Walk - Cawsand & Polhawn Forts

Walk information provided with help from Natural England. Map reproduced by permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of HMSO. © Crown copyright and database right 2022. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100022021.

Route Description

If you are starting the walk from Rame Head, take the path by the lookout post down to the Coast Path, turning right here to begin at 4, continuing from 1 when you reach Garrett Street.

  1. From the entrance to Kingsand's Skinner car park, off Fore Street, return to the road and bear right past the pub, following the fingerpost signed 'Coastal path'. Turn onto the narrow road beyond the pub (Garrett Street) and follow it gently uphill above the waterfront and on to The Square in Cawsand. Turn left onto Pier Lane, following the 'Coast Path' sign, and carry on along the South West Coast Path towards Penlee Point. Above Pier Cove carry on ahead as a path joins from the right, but fork right after the house to carry on along the Coast Path to the grotto on Penlee Point, with a detour left to Penlee Battery.

On the shoreline at Pier Cove, the Pier Cellars Brennan torpedo station was built in 1888/9 as part of the upgrading of Plymouth's western defences. This was constructed after new developments in armaments meant that they could engage the enemy long before it neared the channel to Plymouth. It is still used by the Royal Navy for its HMS Raleigh adventure training and there is no public access. Work also began on Penlee Battery in 1889, and by 1894 it was completed and armed (see the Kingsand, Cawsand & Penlee Point Walk).

The site of the battery is now a nature reserve, and Penlee Point is a fine place for wildflowers and the butterflies they attract. Queen Adelaide's Grotto, above it, was built in a cave formerly used as a watch house and dedicated to Princess Adelaide after she visited in 1827, four years before she was crowned Queen Consort.

After the right fork above Pier Cove you join the Earls Drive for a short distance. This was originally a carriageway leading from the house at Mount Edgcumbe to its church at Maker (see the Hooe Lake Point & Earl's Drive Walk).

  1. From the grotto follow the Coast Path sharply to the right and carry on above the high cliffs on the southern coastline of the Penlee/Rame Head headland. Ignore the path to the car park shortly after the point but turn right at the junction about a mile ahead, signed to Rame Church.

In the waters below lie the two wreck sites of the Coronation, a 660-man warship which broke up offshore in 1691 after its captain decided to anchor off Penlee Point and wait for the storm to die away, rather than seeking shelter in Plymouth Sound.

  1. Carry on along the Coast Path high on the heathland towards the headland chapel. (The footpath right to Rame Church is a shortcut - see the Kingsand, Cawsand & Penlee Point Walk for directions.) 
  2. The path by the bench near the mast gives another opportunity for a shortcut (take the path to the car park and walk up to Rame Church and then follow the directions as before). Otherwise carry on along the Coast Path to the end of the headland, climbing the steps on the mound to reach the chapel at its summit.

The chapel was licensed for Mass in 1397 and was later dedicated to St Michael the Archangel, patron of high places (see the Rame Head Chapel Walk). In its earliest days, a lamp burning in the chapel would warn sailors of the rocks below. In 1588 the first sighting of the Spanish Armada was from this chapel.

Looking out to sea, on a clear day and you will see the most famous lighthouse in the British Isles the Eddystone, built on a small and very dangerous rock 13 miles south west of Plymouth. There have been four separate lighthouses built here. The original steel Winstanley’s tower was completed in 1698, the first lighthouse to be built on a small rock in the open sea.

In June 1697, England was at war with France. Whilst building the tower a French privateer carried Winstanley off to France. When Louis XIV heard he ordered his immediate release saying that "France was at war with England not with humanity". In 1709 the John Rudyerd replaced it with the wooden Rudyerd’s Tower. It burnt down in 1755 poisoning the 94-year-old keeper who swallowed a lump of molten lead as it dripped from the roof.

John Smeaton, a Yorkshireman, built the next tower, out of granite, inventing quick-drying cement in the process. 120 years later, in the 1870s, cracks appeared in the rock. The top half of the tower was dismantled and re-erected on Plymouth Hoe as a monument to the builder. The present tower built in 1882 used larger stones, dovetailed on all sides and to the courses above and below. In 1982 the lighthouse was the first to be converted to automatic operation. A helipad was built above the lantern to allow the work to be carried out.
The tower is 49 metres high, 41 metres above the sea at high water. Its white light flashes twice every 10 seconds and can be seen for 17 nautical miles. The fog signal blasts once every 30 seconds.

