The town of Fowey combines the narrow alleyed and higgledy-piggledy charm of a tiny fishing port with an astonishing number of the trappings of a larger destination.
It really isn’t that big – a population of about 2500 making it barely more than a village. But what Fowey lacks in bustle it makes up in kudos. The number of pubs, restaurants, cafés and bars, shops and galleries and other attractions – like a museum and an aquarium that aren’t exactly typical fare for a village – make it an extremely congenial as well as convenient place to holiday. And then there’s the waterfront location. Located on its own estuary, Fowey is more than just a fishing port. It has the prestigious Royal Yacht Club and a gig-rowing (Pilot Gig Racing) club as well as nearby golf, angling and watersports, and restaurants and bars a-go-go. The satellite villages of Bodinnick and Polruan face the town across the estuary, and ancient oak woodlands extend upstream for miles.
Fowey is also very convenient. It has car parks all around it, and a bus comes about every fifteen minutes, which means that no one need brave the almost impossibly narrow streets. The centre is a town square made up thus: a fifteenth century church on one side, the King of Prussia pub on the other, the museum (inside the town hall) on another and a beautiful bookshop opposite. On the other side of the town hall is the town quay.
It’s easy to get to Fowey from the A30 or A38 trunk roads that link Cornwall with the UK’s motorways. After joining the A390/391 for a bit, we see turnings for Fowey between St Blazey and Lostwithiel. Only this last six miles (10km) is on smaller roads. Train services from up-country run to nearby Par and St Austell from whence the journey to Fowey may be continued by bus. A vehicle and passenger ferry runs from Bodinnick to Fowey and a passenger only (plus cycles) from Polruan across the estuary.
Fowey is pronounced “Foy”, for reasons that are much clearer when we consider its Cornish name, Fowydh, which means “Beech Trees”. It’s mentioned in the Domesday Book in the 11th century and certainly, by the 13th there was a gated medieval town stretching from Bodinnick Passage south to near the current extent of the centre, now Lostwithiel Street. Trade with Europe was brisk, and the ships of the town’s traders often worked as privateers, or pirates/smugglers, depending on your position! In the fourteenth century, the harbour was protected by a large contingent of archers, until the two blockhouses were built to guard its entrance. Later on, the two headland castles were constructed, as was common practice in the 1500’s.
To be fair, the Cornish seafaring folk of this period in history were all a bit fighty, but the location and strategic advantages of Fowey as a port may to have encouraged the townsfolk to take it to a whole new level. French history recounts The Men of Fowey as indiscriminately violent waterborne marauders. English King Edward IV made a point of sending a letter to the town to let them know his war with Europe was over, but no one in Fowey cared much. They just carried on pillaging and sinking foreign ships. This one time in 1457 a French fleet had come over and burnt Fowey, you see, and someone was going to pay!
In subsequent centuries, Fowey’s trade started to suffer as the mines, quarries and china clay pits of Cornwall became big business, leading to rapid modernisation of many other ports with which Fowey had to compete. Eventually its natural deep water harbour and later the rail link began to pay dividends, but only after a century or more of harder times. In the 1860’s, the heydey of Cornish mining, Fowey finally received an improved harbour and an adequate rail connection all the way to the docks.
As an aside, Fowey was the main port for loading munitions for the Omaha Beach landings on D-Day during WWII.
Daphne du Maurier
The famous author holidayed in Cornwall during her childhood, but it was not until she was nineteen that her family purchased Ferryside, their home at Bodinnick. It was there that she wrote her first novel, The Loving Spirit. During the war, she lived at a house called Readymoney, in Fowey itself. In 1943 she moved to Menabilly, and in 1969 to Kilmarth, all local, ever the while continuing to write the Cornwall-inspired classics we enjoy to this day. She passed away in 1989.
