A narrow, rock-flanked lane whose trees form a leafy tunnel in summer drops steeply down from Higher Porthpean to a sandy beach with fine views across St Austell Bay to Gribbin Head. Its sheltered waters provide safe conditions for bathing, although the beach shelves quite quickly. The ebbing tide reveals patches of rock dappled with pools where prawns can be netted. The village was once a pilchard-fishing community, and the old fish cellars are now used by the local sailing club.
This fascinating little port dates from the end of the 18th century and takes its name from Charles Rashleigh, the local mine-owner who financed the venture. The port was designed by John Smeaton, builder of the Eddystone lighthouse.
Copper was the main export for several years, but Charlestown soon became an important outlet for china clay from the huge workings north of St Austell. The white dust of the china clay mingled on the harbourside with black clouds swirling up from coasters discharging coal.
The narrow dock is still used, and in 1971 the gates were widened from 27 ft to 35 ft and the maximum depth of water retained by them was increased to 17 ft 6 in. The outer harbour is flanked by low-tide beaches of sand and shingle.
Behind the dock, old anchors and naval guns stand outside a visitors’ centre whose exhibits concentrate on shipwrecks and scenes from Charlestown’s history.
East of Gribbin Head, the sandy sweeps of St Austell Bay give way to a series of delightful little beaches backed by cliffs which rise to more than 300 ft. Behind the cliffs, a patchwork of green and gold fields rolls inland, contrasting with the lunar landscape of china-clay workings north of St Austell. Fowey, Polperro and Looe are quaint old ports with narrow streets, old buildings and harbours bright with boats.
Overlooked by a private estate with hotels and a golf course, this long, sandy beach is dominated by a leisure complex which offers a range of attractions from an open-air swimming pool to hamburgers. Sailboards and boats may be hired.
Sands which shelve very gently and run out for half a mile at low tide make this an excellent beach for children. It is overlooked by dunes which shelter a caravan site with a reedy pool. To the west are the tall chimneys and long, low buildings of a works where china clay is processed and loaded into ships at a private harbour built in the 1820s. There are seaside amusements.
‘Cellars’ where pilchards were salted are a reminder that Polkerris was once numbered among Cornwall’s many small fishing ports. Its ‘seine house’, where fish were processed for oil, was once the largest in Cornwall. The sandy beach, flanked by rocks and cliffs, has a breakwater built by the Rashleighs of Menabilly, a house near Gribbin Head. A cafe now occupies the building where a lifeboat was based from 1859 until 1914. Floats and surfboards may be hired.
An 84 ft high ‘daymark’ for mariners, built by Trinity House in 1832, crowns this craggy headland, reached by a 20 minute walk over fields from the car park near Menabilly Barton. Walkers skirt the private grounds of Menabilly, Daphne du Maurier’s home for many years and the ‘Manderley’ of her novel Rebecca. The path passes Polridmouth Cove where trees, shrubs and low cliffs overlook a sandy beach which the headland shelters from south-westerly winds.
Ocean-going ships loading china clay mingle with scores of small craft in the natural harbour whose sheltered waters have made Fowey a busy port since the Middle Ages. Its daring sailors, known as ‘Fowey Gallants’, featured in many medieval campaigns and were at the Siege of Calais in 1346. They also built up a reputation as fearless smugglers and pirates who harried shipping in the English Channel. The little town’s narrow streets run steeply down to quays from which ships of up to 15,000 tons can be seen heading for the wharves where clay is loaded, upstream from the ferry to Bodinnick.
The Haven, a house on the Esplanade, was the home from 1892 until his death in 1944 of the author Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who wrote under the pseudonym of ‘Q’. In his novels he wrote about Fowey under the name of ‘Troy Town’. He was once Mayor of Fowey, and there is a memorial to him on Hall Walk.
Readymoney Cove, south-west of the town centre, has a small, sandy beach framed by cliffs. A wooded path leads to the ruins of St Catherine’s Castle, a fortress built by order of Henry VIII to supplement blockhouses which date from the end of the 14th century. The two blockhouses stood one on each side of the harbour mouth, and a chain was stretched between them to seal off the harbour. Grooves worn in the rocks by the chain can still be seen.
There is a museum and an aquarium, and a regatta and carnival are held in August. Boat trips, river cruises and fishing trips can be arranged.
The narrow street which plunges down to this village at the entrance to the River Fowey is closed to visitors’ cars during the holiday season. Tourists are diverted to a car park with splendid views of Fowey. In the past, many wooden ships were built at Polruan, and there is still a busy boatyard. A passenger ferry runs to Fowey.
A superb beach of low-tide sand, backed by cliffs, is reached after a 10 minute walk across fields from the National Trust car park east of Polruan. Gorse, bracken and blackberry bushes border the path, which loops round Pencarrow Head whose highest point is nearly 450 ft above the sea. On clear days the views embrace more than 80 miles of coast, from the southern tip of Cornwall to
Bolt Tail in Devon.
Exceptionally clear seas wash this secluded bay which faces due south and has several small, low-tide beaches divided by outcrops of rock. The shore is a 15 minute walk from Lansallos, an isolated hamlet with a fascinating 14th-century church. Its features include a medieval bell broken by drunken villagers in the 19th century, and a pulpit, the base of which is part of a pinnacle brought down by lightning in 1923. One gravestone, near the gate, commemorates John Perry, a mariner killed in 1779:
I, by a shot, which rapid flew
Was instantly struck dead.
Lord pardon the offender who
My precious blood did shed.
Old, whitewashed cottages, crammed together like sardines in a can, combine with a picturesque little fishing harbour to make Polperro one of England’s most memorable villages. It has long been a powerful magnet for tourists who throng the astonishingly narrow streets during the holiday season. Non-resident traffic is banned, however, and it takes about 10 minutes to reach the harbour on foot from the car park.
Smuggling and fishing were Polperro’s main sources of income until the 19th century, but the village’s future was threatened by a great storm in 1824. It destroyed several buildings, demolished the breakwaters and wrecked almost 50 boats.
Steep, narrow lanes run down from the A387 to a beach of sand, shingle and rocks flanked by headlands more than 300 ft high. The cliff path to Looe passes landmarks which measure out 1 nautical mile and are used by ships undergoing speed trials.
Haifa mile off Hannafore Point, and reached by launches from Looe, this is the largest island within easy reach of the Cornish coast. It is privately owned, and a haven for sea-birds. During the Second World War the island was bombed by an enemy aircraft whose pilot mistook it for a British warship.
East Looe and West Looe were both granted charters in the 14th century and remained independent communities, each with their own members of Parliament, for the next 500 years. Linked by an old, multi-arched bridge, they stand on either side of a narrow estuary whose tide-washed tributaries flow seawards down deep, wooded valleys.
East Looe’s web of narrow streets is choked with visitors in the holiday season. It is closed to non-resident traffic, but there are ample parking facilities to cater for all but the busiest of days. Fishing boats land their catches at the town’s eastern quay, where sharks are also hauled ashore, weighed and photographed.
A sandy beach at the mouth of the river is sheltered by a jetty known as the Banjo Pier because of its shape. As well as seaside amusements, Looe has a museum, an aquarium and a sub-aqua club.