Friday, 10 September 2010

South West Coast Path Section 39 Plymouth - Warren Point (Wembury)

Welcome to Plymouth
I have long had a soft spot for Plymouth, principally because I completed my undergraduate degree at the University in the city in the mid 1990s.  It was while I was at the University that I started to explore the South West Coast Path and completed a few sections in South Devon and Cornwall during that time.  One of my favourite outings was to get the bus to Wembury and walk back into the city, a trip I did several times over.  When I saw that my beloved Brighton and Hove Albion were to be playing Plymouth Argyle last weekend I booked a weekend almost immediately, with the intention of fitting this section in on the Sunday before returning home.
Smeaton's Tower

It was rather a shock then that I discovered shortly before heading down there that the match had in fact been a victim of international call ups.  Not wanting to forgo my hotel booking, I realised that I would have a bonus day’s walking instead.  My weekend didn’t exactly go according to plan though as I quickly realised that to walk the sections of path either side of the city I would have to reverse the order of them due to the vagaries of public transport.  Hence I found myself walking from Plymouth to Wembury first in a direction that felt very strange considering that I had only ever walked from east to west.  Buses from Wembury to Plymouth are only every two hours so it definitely made sense to catch the bus first and I easily made the 1042 following my early morning journey down from Worthing.  If you are a National Trust member, parking on Wembury Beach is free (otherwise £4 for a day) and the bus leaves from just up the road where the built up area proper starts.
Sutton Harbour

Having completed my outward journey I headed from Royal Parade up to the Hoe.  Officially the Plymouth section of path starts at the Cremyll Ferry Terminal in Stonehouse, but I confess that I didn’t add that extra bit to my trip, having walked it many times in the past.  Knowing that the weather forecast was good I decided that it could be left for later when the weather was much better.  Sadly the early morning murkiness that had been forecast was still lingering when I got to Plymouth, casting it in the gloomy light that can make it such a dismal place.  I soon noticed more changes to the city centre since my last visit in 2006, not least the imminent demolition of one of the halls of residences that several of my friends had stayed in (and for the life of me I can’t remember the name of).  The familiar sights of Smeatons Tower and the supply ship that seems to be permanently parked in Plymouth Sound soon came into view.  I wandered around the Hoe towards the Barbican, a seafront that seems to have changed little. 
Unusual Signage

When I got to the Barbican I had a difficult choice over lunch options.  Did I have a pasty or one of Cap’n Jaspers famous snacks?  In the end the queue at Cap’n Jaspers answered the question for me – a pasty it was, which was consumed overlooking Sutton Harbour.  As I sat and contemplated the rest of the journey ahead of me, I could see odd chinks in the clouds and felt myself willing the sun to burn them off.

After the tourist attractions of the Barbican and Sutton Harbour I headed off through Coxside and a rather ‘grittier’ part of the city.  Fortunately this section was short-lived as the path continued around the coast via a cliff-top path signposted by a very odd looking waymarker – what I could almost describe as being like a ballistic missile, although I suspect its original use was that of some kind of light beacon.  The cliff top path is a pleasant way of getting round to Cattedown and certainly better than the main road through St Judes, which is how I used to make my way back into the city.  In fact I seem to remember that the coast path fizzled out in Turnchapel and ignored Plymouth altogether, restarting in Cremyll on the Cornish side of the Tamar.  On the seafront side of the cliff some of the docks have seen better days and there are still large areas of dereliction that will no doubt be redeveloped once the various pollution issues can be sorted out.  Much of this part of the commercial port has been devoted to transporting oil, which has no doubt left a rather nasty legacy.  The dockside railway, although marked on the map, clearly hasn’t been used for many years as much of the track has been removed.  The pub called The Passage House, which was probably thronged with dockers in its heyday is now a victim of changing society and closed.  However its appearance was slightly ambiguous for although it gave the appearance of being closed, Ushers, the brewery, hadn’t bothered removing any of the signage outside.
Laira Bridge

The section through Cattedown was less than pleasant, along busy roads and past various derelict sites until I reached Laira Bridge.  Amazingly the rail bridge that connected Plynouth with two fairly minor branch lines to Tunchapel and Yealmpton/ Modbury respectively still exists complete with rails although with both ends severed.  It makes for a strange sight and yet on closer inspection it seems that the old thing is still in the care of the British Rail Property Board.  I wouldn’t mind betting that eventually it will be subsumed into the national cycle network.  As I crossed the road bridge the weather took a turn for the worse and raindrops started coming down quite hard.  Amazingly this had a positive effect on the weather as within a few minutes the sun started breaking through and the air suddenly became a lot warmer.  This was what I had been waiting for and seemed to come at exactly the right time as I finally cleared the industrial stuff and headed through the much more pleasant environs of Plymstock and on to Oreston.
Turnchapel Moorings

