Rame Head circular walk

Rame Head and Cawsand

A circular walk around Rame Head - the southeastern corner of Cornwall - past the mediaeval chapel and the remains of a huge gun battery, now a nature reserve, on Penlee Point to Cawsand which was once the smuggling capital of Cornwall.

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The route follows the coast around Whitsand Bay to Queener Point and then Rame Head where a one-way path leads out the mediaevel chapel and there are panoramic views. The walk continues along the Coast Path from Rame Head to Penlee Point. From here, the walk enters the woods and descends to Cawsand. The return route is via The Fort and across Wringford Down to the hamlet of Wiggle.


  • Route includes paths close to unfenced cliff edges.

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Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 108
  • Distance: 5.6 miles/9.0 km
  • Steepness grade: Moderate
  • Recommended footwear: Walking boots in winter; walking shoes or trainers in summer

OS maps for this walk

OS Explorer 108 OS Explorer 108 (laminated version)

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  • Panoramic views across Whitsand Bay and Plymouth Sound
  • Mediaeval chapel on Rame Head
  • Mediaeval streets in Cawsand
  • Sandy beach at Cawsand Bay

Pubs on or near the route

  • The Cross Keys Inn

Adjoining walks


  1. Facing the sea, go down the short lane on the right of the car park to reach the road. Cross to the track opposite and follow this a few paces to a bench where a path departs to the left.

    Wiggle Cliff lives up to its name by providing food plants for a diverse variety of caterpillars which can be seen here as butterflies in the summer. As well as the usual suspects, some more unusual species such as the Marbled White can sometimes be seen here.

    Over 160,000 species of butterfly and moth have been described and nearly 19,000 of these have been found in the UK. Butterflies are effectively a sub-group of moths that fly during the day. They have adaptations for this such as wings that fold flat against each other with a camouflaged underside to help them hide from predators when landed but a patterned upper surface to attract mates during flight. Whilst moths' feathery antennae are highly optimised for an incredibly sensitive sense of smell, butterflies can make use of vision so their antennae are more streamlined and are also used to measure air temperature.

    Many flowers have patterns not visible to the human eye because they require ultraviolet wavelengths to distinguish them. Humans only have 3 colour receptors (red, green and blue) whereas many pollinating insects such as bees and butterflies have more receptors that span into the ultraviolet. They perceive colour quite differently from us and the ultraviolet patterns often point to the location of the nectar within the flower, much like a coloured arrow used to indicate where to open a food package.

  2. Bear left onto the path and follow it to reach a kissing gate.

    The building, now known as Captain Blake's Retreat, was formerly Wiggle Hut and owned by the YMCA. The organisation was founded in 1844 in London "to provide low-cost housing in a safe Christian environment for rural young men and women journeying to the cities" during the Industrial Revolution and to "preserve youth from the temptations of alcohol, gambling, and prostitution". In more recent times the YMCA has dedicated itself to promoting a healthy lifestyle including exercise and the outdoors, hence the hut on a cliff, in case you were wondering if this was the minimum distance necessary to escape the vices of Plymouth docks.

  3. Go through the kissing gate and follow the path until you reach a kissing gate onto a track.

    The path has a good range of wildflowers including some later-flowering species such as thistles and ragwort.

    Ragwort is fairly easy to recognise as a relatively tall plants with yellow flowers standing above surrounding grass.

    Ragwort was rated in the top 10 nectar-producing plants in a survey for pollinating insects on UK agricultural land. The plant has also become known as "Benyon's Delight" following Facebook comments describing it as a "vile poisonous weed" by Richard Benyon, the then government minister responsible for biodiversity.

    Stonechats are robin-sized birds with a black head and orange breast that are common along the Cornish coast all year round.

    During the summer months, stonechats eat invertebrates. As temperatures drop and there are not so many of these about, they make do with seeds and fruit such as blackberries. Quite a few die in cold winters but this is offset by their fast breeding rate during the warmer months.

    The gate part-way along on the right leads down the beach.

