The unusual and (it’s a cliché, but) unique harbour village of Charlestown is a favourite haunt of Cornish locals as well as visiting tourists, not least because its relatively small port facility is usually populated by stunningly beautiful square rigger ships. One instantly feels transported back to the 18th century and with all the buildings reflecting the architecture of much the same period, the mind fills in the gaps. Pilchard curing, lime kilns, rope making and all the paraphernalia and bustle of Georgian life seem to flicker just behind the ordinary coming and goings of today’s tourism.
Formerly called West Polmear, Charlestown near St. Austell is still a picturesque working harbour, but is Grade II listed and part of a World Heritage Site. It was created between 1790 and 1810, one of a glut of Georgian “new towns” for the export of copper and china clay. Local landowner and businessman Charles Rashleigh saw the opportunity for a new port. He wanted to capture a slice of the pie as these growing industries generated colossal wealth for entrepreneurs in Cornwall. The new name of the port was of course taken from his own first name! The truly unique thing about it, however, is that Charlestown continues to be a working port to this day. China clay is still exported by boat, and in a new twist, the tall ships that are based there also transport goods for import and export as they ply their main business, that of providing ships as props and sets for filming period TV and movies all over the world.
One or more of these tall ships can often be seen anchored in the harbour. The best-known one regularly to visit the port was the Maria Asumpta, which first sailed in 1858 and was for a time the world’s oldest working square rigger. The Maria Asumpta ran aground in onshore seas near the Rumps/Pentire Point on the north coast of Cornwall in May 1995, breaking up on the rocks with the loss of three of her crew of sixteen.
The harbour itself, being so unspoilt and requiring little set work to hide the trappings of modernity, has appeared in countless movie productions. Feature films include The Eagle Has Landed (1976), The Three Musketeers (1993 version), Treasure Island 1995, Rebecca 1996 as well as several recent German language TV film adaptations of the books of Rosamunde Pilcher. Tim Burton’s 2010 film Alice in Wonderland featured Charlestown. In fact, it was the only physical outdoor location in the movie! In spring 2012, the harbour was one of the locations for The Adventurer: The Curse of the Midas Box. It plays its part in many TV series too, not limited to The Onedin Line 1972-80, Charles Darwin – The Voyage of the Beagle (1980’s), Doctor Who, Hornblower, Mansfield Park, Poldark 1975-77 and 2015-16, and most recently Frontier (Netflix period drama, still in production) episode #1. In the latter two, it is possible to see the harbour dressed and populated just as it may have been in the 19th century. This alone makes ’em worth a look for fans of Cornish history.
Charlestown Harbour, like many Cornish ports, actually consists of two harbours, an inner and an outer. The inner harbour maintains constant water levels and is supplied by the original 18th-century system of man-made waterways, seven miles (10km) long, which terminates in the two large ponds to the north of the village. From these reservoirs, a set of sluices feeds the water into the inner anchorage when it is needed. The two sections of the harbour are separated by a somewhat unusual tidal gate system. Instead of two gates opening inward or out (as most traditional lock gates do), the harbour has one descending gate which slides into to a pit below the harbour floor level to allow boats to enter or leave the inner harbour at high tide.
The outer area is tidal and is protected to the western side by a granite wall. This part is exposed to the open sea of the bay. Beaches on both sides of the opening are open to the public, although no dogs are allowed. The beaches are privately owned, so if filming is taking place in the vicinity, public access to the beaches may be restricted during shooting.
The geographical location of Charlestown, facing east and in the relative shelter of St Austell Bay, means that it is not usually prone to big waves or the full lashing of Atlantic storms, but of course, there are exceptions, as can be seen in this video of a very heavy storm here in 2014.
Charlestown like the rest of Cornwall enjoys warm summers and mild winters. It’s sheltered from the south-westerly prevailing winds and receives early morning light with the sun rising out of the low headland on the horizon directly in front of the harbour. For more information about the climate in Cornwall, why not visit our weather page, here?
West Polmear (or West Porthmear, maybe) was a tiny fishing village consisting only of a handful of cottages and some cellars for the processing of pilchards. A mere nine fishermen and their families lived there in 1790. All embarkation and landing of catch would have taken place on the beach. Life was probably hard, and the inhabitants may have been relieved when Charles Rashleigh moved into Duporth Manor, quite near the village, and began the process of building a harbour, a shipyard, and a thriving import/export business! As part of the process he also included defences to protect his investment against the marauding French. Surprisingly, the port continued to ship out modest quantities of china clay from the nearby St Austell ECC (English China Clay) works until well into the 21st century.
