Every corner is full of history. The tales of war, adventure, death and crime are myriad, but for 30 years the people of Plymouth have been able to look at the island of Drake and never set foot on it.
But on Sunday three boats of visitors will make the short jump from the city of Devon to explore the dilapidated fortifications, the briar-covered barracks buildings and its mysterious tunnels.
The island of Plymouth Sound has been banned since 1989 but is now being developed as a luxury holiday resort, and before construction work begins, people have been invited to purchase tickets – the proceeds of which will go to a local hospice. – to join exclusive tours.
The demand for 210 tickets for Sunday and a second trip in May was huge. They were recovered in minutes and St Luke’s Hospice Plymouth, which will benefit from the proceeds, reported that its website received nearly half a million hits during the sales period, not only from people from Plymouth but from fans of the history and islands around the UK.
Robert Maltby, head of communications and marketing at the hospital, said the island is important to the people of Plymouth.
“It’s an intriguing place,” he said. “If you’re a Plymothian it’s always there in front of you. It’s an important piece of the city’s history and everyone wonders how it is.”
The 2.5-hectare (6.5-acre) island was a place of pilgrimage, a refuge, a fort, a prison and – until the late 1980s – the site of an adventure center.
Maltby had a preview of the island, taking a trip there to take photos for ticket sales. “I was surprised at how good conditions are still in many buildings,” he said. “Some are covered with brambles but the masonry has somehow remained untouched.”
His favorite part was the tunnels, which have been used to store ammunition and other goods over the years. “They were quite surprising,” he said.
The island guardian, avid historian Bob King, will lead the tour. Over the years his role has included protecting the island and cleaning up its shoreline.
But she said: “The best part of my job is researching the history of the island and sharing it with as many people as possible.
“Although the fortifications and the way they have been used and defended by Plymouth over the centuries are fascinating, what makes history alive are the personal stories of the people on the island.”
The island was initially known as St Michael’s – named after a twelfth–century chapel built there. It is only in more recent times that it was known as the island of Drake, after the Elizabethan sea captain.
In the 16th century, when the defense of the British coast became more important, the chapel was demolished and artillery towers, walls of carabiners and barracks were built.
At one point it served as a prison, but as the Devonport shipyard grew, its fortification and armaments were reinforced to protect the fleet.
During the Second World War it was a minefield checkpoint and if there had been an invasion, the explosives would have been detonated from the island.
It was also a tragedy scene. In 1774 John Day, a local carpenter and carpenter, designed a wooden diving room and made a bet on how long he could remain submerged. He died in the adventure.
Drake’s Island has been a magnet for all types. Queen Victoria sketched it and in 1957 a group of schoolchildren “invaded” it and claimed the island for Plymouth. They were arrested by the guard, had breakfast and then brought back to town for a double math lesson.
In 2005, anti-nuclear activists established a peace camp and declared the island a nuclear-free state. They followed in the footsteps of the brandy smugglers, who used the island as a stopping point.
The island was purchased last year by a local businessman, Morgan Phillips. Its hotel floors include a glass elevator that will move guests from the pier. The governor’s house, the barracks and the “building of the ablutions” must be connected with an intelligent extension.
Another plan is to open a historic center to tell the story of the island and Phillips is working on a plan with the Plymouth-based Ocean Conservation Trust to open the island so that children can learn about its history and the seas that they surround it, which are important for algae, seahorses and seals.
Roger Maslin, CEO of the Ocean Conservation Trust, said he was satisfied with the new possibilities. “It’s a fantastic place,” he said. “This is a great opportunity to get them out on the field and learn with a first-hand experience on the ocean.”