Restoring Drake’s Island

The mystery of Drakes Island has captivated many of us in recent decades, as it sits silent, isolated and locked away to all.  At the heart of Plymouth Sound, it is a key feature within the landscape, and seen from the Rame Peninsula in Cornwall, much of Plymouth and around to Wembury Point; it can even be seen from Dartmoor.

In 1135 it was referred to as St. Michaels after the chapel that stood upon it, rededicated to become St. Nicolas’ at some time after.  The Island kept this name until the early 20th century, when it adopted the name of Sir Francis Drake.  He had been made governor of the island in 1583, not long after its first fortifications in 1549, and it is from then that the island started a long and unbroken military history.

..1725 map of the island

Drake’s Island is a scheduled monument and considered of high heritage significance because it shows examples of each stage of military development from the 16th century to the 20th century (most of the structures are listed).  It’s not just the military heritage that is significant however, because decades of neglect have created a sanctuary for wildlife.  The military stopped using the site in 1956, and an outdoor pursuits centre ran there from 1964 until 1989, but since then it has been visited by only the most intrepid (some would say trespassing) of Plymothians.

Little Egret

Plymouth Sound is a special place, a host to some incredible species, so much so that it is designated as a Special Area for Conservation (SAC), a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a Marine Protected Area (MPA) and a National Marine Park (NMP).  Drakes Island is surrounded by valuable sea grass beds, which among many things is perfect habitat for sea horses, and the island has become a favoured roosting site for the Little Egret.  Once widespread in the UK, and a favourite at feasts, the Little Egret had become UK extinct, and thanks to protected sites like Drake’s Island it has made a good comeback.

In 2019 the island was purchased by Guardian Industrial, who’s owner Morgan Philips has positive ambitions for its future.  Previously granted planning for an exclusive, luxury hotel, Philips wants to see the island very much as a public asset.  He has plans to restore the heritage structures, to develop accommodation, and to welcome day visitors to enjoy it all.

..The derelict 19th century casemates held an array of heavy guns protecting the sound. The ammunition tunnels behind are perfect bat habitat.

Developments like this present an incredible challenge, where multiple designations often have competing interests, and only a thriving business can pay for them.  On one hand the military heritage needs to be clear of plant life, and to be restored.  On the other hand the egrets love the overgrown areas (they especially like roosting in Hawthorn), and the bats love the cracks in stonework and the open tunnels.  Both of these disciplines require management, which is expensive, and adding people who bring viable business income changes the dynamics yet again.

..An early photograph of the island

Land & Heritage have been working with Guardian Industrial and the wider project team to tackle those delicate balances, bringing the different aspects together into a single Landscape Management Plan.  Understanding the needs of the wildlife is critical, and it’s this understanding that we combine with the underlying military architecture.  We then apply our knowledge of visitor attractions, and by carefully assessing sight lines and sensitive locations we design a landscape that can accommodate all of the island’s users.  The end result will be enhanced egret habitat, new maritime coastal habitats on the cliffs, and a seaside garden theme in the enclosed courtyards.

Matt Jackson