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  • Writer's pictureRoyston Nicholls

Polperro – Idyllic Cornish Fishing Village

Although the village does get swamped by holidaymakers in the summer, Polperro is everyone’s idea of a Cornish fishing village, with its narrow streets, tightly packed ancient fishermen's houses, quaint harbour, and rugged coastline. Choose your time, and go out of season, and Polperro will live up to your expectations. In Cornish, Polperro is known as Porthpyra, meaning Pyra's cove. Who Pyra was we are not sure, but the anglicised name derives from the Pol river that runs through the village in to the harbour.

In medieval times the village was principally a fishing village, catching the locally abundant pilchards. In the 18th century, when taxes and import duties were increased, the local fisherman took to smuggling luxury goods such as lace, tea, gin, brandy, and tobacco from the continent. Smuggling was a lucrative and well organised ‘trade’, in which whole communities would be involved. Kipling’s poem, A Smuggler’s Song, describes it well…

If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse's feet,

Don't go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street,

Them that ask no questions isn't told a lie.

Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by.

Five and twenty ponies,

Trotting through the dark -

Brandy for the Parson, 'Baccy for the Clerk.

Laces for a lady; letters for a spy,

Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by!

Polperro boats also took to privateering. These were privately funded and outfitted ships, licenced by the Admiralty to attack and capture enemy ships, usually French, but sometimes Dutch or Spanish. Privateering was also very lucrative and made many local people rich, but sometimes it could too tempting when a heavily laden British East Indiaman came sailing by, so the difference between privateering and piracy could be fine!

The coastline around Polperro is rugged and can be dangerous, suffering frequent storms, and the village, harbour and local fishing boats have all suffered badly from hurricane-like winds. During one particularly violent storm in 1817 thirty large boats, two seiners and many smaller boats were destroyed, many parts of the village flooded, and several houses swept away. Much of the harbour had to be rebuilt afterwards. On 9 December 1708, the East Indiaman Albemarle was blown ashore with a valuable cargo of diamonds, coffee, pepper, silk and indigo. The precise location of the wreck is yet to be discovered!

Although Polperro is still an active fishing port (I am not sure about the smuggling), since the 19th century tourism has become the main industry, with many visitors drawn to the picturesque village, with its narrow streets and pretty harbour. The narrow streets make it almost impossible for cars and tourists who do not want to walk are shuttled from the nearest car park by horse and carts or milk floats disguised as trams. On the bright side, those who do elect to walk, pass several pasty shops on their way to the village (another form of, more genteel, piracy?), so usually have their lunch ready by the time they reach the harbour, half-a-mile away.

Talland Bay

Apart from exploring the village, boat rides are available from the harbour, to view the beautiful coastline and spot seals and dolphins, and there are wonderful walks along the coastal path, particularly to nearby Talland Bay. There are some good pubs in Polperro, but my favourite is the Three Pilchards, close to the harbour, and should you want to try something other than pasties, I can highly recommend the seafood in Polperro!

All photos courtesy of the public domain

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