Cornish Coastal Capers: A Pause in St Mawes

by wandering freditor / Oct 05, 2009 / 0 comments


There is a smell about St Mawes as soon as you reach its lofty, leafy outskirts, and look out across its beautiful bay and over to the entrance to Falmouth. It is the smell of the folding stuff, and lots of it, as the Jaguars, Morgans and Range Rovers in the garages of the much manicured mansions along the waterfront show. The smell of affluence, not effluence, as associated with some earlier visited English coastal towns! Nor ostentatious mind you, just that solid smile that says here dwell successful financiers and doctors, business-people of repute, ill or otherwise. Even the seagulls looked larger and more prosperous, and certainly a lot cleaner than just down the coast. Serene and settled St Mawes exudes ‘posh-ness’, elegance and order, the sort of place where the yachts ride a little higher in the water, the shop windows a look a little more exclusive and all is tidy and kempt. Along its shorefront there is a ladies rowing house (I simply cannot call it an oar house) and an old style garage with three petrol bowsers, unused now, but decidedly decorative, which date back to the 1950’s. None of the tack and drivel of a ‘typical English seaside town’, just the understated luxury of life on the mild side. Why even the heir to the British throne comes here for weeks on end, merely to paint, and that says it all!


Cornish Pastie

Cornish Pastie


St Mawes is a “pretty place”, set on one pincer of the crab-like claw that comprises the Roseland peninsula which juts into the Atlantic. It forms the eastern edge of the great Carrick Roads, full of ships, and beyond, the beautiful harbour at Falmouth. It is the third largest natural harbour in the world, and certainly one of the most picturesque given the combination of estuary, bays and coves, towns, forests and rolling pasture land. And while St Mawes and Falmouth, guarded by their respective Henry VIII castles, which are merely a mile apart across the waters, the road journey between the two is actually thirty miles. Then again, the journey is scenic and aptly named King Harry chain-link car ferry across the River Fal, shortens the journey somewhat. The St Mawes visitors blurb will tell you that the name is associated with a Celtic clergyman and without the hint of a blush, that in 1652 it sent two men to Parliament when in fact all of Cornwall was only served by 44 of such Parliamentary fellows! Down the road, in the more grittily named Looe, they called that sort of ‘representation’ a Rotten Borough, but that is not mentioned in mind your manners St Mawes! It comes as no surprise that when it was decided to make a film about the most enterprising of British admirals, he Horatio Hornblower, much of the landward-ho filming was done in St Mawes. 

We found our way to our B&B, the inimitable Braganza set in the crow’s nest of St Mawes, a superb early nineteenth century two storey house, set among a vast acreage of lawns and a forest of trees, elms and pines, so that it looked as though we were on our own celestial island. It commanded a grand view of the harbour, so full of little yachts at moorings, and a vista towards the heads, and Falmouth. In keeping with the outdoor sights,, the inside of the house was just as exquisite with wonderful antique furniture, an immaculate book-filled drawing room, baronial paintings and etchings on the walls, and a sweeping staircase to the upper floor on which I quite expected to see a sashaying Scarlett O’Hara! The owner, the Grand Dame of St Mawes, tall, lithe and statuesquely handsome as one might see on the prow of the most stately of clippers, alighted from her Mercedes and was followed by her aristocratically apt Hungarian Vizsla retriever dog. In a beautifully modulated posh voice such as only the English can muster, she told us about the history of the house and how it had been bought by her raconteur father – who had also owned two of the main waterfront hotels, and was the doyen of the St Mawes sailing fraternity. Her mother had been a well known poet and had named one of the property’s forest walks after Lord Byron. The good Lord B had been in these parts in 1809 when on a sea journey from Falmouth, he had penned his rollicking Stanza for Braganza. Given the superb view, and the beautifully romantic house, it was easy to conjure up his presence.


