Walk - Wembury & Heybrook Bay
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.
- From Wembury beach car park, head down to the beach and cross the footbridge to follow the South West Coast path along the clifftop.
On the hillside above you, on the edge of Wembury, the parish church of St Werbergh has tremendous views out over the Great Mewstone to the English Channel. The present Norman church, refurbished in the 1880s, was built in 1088 on the site of a wooden Saxon church. The tower dates from the early fifteenth century, and the 1552 Inventory records three bells. Two were added in 1909, and a sixth in 1948, donated in memory of parishioners who died in World War 2. At the front of the church is the St Werburgh Window, dating from 1886.
St Werburgh, the seventh-century Benedictine Abbess of Weedon and Ely and patron saint of Chester, was the daughter of King Wulfhere of Mercia and granddaughter of the King of Kent. Her great-aunt, St Etheldra, founded the Abbey of Ely. Renowned for her humility and her piety, Werburgh also became known as a miracle-worker, after she successfully ordered a flock of wild geese to leave the cornfields where they were causing havoc. When she died there was such squabbling over where she should be buried that her body had to be kept under lock and key. She was finally buried in Staffordshire, where she had been born. Her fame, however, carried on growing, so that her brother had her coffin moved to a more conspicuous site. When he did so, it was discovered that Werburgh's body was still miraculously intact, nine years later.
The Wembury Marine Centre, by the beach, was the brainchild of marine biologist Dr Norman Holme and it opened in 1994. Open throughout the summer, the centre organises rockpool rambles, guided walks, and a variety of arts and crafts events designed to celebrate the wonderful diversity of marine life that flourishes around the coastline here. It is managed by a partnership formed from Devon County Council, Devon Wildlife Trust, Plymouth University's Marine Institute, South Hams District Council and the National Trust, with support from Wembury Parish Council and with guidance from the advisory group of the Wembury Voluntary Marine Conservation Area.
Wembury was designated a Voluntary Marine Conservation Area when it was recognised that its important marine wildlife was subject to a huge amount of human pressure. The rocky reefs forming the rockpools support a wide range of rocky shore plants and animals, and one of Devon's largest known populations of the rare plant, Shore Dock, is found at Wembury (see the Wembury & Mount Batten Walk).
- Turn right onto the green lane about a mile ahead, just before the Coast Path starts to pull out around Wembury Point. At the top of the lane bear right to continue ahead along the road.
This green lane travelling up from the shoreline, Spring Lane, is also known as Seaweed Lane. It is one of 191 ancient trackways restored in the South Hams as part of the District Council's 'Right Tracks' project. Together the district's green lanes cover a staggering 300km, and the same lanes have been in use for many thousands of years since people first started using them in prehistoric times (see the Woodhuish & Mansands Walk).
Seaweed Lane leads to rich pastureland on the hillside above. Farmers used it to transport seaweed from the beach to spread this on the fields as a fertiliser. Some modern fertilisers are still based on seaweed, which has been found to contain high levels of potassium, as well as nitrogen and phosphates and trace elements such as iron, manganese, zinc, copper and boron. It increases a crop's resistance to damage by frost and parasites, and the salt content deters slugs.
- After Prince's Cottage turn left onto the footpath along Smockpark Lane, heading towards Heybrook Bay.
Smockpark Lane is another green lane, or 'holloway', travelled by feet, hooves and wheels for many centuries.
Below you, in the Sound you can see Rennie's Breakwater, built to protect the harbour from the southwesterly gales which wrecked numerous ships off Bovisand Point. Nearly a mile long, the breakwater was constructed between 1812 and 1841 using 3½ tonnes of limestone from the Breakwater Quarry at Orestone, purchased from the Duke of Bedford for £10,000.
The lighthouse on the western end of the breakwater was built using white granite from Luxulyan, in Cornwall, and was first lit in 1844. It was originally planned to put a lighthouse on the eastern arm as well, but a beacon was erected instead the following year.
The Breakwater Fort, (which is not actually attached to the breakwater), was constructed in the 1860s and was associated with the Palmerston forts around Bovisand (see the Wembury & Mount Batten Walk).
- Before reaching the houses turn right on the path to Heybrook Bay to follow the steps down to the coast.
- Rejoining the Coast Path, turn left to walk back to Wembury beach.
HMS Cambridge, the former Royal Navy gunnery school at Wembury Point, was named after a 1666 Man-o'-War ship belonging to King Charles II. The naval buildings have now been demolished and the National Trust has turned the headland back into fields.
Just offshore, the Great Mewstone was the inspiration for Turner's famous 'Mewstone' watercolour painting. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was inhabited (see the Wembury & Mount Batten Walk), but it is now a bird sanctuary and home only to many nesting seabirds. ('Mew' is the old name for a gull).