  4. Go through the gate and turn right onto the track. Follow it a few paces until you reach an unsurfaced path departing from the left before the houses. Bear left onto the path and follow it until it climbs a flight of steps and emerges onto a track.

    Flint tools found in the vicinity of Rame Head indicate that the area has been occupied from as far back as the Mesolithic period following the last Ice Age, when East Anglia was connected to continental Europe via a land bridge which now lies beneath the North Sea.

  5. When you reach the track, cross it to the flight of steps opposite and climb these to reach a waymark at a junction of paths.

    Polhawn Fort faces out over the beach and was built in the early 1860s to defend the eastern approach to Whitsand Bay. If was armed with a battery of seven 68-pounder guns. A design flaw was that its exposed left side could be attacked from the sea and this was not as heavily fortified as the front which faces onto the beach. Rather than improving it, its role was taken over by the batteries at Tregantle and Raleigh and Polhawn was abandoned by the MOD in 1928. The building survives in good condition as a hotel.

  6. At the junction of paths, turn right and follow the path to a kissing gate into a field.

    Just before the wooden gate on the right, the stone inscribed with WD and a date is a boundary marker from the War Department and the metal post alongside was part of a military fence. The War Department began as an unofficial name for the government department created in 1794 with the appointment of a Secretary of State for War and eventually became the Ministry of Defence. The upward-pointing "broad arrow" symbol above WD began as a 16th Century mark for the government's property that later appeared on prison uniforms and military equipment. Although it is no longer used by the Ministry of Defence, it is still a criminal offence to reproduce the symbol on goods without authority.

  7. Go through the gate and follow the path along the right hedge of the field to reach a kissing gate in the far hedge.

    Along the coast, from June onwards but particularly in the late summer and autumn, parasol mushrooms are common. They are one of the easier mushrooms to recognise due to their huge size (and umbrella shape when fully open). The brown flecks on their otherwise white flesh are caused by the rapidly expanding young mushroom bursting through a brown outer coating as it grows (a bit like sugar puffs breakfast cereal!).

    Despite their large size, parasol mushrooms are quite delicate and cook quickly. Any heavy-handed cooking (e.g. frying) them causes them to shrivel away to nothing. We've had good results by gently folding slices of the parasol into a sauce just a couple of minutes before serving so it gets lightly cooked but the texture is preserved.

    The huts on the cliff at Tregonhawke arose from a farmer allowing local families to pitch tents on the cliff and then tea huts for a nominal rent. No planning regulations existed at this time, so huts sprang up wherever someone could dig a small terrace into the cliff slope. Water was initially obtained from a spring but the landowner soon provided a water supply with stand pipes at intervals along the path. During the Second World War, people from Plymouth bought huts here to escape the bombing.

    In 1979, a policy was drawn up by the council limiting the changes made to chalets in order avoid the cliff degenerating into a modern housing estate and much of this was incorporated into conditions of the leases. In 2003, the land was put up for sale and a management company formed by the leaseholders bought the land with the objective to keep the landscape as natural as possible.

  8. Go through the gate and follow the path through the bushes and out onto the coast. Follow the coast path to where it crosses a small wooden footbridge.

    A small path leads out onto the rock outcrop and there a views across Whitsand Bay from here. On the opposite side of the bay is Looe and Looe Island is visible on a clear day. The large sandy beach half-way around the bay is known as Long Sands or Tregantle Beach. This is in the line of fire of several MOD firing ranges situated below Tregantle Fort and is therefore sometimes closed to the public.

  9. Cross the bridge and follow the path into the field. Keep right to follow the path over a rock outcrop, pass a bench and then head to the waymark post to meet another path running from the coastguard lookout to the chapel.

    The lookout on Rame Head was originally one of the Lloyds Signal Stations, similar to the one on The Lizard. This was used to send messages to passing ships using flags during the day and, often less successfully, lights at night. By 1905 radio signalling had rendered visual forms of communication obsolete and the building was converted into a radio station. Some time around 1925 it was converted into a Coastguard lookout and is now run by the National Coastwatch Institution.

