A Nation of Sea-Farers

A Nation of Sea-Farers

Fishy stories

It all began a long time ago. The Phoneticians brought their ships to Cornwall to trade in tin, while the Romans knew Land's End well enough to call it Belerion - the Seat of Storms.

Trading apart, much of Cornwall's maritime history was bloody, and by no means all of it legal. From the Hundred Years War to the Spanish Armada (sighted from Lizard Point); from the English Civil War to the American War of Independence, and, indeed, to the Normandy landings, preparation for and against war has left its mark upon Cornwall's coastline and the character of its people.

For the Cornish were ever a nation of seafarers; and when they weren't fishing, or conspiring with the throne against Holland, France or Spain, then they were privateering, smuggling or wrecking. Many of Cornwall's minuscule harbours - such as Coverack, Portscatho, Mevagissey, Polperro, Kingsand - operated 'fair-trading' fleets by night and pilchard fleets by day. One catch, at Cadgwith, totalled 1,798,000 fish over four days in 1904.

Today, Newlyn, tucked between Penzance and Mousehole, is the largest fish-landing port in England and Wales. Independent still, its fishermen last year acquired notoriety for taking up the Canadian. cause against Spain; and it is at Newlyn, appropriately, that you can see Cornwall's last pilchard-press in action. Fowey, too, shouldn't be overlooked; it provided 47 ships for the 1346 Siege of Calais, and an altercation with the Cinque Ports earned its fishermen the soubriquet of the Fowey Gallants.

The traditions live on, notably in maritime museums and tourist attractions. Charlestown, near St. Austell, is one example: its historic quays have doubled for both Cornwall and France in the Poldark television series, and its protected waters provide a floating home for a number of tall ships.

Almost every waterside community has its regatta, and national and European sailing championships abound. In 1998 the Tall Ships Race left from Falmouth, and pilot gig-racing recalls the days of the great merchant ships for whom it was "Falmouth for orders..."

Cornwall Tourist Board       The National Maritime Museum       The Cornish Fishing Industry