records in the 1260 Cartulary that state the Prior could purchase any porpoise for 12 pence, and “He must have ½ of every dolphin”- who knew the East Devon coastline used to be home to such interesting creatures?
Despite Colaton Raleigh having likely become unsuitable for boats as early as the 12th century, towards the end of the Middle Ages, vessels continued to travel up the Estuary towards Otterton. Increasing in size and weight, ships of up to 40 tonnes would unload cargo near Otterton which would then make its way further north. Throughout the 15th century, however, the number of trading vessel docking at Otterton’s facilities was decreasing, with the last recorded cargo anchoring here in 1514. This is likely to be due to the beginnings of the formation of the shingle bar that that now spreads across the whole of the Estuary mouth. Gradually it was becoming unfit for such large vessels, and so though Otterton remained a fishing town until the mid-16th century, an anchorage was developed further downstream, where the Limekiln car park now stands.
Interestingly enough, evidence suggests that global cooling was the root cause of this sand bar shifting across the estuary opening. As a result of global warming that is predicted, this could well reverse and the estuary might open again!
Alternatively, the breaking of the water flows by a hard layer of stone just offshore from the cliffs at Otter Head, may have stalled the natural flow of Pebblebed Heathland stones, eroded by cliff falls west of Budleigh, from sweeping round the Head and on to Sidmouth. The stone therefore drops at the shingle bar as it cannot get round the corner.
Either way, trout can get through, but in recent years relatively few have made the journey upriver.