    The National Coastwatch Institution was set up to restore visual watches along the UK coastline after two Cornish fishermen lost their lives within sight of an empty Coastguard lookout in 1994. The first station - at Bass Point on The Lizard, where the fishermen had died - opened in December 1994. The organisation, staffed by volunteers, now runs 50 lookout stations around England and Wales.

  10. Turn right and follow the path towards the chapel until you reach a path departing from the left above three benches overlooking the sea.

    The chapel, now just a shell, is dedicated to St Michael in common with many other mediaeval chapels in high, rocky places. The chapel was first licensed for Mass in 1397 and is thought to be on the site of a Celtic hermitage as the manor of Rame was owned by Tavistock Abbey in the 10th Century. The chapel is constructed of local slate and has a vaulted stone roof which has allowed it to survive so long, although it was restored in 1882. Remaining traces of mortar indicate that originally it would have been rendered and whitewashed both inside and out.

    The concrete platform on the seaward side of the chapel is the remains of a World War 2 gun platform. A mobile radar installation was also sited here. The headland was also used during World War 1 for an anti-submarine gun for which hydrophones were used to detect any enemy submarines approaching Plymouth Sound.

  11. The walk continues to the left on the path above the 3 benches. First you may want to climb to the chapel. Once back on the route, follow the path to reach a bench where a path joins from the left.

    During the Iron Age, the headland was protected with ramparts to create a promontory fort. The ditch and a small part of one of the ramparts can still be seen. In a hollow beyond the ramparts, there are traces of what might be houses. Although at the time of writing the site has not been excavated, this would be consistent with excavations of other cliff castles which have often revealed remains of round houses and other buildings within the ramparts.

  12. Continue ahead from the bench, and follow the path along the wall, keeping the wall on your left. Continue along the path to reach a wooden Coast Path signpost.

    Wild thyme grows alongside the path in the open, grazed area.

    Wild thyme grows along the coast and flowers from June to September with tiny pink flowers. During mediaeval times, the plant was a symbol of bravery, possibly due to derivation from the Greek word thumos, meaning anger or spiritedness. An embroidered motif of a bee on a sprig of thyme is said to have been given by mediaeval ladies to their favoured knight.

    Coastal land management including removal of excess gorse and grazing to keep taller plants in trim has allowed wild thyme to become more widespread as well as the Cornish chough. Wild thyme is a nectar source for many bees and butterflies and the food plant for young caterpillars of the large blue butterfly.

    The end of the headland is grazed by moorland ponies.

    Dartmoor ponies, bred for hauling goods, have been recorded living on the wild and inhospitable moors since the Middle Ages. They are unsurprisingly a very hardy breed and have a lifespan of around 25 years. Over the 20th Century, their numbers declined from just over 25,000 in the 1930s to about 5,000 by the start of the 21st century when only around 800 ponies were known to be grazing the moor. Dartmoor ponies have recently found a new niche as conservation grazers. As well as on moorland, they are used by the Wildlife Trusts to graze the coast to prevent bracken and gorse taking hold.

  13. Continue ahead, signposted to Penlee Point and Cawsand, and follow the path until it ends at a gate onto a track.

    17 acres of woodland and grassland on Penlee Point are now a nature reserve, managed by the Cornwall Wildlife Trust. Britain's first Green Darner dragonfly was found here in 1998.

  14. Go through the kissing gate on the right of the gate and follow the right-hand track along the coast to where a path departs from the right.

    The Coronation was a 90 gun man-of-war ship built towards the end of the Stuart period. In 1691, she was sheltering from a gale behind Rame Head and it is thought that her anchor cables broke. She capsized and was driven aground and only around 20 of her 500 crew survived. The wreck lay undiscovered until 1967 when a large number of cannons were found scattered over the seabed close to the shore. However, after careful surveying, only 50 cannons were accounted for. It was not until 10 years later after a systematic search that another area of wreckage was discovered further offshore. As well as 15 more cannons, a pewter plate was discovered which was inscribed with the coat of arms of the ship's captain, confirming the suspected identity of the wreck. The split wreck site is still a mystery, as are the missing cannons. It's possible that the hull may have broken in half where she was anchored and the smaller bow section sank close to the anchor site whilst the remainder washed ashore. There is a protection order limiting access to the wreck and new finds are still being made.

