Looe (Cornish Logh – “deep water inlet”) is an exceptionally interesting town on the south coast of Cornwall, halfway between Polperro and the city of Plymouth which is in Devon. Its appeal for tourists is considerable, enhanced by the easy to get to location and many convenient facilities, like extensive parking and a railway station. The character and nature of the place are difficult to summarise – it is a very ancient town, but because the old has not routinely been replaced by the new, they are mixed together in an attractive way that is both practical and quaint. Why not check out our blog post which in which we attempt to encapsulate the nature of the place? It’s here.
Old structures like the Giant’s Hedge and the Bin Dun stone circle suggest that Looe has been inhabited since at least 1000BC, but we don’t have much information about pre-history. That’s why it’s called pre-history. We do know from the Domesday Book that William the Conqueror himself owned a manor at Pendrym, which later became East Looe. By the Middle Ages, though, Looe was quite a big town and exported tin, arsenic and granite as well as supporting a large fishing fleet and a boatbuilding industry. It is recorded that the town supplied twenty ships for the siege of Calais in 1347. The bridge linking East and West Looe was first built in 1411 using timber. This was destroyed by fire and the first stone bridge was constructed in 1436. The current bridge, usually called the “seven-arched bridge” but clearly featuring an eighth arch or “tunnel”, was built in 1853. Since the town lies almost at sea level at the bottom of a valley, it is quite prone to flooding even to this day. Traditionally the houses around the beach and harbour would have had the living areas upstairs and boatsheds and other storage below to minimise the impact of high water. The town continued to boom until the Napoleonic Wars – around 1800, there were gun emplacements manned there to defend against French invasion, and the blockade of 1808 hurt the area because the fleet could not reach their traditional pilchard fishing areas.
In 1828, the town’s fortunes were revived by the building of a canal linking Looe to Liskeard and beyond, which was supplemented in 1860 by the railway. With the huge copper-mining industry of the Tamar Valley in its hey-day, the port of Looe was able to benefit from the demand for ships and shipping until the end of the mining boom forced a switch to tourism. Luckily the Victorian public loved seaside resorts and Looe became a favourite, being just a short railway journey from Plymouth. The town continued to benefit and grow and the fishing and boatbuilding industries kept pace with the demands of the increasing visitor numbers.
Holidays by the sea
Getting away from it all at the seaside was first popularised by the Victorians, and Cornwall was a favourite destination almost as soon as the railway was invented. The climate and the very different atmosphere and quality of light (and of life) continue to draw people to the Duchy to this day, not just from Britain but from all over the world.
The climate of Looe is typical of the south coast of Cornwall. Warm onshore breezes prevail in summer and the town has been built in all day sun, the steepness of the valley in which it sits notwithstanding. Cornish weather is of course consistently somewhat better than that of the rest of Britain. For a full run down on this unique micro-climate, why not visit our main weather page, here
The ancient nature of the town is evident immediately on arrival, with the old stone of the harbour and piers with arches whose purpose vary from the narrow streets with almost impossibly small buildings, in some cases overhanging.
Nelson the seal, so named because of his one-eyed and batle-scarred appearance, was a regular vistor to Looe for over 25 years. Since his demise, a statue has been erected in his honour on what was perhaps his favourite rock in the harbour.
A road viaduct is cut into the cliffs of West Looe, with two arches built above old salt cellars which belonged to the Pilchard Stores on the quay. It has decorative towers and gives the appearance of battlements.
The Giant’s Hedge is a stone earthwork, which may be a medieval stone hedge but might well be more ancient. Some postulate that it marked the boundary of a kingdom or other jurisdiction. It has however passed into Cornish folklore:
“One day, the Devil having nothing to do,
Built a great hedge from Lerryn to Looe”
The Bin Dun “hill fort” stone circle is less mysterious since as well as any pagan spiritual purpose it may have had, it was clearly a fort – probably in Roman times, although it doesn’t appear that the Romans made it this far into Cornwall in any numbers. Probably they found the locals too warlike, tribal and undisciplined to be bothering with. The stone circle overlooks East Looe and is easy to find.
Things to Do
Cornwall is, of course, famous for its surfing but the south-east coast doesn’t generally get the kind of swells that are going set the serious enthusiast’s heart racing. Nearby Whitsand Bay is good for beginners and just messing about in the waves. However, Looe is a good base from which to set out towards whichever Cornish waves are pumping. The north coast is only thirty miles away, with breaks like Polzeath, Hayle, Fistral and Watergate Bay. The top-notch south coast reef break of Porthleven is an hour and a half’s drive to the west.
Looe has become one of the most important centres for sport diving, in particular since the HMS Scylla, a Royal Navy frigate, was scuttled in Whitsand Bay to provide an excellent wreck diving site.
As befits its history, Looe is one of the best places in Cornwall for fishing. Boat fishing trips are run by several companies, and fishing from the harbour wall or casting from the beach or rocks are popular too.
Cornwall is, of course, a popular destination for birdwatchers but the serious twitchers among you will find the Looe Valley to be one of the best. With an exceptionally diverse avian population and many excellent opportunities to view them, you’ll find Looe to be one of the UK’s best places. Up in the valley are a variety of birds of prey, and woodpeckers, as well as finches and tits of all kinds.. In the estuary one can see many types of waders. The harbour is home to kingfishers, heron and egrets. With many migratory birds also paying a visit, there is certainly every reason to bring the binoculars!
