A visit to Burgh Island, Devon

by Jan

An ancient smugglers’ inn, a deserted fisherman’s hut, and a stylish Art Deco hotel which was once the haunt of famous author Agatha Christie.    What do they have in common?  Well, you can find them all on a visit to Burgh Island, a mysterious tidal island just off the coast of Bigbury-on-Sea.

Bigbury-on-Sea is small seaside village in South Devon, England.  It’s home to one of the best beaches in Devon because of its expanse of golden sand and safe swimming areas.  It also provides access to the iconic Devon beauty spot, Burgh Island.

At only 26 acres, Burgh Island is not particularly big, but does have plenty to offer and intrigue its visitors. We made a return visit to Burgh Island during our recent stay in Dartmoor National Park.

Read on for our guide to visiting Bigbury-on-Sea and the beautiful Burgh Island in Devon.

How to get to Burgh Island, Devon

Panoramic views from Burgh Island, Devon, UK

Burgh Island sits off the coast of Bigbury-on-Sea, a small seaside village in South Devon, England.  It’s one of the most popular beaches in Devon, with a large sandy beach which connects to Burgh Island.  However, Burgh Island is a tidal island, so access is cut off by the sea twice a day at low tide.

When we arrived at Bigbury on Sea, the tide was out, so we were able to walk across the sandy causeway to Burgh Island without getting our feet wet.  It is only 250 metres across the sand, so doesn’t take long to walk.

However, don’t despair if the tide is in, as you can grab a ride on Burgh Island’s wonderful sea tractor!

The sea tractor at Burgh Island

Sea Tractor Burgh Island, Devon, UK

Burgh Island’s sea tractor is a unique means of transport, which carries passengers to and from the island at high tide.

The sea tractor has enormous wheels which remain underwater, whilst passengers stay dry in the carriage above. Power from a tractor engine is transmitted to the wheels by hydraulic motors. Each trip costs £2 per person each way.

It is the only sea tractor I have ever seen, and offers a fun, unconventional ride.  However, it’s not a modern invention, as a sea tractor has been in operation at Burgh Island since 1930.  The current model was built in 1969 and is still going strong today.

Pilchard Inn

Pilchard Inn, Burgh Island, Devon, UK

As you approach Burgh Island, you’ll notice the gorgeous Pilchard Inn.  Built in 1336, this historic tavern has been a haunt for fishermen, smugglers, and wreckers for over 700 years.  Today it offers holidaymakers the chance to enjoy a pint with a stunning view overlooking Bigbury beach.

As it was early, we bypassed the pub and set off to explore the island, saving our well-earned pint for our return.  The pub is currently offering a takeaway service of hot and cold drinks from the servery at the front.  There are some toilets for customer use to the side of the pub.

Burgh Island Hotel

Burgh Island Hotel, Devon, UK

Looking down from above is the island’s most famous landmark, the magnificent Art Deco Burgh Island Hotel.  Since its construction in 1929, the hotel has welcomed many famous guests, including Sir Winston Churchill, Lord Mountbatten, and President Eisenhower.

In the 1930s this remote hotel became a popular bolt hole for the rich and famous wishing to escape the bustle of London life.  Today this elegant hotel remains a popular destination because of its authentic Art Deco splendour.

If you are visiting, the hotel will collect you in one of the 4x4s.  We also spotted a helipad nearby, but this is probably for its more exclusive visitors.  The hotel now owns most of Burgh Island and a few areas remain exclusive to its guests.

However, most of Burgh Island is open to the public and admission is free.

Agatha Christie and Burgh Island

Probably the most notable guest at the Burgh Island Hotel was author, Dame Agatha Christie.  The island provided inspiration for her bestselling crime novel, And then there were none and the Poirot mystery, Evil under the Sun.  The TV adaptations of the book were both filmed on Bigbury Beach.

Today fans can still stay in the Beach House, Agatha Christie’s hideaway retreat where she penned her best-selling murder mysteries.