As I left the main road behind me I had the option of following the old railway line path towards Turnchapel or the conventional coast path.  I opted for the latter, although to be honest other than a view across the harbour towards Cattedown I don’t think this added much to my experience and if I come this way again I shall choose the railway line.  I eventually made my way round to Hooe and Radford Lakes, a surprising green oasis in amongst all the coastal development.  Hooe Lake is also an important junction for various footpath routes, evidenced by the footpath sign at the lakeside declaring the distance to Lynmouth, a mere 118 miles away!  Hooe Lake is not actually a lake at all but an inlet of Plymouth Sound which has been partly blocked by a causeway housing the curious Radford Castle and blocking off Radford Lake.  Radford Castle is apparently not a defensive structure, despite its outward appearance, serving only as living quarters for one of the estate workers.
Old Wreck

I lingered at Hooe Lake for awhile fascinated by the views but especially the wooden hulks that had been left to rot by the banks.  There is something I find fascinating about these old ships; what did they do when they were still working and how did they come to be abandoned?  On the southern side of the lake a rather different atmosphere became apparent when my nostrils were suddenly filled with the unmistakable and pungent aroma from the local sewage treatment works.  Thankfully the smell was short-lived and I soon found my way into the settlement of Turnchapel, a place that has become a suburb of Plymouth and yet still has a fairly separate identity.  I continued around Hooe Lake eventually passing the stubs of the former railway bridge from the Turnchapel Railway, one that has not seen passenger services since 1951!  Just along the road from the former bridge was a very fine dahlia collection outside what looked like a former coastguard cottage.  I soon realised that I was approaching a military establishment as lots of very fit active men kept passing me with a great purpose about them.  I wasn’t wrong – I soon passed the base for the Royal Marines, and in the yard I could see lots of specialist military vehicles.  I can’t say as I am an expert on any of these but there were definitely landing craft and amphibious vehicles of various shapes and sizes.  I was most amused by the gate at the end of the path, which had a person sized opening in it for people to walk through even though it was clearly off limits for vehicles.
Radford Castle

What lay ahead was perhaps the loveliest part of Turnchapel, full of candy coloured houses with bags of character and at the heart was the bright yellow Clovelly Bay Inn, a fine looking pub that deserved a visit.  Sadly by now I was full of pasty and anxious to get going since I had lots of miles still left to do.  I headed on to Mountbatten Tower, a place that I felt sure had been off limits when I lived down this way.  To be honest in those days a lot of places felt off limits because I had no car and very little money as a student!
Hooe Boat

Anyhow, the path continues around the rocky peninsula, heading first along the lower part overlooking Plymouth and then up onto the clifftop to have a look at the tower that bestrides it.  Sadly this wasn’t open when I arrived and I gathered later that it only opens occasionally.  I had to make do instead with the view from clifftop level, but this isn’t too shabby, with fantastic views across to the Hoe and Cornwall beyond the Sound.  By now the sun was getting pretty warm and so I took the opportunity to take a breather for a bit on one of the seats provided for less energetic visitors.
Former Turnchapel Railway

Mountbatten has been transformed in recent years.  At the foot of the cliffs are memorials to the days when this peninsula was the local centre of the Royal Air Force and flying boats were the order of the day.  Now the traffic is rather more sedate, typified by a flotilla of sea canoeists that came paddling in as I wandered around.  Visitors find it much easier to get her too, for the ferry service across to the Barbican seems to be very busy as well as regular.  By now time was knocking on and I had to get a move on.  Before me was the climb up to Jennycliff, a popular place for Plymouthians to get some fresh air and have a look across at the city and all the boat traffic on the sound.  This has got to be one of the most dynamic views of the coastal walk, forever changing and full of interest.  It was actually quite hard to maintain any kind of rhythm while walking for I was constantly looking at the view through the binoculars.
Turnchapel Houses

