Although it is well known in Cornwall, we had never heard of Polperro until our friend Janet mentioned her grandfather came from there (see “A couple nights in London, June 2015). She had never been there, so we decided immediately we had to visit it just to send her pictures. Thus through a casual lunchtime conversation, we stumbled into a wonderfully picturesque Cornish coastal town.
On the way, we passed through the better known Victorian resort town of Lyme Regis. We were unable to find a room in mid-afternoon. The streets were steep and would have been difficult for Alie to negotiate, and it was already very crowded in early May. The harbor, not natural, was created by an artificial wall, “The Cobb,” featured in Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion and John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Perhaps our disappointment with Lyme Regis heightened the pleasure we took in Polperro.
The River Pol, just a stream in normal times, flows down a narrowing valley through the town into the cove that opens into the sea. “Polperro” comes from the Cornish variously for “Pyra’s Cove” or “Pol’s Cove” or other phrases depending on your source.
Fisherman built their cottages and equipment sheds on the hillsides. From early medieval times, they fished by day and smuggled by night. Some say smuggling reached its peak in the 18th century. Others say it continued into the twentieth century with drug smuggling.
Fishing boats still go out, but tourism is the main industry today. The town fathers (and presumably mothers) are smart, however. They don’t want cars and lorries (trucks) getting lost and obstructing the narrow twisting village streets which were built for donkey carts not the internal combustion engine. Tourists are provided — at a charge — a large parking lot up the valley and a shuttle into town for those who need it.
There are still Saxon and Roman bridges. A house on the harbor has upper floors cantilevered out over the river supported by props that look crooked tree limbs.
First floor rooms that once housed fishing gear, now have restaurants and shops. There are B&Bs and vacation homes for rent.
Colorful small boats still bob in the harbor (at high tide, that is), and there is a trail above a cave and a beach (at low tide) to a point where one can look out along the rugged coast or back into the village.
We were told that during the Hundred Year’s War, an iron chain was strung across the harbor to keep out French and Spanish ships. Now there is a high wall across the harbor with a gate that can be closed to protect against marauding storms.
The town was also often attacked by the flooding River Pol until a flood water diversion tunnel was completed in 1997. Three meters in diameter and 1200 meters long, it runs from up the valley near the parking lot through a hill to the sea.
There is a small but interesting museum in an old warehouse where we learned the tale of Robert Jeffery, a local boy marooned on a desert island in 1806 by his naval captain for stealing a buddy’s beer. He survived and was rescued by an American ship. Other exhibits suggest that at one time or another, everyone in the village including merchants, a local noble and a minister were involved in smuggling.
Click on pictures to enlarge them.