I spy a smugglers’ den

Arundhati Basu | Updated on January 22, 2018
Country pleasures The Looe river sunders the town into East and West Looe. Photo: Arundhati Basu

Country pleasures: The Looe river sunders the town into East and West Looe. Photo: Arundhati Basu

Cornish tea, scones, clotted cream and raspberry jam. Photo: Arundhati Basu

Cornish tea, scones, clotted cream and raspberry jam. Photo: Arundhati Basu

Romantic stories of fishing and illicit trade go hand in hand in the narrow, cobbled lanes of villages in Cornwall’s southeast quarter

Ever since I got sucked into the vortex of Daphne du Maurier’s mysterious novels, the Cornish landscape, in my fanciful mind, has been branded with swashbuckling smugglers, hidden coves, stormy seas and vast swathes of moors. Reality, however, has a habit of cutting in with a scythe. A bright summer’s day of ice creams, coffee and a soul-satisfying, greasy breakfast in a local café in Fowey, in the south of England, was a perfect foil to such perceptions.

Smuggling fills the imagination with romantic connotations but the picture was bleak during the 18th century when an economic crisis had Britain in its grip. Fighting the American War of Independence proved too expensive for the country. Taxes were at an all-time high. Quality salt, imported from Brittany and Spain, which was key to preserving pilchards in the fishing communities of Cornwall, was heavily taxed. It was a matter of desperation, and about 500km from Westminster, the scene was ripe for smuggling. It became a way of life for the entire community, vicars and teachers often included.

Dangling my legs from the walls of the harbour, I watched the machinations of the ancient seaport town of Fowey — the turquoise waters of its estuary, bold gulls swooping across the sky and wailing harshly as painted boats sailed in. Across it stood Ferryside, Maurier’s whitewashed family cottage with bright blue shutters, in the hamlet of Bodinnick.

During that time of idyllic contemplation, I could relate to the writer’s fascination for it in the 1920s when, as a 19-year-old, she noted in her diary: “All I want is to be at Fowey. Nothing and no one else.”

For, time has a habit of standing still in Cornwall. Romantic stories of fishing and smuggling go hand in hand with the narrow, cobbled lanes of these hilly outposts of the Cornish southeast quarter.

I was on a four-day break with my husband and a few friends, staying in a Victorian cottage in the fishing town of Looe. Positioned high up on a hilly road, its French windows opened to a view of an aquamarine sea and cottages clinging to the sides of cliffs, which dipped dramatically into the sea. When the tide came in, we could see seawater flowing into the Looe river, which sunders the town into East Looe and West Looe.

We were in East Looe, the more bustling quarter, where a grid of streets is populated by pubs that were once the haunt of smugglers, pasty shops, and bookshops along with a smattering of crêperies, cafés and bakeries.

Pubs such as Smugglers Cott and Ye Olde Jolly Sailor, formerly smuggling haunts in Looe, have their share of thrilling tales. While digging into a hefty lunch at the Smugglers Cott, we heard about an old tunnel that was discovered there, leading all the way to the fishing quay. Meanwhile, the story goes that the landlady of Ye Olde Jolly Sailor hid a contraband keg beneath her petticoat during a sudden raid and knitted away with poise as her quarters were searched. Today, shark angling and crabbing have taken over in popularity from smuggling.

Following the trail of the smuggling villages, we reached Polperro. The pretty town on the Pol river, about 6.5km from Looe, is a popular residence for artists. I loved the way its old fishermen’s cottages, unsullied by time, hugged the sides of the harbour.

We stopped at The House on the Props, an atmospheric tea room with low wooden beams, tucked away in one of the town’s narrow alleys. Over a pot of Cornish tea, complete with scones, clotted cream and raspberry jam, I took small bites of its history — the cottage had a secret staircase leading in from the river and was involved in ‘Cornish free trade’, the local euphemism for smuggling.

“A woman who stayed here, fashioned out an innovative way of warning smugglers of the approach of excise men. She put a doll dressed as an Englishman in her shop window,” said the lady of The Props. From a sleepy little fishing village, Polperro became a syndicate of smuggling under the careful watch of a local merchant, Zephaniah Job, who was dubbed “the smuggler’s banker”.

With my childhood association with Pears soap, I was excited to reach our next stop, Mevagissey. It was home to Andrew Pears, the founder of the brand, and is made distinct by its twin harbours. Yet Mevagissey was one of the biggest smuggling towns in the southeast of Cornwall. False-bottomed boats hid contraband goods and smugglers became cannier to beat the coast guards. In tandem, Methodism grew and it frowned upon smuggling. In those last days, the smugglers started publishing their memoirs in the 1890s, some of which are available in old bookshops in Cornwall.

On our last night in Looe, we spent time on the sandy stretch of the beach where smugglers unloaded their contraband goods. I could picture it. The silhouette of a ship as it pulled in with 400-500 men on board but mooring a little away from the shore. Then smaller boats being sent out to the beach with booties of brandy, rum and gin. The men scurrying to get their goods in under the cover of the night. And to my mind came unbidden ‘A Smuggler’s Song’ (Rudyard Kipling): 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.

Travel Log

Getting there

From London there are three ways of going to Cornwall - a sleeper train, car hire or a flight to the airport at New Quay.


Go glamping (glamorous camping) to Pencuke Farm (www.pencukefarm.co.uk/) in North Cornwall. Or stay off-grid at The

Old Coach House at The Labyrinth (www.thelabyrinth.org.uk/) in Looe.


Do not miss out on Tintagel, Minack Theatre and St Michael’s Mount, which are rather unique to the Cornish landscape.

Arundhati Basu is a freelance writer based in Northampton, UK

Published on November 20, 2015

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