Walk - South Sands Hotel - East Portlemouth to Gara Rock

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

  1. From the South Sands Hotel take the ferry to Salcombe and then cross the estuary by another ferry to East Portlemouth. 
  2. From this ferry turn right on the road to walk above Small's Cove and on to Mill Bay.

An Army amphibious “Duck” was used to transport passengers to and from the South Sands Ferry. This was not a success and was sold to a military museum. They, in return, made the present Sea Tractor out of an old army truck chassis. The last sailing on both ferries is 5.30pm.
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.

The land above you as you walk out towards, and beyond, the mouth of the estuary, is known as Rickham Common. Part of the land was once divided into 141 long thin strips, on which the local people grew vegetables. A 9-hole golf course occupied the cliff top here at one time.
The National Trust now owns Rickham Common. The land is managed under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme to restore rare maritime grassland. The Trust is working to reduce the amount of scrub cover, and create a rich variety of habitats for wildlife.
Four beacons marking navigational hazards in the harbour- 1.Black Stone, 2. Pound Stone, 3. Old Harry and 4.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 late spring, Bluebells bloom along the coastal part of the walk. The presence of bluebells are often a sign of ancient woodland, so it may well be that this stretch of coast was once wooded. Other flowers include the bobbing pink clusters of thrift, along with Sea Campion, which has a small 'bladder' at the base of its white- petalled flowers.
You may also find the dramatically- named Bloody Cranesbill, a wild geranium with vivid magenta flowers. The 'bird's beak' shape of the seed cases give these flowers their name.
The sea occasionally yields sightings of dolphins, seals, and even whales. Basking sharks sometimes visit these waters in the summer to feed on plankton.
Seabirds seen here include herring gulls, black-backed gulls and cormorants. You may also see Gannets gliding on long, slender, black- tipped wings over the sea, before plummeting abruptly to dive into the sea after fish. They have a cushioned, reinforced head and neck to enable them to withstand the impact as they bullet into the water.
Among the rarer butterflies found here are the Pearl and Small Pearl- bordered Fritillaries – beautiful species with black markings on deep orange wings and delicately patterned fringing around the edges. You may also spot the striking black and white Marbled White, and the Green Hairstreak, a small butterfly whose brilliant green underwings stand out when it is at rest.
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. 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 and then back to the East Portlemouth-Salcombe Ferry.
  3. Retrace your journey back to the South Sands Hotel by taking the South Sands Ferry. You can walk back to the hotel following the South West Coast Path although it is a 30 minute walk along roads.
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