Cornish and Other Cobbs and Harbours


The Cobb at Lyme Regis
The Cobb at Lyme Regis

During our travels in Britain in 2014 we visited Lyme Regis on Dorset’s “Jurassic Coast”, which is famous, among other things, for being the a long time place of residence for John Fowles and where he wrote The French Lieutenant’s Woman. It also furnished one of the most memorable locations for the film of the book, the Cobb that creates its harbour, which also features in Jane Austen’s Persuasion.  Much more important though was its economic value to the town as the cobb enabled it to become an important harbour and shipbuilding centre.  We remembered this as we encountered a number of small coastal towns and villages on our recent jaunt around Devon and Cornwall and were surprised and delighted by the variety of harbours, sea-defences, cobbs and sea-gates.

The first of these was at Clovelly which I mentioned in my earlier post about fish meals.  This is a remarkable little village that tumbles down a steep decline all the way to the sea where it terminates in a sort of Lyme Regis “mini-me” cobb.  The village is still entirely in private hands as part of the Clovelly estate and was once a fishing village with a long seafaring history.  In most of the promotional material about the village it is described as having no roads, only a single, precipitously steep  cobbled footpath running down to the harbour, up and down which all goods and chattels must be hauled on wooden sleds.  Indeed we did see just that happening as we walked down however we had actually driven down a steep, narrow and winding lane the previous evening and parked right above the boulders on the sea front at the Red Lion pub and hotel where we stayed which one may only do if staying there.  Moreover, the next morning we took the village Land Rover back up to the top in order to walk back down.  So it is true, much of what comes into the village must travel by sled, but it is not the whole truth.  I have uploaded a gallery with a selection of shots of Clovelly village.

Parked Cars at Clovelly
Parked Cars at Clovelly

Delivery by Wooden Sled
Delivery by Wooden Sled

We discovered our first “sea gate” at Bude, which was really a lock gate I suppose, except that it opened out to the ocean at high tide.  We had simply intended to have a quick look at the seafront here before continuing on but decided to stop for coffee beside Bude Castle and what appeared to be a canal dock. We realised on wandering along the towpath towards the sea that in fact it was a river, not a canal, that flowed out to sea, via the lock, having an overflow that allowed the gate to dam the river to create the dock that remained even at low tide.  These were really massive lock gates that required chains and winches to open and close.  I think it was more interesting to see the area at low tide too.  Amazingly, during the flooding in 2014, the River Neet was such a raging torrent it was possible to surf it to the sea.  For more pictures, including the gates, see the Bude gallery to the right.

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River Neet at Bude

River Neet Overflow
River Neet Overflow

I won’t dwell on Padstow and St Ives because they were both rather touristy although we at first thought that the harbour at Padstow was a bit too touristy but that was before we saw the one at St Ives and then we realised that Padstow was positively quiet and charming in comparison.  The harbour gate at Padstow is visible to the right in the background of the picture below.

Padstow Harbour
Padstow Harbour

St Ives Crowds
St Ives Crowds

Escaping from St Ives our next little seaside harbour – after a stop at the cliff top Minnack Theatre – was Mousehole.  This was an excellent example of a small walled harbour with a large sea gate.  I don’t actually know if that is what they are called but that is what they look like to me.  This one was wooden and once again, as so often it seemed, the tide was out.  It looks a little bleak as the skies were overcast and there was a cold wind blowing.  I love the “No Dogs on the Beach” sign.  What “beach” was that they were referring to?

Mousehole Harbour
Mousehole Harbour

Mousehole Harbour Gate
Mousehole Harbour Gate

Round the other side of the bay we arrived at Marazion which has only a mini harbour for the little boats to dock at high tide when ferrying visitors back and forth to the Mount.  The Mount itself has a lovely little harbour which does not, however, require a gate.  At low tide one can simply walk across the causeway to the island.  The harbour and the buildings around the quay date from the 18th century and gave me a feel of early settlement Georgian buildings down at the Rocks in Sydney harbour.

Entering the Harbour on Mount St Michael
Entering the Harbour on Mount St Michael

From the Quay on Mount St Michael
From the Quay on Mount St Michael

As we made our way back up the southern coast we called in at Charlestown, which is a small port on the edge of St Austell, which had been recommended to us.  It turned out to be very interesting although we couldn’t stay for long as there was, you guessed it, a bitingly cold wind that made us want to return to the car as soon as possible which was a shame.  Nevertheless we could tell that this must have been a fishing port at some time and due to the size and development of the harbour must have supported ship building also.  It turns out that these suppositions were broadly the case.

“Charlestown grew out of the small fishing village of West Polmear (or West Porthmear), which consisted of a few cottages and three cellars, in which the catch of pilchards were processed.  The population amounted to nine fishermen and their families in 1790.  Before the harbour was built, trading vessels landed and loaded on the beach.  Charles Rashleigh who moved to Duporth Manor, just outside the village, used plans prepared by John Smeaton to begin the construction of a harbour and dock in 1791.  After building the outer pier, he excavated a natural inlet to form the main dock and a shipyard at its inner end that demolished when the dock was extended.  The first dock gates were completed in 1799.  To maintain water levels in the dock, a leat was constructed, which brought water from the Luxulyan Valley, some 4 miles (6.4 km) away.”

But more than shipbuilding, the port was important as part of the sea defences against the French and for the transport of Cornish copper.  It is still used by fisherman but is owned and operated today by a private company called Square Sail that runs a small fleet of square riggers.  As they explain:

“Charlestown Harbour is actually two harbours – inner and outer. The inner harbour has constant water levels and is fed by the original 18th century 7 mile system of man-made waterways which ends in two large reservoir ponds situated to the north of the village. From the ponds a system of sluice gates feed the water into the inner harbour when required. The inner and outer harbours are separated by an unusual lock gate system – instead of double gates opening in or out (as most traditional lock gates do), the harbour has one lock gate which descends horizontally to a pit below the harbour floor level to allow ships in or out of the inner harbour.”

There are more pictures in the gallery to the right.

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The final harbour was that of Brixham which is quite a serious fishing port but its harbour seemed a little sad to me.  The shops, restaurants and pubs surrounding it all had a slightly run-down feel.  There was a tawdry air to place imparted in no small measure by its surrender to modern tourism in the form of tours and boat rides and the really rather pathetic replica of Drake’s Golden Hind sitting forlornly in one corner looking as if it had never left the harbour (which it couldn’t have done) and not having circumnavigated the globe.  These “attractions” seem only to exist as an apology for having persuaded people to come to the place and not as the actual reasons for having come in the first place.  We only stayed here as it was the nearest town to “Greenways“, the home of Agatha Christie, which we intended to visit the next day as our penultimate destination before heading home.  The saving grace was, as you will know from my Fish Meals post, the Simply Fish seafood restaurant.

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