Walk - East Portlemouth & Gara Rock

3.9 miles (6.3 km)

East Portlemouth car park - TQ8 8PD East Portlemouth

Moderate - The coastal path, which is uneven and rocky in places; a surfaced road, a green lane and a field footpath.

An open stroll above the western shoreline of Salcombe Harbour, passing the romantic ruins of Fort Charles, which withstood a five-month siege during the English Civil War. Throughout the centuries the estuary has been a lively place for trade as well as shipbuilding, and the shipwrecks in its waters include one from the Bronze Age, 4000 years ago.

This walk is particularly good for dogs as it passes beaches where dogs are welcome. Have a look at our Top Dog Walks on the South West Coast Path for more dog friendly beaches and pubs. Use the route (or part of it) to visit the quiet beaches of East Portlemouth, too, as well as sheltered beaches at Mill Bay and Rickham Sand.


Interactive Elevation

Route Description

  1. From the car park at the western end of East Portlemouth take the lane down to the ferry, turning left on the road at the bottom to walk above Small's Cove and on to Mill Bay.

Salcombe Lifeboat Station is sited on the western bank of the river a little way upstream from the Ferry landing. The first lifeboat was stationed in the town in 1869. The Salcombe Lifeboat has twice capsized, in 1916 with the loss of 13 lives, and in 1983 with no loss of life.  Since 2008 the station has operated a Tamar-class all weather boat and an  inshore lifeboat. In the 1920’s when the neighbouring stations of  Brixham and Plymouth were equipped with motor lifeboats, it was thought that this would allow them to cover larger areas. So in 1925 Salcombe was closed. The closure proved ill-advised and a station was reopened at Salcombe in December 1930, itself equipped with a motor lifeboat.

Salcombe harbour is the site of several notable shipwrecks. The oldest of these is from the Bronze Age, possibly dating back 4000 years and one of only three from this period known in Britain. It was carrying jewellery and weapons made in France. The much more recent Salcombe Cannon Wreck, from the seventeenth century, was found to contain 400 Moroccan gold coins, as well as various Dutch items. In 1936 the four-masted barque, Herzogin Cecilie, sank in Starehole Bay, just across the water, after being towed there from Ham Stone Rock, where it had gone aground (see the Sharp Tor & Bolt Head Walk). A Second World War submarine, HMS Untiring, was deliberately sunk off Salcombe as a sonar target in 1957.

Salcombe was a major centre for fruit trade in the nineteenth century. Vessels from here sailed to the Mediterranean, the Caribbean and the Azores, bringing back oranges and lemons, and pineapples from the Bahamas and West Indies. Many tropical trees and shrubs were brought in by local collectors, such as Otto Overbeck (see the Sharp Tor & Bolt Head Walk). Other imports included sugar, rum and coconuts, as well as fine hardwoods such as ebony and mahogany for furnishing ships. Salcombe was also noted for its shipbuilding, producing the Salcombe schooner - a fast boat that could be sailed with a small crew, though it was not without its dangers and more than half of those produced were lost at sea.

The mill that once stood at Mill Bay was immediately behind the beach, on the eastern side, and is thought to have belonged to the medieval manor of Rickham. A concrete slipway was built across the beach during the Second World War and used to prepare, maintain and repair landing craft used in the Normandy Landings.

  1. After the National Trust sign beyond Mill Bay beach bear right along the South West Coast Path, signed to Gara Rock. Ignore the top path to Gara Rock and the path to the beach and carry on to the end of the estuary, following the acorn waymarkers around Rickham Common above Limebury Point.

Four beacons marking navigational hazards in the harbour- Black Stone, Pound Stone, Old Harry and the castle - first appeared on an Ordnance Survey map in the 1880s. An even greater hazard to shipping is The Bar, said to have inspired Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem, 'Crossing the Bar', written when he stayed here shortly before his death (see the Sharp Tor & Bolt Head Walk).

Salcombe Castle, the ruin across the water as you approach Limebury Point, was the last fort in England to hold out against Cromwell's men in the English Civil War. The Royalist troops occupying it in 1646 held out for five months while under siege. The original fortress is thought to have been constructed by Henry VIII to defend the estuary from possible French or Spanish attacks in the sixteenth century. It was further fortified in 1643 by Sir Edmund Fortescue, who had been ordered to hold the fort when Plymouth rose against the king. He rebuilt the castle to house a garrison of 65 officers and two washerwomen, at a cost of £135 6s 11d, paying labourers 10 shillings a day. He renamed it 'Fort Charles', in honour of the king. After the war it was dismantled, and in the eighteenth or nineteenth century a small watch tower was built on its ruins.

  1. After Limebury Point the coastline turns east towards Gara Rock. Carry on along it below Portlemouth Down to Gara Rock.

In the 1860s the Admiralty built a coastguard observation post and a terrace of cottages at Gara Rock, with a 'Life Saving Apparatus House'. This was succeeded by the Gara Rock Hotel, which had many rich and famous patrons before it was demolished in 2006.

The field systems along this part of the coastline are very old, and some are thought to date back to the Bronze Age, between 1900 and 1200 BC. There are also traces of a settlement with round houses and a stock enclosure from the Iron Age, which succeeded it.

  1. At the ‘Gara Rock’ waymarker bear left to the small white thatched lookout post, passing in front of it to go through the gate and left along the path signed to Mill Bay. Walk up the lane to the public footpath over a stile to the left.
  2. Climb the stile to follow the footpath straight across the field to a track. Cross over and carry on down the bridleway, following the blue waymarkers back to Mill Bay. Turn right onto the Coast Path again and retrace your steps towards Small's Cove.
  3. Just before you reach Small's Cove a footpath heads through the edge of the trees on your right and climbs gently up to East Portlemouth, giving you a shortcut back to the car park at the start of the walk.

Places of interest

Salcombe Tourist Information Centre or phone 01548 843927.

Salcombe Lifeboat

Nearby refreshments

The award winning Venus Cafe at East Portlemouth serves a range of locally produced, mainly organic fare. Roughly midway around the walk is a restaurant at Gara Rock

Public transport

There are regular buses from Plymouth and Kingsbridge to Salcombe, from where you can take a ferry across the river to the start of the walk. For timetable information, zoom in on the interactive map and click on the bus stops, visit Traveline or phone 0871 200 22 33.


East Portlemouth, or in Salcombe if you are catching the ferry


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