Walk - Burgh Island

Walk information provided with help from Natural England. Map reproduced by permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of HMSO. © Crown copyright and database right 2020. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100022021.

Route Description

Not to be confused with the inland village of Bigbury, Bigbury-On-Sea lies above the largest sandy beach in South Devon. At the start of the 20th century, Bigbury-On-Sea consisted of a few fishermen's cottages with fish cellars. The village grew in popularity with holidaymakers and now has its own Post Office and stores and cafes.

  1. From the Marine Drive car park in Bigbury-On-Sea take the footpath down to the beach, and either walk across to the island or take the sea tractor (there is a charge for this).

The sea tractor is managed by the hotel and carries passengers to and from the island when the tide is too high to walk. The original vehicle was constructed in 1930, but the current model (the third) was built in 1969. It was designed by Robert Jackson, a pioneer of the nuclear power programme in the 1950s, who charged a case of champagne for his services. Costing £9,000 to build, this sea tractor uses a Fordson tractor engine and hydraulic motors. It crosses the beach with its wheels running underwater on the sand, with its driver and passengers sitting on a platform high above.

The island was originally known as St Michael's Island (Michael the Archangel was the patron saint of high places), but this was later changed to Borough Island, which over time was corrupted to Burgh. A 1765 map shows it as 'Borough or Bur Isle', while in 1908 a postcard referred to it as Burr Island. As late as in 1947 it was still named Borough Island on an Ordnance Survey map.

Just 250 metres from the mainland, it is often called a 'part-time island', because at low tide a sand causeway links it to the mainland. During the Second World War, two pill boxes were built on the island, on either side of the causeway, to protect the island in the event of a German invasion. One of them was converted into living accommodation, and this unusual dwelling was recently auctioned with a guide price of over £50,000.

  1. On reaching the island, take the footpath travelling around the island to the right, beyond the Pilchard Inn. The right-hand fork a short while later leads down to the beach; but for the walk fork left, bearing right a moment later to carry on around the back of the island. 

Although there was a St Michael's Chapel was recorded on the island in 1411, there was a monastery here for some time before that. The remains of the monastery are thought to lie under the present hotel, and the Pilchard Inn may have been originally built as guest lodgings for it.

Following the dissolution of the monastery during Henry VIII's Reformation in the sixteenth century, the island's community turned to pilchard fishing, and the chapel on its summit was in the ideal place for a huer's hut. A lookout would sit here, watching for the arrival of a pilchard shoal in the water below, and when he spotted the silvery movements underwater he would alert the fleet by 'raising a hue and cry'. When the conditions were right the fleet sometimes caught as many as a million fish in a single day.

Another seafarer operating from the island when the monks left was the notorious Elizabethan smuggler, Tom Crocker. He had a tunnel, (now bricked up), which ran from the Pilchard Inn to a cave on the island's western shore, so that he could shift his contraband away from the gaze of the customs men. In they end his luck ran out and they caught up with him, shooting him dead in the porch of the inn.

  1. After exploring the beach and the chapel at the end of the island, take the path continuing around the edge of the island from the beach at Burgh Point. Bear right at the fork to stay above the coast around the point and return to the causeway. From here you can return to the mainland. 

The first hotel on Burgh Island was a prefabricated wooden hut, built in the 1890s by a music hall star named George H Chirgwin, who used it for weekend parties. In 1927 the island's next owner was Archibald Nettlefold, who was a film-maker and the heir to Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds Engineering Company. Nettlefold built the famous 'white liner' hotel in the style of the art deco movement, which was based on mathematical and geometrical shapes and combined features from many different forms and cultures.

It became a very glamorous place to stay, attracting many celebrities. High-profile visitors included Edward and Mrs Simpson, as well as Noel Coward. It has also been used as the setting for films and TV series, including big-screen adaptations of two of Agatha Christie's detective novels ('Then There Were None', and 'Evil Under the Sun'). Churchill and Eisenhower were said to have met here before the D-Day landings, for which the South Devon coast was a major training area.

During the war itself, the hotel was a convalescence centre for wounded RAF servicemen, and enemy bombing damaged the top two floors. After the war it was converted into self-catering apartments, but in the 1990s it was sold again and lovingly restored to its former glory. Today it is a Grade II listed building. Features include a copper cupola to the lift shaft and a palm court with bars radiating across its glass roof and scale-like patterns in its 'peacock dome'. The captain's cabin came from the 1821 warship HMS Ganges, which was broken up in 1930.

Nearby refreshments

Bigbury on Sea and Burgh Island. Venus Café, Bigbury serves food sourced from local and organic producers 01803 833338; Pilchard Inn, Burgh Island.

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