Charlestown is now one of the best-known harbours in Cornwall, thanks to its illustrious on-screen appearances in TV and movies. Square Sail Shipyard and their fleet of tall ships, which often grace the little inner harbour with their beauty and sailing heritage, is owned by a film production company. This brings a good deal of work and activity to the area. The port is also involved in the continuing import and export of goods between Cornwall and the US/Caribbean, sometimes on those very sailing ships as they move around between locations!
East facing on the sheltered part of the south coast, Charlestown itself is not a place for surf, but this St Austell area is a good place from which to decide what direction to set off for a day’s wave-chasing. Pentewan is the nearest break, but only works now and again and usually in the winter. When the north coast is onshore and blown out, it may be worth a look, though. Otherwise, it’s only just over half an hour to the surfing capital of Newquay or many lesser known north coast spots.
Charlestown Regatta Week is a festival of water-sports, games and entertainment. The funds raised go towards helping to benefit the people of the village of Charlestown. The event has included a fun triathlon, raft races, donkey derby, live music and a very colourful carnival featuring a traditional floral dance. To finish the week off, you can dance the night away at the Regatta Rocks live music party.
The week usually starts with the triathlon in which teams of three race in a consecutive 200m swim, 4-mile cycle and 2-mile run. In the afternoon, there is water golf, a popular and hotly contested raft race and even a comical “knobbly knees” contest.
Special Things to Do and Visit
As well as the tall ships and the regular filming of period stuff in the harbour area, the Shipwreck Museum will be of interest to all who enjoy a bit of seafaring history, piracy, wrecking, smuggling and derring-do. It is believed to be the largest private collection of this ilk that is on public display anywhere in Europe. The old (Methodist) chapel on the main street is worth a look, too.
Charlestown is not far from the Lost Gardens of Heligan, one of Cornwall’s most popular horticultural exhibits, or the Eden Project, whose indoor rain forests and other enclosed ecosystems are one of Kernow’s absolutely must see attractions.
The South West Coast Path passes through Charlestown on one of its most popular sections. This part of the coastal path takes us to Polkerris in the east, of Mevagissey to the west. For full details of the South West Coast Path take a look at our special article on the subject, here…
Nightlife, Eating and Drinking
Charlestown has two pubs; the Rashleigh Arms and the Harbourside Inn, and there are several other eating establishments in and around the harbour – Wreckers, Pier House Hotel and Restaurant, Tall Ships Creamery and the Bosun’s Diner which is above the Shipwreck Museum. The post office has permanently closed without an alternative but there is a village shop.
For more in the way of nightlife and a less traditional eating and drinking environment, don’t forget that the busy town of St Austell is just a short hop or taxi ride away!
Charlestown lies between the villages of Porthpean and Carlyon Bay on the sweep of St Austell Bay, facing east towards the lovely Polkerris. The town of St Austell is very close, a 1.5 mile (92.5km) walk or just 6-7 minutes drive away. St Austell is the biggest conurbation in Cornwall and has everything you could need on your visit or to while away a rainy day.
Charlestown’s beach is a privately owned sandy beach sprinkled with wave-washed pebbles as well as the rock debris from the cliffs and caves behind. The public is free to use it as long as it’s not closed for filming. People seem more excited about filming than sand, so it tends to be that everyone is happy either way! The beach has a concrete sea wall behind it that forms part of the outer harbour.
Other beaches in the area are many. To the east lies Carlyon Bay, the lovely and relatively unknown Polridmouth Cove, and then popular Polkerris. To the west, Duporth and Pentewan Sands and the Polstreath, the main beach of Mevagissey.
The nudist/naturist beach of Great Perhaver lies a little further down the coast, just around the corner from Gorran Haven.
Dogs are not permitted on Charlestown’s beach, or the beaches in either direction, Duporth and Carlyon Bay. This is really bad luck because there are only about eight beaches in all of Cornwall that do not allow dogs at any time! The good news is that Porthpean, a beach just a stroll to the west, allows our furry friends from October 1st until Easter, and there are around 140 others in the county that allow them all the year round. Furthermore, dogs are welcome on the entirety of the South West Coast Path at any time. For more information why not go to our dog-friendly beaches page, here?
Charlestown beach itself is safe for bathing and rarely sees big waves or strong currents. It is steeper than some, so little ones need to be watched at all times. The beach is also used for diving, snorkelling and sailing, and toilets and shop are nearby.
We have a number of holiday rentals in Charlestown and the neighbouring area:
All cottages in and around Charlestown >>
Pet friendly cottages in and around Charlestown >>
Cottages for couples in and around Charlestown >>
Sea view cottages in and around Charlestown >>
Last minute discount availability in and around Charlestown >>
Also, check out our Cornwall Guide to find out what’s on, where to eat, where to visit and what to do in Charlestown and the surrounding area from your Cornish Traditional Cottage!