The Cornish landscape, in my fanciful mind, has been branded with swashbuckling smugglers, hidden coves, stormy seas and vast swathes of moors, ever since I got sucked into the vortex of Daphne du Maurier’s mysterious novels. Reality, however, has a habit of cutting in with a scythe. A sparkling summer’s day of ice creams, coffee and a soul-satisfying, greasy breakfast in a local café in the south of England in Fowey 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 grips. Fighting the American War of Independence proved to be too expensive for the British nation. 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 300 miles from Westminster, the scene was ripe for smuggling. It became a way of life for the entire community. Vicars and teachers often included.
“Something for nothing” was an adage they used in those days to signify the illicit business of making money without putting in much effort.
Dangling my legs from the brick walls of the harbour, I sat and 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 chirpily painted boats chugged in. Across it stood Ferryside, Maurier’s whitewashed family cottage with bright blue shutters, perched upon the waters 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. The little towns and villages retain a quaint air, a distinct feel of the simplicity of yore, which is characteristic of England’s southern county. 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 long break with my husband and a few friends, staying in a beautiful Victorian cottage in the traditional fishing town of Looe. Positioned high up on a hilly road, its French windows opened out to a view of an aquamarine sea and a cluster of cottages clinging to the sides of cliffs which dipped dramatically into the sea. When the tide came in, we could see sea water flowing into River Looe that sunders the town into East Looe and West Looe.
We were in the more bustling quarter of it, East Looe, where a grid of streets is populated by pubs that were once the haunt of smugglers, pasty shops, book shops along with a smattering of creperies, cafés and bakeries.
Pubs such as Smugglers Cote and Ye Olde Jolly Sailor, formerly smuggling haunts in Looe, tell their share of thrilling tales. While digging into a hefty lunch at the Smugglers’ Cote, 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 petticoats during a sudden raid and knitted away with poise as her quarters were searched. Today, shark angling and crabbing have taken over popularity from smuggling in this beautiful little town.
Almost 20 per cent of the government’s excise duty was lost through smuggling and yet the Cornish smuggled away with impunity. It took the excise men five days by stagecoach in those days to reach Cornwall from London.
Following the trail of the smuggling villages, we reached Polperro. The pretty town, a popular residence for artists, on the River Pol lies about four miles away from Looe. I loved the way its old fishermen’s cottages, unsullied by the passage of time, hugged the sides of the harbour.
Polperro’s old smuggling habits, harking back to the 12th century, can be traced in the harbour-side museum. We stopped there in an atmospheric tea room with low wooden beams called The House on the Props, secreted away into one of the town’s narrow alleys. Nibbling into a pot of Cornish tea, complete with scones, clotted cream and raspberry jam, I was entranced by its history – the cottage had a secret staircase leading in from the river and was involved in ‘Cornish free trade’, as locals referred to 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,” noted the lady of The Props.
Custom officers were so not favoured by villagers that they were made to stay in an old boat in the harbour. 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”.
This is a bit of an aside, but with my childhood association with Pears soap, I was excited to reach our next stop, Mevagissey. It was home to the founder of Pears’ Soap, Andrew Pears, and is made distinct by its twin harbours. Yet Mevagissey was one of the biggest smuggling towns in the south east of Cornwall which had made its fortune from a giant smuggling racket. False bottomed boats hid contraband goods and smugglers became more and more canny to beat the coastguard service which came into action along the coast. 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 the old book shops of Cornwall if you keep an eye out for them.
On our last night in Looe, we spent time on the sandy stretch of the beach where smugglers unloaded their contraband goods. Off its coast stood tiny Looe Island where too goods were discreetly dumped.
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. Smaller boats being sent out to the beach with booties of brandy, rum and gin. The men scurrying nimbly 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.”
(A version of this story was published in BLink magazine on November 20, 2015)