Fishing villages and tales of smugglers round the Lizard
A maze of narrow lanes sunk between high, grassy banks sprawls away to the east of the road between Helston and Lizard Point, the southernmost point on the British mainland. Explorers are rewarded by beautiful little coves, several of which are overlooked by clusters of picture-postcard cottages with thatched roofs and whitewashed walls. By contrast, the Lizard’s western coast is lined by cliffs and almost uninhabited.
Cliffs 200 ft high rise on either side of this spectacular cove whose sandy beach is completely covered at high tide. The Lizard peninsula’s complex geology, with its juxtaposition of hard and soft rocks, has enabled the sea to carve the cliffs into caves, arches and tidal islets where sea-birds nest. The most dramatic feature, known locally as the Devil’s Bellows, is a fissure through which the sea roars and spurts like a vast steam-engine. From the nearest car park, which is privately owned, the beach can be reached in about 5 minutes, down flights of steps set into the turf. The beach can only be used for a few hours at low tide, and its many caves can only be explored then.
A narrow lane runs out of the village to a tongue of wave-washed rocks marking the southern tip of mainland Britain. They form a natural breakwater for Polpeor Cove, where a few small fishing boats rest on a sand-and-shingle beach on which a lifeboat was stationed from 1914 to 1959.
Lizard Point, the landfall for countless homecoming sailors, is also the site of a lighthouse whose 5 million candlepower beam can be seen from a distance of 21 miles. The original lighthouse, Cornwall’s first, was built on the headland by Sir John Killigrew of Falmouth in 1619. The project was bitterly opposed by the locals: ‘They have been so long used to reap profit by the calamity of the ruin of shipping that they claim it as hereditary’, Sir John noted.
RARE FLOWERS OF THE LIZARD The mild climate of Cornwall’s southern coast encourages the growth of wild flowers seldom found elsewhere in Britain. The Lizard is the place where Cornish heath grows most abundantly. A prostrate form of wild asparagus and four rare species of clover also grow on the peninsula.
East of the lighthouse, House) Bay’s small, sandy beach nestles below Pen Olver, the cliff from which the Spanish Armada was first sighted in 1588. It was also used by Marconi in 1901 when he made radio contact with the Isle of Wight a few months before the first transmission across the Atlantic. Lizard village, on a windy plateau, is a centre for the making of ornaments from serpentine, the local rock whose delicate shades and patterns are highlighted by careful polishing. It became fashionable in 1846, when Queen Victoria visited Cornwall and ordered a serpentine table. A museum housed in a threshing barn displays exhibits concerned with Cornish history.
Thatched and whitewashed cottages, their walls bright with roses in summer, are passed during the 5 minute walk from the church of St Wynwallow to a small, rocky inlet used by crab and lobster boats. The steep slipway is overlooked by a lifeboat house built at the end of the 19th century, but the boat is now based at Kilcobben, a short walk to the south.
There is limited parking near the church, where the last sermon in the Cornish language is said to have been preached at the end of the 17th century. One of the church’s memorials commemorates the 11 members of the crew of the MV Polperro who were lost when she was sunk by German E-boats in Mount’s Bay in 1944.
Squeezed into a narrow valley with thatched cottages lining the cliffs around, Cadgwith has been a favourite subject for artists for more than a century. The quaint old buildings run down to a shingle cove with low-tide sand where small boats that fish for crab, lobster and mackerel are beached.
A few yards to the north is another cove of big, sea-smoothed boulders where sands are revealed by the ebbing tide. The steep slopes above the beach are notable for England’s only wood of dwarf elms. A short walk southwards along the cliffs leads to the Devil’s Frying-pan, a 200 ft deep hole caused by the collapse of a cave.
Cars are parked on the outskirts of the village, a 2 minute walk from the sea.
Set back from the sea, and watched over by its ivy-clad church tower, Ruan Minor is the starting point for a 3 mile nature trail which visits Poltesco, Carleon Cove, Cadgwith and St Ruan. The walk takes in a fascinating variety of scenery, from wooded valleys to clifftop paths, and illustrates many aspects of the area’s natural history.
