Must Visit Cornish Harbours

Cornwall is famous for beaches, and surfing, and pasties, but for most of its history, the important places were harbours. Whether it was the fishing industry on which most people relied for food, or the mining which required coal and lime to be shipped in and mined metal sent out, Cornwall’s ports and harbours were where most people lived and worked. Many of them remain very much as they always were so that we can enjoy their beauty and history as well as some of the more recent attractions that the tourist industry has brought to the region. Here are some of the really unique harbours, listed anti-clockwise from north to south!

Bude Canal, River Neet and Summerleaze Beach

Bude Canal, River Neet and Summerleaze Beach

Bude

Bude is an unusual harbour, mostly unlike a harbour. Just a few boats moored in the deep channel at the edge of a popular surfing and bathing beach, with a breakwater alongside. At the top of this channel are two walls that form the end of an unusual canal, which was built when Bude’s main industry was the supply of sand for agriculture inland. The whole effect is rather attractive, and Bude is a very popular holiday resort by virtue of its beaches, surfing and other watersports, and a good sized town with all the mod cons, plus cafés, teashops, restaurants and bistros. And at the last count, thirteen pubs! The canal provides a sheltered inland waterway for boating and really completes this town’s excellent set of credentials.

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Boscastle Harbour

Boscastle Harbour

Boscastle

An ancient natural harbour in a steep, deep valley formed by the River Valency, which was upgraded in 1584 with two sturdy harbour walls. Boscastle later became quite a bustling port, importing and exporting mining materials, but now it lies tranquil again. An exceptionally beautiful and interesting village set in a lovely stretch of coastline, it’s one of Cornwall’s prettiest and most romantic getaways.

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Port Isaac Harbour

Port Isaac

Port Isaac

Port Isaac is built around a lovely sandy beach in a natural inlet, with the addition of harbour walls to keep it safe. Not one of Cornwall’s deep water harbours, yet it managed to stay busy from the Middle Ages until Victorian times and to build up a thriving little town with lots to see and do. Nowadays it’s difficult to escape its TV fame as the location for the famous Doc Martin series, but except when filming is taking place, it’s all about the seafood, ice creams and sheltered beach enjoyment. Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman loved Port Isaac, and recommending approaching the village on foot from St Endellion to get the best view of its higgledy-piggledy slate tiled houses, some of them so narrow you can stand inside and touch the front and back at the same time!

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Port Quin

Port Quin

Port Quin

Port Quin is a completely natural harbour without any additional walls or protection from the sea though the steep cliffs either side shelter it from all but the most northerly swells. Exceptionally beautiful but with a hint of sadness – this once busy village (well, hamlet perhaps, with 23 houses and a population of 94) was mostly abandoned after poor fishing seasons and later its entire fleet was destroyed by a storm. Now there is just a handful of cottages, and the remains of the fish cellars and pilchard place, but it remains one of the prettiest spots on the north coast, and a stunning vista at high tide. There’s an ample car park for the small visitor numbers and super cliff walks in both directions. For cottages nearby, check this link… 

Padstow Harbour

Padstow Harbour

Padstow

Padstow is a working fishing port with the relatively recent addition of a gated inner harbour that maintains deep water at any time of day. Sitting halfway up the beautiful Camel Estuary, it’s a wonderful place to enjoy, with many shops both practical and bizarre, attractions and boat trips, and a fantastic selection of pubs and eateries including the offerings of the famous TV chef Rick Stein. Surrounded by lovely beaches and with more on the other side which can be reached by ferry, Padstow is always sure to provide entertainment.

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Newquay Harbour

Newquay Harbour

Newquay

Newquay is one of the larger and most famous holiday resorts in Cornwall, but amidst the surfing and the nightlife, many people forget about its wonderful harbour. The old harbour is a lovely environment with a sandy beach at low tide that’s enjoyed by families. Seals are often to be seen inside the harbour, traditional boats ply their trade in crab, lobster and fish. You can take a “sea safari” boat trip or eat at some decent bars and restaurants. For some reason (perhaps the number of other attractions in the area), Newquay harbour is not as busy as one might expect although the parking on the wharf itself is limited.

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St Ives Harbour

St Ives Harbour

St Ives

St Ives is often regarded as Britain’s best seaside town, and not least because of it’s beautiful sheltered harbour and selection of different beaches. A nineteenth-century lighthouse stands on the single, massive harbour wall known as “Smeaton’s Pier” and a shorter dock or West Pier juts out from the commercial waterfront. St Ives is a stunning and interesting place to visit at any time, but its harbour surrounds with their pubs, restaurants and seaside emporia are the icing on the cake.

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The MouseholeMousehole

Mousehole (m-ow-zul)is a very picturesque fishing village in West Cornwall, with a broad harbour hugged in the strong twin arms of its ten metre thick walls. The beach inside, when exposed by the tide, is safe and sheltered and under the watchful eye of the town above. One of the principal ports of Mount’s Bay in medieval times (along with Marazion and St Michael’s Mount), but was destroyed by Spanish raiders in 1595. Now with a new lease of life as a fishing port and tourist attraction, it’s particularly well known for its harbour lights.