  15. Keep left to stay on the track and follow the track to a flight of steps on the point.

    A gun battery was constructed on Penlee Point in the late 1880s and used throughout both World Wars. It was initially armed with two 6 inch guns and a massive 13.5 inch gun which weighed 67 tons and took eighty horses two weeks to haul it up a specially constructed flight of steps. On its first firing, the recoil from the gun split its concrete bed. The battery was decommissioned in the 1950s and the buildings associated with it were demolished but there are still enough remains to appreciate the scale of the defences.

  16. Continue to follow the track around the corner into the woods and continue for about a quarter of a mile to where a path departs to the right, just after a bench.

    The stone structure that the path leads to at the bottom of the steps is known as Queen Adelaide's Chapel or Grotto. The three-chambered Gothic grotto, entered via a tunnel, was built in 1827 to commemorate a visit from Prince William (before he became King William IV in 1830) and his wife Princess Adelaide. When they married in 1818, Adelaide was nearly half his age and William was deeply in debt with nine illegitimate children. Nevertheless the marriage was a happy one and Adelaide enthusiastically adopted the children and quickly sorted out the Prince's finances.

  17. At the junction after the bench, bear right down the path and follow this to a track.

    In the English Channel, nine miles to the south of Rame Head, is an extensive reef just breaking the surface, known as the Eddystone Rocks.

    The Eddystone Rocks, known locally as the "stone", were a major hazard for shipping along the South Cornish coast, particularly when headed for Plymouth. As well as wrecks on the reef itself, many wrecks occurred because mariners, fearing the Eddystone Rocks, steered wide to hug the French coast and then hit reefs off France or the Channel Islands. Before the first lighthouse was built here in 1698, over 50 ships a year were wrecked on the reef, with most lives lost. After only 5 years, the lighthouse was washed away together with 5 men including its designer in the great storm of 1703. The second lighthouse, also built from timber, lasted nearly 50 years but burnt down when a spark from the candle ignited the lantern. The three lighthouse keepers were rescued from the rock but one, aged 94, later died of lead poisoning from ingesting molten lead from the lantern roof when attempting to fight the fire.

  18. At the end of the path, bear left onto the track and follow it to where a stony path departs to the right.

    After the Eddystone Lighthouse burnt down, the engineer John Smeaton designed its replacement - this time in stone - consisting of granite blocks held together with a quick-drying lime mortar of his own invention and modelled on the shape of an oak tree. The lighthouse took 3 years to build and was finally lit in 1759. The design was so effective that the lighthouse outlasted the rock on which is was built, and became the standard method of construction for lighthouses worldwide. After 127 years, the rock began to crack from the action of the waves and the lighthouse would sway when hit by large waves. After a new lighthouse was constructed on a different rock, the people of Plymouth raised money to have Smeaton's lighthouse dismantled and reassembled on the Hoe, where it still stands today. However the lighthouse base was so sturdy that it could not be dismantled and still stands on Eddystone Reef next to the new lighthouse.

  19. Bear right onto the path and follow this until it ends in a tarmacked area.

    The current Eddystone lighthouse was designed by Trinity House civil engineer James Douglass, using the design principles that John Smeaton had pioneered on the previous lighthouse. The granite was quarried from the De Lank quarries on Bodmin Moor, transported down the railway which is now the Camel Trail, and carved in Wadebridge, along the road that became known as Eddystone Road. As each layer was completed, it was checked for its fit with the layer above and then sent out to the Eddystone rocks by sea. Douglass designed a special ship, called the "Hercules", to transport and lift the three ton blocks of granite into position. The lighthouse was completed in 1882 and is 95ft tall.

