It’s a mystery that’s loomed over Plymouth for many, many years: is there a network of fear-inducing tunnels lurking beneath Drake’s Island? These zig-zagging passageways apparently connect the neglected military buildings above, many of them overgrown with weeds and ivy. And walking through the complex is a creepy experience, too, considering just how dark and empty each room has become. Then there’s the secret hiding below: the traces of a dark past that might just send shivers down your spine.
Drake’s Island has a rich history for such a small piece of land. It actually measures just a little under 7 acres – but for many years it served as an important part of the city’s defenses. The landmass sits at the north end of Plymouth Sound, you see, so it’s ideally situated for preventing England’s enemies from entering the country by water.
Even with so much of Drake’s Island’s history chronicled, though, people still wondered about those tunnels – especially since one of the biggest rumors surrounding them has been disproven. Yet the real reason that so many linked bunkers here might still surprise you – particularly if you don’t know about the interesting purposes that Drake’s Island once served.
For context, then, Drake’s Island’s 6.5 acres are dwarfed in comparison to the British Isles that surround it. England alone spans more than 130,000 square kilometers, after all. But the tiny island just off of the city of Plymouth has a lot of stories to tell – thanks to its strategic position and the history that entails.
For one thing, Drake’s Island sits in Plymouth Sound. This is an important body of water for Great Britain as it provides access to many rivers and inland areas. Throughout history, in fact, large settlements have sprung up around these waterways, and they’ve provided locals with opportunities to trade with merchants both at home and abroad.
Climate-wise, too, Plymouth makes a great place to gather. Southwest England – the region that encompasses Plymouth – has temperate weather, you see. This means that the area receives more rain than the rest of the country, but it also experiences warmer temperatures. As an example, the average annual temperature in Plymouth stands at 52° F, with winter readings coming in at around 38° F.
Many of these weather patterns come, of course, from the waters that surround Plymouth and England. For instance, Atlantic depressions bring rain, mostly in the winter and fall. In contrast, when a high-pressure area stretches from the Azores toward the U.K., Plymouth experiences extended sunshine hours.
Drake’s Island gets all of this, too. The chunk of land, which sits at the north end of the sound, stretches about 330 feet across and 1,300 feet in length. Its rocky base is formed from volcanic matter as well as limestone that dates back more than 300 million years.
Of course, human history doesn’t quite extend back that far, but Drake’s Island has long played a big part in Plymouth’s development. Back in 1135, though, the rocky expanse had a different title: St. Michael’s Island. That’s because it had once housed a chapel named after the saint.
So when the chapel underwent a re-dedication to St. Nicholas, the island was renamed as well. But by the end of the 1700s, people had a new way of referring to the expanse in Plymouth Sound. Yes, some began to call it Drake’s Island after the famous English seaman and slave trader Sir Francis Drake.
Drake’s notoriety comes from his journeys to faraway lands. For instance, the seaman helmed the second-ever circumnavigation of our planet in a solitary journey, which began in 1577 and concluded three years later. Drake also later became a vice admiral in the English Navy and fought the Spanish Armada. And, as it turned out, he chose Plymouth to be his base in England.
Drake had therefore departed on his round-the-world voyage from Plymouth in 1577. And at the end of that successful trek, Drake sailed back home in 1580. Then, three years later, the seaman became the governor of the outcrop named after St. Nicholas. Yet it would take some time for people to start referring to the landmass as Drake’s Island.
In fact, that didn’t happen until about 200 years after the privateer had died of dysentery in 1596 – following a failed assault on Puerto Rico. And even then, maps from the 19th century still labeled the landmass as St. Nicholas’ Island. Only in the past 100 years, then, has it been overwhelmingly referred to as Drake’s.
Of course, the land has served several purposes throughout history, too. Even before Drake set sail, for instance, the English knocked down the island’s chapel and transformed the territory into a military facility. They added sleeping quarters, fortified walls and towers due to the threat of Spanish and French invasion.
The English Civil War also made Drake’s Island an important landmark. You see, when Plymouth declared its allegiance to Parliament, the area was left under attack for several years. So the city’s inhabitants used Drake’s Island as a refuge for the Parliamentary Navy, which sneaked in and out under the cover of night to gather supplies.
The Parliamentary forces eventually prevailed in the conflict, and the nation’s discord quieted. The locals then found a new use for Drake’s Island. Following the royal restoration under King Charles II, in fact, it became a prison. The monarch left famed political dissidents to die there, too, including Colonel Robert Lilburne, who’d signed off on King Charles I’s death sentence.
Then, in 1780, Drake’s Island once again had a complete overhaul. This time, though, the small landmass saw all of its structures torn down and new defenses constructed. And afterward, the island had a new battery and artillery to protect the entryway into Plymouth Sound and all of the rivers that feed into it.
Drake’s Island also once served as a trial site for sea chronometers. Due to their ability to gauge time with great precision, these intricate devices allow sailors to calculate longitude. And such an invention made sea navigation much easier.
In the 19th century, too, Drake’s Island received yet another overhaul to fortify the island. This time, all of the outcrop’s batteries were updated with heavy artillery. For instance, on the landmass’ south side, more than 20 9-inch guns were installed.
Inevitably, then, World Wars I and II later gave Drake’s Island a renewed purpose. In particular, soldiers stationed on the small rock during the latter conflict helmed minefield control posts. And from these positions, the Allied forces could remotely blow up mines left in the sound, should an enemy come too close.