Read our Cornwall for Book Lovers blog here >
Fowey sits towards the western end of Cornwall, enjoying the warming of the Gulf Stream and the stabilising effect of being next to the large body of water that is its own estuary. Expect it to be mild in the winter and warm in the summer, peaking in July and August but still pleasant from May through October. Both Fowey and its opposite number Polruan are tucked away from the prevailing winds and face south towards all day sun. For more detailed information about the climate of Cornwall, do have a look at our dedicated page on the subject here.
The medieval architecture of Fowey is impressive, but two buildings stand out in particular – the 15th century Church of St Finbar, Finn Barr or Fimbarrus and the grand house of the same period known as Place, from the Cornish Plas meaning mansion.
The stronghold of King Mark (Marcus), near to the town, is one of the most impressive hill forts in Cornwall, but don’t expect battlements. Two concentric ditches are all that remain of this ring fort that was occupied for about four hundred years until some time in the first century BC.
St Saviour’s Chapel
The mostly ruined chapel of St Saviour’s on the hill above Polruan dates back to the 7th century. It was also a landmark for shipping and a lookout point.
The Tristan Stone
Inscribed ‘DRUSTANS HIC IACET CUNOMORI FILIUS’, this 8 ft (2.6m) tall stone has been re-located many times over the millennia. Legend says that this megalith once marked the grave of Tristan (Drustanus), the nephew of King Marcus of Castle Dore fame. The story of Tristan and Iseult or Isolde is that of adultery between a Cornish knight and an Irish princess, a complicated tragedy of Celtic legend that in the 12th century was written as a romance in German by Gottfried von Strassburg and is now immortalised in opera, theatre and film. While any connection the stone has to the tale is at best apocryphal, there is at least a clue in the name.
St Catherine’s Castle is one of two little Henrician forts built in the 1530’s. It was common at this time to build such paired fortifications either side of an important inlet, better to defend the harbour with artillery. This one was later used as a gun emplacement for more recent conflicts too. The ruins of its sister castle can be seen on the other side. Between them, they replace two older “blockhouses” further up the estuary, which can also be seen to this day.
The ruins of Restormel Castle, closer to Lostwithiel, sit high on a hill overlooking the River Fowey, and despite being a ruin it’s very popular with visitors. It’s a perfectly round stone (shale) keep, originally a motte and bailey castle built in 100AD-ish but modified later to create a sort of lawn around it.
If you can go a little further, St Mawes Castle about twenty miles (32km) away is one of the best preserved and most impressive castles in Cornwall, with a striking clover-leaf footprint. It looks across the Fal Estuary to Pendennis Castle.
Fowey has an exceptional selection of pubs, all fairly traditional but Cornishly vibrant and enthusiastic. At the last count, The Old Ferry Inn, The Ship Inn, The Galleon Inn, The King of Prussia, Safe Harbour Inn, and the Russell Inn and Lugger Inn at Polruan were all worth a look.
As well as the pubs, most of which serve excellent food, Fowey has a number of restaurants as well as bakeries and takeaway/delis. The real standouts have to be Sam’s (who also have Sam’s On The Beach at Polkerris), and The Dwelling House. The Lifeboat Café and The Toll Bar come highly recommended, and for take-out, Kittows and The Quay Bakery are well worth a look! For those who like a bit of quirky, Pinky Murphy’s has it in spades and of course, there’s always the ubiquitous Indian, Sunny Spice. The Fowey Hall Restaurant has incredible views (it’s open to non-residents) and serves a superb afternoon tea. The Old Quay House comes highly recommended for lunch, and Brown Sugar for breakfast, coffee and more.
Holidaying by the sea
No holiday in Cornwall would be complete without dipping one’s toes in the water or getting some sand in between them. Fowey has some beaches nearby:
The local beaches to Fowey are Readymoney Cove, Polridmouth, Lantic Bay and Polkerris. Readymoney is walking distance, just on the outskirts of the town. All are child-friendly and suitable for families although Polridmouth is rocky and has no facilities at all. Still, it’s worth a look – it’s absolutely stunning.
