The North Devon coast has been notorious for danger to shipping and consequent loss of life since the earliest days of maritime trade and travel. At the foot of cliffs, rising sheer from the sea, treacherous ridges of rock run out under the surface of the water. The safety of anchorages where ships can seek shelter depends on prevailing winds and tides, and under certain conditions there is no safe haven.
Through the years many vessels have sought refuge in Ilfracombe, some of them foundering in the attempt. The early sailors were entirely dependent on their own skill, the winds and tides, and simple instruments for navigation.
Formerly a trading and fishing port, Ilfracombe came to prominence as a holiday resort in the earlier part ot Queen Victoria’s reign. The harbour was then used as a base by Bristol Channel pilots and their cutters (small sailing boats), this practice lasting until sixty or seventy years ago. Several hills and beaches near the harbour have the names of various parts of a ship, like Capstan Hill, Chain Beach, Compass Hill, Lantern Hill, and Laston Beach - (laston is an old name for a place where vessels discharged or loaded ballast.) On Lantern Hill, overlooking the Bristol Channel, is the tiny Chapel of St Nicholas, which has been used as a lighthouse since it was built some six hundred years ago. (St Nicholas is the patron saint of children, sailors, merchants and pawnbrokers.) Other lighthouses in the area were built at much later dates: on Lundy Island in 1820, Hartland Point in 1874, Bull Point in 1877, and the Foreland Point light in 1900.