For those of us who live in or regularly visit Plymouth, the breakwater is such a familiar sight that we probably don’t appreciate its significance. Yet, it’s been described as ‘the Channel Tunnel of its era’ and a feat of ‘engineering ambition played out in the toughest of environments’.
Here are some more fascinating facts and figures about it:
- It took around 30 years to complete and required around 4 million tonnes of stone – almost as much as the Great Pyramid at Giza, Egypt
- To provide the stone the Breakwater Quarry at Oreston was opened on 7 August 1812
- Five days later, the first seven-tonne limestone block was dropped on to the seabed two miles from the Hoe. The stone was transported to the site by a specially converted sailing barge. John Rennie was present and wrote to his son: “I have just returned from depositing the foundation stone of the breakwater in Plymouth Sound. There were 2,000 people afloat and marine bands.”
- By March 1813 the breakwater was visible at low water. Two years later, over 915 metres (1,000 yards) were showing and it was reported that groups of people were spending all night out on it drinking and dancing!
- In the summer of 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte, a prisoner aboard HMS Bellerophon, described it as a ‘highly honourable’ achievement
- The breakwater is nearly a mile long (1,560 metres / 1,710 yards) – around the length of 20 Olympic swimming pools
- It measures 13 metres (43 feet) wide at the top and 65 metres (213 feet) wide at the base
- It lies in about 10 metres (33 feet) of water
- It cost over £1.5 million to build – the equivalent of over £87 million in today’s money
- More than 200 years since its foundation stone was laid, it’s still one of the largest freestanding marine structures in Britain
- Nowadays, special permissions from the Queens Harbour Master are needed if you wish to land on the breakwater, but engravings from the Regency era (1811-1820) and prints and photographs dating from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s show visitors on it, taking walks and having picnics – like the three images above
- When the breakwater lighthouse was completed in July 1844, the landlord of the London Inn on Vauxhall Street transported a horse bus out to the breakwater. For the price of a shilling visitors who had sailed out could take the bus for a trip from one end of the breakwater, around the lighthouse and back!
- In a separate horse-related incident, an Exmoor Pony was discovered on the breakwater in 1952. No explanation for this has ever been found. The pony was auctioned, sold to a farmer and later named ‘Trixie’.