The dramatic promontory known as Rame Head lies at the south-eastern
tip of Cornwall, close to the mouth of the Tamar estuary. Flint
tools found in the vicinity of the headland indicate that the area
has been occupied from as far back as the
Mesolithic period. During
the Iron Age the headland was severed from the mainland by a
substantial ditch and rampart stretching across the narrow isthmus
to create a cliff castle. The rampart is still visible although the
bank is very overgrown and the ditch has partially silted up. Cliff
castles are by their very nature sited in bleak windswept locations,
and it is doubtful whether they could ever have been constructed as
permanent settlements. At Rame Head there are slight traces of what
might be house sites lying within a large natural hollow to the
north of the crest, and there may also be some other banks and
terraces in the interior. The site has not been excavated, but there
is good evidence from other cliff castles for round houses and other
structures within their ramparts. The presence of Bronze Age barrows
on the nearby clifftops or inside the ramparts of several cliff
castles indicates a continuity of attention on these sites over more
than a thousand years, and suggests that they may have held a deeper
significance. Whilst the ramparts seem to imply a defensive role, it
is possible that, as with hillforts, these could be the means to
demonstrate the status of the site and the power and importance of
its owners. Seen in this way it is possible to envisage a range of
functions for cliff castles, including a role as social and
administrative centres, meeting places for religious ritual or
seasonal gatherings, or as neutral places for the conduct of trade.
In the mediæval period a chapel was constructed on the headland
and, in common with many other chapels and churches in high and
rocky places, was dedicated to St Michael the Archangel. Its
isolated and prominent location, together with the fact that the
manor of Rame was owned by Tavistock Abbey in the 10th century may
suggest that the site originated as an Early Mediśval hermitage.
However, it is not recorded until 1397; in 1425 a licence was
granted for mass to be held here every Monday and at Michaelmass.
The chapel is well constructed out of local slates probably cut from
the surrounding rocks and cliffs and it still retains an impressive
barrel vaulted stone roof which has helped preserve the structure.
Traces of render survive in places suggesting that both interior and
exterior were rendered and white- washed so that it would have been
an eye-catching feature for vessels approaching Plymouth Sound.
Internally there is some structural evidence to suggest the later
addition of a stone staircase and upper storey. Restoration of the
chapel took place in 1882 for William Henry, IVth Earl of Mount
Edgcumbe, but the building has been ruinous for the majority of the
It is recorded in the fifteenth century accounts of the Borough of
Plymouth that a watchman was to be paid to maintain a beacon on Rame
Head, and to give news of incoming vessels. During the attempted
invasion by the Spanish Armada in 1588 another entry records that
two watchmen were paid to keep a look out for Spanish vessels
sailing along the coast. An anti-submarine gun was mounted on a
platform here during World War I and hydrophones were used
to detect passing submarines. During World War II a concrete gun
platform was constructed to the south of the chapel and a
modification to the window in the south wall of the chapel is
possibly evidence of a doorway connecting the two structures. A
mobile radar installation was also sited here during WWII.
Rame Head lies within the Mount Edgcumbe Country Park, to the
south-west of Rame village and can be accessed by public footpath
from a car park at SX 4209 4876.
Firth, A, Watson, K, and Ellis, C, 1998. Tamar Estuaries
Historic Environment: a review of marine and coastal archaeology.
Plymouth Archaeology Occasional Publication No. 3, 1998. ISBN
Pye, A, and Woodward, F, 1996. The Historic Defences of Plymouth.
Cornwall County Council. ISBN 1 898166 46 3.
Thomas, N, 1993. A Brief Historical and Archaeological Survey of St
Michaelís Chapel, Rame Head. Historic Environment Service,
Cornwall County Council.