St Mawes Harbour Early Morning

St Mawes harbour in the early morning

We made our way down a steep slope, past the Holy Well dating from the sixth century and a stone archway from a century earlier, to the little crooked finger stone pier from where dainty ferries headed for Falmouth. Little yachts with maroon canvas sails, skimmed across the waters in a race, while closer inshore, with breasts rhythmically pressed to the sky with every stroke, eight flaxen haired maidens rowed a whaleboat with gusto. Overhead, the gulls mewed like muzak in a mall, and people stood along the sea-wall watching the nautical endeavour. We found a suitable hotel with outdoor seating, and ordered a Pimms, the only possible ‘with it’ drink for these parts, and watched the ever-changing scene. Then afterwards, we strolled to a leisurely meal at the Ship and Castle hotel where the decor, clientele and meal were suitably staid, with the Port after the meal almost obligatory. As crusty oldies, we felt right at home amongst the upper-crust in St Mawes.

The next morning I was up with the sun to see the coming of the light in a sky now flecked with clouds. I wandered down the hill again, past cottages with names like The Maltings, Bessborough and Sea Haven, past thatched cottages with pink and yellow facings, and as pretty as any in the Cotswolds. All along the shore-line were cottages with peep-through windows and balconies, and stamp-sized gardens with barbeques overlooking the bay, ready for rejoicing in glorious summer. I made my way to the round St Mawes castle, one of the most beautiful castles in England, but now silent and locked, and found a passage to the water’s edge. With the tide low, I scurried like a crab along the rocks, the barrels of four cannon looming over me, to take a ‘looking up at the castle’ photo, but alas I slipped and my small modicum of knightly courage deserted me. From Castle Pendennis, on the Falmouth shore, I was sure that my attempted incursion would have been spotted and I hunched my shoulders for the whiz of a cannon ball, and quickly retreated.

I walked along the water’s edge, back towards the harbour and then down a path below a capped brownstone wall, some ten metres in height, and sat down on one of those wonderfully placed wooden benches that are gifted by the departed. At the foot of the wall, on what was invitingly called Tavern Beach, there were little yachts with orange and yellow hulls, and another with a furled pink jib, now all resting above high water mark. And down the path came a cyclist who passed me with a pleasant “Good Morning” and proceeded to strip into a pair of swimmers. Now I know that the Gulfstream washes these shores, but the water still looked bloody cold, and suitably attired, the bather took a steely breath, and walked into the waters, hands held high like those pictures of marines coming ashore at Tarawa or Normandy! He swam a few lengths of the beach and then came ashore again, looking moderately lobsterish, and towelled himself with great vigour to re-start the blood flow. I imagined him going home to his bacon and eggs after first releasing his wife from her handcuffs and shackles and other bondage devices for surely a dip in those waters were a denial of all pleasure! He passed me again, now sheathed in lycra, for the bicycle ride home, and for a good fifteen minutes we talked most pleasantly about cricket. Ah, only in England, surely, must cricket and pain be such close bed-fellows! Then again, they did have the Ashes, and that was really painful! 


Clovelly Harbour

Clovelly Harbour

I wandered along the bay-side on the appropriately named Tredenham Road, past the Idle Rocks hotel, and looked at the houses and cottages, many with flagpoles signalling patriotism as you see so often in the United States, although it is rarer here. There were all the signposts of England, whitewashed cottages, grey stone houses, red pillar post boxes and phone booths, sweet peas and hydrangeas in flower, apple trees laden with fruit, and in a driveway of one house, a perfectly preserved Morris Minor. I walked to the slumbering little St Mawes Yacht Club, just off Polwarth road, and enjoyed the view between the masts, to a huge manor house at the over-the-water village of Place, the front lawn alone looking as though it had been borrowed from the Lords’ cricket ground. There is constant beauty all around and your eyes sweep the horizons like a radar dish, all the time finding new points of interest. And in this part of the world, you quickly find that most of the names seem to start with Pol or Tre as the Poldarks, Polporaths, Trelawneys and Trevisithicks deftly painted on garden gates, show. And when later I sat at the Braganza breakfast table and looked at it all again, I savoured it once more as though seeing it for the first time.