Looe boasts an 18 hole par 70 golf course with panoramic views of the valley. The peaks of Dartmoor can be seen in the east and the Tamar Valley in the west. Looking towards the sea, Looe Island and the English Channel, and to the north is glorious green countryside and Bodmin Moor.
Looe has several delicatessens offering local jam, cream, pickle and cheese, and the Cornish pasty is ubiquitous, with a fair few good bakeries in East Looe. There are also a number of really excellent restaurants and cafés/coffee shops. Try the chef-owned Squid Ink, an intimate resto in a characterful period building specialising in local fish and seafood with Med and Asian fusion influences. Black Rock Beach Cafe and Bistro is extremely popular – try their “Tapas with a Cornish Twist”! The Coddy Shack is a very cool fish takeaway and restaurant, and the Old Sail Loft is a great steak or fish house in a super old building, reputed to have been a smugglers and seafarer’s haunt, dating back at least 450 years. There are also at least ten pubs serving a variety of traditional grub.
Looe’s ten or so pubs, some of them amongst the oldest in the UK, offering a range of fare including local real ales and ciders, often with live music of all kinds. With names like the Jolly Sailor, Harbour Moon Inn, Tom Sawyer’s Tavern and the Admiral Boscarne, you will be transported back in time to when Looe was a bustling seafaring town full of piratical types plying their various trades in the narrow cobbled streets and taverns. Or just sit before the fire and enjoy a drink and some tunes.
While Looe has its own beaches, East Looe Beach and Hannafore on the west side, that are enjoyed by many visitors at low tide, they aren’t quite the broad expanses of soft golden sand that other Cornish resorts can offer. East Looe has a shallow aspect and rock pools that children of all ages enjoy. It’s a good spot for harbour watching and for fishing from the pier. West Looe’s beach is south facing and has parking and good facilities. However, there are many other wonderful beaches if you venture a little further out of town. Portwrinkle, Downderry, Seaton and Whitsand Bay lie to the east, and Talland Bay, Polperro and Lansallos in Lantivet Bay to the west.
East Looe Beach, unfortunately, is one of the few Cornish beaches that has a year round dog ban, but your furry friend will be pleased that Hannafore/West Looe welcomes canine action at all times of year! Nearby Portwrinkle only allows dogs from the 1st October until Easter, but Talland Bay, Polperro, Lansallos, Downderry, Seaton and Whitsand Bay are open all the year.
Looe Festival, held in September, is arguably the Cornish music event of the year. Bands old and new perform there, usually with some very famous ones headlining.
Festival of the Sea
The Festival of the Sea is a May or June event with waterborne events including gig rowing and RNLI celebrations.
It’s traditional for almost every town and village in Cornwall to have a carnival and Looe is no exception. Carnival Week will feature the floral dance, alfresco singing and a parade with floats and brass bands. There is also a range of activities for families and children.
New Year’s Eve
New Year’s Eve is particularly festive and frisky in Looe, with many drunken revellers in fancy dress, topped off with one of Cornwall’s best fireworks displays!
Special Things to Do and Visit
Also known as St George’s Island and historically as St Michael’s (Michael seems to have had a bit of a monopoly on monastic islands at one time), or Enys Lann-Managh (island of the monks’ enclosure) to give it its Cornish name. The 22 acre (9ha) island is barely a mile from the shore and you can actually just about walk there on the lowest of spring tides. Normally and more sensibly, it is reached by boat. Once a monastery, later the private island of two authoress sisters, and now a conservation area belonging to the non-profit Cornwall Wildlife Trust. The island has magnificent views, wildlife, and in summer is an idyllic paradise.
Near the Banjo Pier is a modern lifeboat station with a souvenir shop to support the RNLI. You can also visit the Old Lifeboat Station, now a retail outlet, which housed the lifeboat until operations ceased in 1930. From 1991 until the inception of the current station in 2002, the lifeboats were housed in a temporary shelter on the waterfront.
Looe to Polperro Walk
No visit to Looe would be complete without taking a walk along the South West Coast Path. The route from Looe to Talland Bay and then Polperro is on of its most exceptional, passing a sixth-century monastery, considerable industrial archaeology from the eighteenth and nineteenth, and with many legends and stories to tell. There are rockpools and shipwrecks, and bird and marine life, and you can come back by bus or by train.
Looe Valley Railway
The Looe Valley Line is regarded as one of the most scenic rail journeys in the world. Possibly also the most eccentric, it features an allegedly haunted station as well as incredible scenery in an erratic but nonetheless effective journey between Liskeard and Looe.
Old Guildhall Museum and Gaol
The new (actually Victorian) Guildhall now houses the Town Hall and the old one has become a wonderful museum. One of the oldest buildings in Looe – entering the museum one feels transported back to the sixteenth century by the Tudor beams and wooden floor. Small but rammed with exhibits from the days of smuggling and piracy, the two world wars and much more.
Looe Monkey Sanctuary is a home to rescued monkeys of all kinds and a popular tourist attraction. Enjoy the keeper talks, children’s activities and play area, films and the Treetop Café.
There are a number of companies providing boat trips out of Looe, and it’s one of the best ways to see this incredible bit of coastline. Fishing trips, pleasure boats and even glass-bottomed boats are available to show you the very best the Cornish marine environment has to offer.
There are many excellent holiday cottages in the Looe area.