Polkerris and Readymoney operate a seasonal dog ban from Easter to October 1st, but Polridmouth and Lantic Bay are canine-friendly all the year round, as is the entirety of the South West Coast Path. Most of the beaches in Cornwall welcome dogs. For more information why not check out our Dog Friendly Beaches page?
This part of Cornwall’s south coast is sheltered from the Atlantic swells that provide our splendid surf, but you’re not far from the best beaches on the north coast and some on the south at the other side of the Lizard. We have some great resources for choosing a surfing destination. Read all about it on our surf pages, here…
Held in May each year, Fowey Festival of Arts and Literature, formerly known as the Festival of Words and Music and before that the Daphne du Maurier Festival, attracts nationally famous performers mingled with the very best of local talent.
Regatta and Carnival
Usually taking place in August, this week-long carnival of events, processions, competitions and firework displays is concurrent with the Fowey Royal Regatta, a festival of sailing and rowing regarded as one of the finest in the country.
Other Things to Do and Visit
Housed in one of the older buildings in Fowey, this small museum presents the history of the town with maritime heritage, Mayoral regalia, many relevant old photos and postcards and quite inexplicably the cloak of the Italian General Garibaldi.
Not the biggest or most exotic aquarium in the world, but fascinating nonetheless, with mostly local sea life and a superb place to wander. Somehow the exhibits seem all the more relevant and exciting for being presented on Fowey’s historic Town Quay, close to the fishing boats and the waters from which they are plucked.
This lovely garden is on the seaward side of Polruan village. Palm trees, tree ferns, Echium and other plants usually found in more tropical latitudes flourish here in the warm microclimate of coastal Cornwall.
Fans of Daphne du Maurier, or pirates/smugglers, or more recently motorcycles (!) will wish to visit the famous Jamaica Inn on Bodmin Moor. It’s a fine pub and restaurant with its own museum, a children’s playground and a parrot.
The South West Coast Path Runs through Fowey and across the river to Polruan and beyond. It takes in St Catherine’s Castle and Readymoney Cove, and to the east we head on towards Polperro. For more information on this beautiful route, take a look at our dedicated coast path page, here…
Inland, we can enjoy the ancient woodland and the views of the twin towns clinging to the steep sides of the valley. Beyond the woods are medieval fields with an unexpected smattering of vineyards! Paths lead over the hills towards St Winnow and Lerryn on both sides of the river.
Fowey to Mevagissey Ferry
Visit two of Cornwall’s most picturesque harbours with a return trip, or make alternative arrangements for your onward journey. The Meva ferry is one of the best boat trips in Kernow, with spectacular coast all the way and often a sighting of dolphins or seals.
Polruan to Fowey Ferry
For a shorter outing, this pedestrian (and bicycle) ferry is just the job and makes it easy to pop across the Fowey estuary at any time of day.
The Fowey Golf Club that was established in 1894 has sadly lapsed and is now enjoyed only by dog-walkers and ramblers, though its history is of great interest to those of a golfing bent. For actual play, Carlyon Bay Golf Course is less than five miles (8km) from Fowey and in the other direction St Austell’s Golf Club is not much further. Lanhydrock, an exceptional family-owned course in a tranquil woodland setting, is just eight miles (13km) to the north towards Bodmin.
Fowey Boat Hire offers self-drive motor boats (with a steering wheel) with which to explore the beauty of Fowey’s estuary with its woods and wildlife.
Fowey River Hire provides guided trips in canoes or kayaks or hires the craft to those with appropriate experience. Its an excellent and unintrusive way to explore and to see the marine life of the estuary.
Fowey Maritime Centre is an RYA sailing school offering courses for all ages and abilities. If you want to learn to sail then look no further – Fowey’s waterways are the perfect place to figure out the intricacies of sailing boats quickly and safely!
We have self-catering holiday cottages in Fowey and the surrounding area.
Self-catering in Cornwall has never been better! Check out the Cornwall Guide to discover more about what’s on, where to eat, places to visit and things to do in Fowey and the surrounding area, all from your cottage in Cornwall.
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