Later in the day, we took the ferry to Falmouth, on the blue and white Duchess of Cornwall, launched only a few years earlier by the Duchess of Cornwall herself. Indeed, at the blustery unveiling of the boat's plaque, the covering cloth slipped away early and the photo of a laughing Charles and Camilla, both with brollies held high, became that year’s official Christmas Card photo. So who says that the Royals don’t have a sense of humour! On the way over, we passed the 'yacht' Le Grand Bleu, one of Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich's flotilla, and our little Duchess of Cornwall circled the monster as a fleet tender might circle the flagship. We had a brief stop at Custom House Quay and then most appropriately, landed at the Prince of Wales pier.

Falmouth, as the United Kingdom's most southerly good harbour, remains a busy port and is pleasing to the eye as the town climbs amiably up from the quays and docks. So many great sea journeys started out from here; Francis Chichester and Ellen Macarthur in their single-handed round the world feats, Robert Manry in his bathtub-sized Tinkerbelle across the Atlantic, Charles Darwin and the Beagle. Packet boats went from here around the globe and the Royal Navy still has a major base there. Falmouth’s great Pendennis Castle, built by Henry VIII in 1540, guarded against the Spanish Armada, the Parliamentary forces in the Civil War and in World War II, against the Luftwaffe. Kenneth Grahame started his Wind in the Willows there and Harry Potter too has been a 'resident' along with Sebastian Coe and Sir Tim Rice. Yet, it carries its fame lightly and remains very much a 'working town' full of fine Georgian buildings, plenty of taverns and pasty shops, and the magnificent new National Maritime Museum. It is a likeably busy town with twisting streets, with alleys to the docks through which many a drunken sailor must have sloshed, and the town reminded me somewhat of the Rocks area in Sydney.

Wearing my seven league boots, I strode along Market Street, then Church Street, with its gaily painted row houses, and then along a number of others as I laboured my way to Pendennis castle. The castle is beautifully maintained by the Heritage Society and as with most castles, set on the highest ground around. Exhausted, I took in the sweeping views of Falmouth and its superb beaches, the safe anchorage, and the views across to St Mawes. The tail end of Hurricane Bill was upon us and the air was flecked with rainy spittle while whitecaps jostled in Carrick Roads, and I hurried into the castle for sanctuary. Inside, costumed dwellers invited engagement, and a gun deck exhibit seemed suitably lifelike. Still, life in a castle must have been decidedly austere, cramped, windy and cold. I looked briefly too at the WWII fortifications and command posts, the huge coastal guns and then the cannons of Tudor times, before wind assisted, I hurried back to town. There, as befitting such a safe harbour, the Force 6 to 8 winds were but a breeze, but on the way back through Carrick Roads, our boat bucked like a brumby, the Australian wild horse, but the doughty Duchess ploughed on. Like her namesake, she too prevailed o'er the tempest and we found safe landing again at St Mawes. But for a while, Byron had been with us and I recalled his lines;


Here's a stanza
On Braganza
Help! – a couplet – no, a cup
Of warm water
"What's the matter"
Zounds! My liver's coming up

The following day, with the rain still hissing down, we made our way across the Cornish peninsula to the pretty little town of St Agnes, nestled in a valley near the north coast, and then on to the coastal town of Porthrowan with its fine beach. In the rain, the surfers still surfed, but then again, wet is wet, I suppose. We set our course south, grappling with long traffic jams caused by the infernal roundabouts which are simply an incessant logjam for the inveterately polite Englishman. The "after you. No, after you" mentality often leads to a tail-back of several miles! But near Hayle the sun came out, and in a solid line of cars we were directed ever upward till high above St Ives we found a hastily declared parking ground on a vacant allotment. "Five quid mate, but you can stay all day", I was told. We planned to travel many more miles, with only a few hours in St Ives, but by now, having previously been a victim of by-way robbery, I merely reached into my wallet and extracted a 'fiver'. No wonder so many English crims had been sent Down Under, albeit in the 'old days', yet here they were actually sanctioned by the municipality!!