  20. Cross the parking area to the waymarked path and follow this until it opens out into a small lane and ends at a junction.

    In 2003, a Royal Navy training vessel from Dartmouth hit the Eddystone Rock, resulting in one man being injured. The cause was reported as GPS error, and whilst the presence of trees or tall buildings can reduce the precision of a GPS signal, it's unlikely that in the open ocean this would have been much of a problem. It was also pointed out that, given it was a calm day with good visibility, the 100ft high granite tower visible 12 miles away should have also provided an indication of the vessel's position.

  21. Turn right and follow the lane past the square and past the Cross Keys Inn to reach St Andrew's Street on the left, along the back of the Cross Keys Inn.

    From the village square, the way to the beach is along "The Bound" past the gig racing club.

    The six-oared elm boats known as Pilot Gigs were general-purpose work boats, but one of their uses was to transport the pilot to and from a ship, which resulted in the name. The first boat to meet a ship gained the business of transporting the captain (and thus being paid) and thus a "race" came into being, with different boats competing for business. Today, Gig Racing is of a recreational nature, but the boats are still built to the exact well-documented specification of the originals. Elm wood is highly resistant to water, so much so, that town water mains were made of elm before the widespread availability of iron.

  22. Turn left up St Andrew's Street and follow it until it emerges on the road.

    Until 1844, the border between Celtic Cornwall and Saxon Devon lay between Cawsand and Kingsand, defined by a small stream. On Garrett Street, just before you reach the Halfway House Inn, there is a house with a marker indicating where the border used to be.

  23. Turn right onto the road and follow it past the gun emplacement to reach a flight of steps on the left with wooden railings and a public footpath sign, just past the corner of the fort.

    From the gun emplacement with the two cannons on the bend in the road, there is a good view across Plymouth Sound to the breakwater.

    Constructed in 1812, the stone breakwater stretches for very close to a mile across the centre of Plymouth Sound and was described by Napoleon as "a grand thing" as he passed it on his way to exile on St Helena in 1815. The sea wall is constructed from granite quarried from the Luxulyan Valley near St Austell and is infilled with limestone from the Plymouth area. In total, nearly four million tonnes of rock were used in its construction. The lighthouse was added in 1844, and the fort during the 1860s when France was expanding its navy and the resulting nervousness lead to intensification of defences around major British sea ports.

  24. Turn left up the steps and follow the footpath to emerge on a lane. Cross the lane to the waymarked flight of steps and follow these to reach a wall with a waymark on the right side. Bear right and follow along the side of the building to join a path leading uphill. Follow this to a kissing gate.

    The fort overlooking Cawsand was built in the 1860s on the site of a gun battery from 1779, covering the western entrance to Plymouth Sound. At the time, the expanding French Navy prompted a Royal Commission instigated by Lord Palmerston to improve Britain's coastal defences in case France attempted an invasion. However, by the time the forts were complete it had become clear that France had no intention of invading and the forts became known as Palmerston's Follies. The site was released by the Ministry of Defence after the First World War and was derelict for a number of decades until it was eventually converted into residential accommodation.

  25. Go through the gate and cross the field initially towards the buildings, then bear right along the path following the contour of the hill to reach a kissing gate in the corner of the field.

    Due to their proximity to Plymouth, Cawsand and Kingsand were the centre for the largest smuggling trade in Cornwall which lasted from Tudor times until the 19th Century. The huge navy presence in Plymouth made it too dangerous for smugglers to land goods directly in the port, but ironically the sailors from those vessels provided the largest market known for smuggled spirits. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, it was estimated that 17,000 casks of brandy were being smuggled into Cawsand Bay each year by a fleet of over 50 smuggling vessels.

  26. Go through the two kissing gates and bear right to the stile beside the gate. Cross the stile and follow the path ahead across the field to reach a farm gate with a kissing gate alongside.

