Over the centuries, with its hidden harbors and towering cliffs, Cornwall has been home to fishermen, traders, sailors, smugglers, and pirates. Every cove seems to have a port or fishing village, each with a rich, colorful history. Perhaps one of the most unique is the tiny village of Charlestown, on the south coast not far from the Eden Project, where three tall-masted ships sit in the harbor.
Two hundred years ago, the fishing village of West Polmear, with its three cottages and no harbor, graced these shores, in all likelihood frequented by the “free-traders” who smuggled all sorts of goods to avoid the taxman. Just a few miles inland, China clay and copper mines required a nearby outlet from which to ship their products to distant ports. Enter Charles Rashleigh, a local businessman who saw an opportunity, building a tiny port with an inner harbor closed off by a lock gate to keep the water at high tide levels. Soon tiny West Polmear became one of the busiest ports on the south coast, shipping over 34,000 tons of China clay in 1876 alone.
To honor Rashleigh for his significant contribution, West Polmear was renamed Charlestown. To learn more about his life and accomplishment, visit the Shipwreck and Heritage Center on the edge of the port where exhibits detail how he went about turning the small fishing village into a harbor that still survives today, even though China clay and copper products no longer make use of the port. (The Center also has a number of excellent exhibits detailing shipwrecks around the world, including the Titanic).
As you walk into the tiny Georgian harbor, the masts of three tall ships, their sails furled, rise above the long wharves and high walls — the Kaskelot the Earl of Pembroke and Phoenix — owned and managed by Square Sail Company which also owns the harbor. You probably have already seen these ships in films such as “The Three Musketeers,” “Mansfield Park” or “Rebecca.”
The Kaskelot, flagship of the fleet, is a 19th-century three-masted barque. With its 17 sails, it is one of the largest remaining wooden ships in commission. Built in 1948 for the Greenland Trading Company, the 153-foot long vessel once served as a supply ship, plying the waters along the coast of East Greenland. The Earl of Pembroke started its life as a three-masted schooner ferrying timber in the Baltic before it was converted and commissioned as an 18th-century barque, 145 feet long with 14 sails. The Phoenix is the smallest of the three, originally built as a schooner and then converted to a two-masted brigantine, 112 feet long with 12 sails.
At the entrance of the harbor, perched alongside the ships, is the Pier House Hotel, the ideal base from which to explore most of Cornwall, from the Tamar River to Land’s End. Owned by the Morcum family since the 1920s, the hotel has 26 rooms, a Bistro Pub, and a restaurant. Obviously, the waterfront rooms are the most desirable with the ship masts so close that you can almost touch them outside your window. Close your eyes and you can almost hear the bosun shouting “all hands on deck” to get you out of bed in the morning.
We enjoy Room #9 overlooking both the harbor and the beach. Huge window seats provide the perfect spot to watch the sun and moon rise over the masts or the storms roll in from the sea. Up a set of wooden stairs, a small office, and bathroom, with an enormous Jacuzzi, complete this most original suite.
Many members of the family work throughout the hotel and their pride in the establishment is evident, especially in the restaurant where daughter Kellie presides most evenings. This is a very popular local dining spot, so making reservations for dinner a must, even if you are a resident. The menu changes 3-4 times a year to reflect the local availability but everything is cooked to order and is delicious. Enjoy a glass of Cornish Doom Ale while you wait to be escorted to your table. Start with the pan-fried scallops on a celeriac puree or the twice-baked goat cheese souffle with smoked tomato salsa.
For your main course, try the fillet of haddock with char-grilled sweet and sour peppers, topped with white crab meat (caught in pots just outside the hotel) and brown shrimp. Many of the fish served at the restaurant are line caught a few hours before you consume them. For dessert — can there be any doubt– the Pavlova – meringue, crisp on the outside, gooey inside, piled with thick, rich Cornish clotted cream and topped with fresh strawberries. Yummy!
After dinner take a walk along Charlestown’s harbor or on the beach, enjoying the sight of the full moon rising through the rigging of the masts where the ghosts of many a long-gone mariner could be gazing down at you.
IF YOU GO
Charlestown is two miles from ST. Austell, Cornwall. It is about a 4.5 hour drive from London down the M4 to the M5. Take the A38 across the moors to connect to the A30. Look for signs for St. Austell and then follow the signpost off the A390 for Charlestown. If you have a GPS unit, the code is PL25 3NJ.
The Pier House Hotel (Harbour Front, Charlestown, St. Austell, Cornwall, PL25 3NJ; tel 44-0-1726-67955.