Berry Head and its History

A great rampart, 18 feet high, was on the Head until Napoleonic times. It could have dated from the early Iron Age, as others still exist in the Westcountry. The Romans probably used the promontory as a fort during their occupation of Britain, as some artifacts have been found there. The terminus of their Fosse Way is near Axmouth, within sight of Torbay. They may have built an entrenchment of some sort as there were signs of Roman masonry there.

Andrew Bennett in his Memorandum Book (1778-81) notes that, on 1st October 1780, he and his companions saw the camp at Berry Head "and there were about 800 to 900 men encamped there and a battery built. But the guns have not been mounted, but lay on the quay; there are 25 and about 24 'four-pounders', as the French and the 'Spanyiards' came up with a fleet the year before". (This would have been in 1779 when the Ardent of Plymouth was taken). The enemy's fleet consisted of 70 Sail of the Line, besides 30 frigates "which induced them to build this battery and encamp these men". Bennett noted that when they were taken round the fleet in the boat of "a man named Abot, who lived near by the quay".

In 1794, following an Act of Parliament, the Board of Ordnance bought 120 acres of land from 12 owners, mainly pasture land, using stones to mark the western boundary. Access was originally by the "Government Road" now Heath Road. Some primitive huts and water tanks existed for the artillery men who had been stationed there in 1780 and it is possibly about these that a 1798 Report states: "the winter quarters ... at Berry Head do not seem to be particularly desirable. There is no mess-room, kitchen, hospital or coal cellar. The gutters are said to be unhealthy and offensive. One of the tanks is broken and the doors of the others are said to be so rotten and dangerous to walk over as anyone falling down would be drowned". In addition, roofs and windows leaked and the whole place needed painting. Water was obtained from deep barrel-vaulted tanks excavated in the limestone. There were nine large tanks in the principal fort, some 20 feet deep, which filled to the brim with water from the roofs of the Barrack buildings.

New buildings and fortifications designed for 1,000 men and 50 horses were authorised, work finally starting on them in 1803. The builder was John Scoble and he was paid £3,150 in 1804, although the work was not completed until 1805 (Those huts, condemned in 1798, were still in use until that time). During this work the rampart was destroyed. Another account says that the vallum and rampart remained until about 1850 when Parson Hogg was employing a number of German emigrants who had been shipwrecked in Torbay to level his grounds. There were two permanent works (Forts 1 & 3) and three temporary batteries. When General Mercer made his inspection in March 1811, these were completed but Fort No 2 was no more than a rampart, "Hardy's Head Battery" being built instead, with walls of stone and rubble infill. Also known as "4-gun Battery", it had 24 pounders on gun-beds of granite (two facing north, one west and one east). Altogether 40 guns were mounted on Berry Head but they were never fired in anger. Blewitt confirms that it was garrisoned by 1,000 men. The first troops were the Dorset Militia. As well as the Royal Artillery who were there all the time, were: Devon Militia (commanded by Lt. Col. J. P. Bastard of Kitley and the officer who had made the bad report in 1798); N Devon Militia (Col John Borrington, later the Earl of Morley, commanded there 1804-5); Royal Cornwall Militia; 3rd Buffs; 1st Somerset Militia; the Berkshire Militia (said by a Tiverton merchant named Dunsford to have a fine band of music when he visited in 1807) and many others. Buttons from uniforms of the Bath Volunteers and the Pendennis have also been found there. A regimental school was established and the children attended Divine Service at the Parish Church. The buildings were built mainly of local materials, limestone with a little red sandstone in places.
An "Admiralty signal station" was set up in 1795, manned by a lieutenant, midshipman and two men using standard codes with flags, black balls and pendants. It was closed down, possibly in 1814.

Fort 3.

Entry was by a drawbridge through the main rampart; here was the first pair of defensive gates (only the hinge section remains today). There are scrolled finials in the dressed-stone walls and the finials act as buttresses. The rampart is a steep banking with a wide gun platform (the guns there have been added recently and have no significance to Berry Head). It is fronted with a wall of local stone pierced with embrasures for cannon, but these have no side-splaying which would have limited the guns to shooting at targets straight ahead. The main guard-house is now a cafe. The field train shed, 120 by 22 feet, has gone but its foundations are visible on air-photographs. At the eastern tip the 12-gun battery (all 42-pounders) was placed. The magazine was built in 1805 (and now has a CG lookout on its top). The stone building nearby could have been the stables. The sentry box is of unique design.

Fort 1.

The rock-cut moat has been filled in. Remains of a two-story building, which could have been a guard-room, are visible. 16 cannons were designed to be set on the landward side. In both forts the guns were designed to transported across the site for deployment in the other direction. Originally the hospital was in Fort 3 but was moved to the larger building below in 1809. Exactly when the stand-down order was given is not known but the barracks had gone before 1830 as they were only constructed of wood construction. There was then just one old veteran remaining as guardian "who cultivated his potatoes and cabbages among the ruins. The only other living beings here are the quarry-men who work around the base of the rock, and a few sheep and wild birds that wander above".

Castle or Round Top Battery.

This is now on private land above Berry Head Road and may be the oldest part of the fortifications - possibly being the "bulwarks" authorised by Henry VIII. During the Napoleonic period it had four 24-pounders. The site is 170 feet above sea level.

In June 1886 a wooden building near the old moat caught fire. It was a shed inside the old fortifications about 160 feet long and 12 feet wide and was being used by a Mr. Williams, who rented the ground and quarries; he used it for stables and stores. "The building was put up in 1757 when a small garrison was kept there". By the end of the century Miss Hogg had become the sole owner of Berry Head but had granted both residents and visitors a "perpetual right of footpath over the these ancient and romantic grounds.

In 1935 Brixham Council offered £9,000 to the Berry Head Trustees for the 106 acres but it was refused. Subsequently it was re-zoned as a regional open space.

After a long period of quarrying when many of the relics of the Head's earlier history were lost, the site was saved from complete destruction when Torbay Borough bought the Head in 1969 and designated it a country park a year later. Department of the Environment officials consider that, in spite of the modern additions for the Coastguard, the magazine is a good example of Napoleonic War period building. An exposition centre was built by the Torbay Council. More recently still, it has become possible to study the birds nesting on the cliffs below by means of a remotely-controlled television camera and monitoring equipment.


Berry Head Lighthouse is said to be the HIGHEST (it is over 200 feet above sea level), the LOWEST (the light is only a little over 6 feet from the ground) and the SMALLEST in Britain. It was built in 1906; the light being visible over 20 miles away. It gives a double flash every 15 secs. Administered by Trinity House, it is now operated by acetylene gas, both lamp and mechanism, and is very reliable. The well constructed for the weights formerly used, go down from the limestone of the Head for many feet. Semaphore signalling apparatus was on Berry Head before 1875 and acted as the Lloyds' Signal Station for Torbay.

© copyright John Pike

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