Between the mid-19th and the mid-20th centuries, the imperative of defence became a striking new element in the area’s history. Driven by the need to protect nearby Plymouth and, above all, the Devonport naval base, the consequences of this departure were especially marked in western Wembury. In this part of the parish a recent professional survey by Exeter Archaeology has identified dozens of defence-related sites.
The large majority of these originated in World War II, and ranged from observation posts and pillboxes to anti-aircraft batteries and a secret radar site. The largest facility developed in this era was a naval gunnery land base on Wembury Point. After the war this evolved into the naval gunnery school known as HMS Cambridge, which was active until closed in 2001, when ’virtual’ gunnery training took over.
Walking on Wembury Point today, it is far from obvious that for decades this was an important defence site. The numerous buildings, gun emplacements, etc, have been cleared and – thanks to the National Trust – the Point is steadily returning to nature. This, however, is nothing new. The history of the vast majority of significant defence sites, of whatever era, has been clearance and the return of the ‘natural’ environment.
Even so, a significant defence imprint remains, and is best experienced on the coastal walk from Heybrook Bay to Bovisand. Overlooking the first section of the walk, Renney Battery – built 1905-6, modernised in 1939-41 and abandoned in 1957 – was the most powerful of the Plymouth batteries. It was designed to meet the threat to the dockyard posed by the largest battleships.
Later the path passes alongside, and even across, the concrete remains of seaward-looking gun emplacements. Then, as Bovisand is approached, the view ahead is dominated by late-19th century fortifications spread liberally over Staddon Point.
Bovisand Fort – completed in 1869 – stands at the base of the Point, commanding Plymouth’s eastern approach. Other defences – notably Brownhill Battery and Watchouse Battery – extend above it towards Staddon Heights. And the Heights themselves are dominated by an imposing stone wall dating from the 1860s – the butts for a major rifle range laid out on Fort Staddon’s cliff-top glacis. Following the coast path from Bovisand Bay towards Plymouth leads one through this impressive complex.Back to About Wembury