Eventually I crossed the great grassy expanse of Jennycliff and discovered that the onward path had been closed because of cliff falls and I had to make my way up to the adjacent road.  Fortunately the road walking was short-lived as a diversion path had been put in to redirect walkers back on to the path.  As I walked through the welcome shade of the woods atop Jennycliff I became aware that the ferry was on its way out to France and every so often I caught glimpses of it through the trees.  Unlike when I lived in Plymouth it did not seem to give any blast of the horn as it left, leaving practically silently out of the Cornwall side of the harbour.
Mountbatten Tower
The character of the walk now changed to much more that I am used to from this trail.  Finally leaving the urban sprawl behind me, the path along the top of Jennycliff is fabulous, although a little diminished in this direction by virtue of the fact that the view of Plymouth is behind you as you walk rather than getting steadily closer.  Eventually I came upon Fort Bovisand, one of many forts that were built to protect the harbour from invaders.  As I approached I lost my height considerably, heading down a flight of steps and around the various earthworks that supported the fort, heading eventually across a ravine that was obviously artificial.  This apparently was constructed to help transport materials from the top of the cliffs to the bottom more easily.
Mountbatten View

Bovisand is also notable for a large holiday centre, made up mostly of chalets.  On previous walks through here it was mostly out of season and the place had a rather ghostly quality about it, but today there were plenty of people about enjoying the late summer sun.  As a setting it would be hard to beat, with a view across Plymouth Sound and an interesting perspective on the breakwater which could now be seen ‘end on’.  I took the opportunity of using the facilities at the site, which were very welcome (shop and toilets) before continuing on to Heybrook Bay, a slightly strange piece of Plymouth suburbia that had encroached out into the countryside.  I didn’t linger here, for by now I was eager to get to Wembury.
Harbour View

At Heybrook Bay I can remember a pretty unpleasant diversion that took me around HMS Cambridge when I last walked this stretch of coast.  Every time I would come by I would pray for the notice to say that the coast path was open, but it never was.  Now I am pleased to say that the National Trust has bought this piece of coastline and it is freely available to all at any time.  I was thrilled!  The base was decommissioned in 2001 apparently and no longer do the residents of Plymouth have to listen to the boom of the guns when the old gunnery was in operation.  As I wandered around the coast I enjoyed the closest view that I had ever had of the Mewstone, a giant lump of rock that sticks out of the sea about quarter of a mile offshore.
Heybrook Bay Coast

Soon Wembury came into view, a scene dominated by the church which unusually is located very close to the seafront and away from the main part of the village.  As I headed in to the village the number of people about increased significantly.  At first it was blackberry pickers trying to harvest the best fruit and then beachcombers looking for treasure on the shoreline to eventually people just enjoying some relaxation by the seaside.  By now I was gasping for a cuppa and took refuge in the tearoom at the car park in Wembury.  This establishment seemed to be doing a very good trade and I couldn’t help notice that they sold pasties and anti-pasti (is this an antidote?).  I satisfied myself with some tea and summoned up the energy to finish the last mile and a half. 

I had decided to press on to Warren Point, where the foot ferry crosses to Newton Ferrers and Noss Mayo.  The ferry had stopped for the day when I got there, but it wasn’t my intention to cross the river, just use this as the finishing point for my walk so that I didn’t have to walk this short section next time.  Having stopped for tea for a little while I found it a bit of a struggle climbing the last hill, even though it was actually quite modest.  In some ways it was good that I did, for the sun on the sea behind me was quite spectacular, especially as I could make out the silhouette of a ketch to add interest.  Taking a decent picture of it though proved beyond my modest camera.  It would have been lovely though!  
Wembury Church
I soon arrived at the top of the hill above Warren Point and resisted the temptation to continue on to Wembury at the same level, choosing instead to complete the walk and drop down the steep slope to the ferry crossing.  I was glad that I did for the River Yealm is one of the finest inlets in Devon and I really enjoyed the scenery at the bottom.  In the late afternoon sun the light was superb and I had the view practically to myself now that the ferry had stopped running for the day.  I lingered for quite awhile before eventually tearing myself away and heading back to reunite myself with my car.  When I got back to Plymouth there was still time to explore Stonehouse and the Hoe for a little while longer until the sun finally went down at around 7.15pm.
Approaching Warren Point

I managed to get a really good day to walk this section (eventually) and although a section that doesn’t win many plaudits it really does have everything that is special about the South West Coast Path starting in a city full of interest and heading round commercial docks, past historical defensive fortifications, through holiday villages and winding up at a superb river mouth.  Weighing in at fourteen miles it makes for a comfortable day’s walking, but watch out for the bus services as you may end up with a long wait if you miss one!
Warren Point


  1. An interesting days walk. I'll look forward to doing it :)

  2. Thanks! Good luck on your trek. At the rate you are going you should be here in about two weeks!