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History of Bolberry Down

A view of the Iron Age fort with a blue sky behind at Bolt Tail, Devon
Iron Age fort at Bolt Tail | © National Trust Images / Eric Macdonald

Discover the history of Bolberry Down and the surrounding area. From an Iron Age fort and the shipwrecks still submerged beneath the waves, to the 20th-century radar stations used in the Second World War, the area has many stories to tell.

Iron Age fort at Bolt Tail

The Iron Age fort at Bolt Tail, some 2,500 years old, is of a type more commonly found in Cornwall. Defended by a rampart 270m (886ft) long and 4.6m (15ft) high, it commanded a strategic position overlooking Bigbury Bay, with a natural harbour at Hope Cove. It might have been a tribal centre, a trading place, or a meeting spot.

South Devon Coastal Heritage Project

Bolt Head to Bolt Tail is one of the areas included in the South Devon Coastal Heritage Project which aims to improve the status of the 55 scheduled monuments around the coast of the South Devon AONB some of which are on the ‘At Risk’ register. By doing this, we hope to ensure they are protected for future generations to learn and enjoy and ultimately remove them from the register.

The project is led by the South Devon AONB in partnership with the National Trust, Historic England, South West Coast Path Association, Devon County Council. Also involved are local landowners, community history groups, local history museums and English Heritage Trust. For more information, please visit the South Devon AONB website.

An illustration of the Iron Age promontory on the slope of the hill with the sea in the background.
Artist's impression of the Iron Age promontory fort at Bolberry Down | © South Devon AONB/ John Hodgson

Shipwrecks near Bolberry Down

Of the many ships wrecked on these rocks, the 90-gun warship Ramillies, sunk in a February hurricane in 1760, was by far one of the biggest. Over 700 people died when the gale pounded the vessel to pieces in an inlet now named after the wreck, and cannon balls are still found by divers today.

Wrecks at Soar Mill Cove

At Soar Mill Cove, the captain, his wife and one seaman died when the Volere was blown ashore in 1881, and 200 tons of its marble cargo still lie on the seabed just east of the cove.

In 1887, the tea clipper Halloween ran aground on a January night in the same cove. The crew set off flares and lit fires, but it wasn't until dawn that John Ford of Southdown Farm raised the alarm. All but one of the crew were saved, but 1,600 tons of tea covered the beach in a 12ft-high wall.

A treacherous stretch

Four children – Rhodes, Daniel, Mary and Joseph Chambers, all from Jamaica – drowned in 1757 when the West Indiaman Dragon was wrecked at Cathole Point, and lie buried at Malborough Church. They and scores of others have lost their lives in the seas below the 5 miles of steep cliffs from Bolt Tail to Bolt Head.

A lucky escape

Others were more fortunate. When the steamer Jane Row hit the rocks below Bolberry golf links in February 1914, the entire crew, plus two cats and a dog, were saved by breeches buoy.

View of the rocky coastline, Bolt Head to Bolt Tail, showing breakers approaching Soar Mill Cove, Devon
Bolt Head to Bolt Tail at Salcombe | © National Trust Images / Mike Williams

Second World War radar stations

During the Second World War, the military bases at Bolt Tail, Hope Cove, West Prawle and Prawle Point were all part of a chain of secret radar stations along Britain's coast.

Detecting enemy aircraft

West Prawle Advance Chain Home (CH) station had two pairs of 110m-high transmitter masts – with 'curtains' of wires strung between each – and two 73m-high wooden receiving towers, able to detect high-flying enemy aircraft 200 miles away.

Low-flying aircraft were spotted by the rotating aerials of Bolt Tail CH (Low) station. The two masts at Prawle Point acted as a back-up for West Prawle.

Mounting an attack

The transmitter curtains sent radio waves sweeping across the Channel, and if these were reflected by incoming aircraft, an echo would be picked up by the receive towers, and appear as 'blips' on cathode ray tubes to be identified by skilled Women Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) operators.

Fighter planes would then be scrambled to attack the enemy, guided by the Ground Control of  Interception (GCI) at Hope Cove.

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