On the final full day of our recent holiday to Cornwall and Devon, we decided to have a final day by the sea and enjoy the South Devon Scenic Coast road and the sandy beaches of Bigbury-on-Sea. Approximately 250m from the shore at Bigbury-on-Sea is the tidal Burgh Island, home to just three private homes, the Pilchard Inn public house and the famous Art Deco Burgh Island hotel. Burgh Island is connected to Bigbury-on-Sea at low tide by a sandy causeway and, when the incoming tide severs the connection, a Sea Tractor ensures a connection is maintained for hotel guests and the island’s residents.
Arriving at Bigbury-on-Sea just an hour before high-tide, the sandy link to the island had been severed for some time and we therefore decided to take the more mechanical connection to the island and experience the journey by Sea Tractor. There has been a Sea Tractor providing a connection between Burgh Island and Bigbury-on-Sea since 1930, with the current tractor being the third generation operated having been constructed in 1969. Powered by a Fordson tractor engine, power is transferred to three of the tractor’s wheels by hydraulic motors. As we discovered thanks to the knowledgeable driver, the rear left wheel of the sea tractor is unpowered and freely rotates from the power provided to the other three. According to the website of the Burgh Island Hotel (which operates the Sea Tractor), the Burgh Island is the only example of a hydraulically powered Sea Tractor anywhere in the world.
The current tractor was cost £9,000 to build and was designed by Robert Jackson CBE (a pioneer of the nuclear power station programme in the 1950s) in exchange for a case of champagne. The driver and passengers are carried on a platform well above the high tide mark, with the tractor’s wheels traversing the sand of the causeway below the waterline. The 250m journey takes just over three minutes to complete, with the tractor departing from the beach on the Bigbury-on-Sea side on the water and from the slipway on Burgh Island itself. You can see a time-lapse video of the journey to the island on my Instagram here. If you fancy experiencing a ride on the Sea Tractor yourself, Bigbury-on-Sea is about a 30-minute drive south from Ivybridge in Devon and a one-way ride on the tractor costs £2 per person with children (and dogs!) riding for free.