Polperro is definitely one of Cornwall’s finest village ports, with a distinctly tidal inner harbour enclosed by an imposing harbour wall reaching out from the west side, and a natural outer harbour augmented by another, smaller wharf or pier. 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 olde worlde charm, with fishermen’s cottages almost unchanged for centuries, and is nowadays effectively car free. Locals’ and delivery vehicles are allowed access to the centre, but because of the narrow streets, visitors’ cars are left in a car park above the village and most people walk. There are horse-drawn carts and tram-like shuttles made out of milk-floats for those who prefer to ride.
The harbour is unusual in that it is (since 1864) privately owned by ratepayers, and administered by fifteen unpaid trustees elected from the Council Tax payers of the village. There is a storm gate in operation across the harbour entrance to prevent large waves entering in bad weather, and the trustees propose a new hydraulic gate to completely seal the harbour from the sea and provide flood protection to the many listed buildings while maintaining the tidal nature of the port.
Polperro’s secluded position in a network of valleys is one reason that historical residents were not always on the right side of the law. Taxes on a range of goods, including basic commodities like salt, encouraged the fishermen to supplement their tenuous livelihood by using their boats for ‘the trade’, as smuggling was called. Goods were often secretly landed in the many coves around Polperro, and spirited away under cover of darkness, hidden in caves or whisked away inland on secret paths. It was very hard for “The Revenue” or coast guard to catch the culprits, but considerable resources were put into policing the sea, with Revenue cutters stopping and searching suspect boats, and penalties up to and including death or deportation for the convicted.
The Methodist preacher John Wesley commented on Polperro in 1762: “An accursed thing among them: well nigh one and all bought or sold uncustomed goods.”
The toponymy or origin of the town’s name is unclear. Many assert that Polperro derives from the Cornish name Porthpyra, meaning Pyra’s (or perhaps Piran’s?) cove or harbour. This doesn’t sit particularly well with the name of the river Pol (which is Cornish for a pool) and some 14th-century historical references cite variations on Polpyr which would mean “fish-pool”.
Polperro’s climate is fairly typical of Cornwall’s south coast. Warm sea breezes prevail in the summer months and south-east facing harbour makes for early morning sun as well as spectacular beach sunsets over the headland to the west. For more detailed meteorological information why not look at our main Cornish weather page?
Polperro lies seven miles (11km) east of Fowey and four miles (6km) west of the neighbouring town of Looe. Some twenty-five miles (40km) to the east is the Devon city and naval dockyards of Plymouth. The middle-sized market town of Liskeard is about eleven miles (17km) due north of the village. It’s fun to go there by train from Looe, see below.
Holidays by the Sea
Cornwall has always been a popular destination for beach holidays and the appeal and benefits to one’s general well-being are widely understood. Polperro is not perhaps the resort for lying on a towel or making sandcastles, but it still delivers these advantages in spades. It is also an extremely warm and lovely rural village with an atmosphere that more than compensates for any lack of extensive sand, watersports or beach tat. It further distinguishes itself by being very well placed for reaching many of Cornwall’s best-known attractions and pursuits.
Cornwall is famous for its surf spots, but actually, the south-eastern part doesn’t often catch good swells. Whitsand Bay, about half an hour’s drive to the east of Polperro, is often blessed with small waves, but most surfers would head for the north coast only thirty miles away, where Widemouth, Harlyn, Fistral or Watergate are more certain to deliver. For the pro’s, the south coast reef break of Porthleven is to be found just over an hour away to the west. Only if you know your stuff, though, or just want to watch from the harbour wall!
There is a lot to choose from. The Crumplehorn Inn is a lovely 13th-century building, the first thing you see upon leaving the car park. In the centre of the village is The Kitchen, a fantastic and intimate little restaurant that always gets rave reviews. The owners boast that they “search constantly for the finest produce, from rare pig breeds to the catch of the day”. Plantation Restaurant & Tea Rooms is worth a look, as are the nautical Ship Inn, Nelson’s Restaurant, Buccaneer Café and the very good Blue Peter Inn. Michelle’s Restaurant is a very highly reviewed choice, specialising in seafood but with Sunday roasts and bread and butter pudding equally an option.
There are about 25 places to eat in Polperro so we can’t list them all, but a final mention would be the Polmary Tea Rooms and Family Restaurant which while noted for its all-day breakfast is equally at home serving roast dinners. And has a fabulous climbing tree wrapped around it!
