Stories of ghosts and smugglers, philanthropy, storms and a bustling harbour town still thriving today – Porthleven.
On a warm sunny day, a few of us escape the office to walk round the new Porthleven Town Trail. True to age and preference, I spend the princely sum of £1 on the lovely little guide, while the others have downloaded the free app to their smartphones!
We stroll along the harbour, enjoying the sights and sounds of holidaymakers having fun, to the Bickford-Smith Institute to start, but get distracted by some surfers out by the pier and stop to watch for a while. Though many visitors think the iconic clock tower is part of a church, it currently houses the local snooker club and Town Council offices. William Bickford-Smith, who made his fortune from the invention of a safety fuse for mining explosives, built it for the people of Porthleven as a Literary Institute for the furthering of scientific knowledge. More importantly for local fishermen, one of its four clock faces was lit almost three decades before the village had oil lamps – so would have been a welcome beacon for them to follow back home.
The guide and the app are full of fascinating bits of information about some of the wonderful buildings surrounding the harbour. Who knew that it took a total of four Acts of Parliament to complete the harbour to offer ‘a place of refuge’ to ships caught in storms in Mounts Bay? At its busiest the harbour could hold 200 boats and it was said that you could walk across without getting your feet wet! And that there is only a railing on one side of the pier because groups of men would tow the laden ships out along the harbour and pier with ropes until they could catch the wind in their sails. Porthleven harbour was a hive of activity with four boatbuilding companies; nets, sails, and ropes were made along with a host of trades from cobblers to coopers and bakers to barbers.
We walk on past the old salt cellar where village gatherings often took place with people telling tales and sharing gossip. On Sundays everyone would dress in their best and promenade from the Square to the end of the pier and back… known as ‘taking a turn’. The handsome building of the account house is next – now a lovely art gallery. Then onto Kota that was once the corn-grinding mill, then stables for the horses-drawn bus company and a garage before becoming a restaurant. The Square is a wonderful place to sit and take in all the activity. But we are on a mission and walk round to Breageside. Next is the fish curing stores where six-foot deep vats of brine were kept for preserving pilchards which formed a large part of the local winter diet. Then the china clay store – now Stein’s restaurant – china clay was shipped from Porthleven until the 1930s, mainly to the Staffordshire potteries of Josiah Wedgewood. The old ice house is now holiday lets, and the larger warehouse now home to several professional artists’ studios.
The old lime kiln and was rescued in 2007 by local historians Martin Matthews and Stuart Pascoe. It’s now a Grade II listed building, which doubles as an unusual bar at the Food Festival. Opposite the clock tower is the equally iconic Ship Inn, the oldest pub in Porthleven, allegedly built on top of old smugglers’ tunnels; and haunted by a former landlady and the ghost of a French prisoner of war. Finally the trail ends at the old lifeboat house, now a stunning art gallery.
The trail is the final project for Porthleven’s CIC, who have built the new car park by the football ground and started a marquee hire company to raise money for the town. One of the CIC’s directors, Louise Winterton, meets us and tells me: “This has been a fascinating project and, being a Porthleven girl, one which is very close to my heart. We really could not have completed the project without the support of so many people who supplied us with information, pictures and historical documents. Hopefully visitors and locals will learn more about the rich history of the harbour, its people and the buildings around it!”
We head back to the office full of the things we’ve learnt – some true, some hearsay, but all fascinating. And encourage the rest of the team to take a lunchtime wander.