Huer's Hut

Huers Hut Burgh Island, Devon, UK

Passing the hotel, we followed a path which took us up to the top of the island.  It’s fairly steep and not particularly accessible.

On the summit of Burgh Island is a derelict building used as a huer’s hut.  In the 18th Century the huer would watch over Bigbury Bay for shoals of pilchard.  When they saw the movement of fish in Bigbury, they would call to fishermen below to launch their boats.  Later the community would assist in bringing the pilchard in. The term comes from the old French huer meaning to shout, and later led to the phrase “hue and cry”.

Field of Daisy's at Burgh Island, Devon, UK

Nowadays you can go inside the building, which has no windows or roof, but still makes a good look out point.  There is also a useful information board inside.  In the Second World War, they used this post as an observation lookout for enemy attack and also built two pill boxes beside the causeway.

In medieval times, Burgh Island was a monastery and St Michael’s Chapel stood on this spot.  It was dedicated to the patron saint of seafarers, St Michael.  At at one point the island was even called St Michael de la Burgh.  It later changed to Borough or Bur Island, before changing to Burgh Island.

Walking on Burgh Island

Walking Trails at Burgh Island, Devon, UK

There are a number of different walking routes across the island, including the South West Coastal Path, which crosses the west end of the island.  The walk across Burgh Island is only about 1 mile in total.

Although the ascent and descent are steep, the top is flat and not too challenging at all.  You can bring dogs onto Burgh Island but must keep them on a lead. However, they cannot go onto the beach during the summer.

Views of Bigbury on Sea, Devon, UK

After visiting the Huer’s Hut, we took some time to enjoy the rugged landscape.  There is a viewpoint at one end, where we had stunning views of the South Hams coastline.

However, don’t get too close to the edge, as there are some sheer drops and some very hazardous rocks below.  Another reason to stick to the paths is to protect the nature on the island.

Burgh Island is home to a great variety of wildlife and is a haven for nesting sea birds.  You’ll also be able to spot many wildflowers, including orchids on the side of the island.

We followed the path round the coastline, stopped at the Pilchard Inn and then headed onto the beach.  From above we spotted several paddlers in kayaks, which looked like a fun alternative for exploring the island.

No picnics on Burgh Island.

Bigbury-on-Sea beach

Bigbury Beach, Devon, UK

The beach at Bigbury-on-Sea is one of the best beaches in South Devon.  When the tide is out you have a choice of two areas for swimming.  At one end lifeguards supervise the beach.

The beach has golden sand, so is ideal for sandcastles and digging.  Plus, the enormity of the beach allows plenty of space for ball games, such as rounders or cricket.

It is essential to keep an eye on the sea, as the tide does come in quite rapidly.

Practical information for a visit to Burgh Island

Getting to Bigbury-on-Sea

Bigbury-on-Sea is in the South Hams district in South Devon, in the south of England.  The nearest large town is Plymouth, which is about 20 miles away.

To get to Bigbury-on-Sea, take the A379/B3392 and follow signs.  Be aware that many Devon roads are very narrow.  At times they are only wide enough for single traffic, so you may need to reverse!

Parking at Bigbury-on-Sea

There is a pay and display car park at Bigbury-on-Sea, with an overflow car park for busy days.  On a sunny day it is a very popular beach, so it does fill quickly.

Parking fees are currently £8 for a day.  The machine only takes cash, so make sure you take some change.

There is an additional private car park up the road leading into Bigbury-on-Sea.  At £5 for the day, it is a cheaper option, but it is a steep walk to get back to it.

Facilities at Bigbury-on-Sea

To one side of the car park is a small gift shop, which also sells drinks and ice creams.  There is also Venus Café, which serves food and snacks from 10am to 6pm every day.

As we descended onto the beach there was a temporary barista stand, which also sold tubs of ice cream.

Obviously, the most stylish place to eat is at the Burgh Island Hotel, but you need to book in advance.

Have you been to Burgh Island in Devon?  We’d love to hear your comments below.

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