  1. Returning down the long flight of steps from the chapel, this time take the left fork to follow the Coast Path up the opposite hillside. Fork left again with the Coast path to descend around Queener Point and on to Polhawn Cove.

In 1859, Prime Minister Lord Palmerston headed a Royal Commission charged with carrying out a major review of Britain's defences, with particular reference to the protection of the UK's arsenals and dockyards. The 1667 Dutch destruction of the Naval Base at Chatham had shown that existing defences were vulnerable to attack, and the French were investing in their own naval presence at Cherbourg, uncomfortably close to Britain's southern coastline.

Ten areas were identified as key targets, and budgets were allocated to strengthen their fortifications. Plymouth's allocation was the highest, at £3,020,000 (Portland's was sixth-highest at £630,000), and the brief was to protect the Plymouth Sound from a sea-based attack and to provide a landward defence of the dockyard.

Palmerston decided that Plymouth's coastal defences on the Eastern Approaches should be strengthened by means of the Staddon Line, comprising Forts Stamford and Bovisand, linked by road to the central position at Fort Staddon (see the Wembury to Mount Batten Walk).

On the Western Approaches - on the Cornish side of the Plymouth Sound - major forts were established at Tregantle, Scraesdon (to the north of it) and Mount Edgcumbe, interspersed with batteries and other gun emplacements. Cawsand and Polhawn Forts were part of this defence structure.

Connected to Tregantle by the military road running above the Coast Path, Polhawn Fort was built between 1861 and 1867 to command the approach to the east side of Whitesand Bay. It was armed with seven 68-pounder rifled muzzle-loaders; but although proposals were made to replace these guns with two 4.7-inch quick-fire guns, the batteries at Raleigh and Tregantle Down took over the fort's function and these were never mounted. Abandoned by the MOD in 1928, Polhawn Fort is now a wedding venue.

  1. Just after Polhawn Fort, the Coast Path forks left to continue above the coastline. Fork left to carry on along the Coast Path. (Continuing ahead along the track gives you the third and final shortcut, cutting about a mile off the long route).
  2. At Wiggle Cliff the Coast Path turns abruptly right and pulls uphill to the military road before veering away to the left again. Leave the Coast Path and climb the last few metres to the road. Cross the road and turn left beyond to walk gently uphill towards the tiny hamlet of Wiggle.
  3. At a left-hand bend, a footpath leaves on the right, by the sign for Wiggle Old Farmhouse. Take this path, forking right at the end of the grassy lane, before you reach the farmhouse. The path carries on along another short grassy lane and then turns right to head diagonally across the field to the far left-hand corner. Here it follows another green lane to the drive at Wringford Down. Turn left on the drive and walk to the road. Cross the road to take the footpath opposite, heading downhill through the field towards the coast, bearing slightly right to the gap in the far hedge. Ignoring the green lane on the right, take the path to the left of it and follow it through the field to another green lane ahead. Carry straight on along the footpath running past Cawsand Fort to the road, crossing the road to carry on down the steps to New Road below. Cross this road too, turning right to take the long flight of steps on the left, in front of the fort, down to Garrett Street. Turn left here to walk back to the car park.

Cawsand Fort, completed in 1863, was designed to cover the approaches to Cawsand Bay and the shore to the east of Kingsand. By 1885 it was fully armed with thirteen guns, including guns facing inland to defend against attack from the rear. The fort was released by the War Department in 1926, and today it is a complex of luxury apartments.

When it was complete, Palmerston's 'ring of fire' around Plymouth included six coastal batteries and eighteen land forts and batteries. The forts were polygonal, based on a design published in 1778 by the Marquis of Montalembert and adopted by the French for their own coastal defences between Montreuill and Dunkirk. After France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, the threat from across the Channel diminished, and Palmerston's forts along the British coastline were never used. As a result, they became known as 'Palmerston Follies'.

Nearby refreshments

In Kingsand and Cawsand

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