Sailors around the North Cornwall coast are only too aware of the perilous rocks and cliffs that make up the dramatic landscape, with few safe havens to run to in bad weather. This makes Padstow an important stop, these days for leisure craft as well as fishing boats, although the harbour can only be reached a few hours either side of high tide because of the sand bar. It is thought that the sand started to form in the mouth of the Camel estuary around the 16th century and until more recent methods for dredging and marking safe channels this made the approach very dangerous. Many vessels have been wrecked on the sands trying to gain access to Padstow Harbour over the years.
The compelling and wildly romantic reason for sand to start gathering in the estuary is to be found in the tale of the Padstow Mermaid. As ever, there are many variations of this tale. It is said that ships were led safely to the harbour at Padstow under the care of the mermaid. One day someone shot the mermaid. One tale names the man responsible as Tristram Bird, a local man who came upon the mermaid combing her hair on a rock on Hawkers Cove and offered to marry her (the sudden and overwhelming attraction of the mermaid is not to be underestimated!). When she turned him down he threatened to shoot her instead, which he did. In her rage she threw sand towards the estuary and started the doom bar. Another version has her shot whilst in the water by someone who possibly mistook her for a seal – or maybe just thought it good sport. She dived under the sea and then surfacing she uttered a terrible curse and swore the harbour would become desolate. There followed a huge storm that wrecked ships and caused sand to be swept into the estuary.
In other versions she is singing on a rock when she is shot and local men with guns or crossbows are the usual suspects. But the cause of the Doom Bar is clearly the betrayal of the Mermaid – the Padstow guardian – by a mortal man with a weapon. It is also said that cries, like the sound of a woman wailing for her dead, can be heard whenever a life is lost on the Doom Bar.