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St Michael's Mount

St Michael’s Mount

St Michael’s Mount

The island of St Michael’s Mount, off Marazion, is a Cornish icon, accessed only by boat or a walkway at low tide. It seems just a castle on a hill but is an ancient port with a stunning harbour. In the 1800s, it was home to at least 300 people, with fifty-three houses, four streets, pubs and a school – a proper village on a sometime island whose history is even older. It’s thought that over two thousand years ago, foreign ships would have come to the harbour from the Mediterranean to export Cornish tin all over the world. Now, the Mount is more of a tourist attraction, but some thirty islanders live and work there. You can wander the village and harbour or take a guided tour – these run twice a day – and visit the Island Café or the Courtyard Shop.

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View from Porthleven Harbour

Porthleven

Porthleven

Porthleven is the storm watching capital of the UK, and is usually the poster child of hurricane swells and other extreme weather, as gigantic waves break near its iconic clocktower. It’s also a famous surfing destination, but it’s not suitable for beginners – the combination of rocks, wall and the savage backwash challenges even the pro’s. You can, however, enjoy watching their antics while eating a pasty on the harbour wall.

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Coverack

Coverack

Coverack

Coverack harbour is unusual in that it’s completely dry at low water, yet remains home to around forty boats and it’s next to a very attractive beach. Unusually sheltered and safe for swimming and bathing. The old lifeboat station, with its distinctive launching ramp, was converted into a restaurant many years ago. Coverack has a very unspoilt feel to it and is a favoured destination for sailing and diving.

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Falmouth

Falmouth is an industrial as well as leisure and fishing port by virtue of its huge natural deep-water harbour, the third largest in the world. With several marinas, it’s a favourite destination for sailing but equally for walkers and families, with six river estuaries and many more streams and creeks providing a vast playground. With a rich maritime history and still to this day visited by tall ships and other marine wonders, Falmouth is a fantastic place to spend time.

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Mevagissey Harbour

Mevagissey

Mevagissey

Mevagissey near St Austell is an attractive double harbour, built on the site of a much older medieval quay, with a busy fishing fleet. Nestling in an attractive valley, the narrow streets of the old village hold many shops and places to eat and drink, overlooked by the residential areas up on the hillsides. It’s a lovely place to sit and watch the world go by. Surprisingly for such a little place, Mevagissey (or just Meva) boasts an aquarium, a museum, and a model railway!

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Charlestown Harbour

Charlestown

Charlestown

Charlestown is one of the most well-known harbours in Cornwall, mainly because of its illustrious on-screen appearances in TV and movies. From Poldark to Alice in Wonderland, the unique nature of this tiny harbour and its association with the Square Sail company and their tall ships has ensured that knowingly or not, most of us have seen Charlestown many times. With a pleasant beach and cafés and pubs, this is enough to ensure that locals and tourists alike visit again and again.

Polkerris

Nearby Polkerris is one of the most photogenic beaches anywhere and is also rather popular with film production companies for this reason. Protected by a single, arcing wall, it has just a few (but excellent) places to eat and drink but is such a lovely place to sit outside. The Cornish Pollkerys means “fortified wall” and indeed, the robustness of the harbour wall and the Napoleonic wartime cannons embedded in it lend some credence to its once strategic importance. Now it’s just a lovely beach, whether for sandcastles or renting a kayak or a dinghy.

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Fowey

Fowey harbour, really an estuary in its own right, is a quaint and attractive destination favoured by yacht and dinghy sailors. It’s a working commercial port whose deep water channels are in constant use by large ships, so there’s always something to see. The pretty stone harbour walls and slipways are a nice place to wander, as are the narrow streets with houses of all eras from medieval times to this day.

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Boats in Polperro Harbour

Polperro

Polperro

Polperro is one of Cornwall’s finest village ports with a distinctive inner and outer harbour. For centuries, a thriving pilchard industry supported the town, though now the commercial boats bring mainly flatfish, shellfish, monkfish and pollock as well as the ubiquitous bass and cod. The town is famous for its unspoilt old world charm, with fishermen’s cottages almost unchanged for centuries, and is nowadays completely car free. Because of the narrow streets, visitors’ vehicles are left in a car park above the town and most people walk. There are horse-drawn and tram-esque shuttles for those who need a ride.

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Looe

Looe

Looe

Looe is a proper working fishing port, its unusual rectangular harbour bounded on opposite sides by East and West Looe, and on the third by the bridge over the river. This large harbour is a testament to the town’s historical importance as a shipping port for metals and stone, but its fortunes declined with the Cornish mining indusrty in the 1800s and fishing and tourism are the main businesses now. The town has many attractions in its narrow medieval streets, and you can buy your fish fresh from the boats on the docks next to the harbour.

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These are, for us, some of the standout harbours of the Cornish peninsula, but this list is by no means exhaustive. Why not visit our Cornwall Guide to see what else Kernow has to offer?