After the end of World War II, Drake’s Island continued to be overseen by the U.K.’s military – although that wouldn’t continue indefinitely. A little more than a decade after the conflict had ended, you see, the government announced that the country no longer needed Drake’s Island for its defense schemes.
Yet it still took the military about seven years to leave Drake’s Island and remove all of the weaponry. Once the soldiers had gone, though, Plymouth City Council secured a lease to use the rocky landmass for its own purposes. Specifically, it created an adventure facility for youngsters.
The Adventure Centre, as it was known, remained open until the spring of 1989. But after that, the trust that oversaw the youth training organization sold off all of the materials it had acquired. The trust gave up on the lease as well. This meant that the government had control over the island again – but not for long.
Seven years after the Adventure Centre shut down, in fact, the Crown Estate decided to sell Drake’s Island to the highest bidder. The initial valuation tag was £235,000 – although in the end businessman Dan McCauley agreed to pay almost twice that amount. He wanted to make Drake’s Island into a hotel complex, but his plans were subsequently blocked.
So for history buffs and adventure seekers alike, the fact that Drake’s Island remains relatively untouched is a relief. News from August 2019 could also be cause for celebration, as the site’s new owner – Morgan Phillips – told the BBC that he hoped to “restore [the island] for the people of Plymouth and visitors.” And – most importantly – Drake’s Island still contains many remnants of its past as a military outpost – including a series of creepy subterranean tunnels.
After all, many of the changes that Drake’s Island has undergone have been superficial ones. Local residents could even see artillery towers and batteries as they went up – and down – on the landmass. But the underground maze of tunnels was always obscured from view – and they add a whole new layer of intrigue to an already fascinating chunk of rock.
For years, however, the very existence of such passageways was a thing of myth. People probably imagined dark, creepy tunnels running all the way from Drake’s Island and out under the sound – perhaps all the way into the city itself. Eventually, though, modern explorers made their way to the island to confirm that yes, the island does indeed contain a series of underground halls and hideouts.
The tunnels didn’t actually stretch from the island, under the sound and into the city, however. Drake’s Island gatekeeper Bob King confirmed this to Plymouth Live in 2018. He suspected that such tales had been spread by mischievous soldiers who’d once been stationed on the island, too.
“There’s no truth of [the tunnels] ever being there,” King said. “There’s no financial records, no contract for them being built. If you had a tunnel which was in working order, why would people have been still using the water to get to the Island? It’s not some great conspiracy plot.”
Nonetheless, Drake’s Island did indeed contain a series of tunnels that had been dug into the ground beneath the military structures that had once stood there. So why did such a network exist? The reason makes plenty of sense when you remember the island’s long-standing purpose as a military outpost – from the country’s Civil War through to its involvement in the World Wars of the 20th century.
And in an episode of the BBC One series Secret Britain, host Ellie Harrison sails out to Drake’s Island to have a look at the famed tunnels beneath the rocky mass. There, she meets with Chris Bourne, the estate manager who oversees the island. According to Harrison, Bourne knows “this place like the back of his hand.”
Bourne first shows Harrison some of the more obvious access points to Drake’s Island’s underground tunnels. Many of them sit close to gun casements. “The ammunition was brought through here, through those tunnels, and stored in here for the guns,” he says. Then he and Harrison descend into the tunnels themselves.
Harrison and Bourne first traipse through overgrown foliage to reach a spiral staircase. The pair then loop their way down toward the entryway into the tunnels – vines of ivy have grown over it like a curtain, almost obscuring the doorway from view. But Bourne knows where to go, and he and Harrison make their way into the eerie tunnels.
As it turns out, the tunnels became part of the Drake’s Island layout in the early 1800s. The reason? Well, the subterranean walkways connected all of the buildings on the island. That way, during battle, men at their Drake’s Island posts would have been able to safely trek from building to building to access supplies. The tunnels could have moved forces from one side of the island to the other, too.
As he and Harrison walk through the massive hallways during the TV show, Bourne says, “There’s about a kilometer of this. Some go that way, some go this way.” He adds that the network also contains “huge underground stores where they obviously put all of the ammunition.”
Miles O’Leary, a writer for Plymouth newspaper The Herald, also visited the Drake’s Island tunnels. He described his own descent into the dark passageways and pointed out a few more interesting features, too. For one thing, he wrote, he saw underground barracks “where soldiers protecting Plymouth and the Royal Navy from harm once slept.”
“There’s something fascinating to uncover at every step, like mini shafts used to send shells back up to the outside,” O’Leary continued. And those who’d entered into the tunnels with flashlights would’ve seen more – namely one of the underground rooms with bright-colored paint on its walls.
As we’ve heard, once the soldiers left Drake’s Island, it became a children’s adventure center. And, during that time, visitors would’ve headed into the underground tunnels – then decorated with multicolored brushstrokes of paint – for parties. They would’ve “[belted] out tunes from the likes of The Who and Bob Marley,” O’Leary wrote.
Another feature that struck O’Leary when he toured the facility was that the rave room connects to the rest of the underground tunnels seamlessly. “The tunnel network isn’t random – you end up right back at the start where the first tunnel crops up on the Island, giving soldiers quick and easy undercover access between camp and the casemates,” he wrote.
The BBC’s Harrison may have put it best when she notes the mystery of the Drake’s Island tunnels as she walks through them. “It’s quite strange because they’re not caves, they’re not mines, they’re clearly human places,” she says. “You could ask so many questions.” And after contemplating all of the people who’d walked through the mysterious passageways, she knew the structure itself still had plenty of stories to tell, adding, “The secrets of these walls, eh?”