Bude’s earlier importance was as a harbour, then a source of sea sand useful for improving the moorland soil. The victorians favoured it as a watering place, it was a popular seaside destination in the 20th century.
Bude’s coastline is located between Compass Cove to the south and Furzey Cove to the north which is noted for its geological and biological interests and the sandstone cliffs surrounding Bude. During the Variscan Orogeny the strata were heavily faulted and folded. As the sands and cliffs around Bude contain calcium carbonate, farmers used to take sand from the beach, for spreading on their fields. The cliffs around Bude are the only ones in Cornwall that are made of sandstone, as most of the Cornish coast is formed of Devonian slate, granite and Precambrian metamorphic rocks. The stratified cliffs of Bude give their name to a sequence of rocks called the Bude Formation. Many formations can be viewed from the South West Coast Path which passes through the town.
Many ships have been wrecked on the jagged reefs which fringe the base of the cliffs. The figurehead of one of these, the Bencoolen, a ship whose wrecking in 1862 resulted in the drowning of most of the crew, was preserved in the churchyard but was transferred to the town museum to save it from further decay. The aftermath of the wreck of the Bencoolen was described by R. S. Hawker in letters which were published in Hawker’s Poetical Works in 1879.
In the 18th century there was a small unprotected tidal harbour in Bude, but it was difficult whenever the sea was in. The Bude Canal Company built a canal and improved the harbour. Around twenty small boats used the tidal moorings of the original harbour during the summer months. Most are sport fishermen, but there is also some small-scale, semi-commercial, fishing for crab and lobster.
There is a wharf on the Bude Canal about half a mile from the sea lock that links the canal to the tidal haven. This can be opened only at or near high tide, and then only when sea conditions allow. North Cornwall District Council administered the canal, harbour and lock gates until its removal in March 2009. These gates were renewed after the originals were damaged in a storm in 2008. They are the only manually operated sea lock gates in England. The pier head by the locks is a Grade II listed structure.
The canal is one of the few to note in south-west England. Its original purpose was to take small tub boats of mineral-rich sand from the beaches at Bude and carry them inland for agricultural use on fields. A series of inclined planes carried the boats over 400 vertical feet (120 m) to Red Post, where the canal branched south along the upper Tamar Valley towards Launceston, east to Holsworthy and north to the Tamar Lakes, that fed the canal. The enterprise was always in financial difficulty, but it carried considerable volumes of sand and also coal from south Wales. The arrival of the railway at Holsworthy and the production of cheap manufactured fertiliser undermined the canal’s commercial purpose, and it was closed down and sold to the district municipal water company. However the wharf area and harbour enjoyed longer success, and coastal sailing ships carried grain across to Wales and coal back to Cornwall.
In the Middle Ages the only dwelling here was Efford Manor, the seat of the Arundells of Trerice, which had a chapel of St Leonard. Another chapel existed at Chapel Rock which was dedicated to Holy Trinity and St Michael.
Until the start of the 20th century, the neighbouring town of Stratton was dominant, and a local saying is “Stratton was a market town when Bude was just a furzy down”, meaning Stratton was long established when Bude was just gorse-covered downland.
On 10 October 1844, during an exercise, the unnamed Bude Lifeboat capsized when the steering oar broke followed by four on the port side, and two of the crew were drowned.
The local senior school Budehaven Community College suffered a major fire in October 1999, destroying most of the older parts of the school. The school was forced to close for several weeks until temporary classrooms could be brought in. The damaged part of the school was rebuilt with interactive classrooms.
Present-day Bude has two beaches with broad sands close to the town, and is a good centre for adjacent beaches. Its sea front faces west and the Atlantic rollers make for good surfing when conditions are right. The main access road into and out of Bude is the Atlantic Highway.