Walk - Polperro and East Coombe

Walk information provided with help from Natural England. Map reproduced by permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of HMSO. © Crown copyright and database right 2020. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100022021.

Route Description

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century the Cornish coast was alive with bands of smugglers landing their contraband in just about every remote cove from Plymouth to Bude (and in many coves either side of the county borders too). Everyday goods as well as luxuries were heavily taxed in Britain and whole communities were engaged in the Free Trade, with the gentry turning a blind eye, and the local parson often embroiled himself. With the crippling tax on tea, a brew cost six times as much in Britain as it did on the continent, and brandy was five times as expensive. Gin, rum and tobacco were other commodities brought quietly ashore in the dead of night and carted up cliffs and through passages carved in the rock. In addition, ships returning from the Far East with exotic cargoes would often have to offshore and sell their wares to the locals tax-free – usually china, silk and cotton.

It has been estimated that by the middle of the eighteenth century 50-65% of the spirits consumed in Britain was imported illicitly, and it has been said that the activity was so profitable for France that Napoleon set up a depot for smugglers!

Customs officers were duly appointed at ports, and certain goods could only be imported at particular places. The small fleet of Revenue sloops were no match for the larger ships of the smugglers, and so the Board of Customs invested in bigger and better cutters. By 1782 there were 40 vessels in service with 700 crewmen and 200 guns, and after the Napoleonic Wars, in 1816, the Coast Blockade Service was formed. By 1831, the newly streamlined Coastguard Service had 6700 men at its disposal. Coastguard cottages like these were built around the coast, and the customs men patrolled the shoreline on foot, which is how the South West Coast Path came into being.

  1. From the centre of Polperro cross the Saxon Bridge and walk down Big Green. Turn left again along Lansallos Street to walk along Quay Road to the harbour.

The large shed on the headland to the right above the beach is a net loft, owned by the National Trust but let to local fishermen. The Trust restored the building in the winter of 1982/3, using three floor beams of Douglas fir, each weighing more than 1½ tons – the largest pieces of sawn timber ever to leave Tavistock Woodlands. With the only access to the net loft being up the narrow footpath, a a specially-built 16-foot barge was used to float them across the harbour, where they were winched up the rock. When the wind is in the south and blowing hard it is not unknown for the waves to break over the net loft roof!

The cave on the western side of the beach is known as Willy Wilcox Cave. Willy Wilcox was a smuggler who was trapped in the cave by the tide when he was hiding from the customs men who were in hot pursuit, and his spirit is said to haunt the cave to this day.

Note the steps carved in the rocks around the beach.

  1. Pick up the South West Coast Path just before the beach and follow it steeply uphill towards Polruan. There is a network of footpaths on the National Trust land at Chapel Cliff, at the top, and they link up further on.

If you choose the path nearest the sea, (the official South West Coast Path), there are no fewer than three shelters along here, erected by the committee which raised the funds in the 1920s for the National Trust to buy this land.

Chapel Cliff (pronounced 'Chay-pell') was named after the chapel of St Peter of Porthpyre (the old name for Polperro) , which once stood at the Polperro end of the cliff. St Peter is the patron saint of fishermen, and it is thought that the building may have served as a lighthouse as well, as chapels and monks' cells often did where there were hazardous rocks below. The chapel, which was first recorded in 1392, was being used as a fish cellar by 1820, and by 1882 the only sign of its existence was a pile of stones.

Continue along the Coast Path towards Polruan.

The whole of this section of coast, from Polperro to Polruan, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a Special Area of Conservation (SAC). The rock formations and structures are of particular interest, and above them the cliffs and slopes provide an important habitat for a variety of plants and animals, some of which are listed in the Red Data Book of Threatened Species.

Wildflowers seen here in summer include the daisy-like chamomile, dainty sea pea, vivid blue-and-pink viper's bugloss, wild cabbage and carrot, clover, tufty blue sheep's bit, spotty white sea campion, purple dwarf heather, and the creepers vetch (purple) and bird's-foot trefoil (yellow).

Grey seals are also seen on this part of the coast. Look out for them on the rocks at low tide.

The small white landmark as you approach East Coombe was formerly a navigation aids for sailors, marking the submerged Udder Rock just offshore, but nowadays there is a buoy identifying the hazard.

  1. Walk past the footpath to the right at East Coombe and cross the footbridge to turn right onto the footpath which runs steeply uphill beside the stream.

The path runs through some wildflower meadows which are also a riot of colour in summer, attracting many butterflies. Look out for the dainty common blue.

  1. Follow the detour to the left at the top of the path to come out on a quiet country lane. Turn right here and right again at the junction beyond.
  2. At the next junction turn right to carry on along the road marked as access only and follow for it a little over a mile,
  3. Drop steeply down into Polperro on Landaviddy Lane.

Raphael appeared in the 1086 Domesday Book as Raswale, appearing on later documents as 'Rathwell', 'Resfrawel' and 'Rafael'. It was Polperro's western manor (the eastern being Killigarth).

There was once a holy well at the bottom of Landaviddy Lane, said to have restorative properties. It was a natural field spring issuing from the rock, and it is thought to have been dedicated to St Peter, since the ruins of the chapel were in the field above.

A bronze coin was found here, too, when the foundations of a new house were being dug in the nineteenth century. The coin was from the time of Licinius I, who was Emperor of Rome from AD 308 – 324.

Nearby refreshments

There are numerous restaurants, pubs and tea shops in Polperro.

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