This peaceful little cove, a 10 minute walk from Poltesco, was the home of the Lizard Serpentine Company which flourished in the 19th century. It employed nearly 100 people and produced mantlepieces, shop fronts and ornamental urns from the dark green mottled stone quarried near by. Many of the highly polished shop fronts were made for businesses in London and Paris. Two small buildings still stand near the water’s edge. The stream which forms a small pool in the shingle at the top of the beach used to turn the wheel which provided power for the factory.
Two beaches, joined at low tide, combine to make this one of the longest stretches of sand on the eastern side of the Lizard peninsula. It is a popular place for bucket-and-spade families, and the clear waters offshore attract divers. There are surfboards for hire.
One of the Lizard peninsula’s most memorable villages, Coverack overlooks a sand-and-shingle bay where the sea is remarkably clear. Diving is not allowed, but boats may use the quaint little fishing harbour on payment of a fee to the harbourmaster.
Coverack is one of the many Cornish villages where smuggling once supplemented the fishing industry. One local smuggler is said to have worked in league with his wife who pegged a bright red shirt to the clothes line when it was safe for him to come ashore with contraband. The Paris Hotel by the harbour takes its name from an American ship which ran aground at the turn of the century. Her passengers and crew, more than 700 people in all, were brought safely to shore, and the ship was eventually refloated. One of the village’s gift shops used to be a store for salt that was packed into barrels to preserve pilchards.
Deadly rocks lying a mile offshore have wrecked hundreds of ships and claimed thousands of lives over the centuries. They include 106 passengers and crew from the liner Mohegan which went down in 1898. Forty-three years earlier the rocks claimed 196 lives when the John, an emigrant ship sailing from Plymouth for Canada, was lost. In 1809 two vessels came to grief on The Manacles within hours of each other. One was the Despatch, homeward bound with troops from the Peninsular War with Spain, the other was the 18-gun brig Primrose. More than 200 men were drowned in the double tragedy.
The reef can be seen from Manacle Point, a short walk from Porthoustock.
In calm weather it is a popular area for fishing from boats.
Cottages of cob and local stone are grouped around a large square in this village on the high plateau of the Lizard. Dominating the village is the octagonal spire of St Keverne’s Church, which has been a landmark for sailors for 300 years. The spire was rebuilt in 1770 after the original one was struck by lightning.
More than 400 victims of shipwrecks on The Manacles are buried in the graveyard at
St Keverne, and there are numerous memorials to victims in the church. The name ‘Manacles’ derives from the Cornish words men eglos, ‘stone church’.
In 1497 St Keverne’s blacksmith, Michael Joseph, joined with Thomas Flammock of Bodmin to lead a rebellious army of 15,000 men to London in protest against heavy taxes imposed by Henry VII. Their venture ended at Blackheath, where they were defeated by 25,000 men of the king’s army. Joseph and Flammock were captured and executed.
The former quarrying village of Porthoustock is a base for divers who explore The Manacles reef for wrecks. The seas off the Lizard peninsula have much to offer marine archaeologists, but strong currents and other hazards demand a great deal of experience and local knowledge.
Abandoned quarry buildings stand sentinel on either side of the bay, where small fishing boats are beached on a broad bank of shingle that is also used as a car park. A sandy beach is revealed at low tide.
From Porthallow’s small beach, where storm-tossed shingle leads to low-tide sand, there are splendid views across Falmouth Bay to St Mawes, the gleaming white lighthouse on St Anthony Head and the distant bulk of Dodman Point, some 16 miles away. The beach is overlooked by an attractive group of whitewashed cottages.
In the village pub, The Five Pilchards, are relics from the four-masted Bay of Panama which was hurled against the cliffs of Nare Point during a violent storm in 1891.
PLACE TO SEE INLAND
Trelowarren. 6 miles NW of Coverack. Mansion of the Restoration period (late 17th century). Some days in summer.