    An account from the end of the 19th Century describes how smuggled goods were transported into Plymouth:

    We descended a very steep hill, amidst the most fetid and disagreeable odour of stinking pilchards and train oil, into the town...we met several females, whose appearance was so grotesque and extraordinary, that I could not imagine in what manner they had contrived to alter their natural shapes so completely; till, upon enquiry, we found that they were smugglers of spiritous liquors; which they were at that time conveying from cutters at Plymouth, by means of bladders fastened under their petticoats; and, indeed, they were so heavily laden, that it was with great apparent difficulty that they waddled along.

    The main hazard on the journey to Plymouth was apparently not from customs officials but from drunken sailors puncturing the bladders.

  27. Go through the gate and cross the lane to the driveway to Wringford Farm. Follow this past the car park on the right and keep right at the fork in the track to reach a public footpath sign.

    It's tempting to think that with modern technology such as GPS, shipwrecks on the Cornish Coast are a thing of the past. An incident in Cawsand Bay in 2002 showed, even with modern technology, how vulnerable ships still are to bad weather.

    In December 2002, the tanker "Willy" had unloaded its cargo of oil in Plymouth was anchored in Cawsand Bay awaiting further orders. A strong southeasterly wind blew up on New Year's Day; the ship's anchor cable was too short for the conditions and the anchor began to drag. The crew had set a "guard zone" on their GPS but this was relatively wide so when the alarm triggered, the ship was already half-way towards the shore. By the time the main engine was started, there was insufficient time to manoeuvre the ship out of danger and it ran aground. Rescue was impeded by the danger of explosive gas within the empty oil tanks, so the crew were evacuated using cliff lines. The ship was vented over the next three days before being re-floated and taken to a dry dock in Falmouth. The hull was found to be extensively damaged and the ship was declared a total loss.

  28. Bear right onto the footpath and follow it to reach a gate into a field.

    Wringford dates from the mediaeval period and the first record of the name is from 1324. The name of the farm is thought to be based on a Cheesewring - the stack of weights used in mediaeval times for making cheese. A similar arrangement for squeezing the juice from apple pulp to make cider was known by the same name.

  29. Go through the gate and follow the path diagonally across the field to a gap in the hedge in front of a WW2 pillbox.

    During the Second World War, about 28,000 concrete fortifications were built across England and around 6,500 of these still survive. The hexagonal blockhouses known as "pillboxes" are assumed by many to have been named after similarly-shaped containers for medical pills. However, commentary on early models during the First World War suggests the origin of the name is actually from "pillar box", based on the slots for machine guns resembling a postbox.

  30. Go through the gap and follow the narrow path past the pillbox and between the hedges to emerge into a grassy area near a cottage.

    The tall trees provide perches for crows to survey the landscape.

    In the 3rd Century BC, the Romans named their ill-fated gangplank for boarding other ships "corvus" (Latin for crow) because its end contained a large metal spike which was thought to resemble a crow's beak. The end of the gangplank was dropped from a height onto the captured ship and the spike acted as a nail, attaching the gangplank to the deck of the ship being boarded. The design was short-lived because the 36ft gangplank sticking up from the front mast of the ship did nothing for its stability and consequently resulted in almost two entire fleets being lost in rough seas.

  31. At the far end of the grassy area, take the path on the left and follow it uphill to emerge onto a lane.

    Wiggle farm dates from the 18th century but the settlement of Wiggle is mediaeval, first recorded in 1324. Given the historical period, it is thought that the quirky name might be a corruption a Cornish place name but the original words and meaning have been lost.

  32. Turn left onto the lane and follow it back to the car park.

    Rame Head is part of a small Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty known as the "Rame Head Heritage Coast" that also includes Cawsand Bay and the Mount Edgcumbe Country Park.

    There are 33 regions in England designated Areas Of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) many of which were created at the same time as the National Parks. In fact the AONB status is very similar to that of National Parks.

    There is a single Cornwall AONB which was established in 1959 and is itself subdivided into 12 sections. 11 of these are stretches of the coastline and the 12th is Bodmin Moor.

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