POLRUAN AND FOWEY BLOCKHOUSES
Built to protect a port that was the base of English Privateers during the Hundred Years War, the Polruan and Fowey Blockhouses operated as a pair and controlled a chain barrier that barred access into the harbour. Later the control of the Polruan Blockhouse by Royalist forces would lead to the surrender of a Parliamentary Army under the Earl of Essex.
The small town of Fowey was established when Tywardreath Priory granted a charter formally recognising the town in 1300. Positioned on the River Fowey at the point where it flows into the English Channel, the natural harbour made it a superb location for shipping and a flourishing maritime trade emerged with Europe. As with other coastal towns, such as Dartmouth, the sailors that operated out of the port had a reputation for aggressive, almost piratical practises. Such behaviour saw Fowey become a wealth town during the Hundred Years War as its sailors turned to privateering - effectively government sanctioned piracy. The privateers called themselves the "Fowey Gallants".
By the 1380s the Hundred Years War was turning against the English and the residents of Fowey feared they would become a target of French raids. Initially hiring a force of 160 archers equipped with the English Longbow - a formidable weapon that had recently won major engagements on land at Crecy and sea at Slurs - the town eventually built substantive defences in the form of two rectangular Blockhouses. These structures, which had thick walls and internal gun positions firing through key-hole penetrations, were positioned at Fowey and on the other bank at Polruan. Small calibre cannon were installed on both towers. Unfortunately they proved insufficient to stop a French attack in 1457 which led to the upgrading of the defences with a boom barrier - a thick chain that blocked access to enemy ships but which was dropped to the seabed for allied vessels. This chain was confiscated in 1478 by Edward IV - who had been offended by the behaviour of two Fowey locals, Treffry and Michelstow - and given to Dartmouth Castle where a similar defensive arrangement existed.
The defences around Fowey were upgraded in the sixteenth century as part of fortifications built along the south coast by Henry VIII to protect the Kingdom against invasion following the English Reformation. Fowey was deemed particularly vulnerable and accordingly St Catherine's Castle was built on the cliffs overlooking the estuary entrance. Thomas Treffry, a descendant of the individual who had upset Edward IV resulting in the confiscation of the defensive chain, oversaw construction of St Catherine’s Castle.
The invasion Henry VIII feared never came but Fowey did see action during the Civil War between King Charles I and Parliament. The town, along with much of the South West, was under Royalist control. However, in 1644 a Parliamentary force under Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex attempted to wrest control of the area to deny the King the valuable income from the local tin mining that was sustaining the Royalist war machine. The attempted incursion failed spectacularly resulting in Essex’s forces being encircled by a much larger Royalist army near Bodmin. The subsequent fight – the Battle of Lostwithiel (1644) – was an attempt by Essex to keep the road to Fowey open so he could evacuate his forces by sea. He had high hopes given Parliament's control of the navy but ultimately his plan failed as the Royalists secured full control of the Polruan Blockhouse and the high ground opposite the harbour denying its use to the Parliamentarians. Although Essex himself escaped, the greater part of his infantry was forced to surrender.
The two blockhouses continued to be manned after the war and, in conjunction with St Catherine's Castle, repelled an attempted Dutch attack in 1667. Time and coastal erosion has not been kind to the Fowey Blockhouse but the one at Polruan remains well preserved.
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Polruan Blockhouse is a roofless ruin but has been stabilised and is free to enter. The gunports can be seen as can the remains of the stairs. Fowey Blockhouse is ruinous with only foundations remaining and these are best viewed at a distance from the Polruan blockhouse.
Fowey Harbour viewed from Polruan. Note St Catherine’s Castle on the far left and the remains of the Fowey blockhouse near the centre.
Fowey Blockhouse. Not much is left of Fowey Blockhouse.
Polruan Blockhouse. Polruan is better preserved and free to enter.
Polruan Harbour viewed from Fowey. The Blockhouse is visible near the centre. The headland on the left housed gun emplacements during WWII.
Parking is available at both Fowey and Polruan although the former has better road links into the area. During Summer a regular ferry (approx every 15mins) shuttles between the two villages.
Car Park (Fowey)