Wanderer at Large: Devon & Cornwall – Polperro & Polruan

A tour guide’s all-time favourite UK places.

Sponsored by Your London Tours.

This September, Visit Britain, the marketing arm of the British tourist industry, is launching its ‘Great British Staycation Campaign’ to encourage people to holiday in the UK.

Soul City Wanderer (aka Frank Molloy) is one of the UK’s most accredited and experienced tour guides. Over three decades he has visited nearly every part of the country, touring many of the places that Great Britain and Ireland has to offer.

In a new blog series, he will list his all-time favourite five places by area (spiralling out from London*). These are personal choices, some obvious, some obscure.

This week, the area of England that includes the counties of Devon & Cornwall.

Polperro village by ukgardenphotos. CC license BY-NC-ND 2.0

Polperro & Polruan

Start out early for the journey to the Cornish fishing villages of Polperro and Polruan. It’s worth a whole day’s visit. From Plymouth, take the A38 via Tamar Bridge, then the A374 at Trerulefoot roundabout and finally the A387 via Looe. Park in the car park on the A387 approach road (which is actually larger than the village!) then walk or take the little shuttle bus down the hill to picturesque Polperro.

Polperro was once the centre of one of the most synonymous aspects of Cornish culture: smuggling. The ‘Cornish Free Trade’, as it became known, really expanded after 1780 when massive tax hikes were imposed on imported goods after the American War of Independence. Not income tax – just high duties. For example, tea was taxed at 110%, brandy 250%. Salt was taxed at 40 times the value of the salt itself, an increase of 4,000%!

French merchants sold goods directly from the French coast, and vast open ships of smuggled goods were transported over the channel to be hidden among the secret coves on the Cornish coast, which was ineffectually policed by revenue men.

Many well-known sayings are connected with the illicit trade such as ‘the coast is clear’ and ‘bootlegging.’ Local operator Zephaniah Job owned his own ship The Lottery. He was known as the Smuggler’s Banker. He even printed his own banknotes. His secret diaries and account books were found at the Crumplehorn Inn in Polperro (a cosy place to stop for lunch, just opposite the car park). Another infamous 18thcentury smuggler was John Carter, aka the King of Prussia. There is a pub in the fishing village of Fowey which takes this name.

Up to 20% of government income was lost to smuggling in this period. In 1783, a new government coalition was formed with 24-year-old William Pitt as Prime Minister. He cut the taxes, and that seemed to calm the smuggling trade a little. But then the French Revolution took over government business. It meant more tax rises, and guess what? The smuggling trade took off again.

After the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, when the Royal Navy ended the threat of French invasion, the smuggler trade began to be curtailed. The Channel Islands closed their ports to free smugglers, and the Royal Navy was now free to hunt smuggling ships, which they did with an aggressive shoot to kill policy. Captain Bray captured the Lottery.

To carry on, hardcore smugglers needed more invention. They began to trade in smaller cargoes of higher value, sailed in smaller nippier boats called gigs, and used underwater barrels to get the goods ashore.

But the smugglers’ days were numbered. In 1822, various bands of revenue officers formed the Coastguard Service. The tin and copper industry became more lucrative locally, and moral attitudes began to shift as Methodism took hold in Cornwall. The final nail in the barrel was the Free Trade Act of 1842 which slashed taxes to the extent that legal brandy did not cost not much more than smuggled brandy. Getting caught was now just not worth the risk, and it really signalled the end of the old smuggling industry.

However, a visit to the fascinating Smuggler’s Museum in Polperro and you will find the illicit trade still actually continues in other forms today, notably drugs.

After your visit to the museum, enjoy some fish & chips from ‘Chip Ahoy’ while you dangle your legs over the sea wall and watch the fishing boats bob up and down in the quay.

Many local fishermen trade in Pilchards (sardines) during late summer and early autumn. Most are exported to restaurants around the Mediterranean. They require tons of salt to preserve them, so that helps out another local industry.  

Further along the coast from you will find a hidden Cornish gem of a beach, Lantic Bay, perfect for a quick dip. Then you will come across another even smaller Cornish fishing village named Polruan. The writer Daphne Du Maurier lived here. She wrote her famous book Jamaica Inn about the smuggling trade. She also wrote The Birds here, which laterbecame famous as a film, now set in California and directed by none other than Alfred Hitchcock.

Smuggle your way to Polperro & Polruan and you won’t be disappointed.

Note: All sites mentioned were operating pre-lockdown. Please check relevant websites before embarking on any potential visit. Another recommendation will appear tomorrow.

For the very best in guided private tours of the UK visit www.yourlondontours.com

*Operators in the UK tour industry often separate the areas of the country according to what touring can be achieved in a region in one day. As a London-based operator, my ‘map’ spirals outwards from the capital and is separated thus:

  1. London
  2. Northern Home Counties (Beds/Herts/Cambs)
  3. Eastern Home Counties (Essex/Suffolk)
  4. Southern Home Counties (Kent, Surrey, Sussex)
  5. Western Home Counties (Ox/Berks/Bucks)
  6. South coast (Hants/Dorset)
  7. Western England (Somerset/Gloucs/Wilts)
  8. South West England (Devon & Cornwall)
  9. Wales (north & south)
  10. Welsh Borders (Herefordshire/Shropshire/Cheshire)
  11. Western Midlands (Brum/Worcs/Warks/Staffs)
  12. Eastern Midlands (Northants/Leics/Rutland/Hunts)
  13. Northern Midlands (Notts/Derbys)
  14. East coast (Norfolk/Lincs)
  15. Yorks (all ridings)
  16. North West (Manchester/Merseyside/Lancs/Lakes/Cumbria)
  17. North East (Durham/Tyne & Wear/Northumberland)
  18. Southern Scotland (Borders/Lowlands)
  19. Northern Scotland (Highlands/Islands)
  20. Ireland (Northern/Southern)

Published by Soul City Wanderer

Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

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