Polperro does not instantly strike one as a place with a happening nightlife, but like neighbouring Looe it is somewhat apt to surprise. From the Crumplehorn Inn past the Penryn House Hotel (with lounge bar), on to the Ship Inn, Old Millhouse Inn, The Three Pilchards and the Blue Peter Inn on the front, there’s a pub crawl in the making, and such is the nature of Cornish villages that if it can be done, it should be!
Usually held in June, ideally around the time of the Summer Solstice, the Polperro Festival features art, music, photography, comedy, a bake-off and street entertainment like Morris dancers and itinerant musicians. The many local pubs also join in by booking their own bands and make it a weekend to remember!
Polperro is a pleasure just to wander, with narrow streets and medieval houses leaning together like drunken sailors and others seemingly clinging to the natural topography of the hills around the harbour. But it’s not just a sleepy little village – there’s a lot to see and do. As well as the excellent selection of pubs and restaurants, there’s a Heritage Museum, featuring all the things that visitors love about the history of Cornwall, like piracy and smuggling, wrecking and fishing. Polperro’s past is particularly colourful!
Photographic artwork made in Cornwall by Polperro Gallery and finished by hand. The gallery is situated in the centre of Polperro.
This gallery, housed in the old Methodist Chapel on the way down from the car park, exhibits work from the East Cornwall Society of Artists and is quite unique in its origins and displayed works.
The Smallest Shop
No village in Cornwall would be complete without somewhere selling pagan or quasi-mystical paraphernalia, and Polperro is no exception. It addition to displaying
artwork and other items of such a nature (and a surprising number of skulls) this one claims to be the smallest shop in Kernow. Believable – there’s room for about two people inside.
Polperro also has many other small (but larger) shops selling ice cream, food and drink, and all the things that tourists enjoy. Of note is the Cornish Maids Fudge Shop, the oldest established shop of its type in the village.
The Patrick Gamble Art Studio & Gift Shop
The Patrick Gamble Art Studio & Gift Shop is well worth a look and as the title says, good for both art and gifts/souvenirs.
Polperro Model Village Land of Legend & Model Railway
A big title for a miniature exhibition, this attraction is well worth a look and good for young children. It gets great reviews!
South West Coast Path
There’s also the South West Coast Path, taking us on amazing coastal walks to other great spots like Looe and Talland Bay to the east, or stunning Lansallos and Polruan to the west. The route from Polperro to Talland Bay and then to Looe is quite exceptional. It takes in a sixth-century monastery, monolithic industrial archaeology from the eighteenth and nineteenth, and has many legends and stories to tell. There are rockpools, shipwrecks, avian and marine life to see, and you can make the return journey by bus or train.
Polperro also offers a range of splendid boat trips, including various types of fishing. One of the best outings is to take the boat to Looe Island and back. There are trips to and from Looe or Fowey, mixed walking /boat return trips, individual or group bookings and more.
For those of a horticultural disposition, there are lovely gardens to visit in the area, including Headland Garden at Polruan and Lanhydrock near Bodmin. The Eden Project, which is probably Cornwall’s best-known attraction, is reached in a mere thirty-minute journey by car.
Liskeard is a nearby market town that doesn’t necessarily feature highly on the tourist agenda, but is attractive nonetheless and deserving of a visit when one needs the usual high street shops or a change of scene. It does have some wonderful Victorian architecture and a very interesting museum. But perhaps the best thing about it is that Liskeard can be reached by rail from nearby Looe.
Looe Valley Railway
The Looe Valley Line is undoubtedly one of the most interesting and scenic rail journeys in the world. It might also be the most eccentric. It features an allegedly haunted station as well as some incredible scenery in a somewhat erratic but perfectly efficient journey from Looe to Liskeard.
Polperro Beach itself sits just outside the main harbour wall and is a nice spot with attractive rocks and a cave, close to all the facilities of the village. It is completely covered by water at high tide!
Polperro beach itself has a seasonal dog ban, from Easter Sunday until the 1st of October. However, this should not discourage the dog owners among us, since the village is a lovely place to walk our furry friends, and lies on the South West Coast Path for miles and miles of canine-friendly walking on all types of terrain. Furthermore, the nearby beaches of Lantic Bay, Lansallos, Lantivet, as well as Talland Bay, the Looe beaches of Hannafore and Plaidy, and Whitsand, Downderry, and Seaton are all dog-friendly all the year round. For more detailed information about the dog-friendly beaches of Cornwall, why not visit our dedicated page on the subject?
Polperro beach is wonderful for children. Sheltered, safe and close to all facilities, the one proviso being that it is tidal and completely covered at high water. Little ones do lose track of the time, but it’s safe because it doesn’t get cut off by the rising tide. You just get pushed up the beach to the steps and have to leave!
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