As I was going down into St Ives, I met that man with seven wives, and exchanged alsalam alaikums with him and an inshallah or two when we talked about the ending of the rain. His seven dogs and his seven cats had already preceded him down the hill and we saw them at various stages during our descent, for again we headed down with the throng. I could well understand the coming of the throng, for St Ives is indeed a very attractive place with fine, flower bedecked streets, a large central church, a hunky fishing harbour with sandy reaches, fine views to a distant lighthouse-equipped island, and lots of little ritzy galleries displaying the esoteric and the aesthete in some of our brethren. Why even the Tate Gallery has a branch in St Ives! Oh sure, the harbour rim harboured the usual 'tack collectives' of souvenirs, amusement parlours, and cheap eats, but the place was alive with people and activity, and decidedly friendly. Kids played on the golden sands and around the beached boats, and people picnicked on the pier. A huge aluminium lifeboat sat high on land on its own caterpillar tractor, and I wandered around the lifeboat station and looked at sepia photos of men with walrus moustaches in oilskins and sealskins, and thought of the courage to be launched down a ramp and into a ferocious sea. Indeed, many had paid the ultimate price, even in recent years. So when the rain came again, we were rather sad to leave St Ives.

Outside St Ives, the scenery changes to rock-strewn barren hills, paddocks encased by stone walls, shrubbery, and few tall trees. Under cloud and a shredding wind, it was bleak despite the greenery, the stone chimneys of forsaken copper and tin mines now like tombstones in the countryside. We stopped at the Tinner's Arms in Zennor and had a Skinner's lager in a cosy snug where D.H. Lawrence might once have sat, as he lived in Zennor for a year. "Duck or Grouse" said the note above the little wooden door beam, and it drove home to us how small of stature men were in those days. The grey-stone little village looked sombre and 'made for writing', amid the gorse and the bristle-brush vegetation. Life here would have been hard with lodgers perpetually trying to stave off the cold as the many chimney-ed cottages showed. There would have been little else for Lawrence to do, but recall, imagine and write.

We drove on to the beautiful Sennen Cove and then to the spectacular Cape Cornwall, "So much nicer than Land's End", a trusted and sage Cornish friend had told us “and besides, Land's End (and John O'Groats in Scotland) are now privately owned and you need to pay to see both!” We drove on to the stunningly sited Minack amphitheatre, laboriously chiselled high into a cliff above Portcurno, and marvelled when we thought of the witches scene from Macbeth being played above a toiling sea, with thunder and lightning  in the air. Once, Porthcurno was one of the most secret places on earth as here the under-sea cables, so vital to WWII trans-Atlantic communication, came ashore. What fun the staff must have had on the superb nearby beaches, on their days off.

We made Mousehole, with its tiny, picture-postcard harbour, famous for not only its impossible anchorage, but also the life-saving exploits of Tom Bawcock in the Sixteenth Century. After endless storms which found the villagers close to starving, Bawcock returned from sea on 23 December with a catch of fish, an event which continues to be celebrated every year with the heads of the fish upright in the pie pastry. Even today, the village looks hardly changed from the time of Tom. In the distance, the sun shone fleetingly on St Michael's Mount, Penzance and Marazion, and we headed into the gloom with a pub dinner at Portleven, another attractive tidal harbour village, and then raced to catch the last King Harry ferry for the day.



 Mousehole Harbor

Mousehole Harbor


We had not allowed enough time for southern Cornwall for there is just so much to see and to feel, and we resolved to return. This time we rushed. Next time we will coast more often, and oh yes, we have our plans ah, to once again stay at Braganza!      


Winfred Peppinck is the Tales of the Traveling Editor for Wandering Educators