Maritime History

South West England has over 630 miles of coastline, so it is no surprise that the sea – and the adventures of its seafarers – command the region’s history.

Whether you are trawling literature to discover the Ancient Mariner or fishing for the history of explorers that helped to map our world, South West England brings it all to life. Ship building towns, trading ports, fishing villages - there are as many tales as there are coves and beaches, as many stories as there are cliffs and bays.

In the late 15th century, Bristol’s sailors brought home stories of mythical lands to the west. The city’s merchants were hooked. The most famous, John Cabot, set sail in 1497 with his son, Sebastian, in the ship Mathew. Cabot and Son discovered Newfoundland and North America. Half a century later, The Society of Merchant Venturers was founded to exploit Cabot’s find. The society did much to lay the foundations of the British Empire.

Plymouth’s connections with the sea are infamous. Elizabethan sailors Hawkins, Raleigh and Frobisher embarked on their great voyages from the city’s port. In 1620, The Pilgrim Fathers sailed from the Hoe in The Mayflower. In 1722, James Cook launched his great three-year circumnavigation. In 1966, Sir Francis Chichester set sail from Plymouth on his single-handed voyage around the world.

South West England is steeped in myth and legend with tales of enticing mermaids and dastardly smugglers. Today, the sea and the record-breaking seafarers – such as Ellen McArthur - continue to make maritime history.

2005 is the Year of the Sea and South West England has events throughout the year to celebrate. Visit for more details or go to the Events Page on this site.