Charlestown, Cornwall

My opinion plus information on the village and port of Charlestown in Cornwall.

The following is my impression of the small village and port of Charlestown in Cornwall, together with some information.

There was that special early morning silence. Any sounds that did come along were muted as if they had lost their definition and sharpness. They just lingered heavily in the air for a while and disappeared. I shivered slightly as I looked out to sea through the damp mist, my eyes straining to see if I could spot a vessel or something moving. But there was only stillness and a feeling of peace.

The old stone sea wall was full of history underneath my feet. I could almost feel the energy of the builders as they completed their work some 200 years ago. Where I stood women once waited for their men to return from the sea and, as I looked across the small enclosed harbour, I could see two tall sailing ships, square riggers from another age, in dock. How wonderful they looked, so proud, with their masts thrusting high into the mist. My stomach lurched slightly as I thought of climbing the rigging to the crows nest, "Land ahoy, land ahoy!" What tales, what adventures these ships could tell.

For a while I felt as if I had stepped back in time through the mist, who knows, perhaps I had. As I looked from the harbour wall at Charlestown I was trapped in the early 1800's. I could see china clay being brought by horse and cart from the nearby quarry and loaded onto ships, bound for the pottery manufacturing centres of mid England and the rest of the world. Charles Rashleigh - the village and harbour are named after him - looked on well satisfied to see his vision had come to reality. In 1791 he had set out his plans to build the harbour. To think, prior to this it was an insignificant fishing village with a population of just nine people.

During 1790 a little china clay had already been shipped from the beach but this was difficult, and dangerous, and ships suffered damage in the process. What was needed was a proper protected harbour, or port, with stone walls and places where the china clay could be dried and stored.

I returned to the present day.

The wall on which I was standing was to the far side and I was looking towards the village with my back to the sea. In front of me was the rounded harbour filled with water by the tide. A few small boats bobbed up and down gently. The sea behind me was calm, a real pussy cat, lapping, licking and almost carressing the areas it touched.

Steep cliffs rise to the left and right, where walkers now strut their stuff along the coastal path that stretches around Cornwall. And before me in the dip was Charlestown, a small village, not really well known but one I found to be fascinating. In reality you could speedily get round the village and harbour in half an hour - I'm sure that this is what a lot of visitors do. But if they do they miss out on the magic that you can only appreciate by standing, looking and sensing the history.

Times change and Rashleigh's design for the harbour became outdated and too small for the ever growing size of the ships. The china clay was diverted to nearby Par and Fowey instead. The old building that was once used to dry and store the china clay has now become the Shipwreck, Rescue and Heritage Centre, a tourist attraction.

The centre offers an insight into the history of the village and shipwrecks in general. You can walk through the same underground tunnels where men sweated, pushing clay trucks out to the waiting ships in the port. On display are artefacts recovered from shipwrecks: candlesticks from the 1500's, pewter plates, weapons, gold and silver treasure coins, 400 year old canons and so on. Old cottage and blacksmith scenes have been recreated to give an impression of how things used to be. And, of course, there is the inevitable gift shop and restaurant to keep all of this company.

What I enjoyed most about the village was simply walking slowly and looking. I started at the car park, though you can park on the approach road into Charlestown, and strolled towards the sea. I was there very early in the morning. My boyfriend and I had a few days in Cornwall, when we went to see the Eden Project, and we were staying with friends who live locally. As there was so much I wanted to see, in too short time, I got up early one morning and left the others sleeping. I felt I had to see Charlestown for some reason, perhaps I knew it from another life, who knows.

From the car park the first thing you see is the Shipwreck Centre, which I have already told you about, and then what I took to be the dock. This was amazing as there were these two old sailing ships, from the 1850's, that I've also mentioned. I spent an age looking at these, imagining what it must have been like to sail in them. It seems that they are berthed here, though they are still fully operational and in use. There is a good chance, therefore, they will be there should you visit. Opposite this dock are old houses and buildings the final one, before reaching the sea, being the Pier House Hotel (built in 1794) - unbeknown to me at the time, our friends had booked a table for us all, that same evening, for a meal in the hotel restaurant.

If you are that way I can tell you that this is a lovely place to eat, but I'm told that you have to book in advance as it is very popular with the locals. Main courses are about £12 to £16, plus your starter and pud. The food and service are excellent. There is also another pub with a restaurant, the Rashleigh Arms. We had a drink there before we went for our meal but I didn't really like the atmosphere and felt uncomfortable - but that's just me. My boyfriend liked it because they sold six different real ales.

OK, back to my walk, after the Pier House Hotel is the beginning of the harbour wall that curves out into the sea. This was originally called the pier, thus the name of the hotel. It's only a short walk along the wall but it's something you have to do, so as to look back at the picturesque scene. I really shouldn't think much has changed from about the mid 1800's.

It's also possible to cross over to the other side of the harbour by the means of a narrow metal bridge, below which is a water gate. This is used to regulate the water depth in the dock that leads off from the harbour. It's a bit of a creepy feeling in the early morning mist looking down at the dark waters. Once over the bridge there is a tunnel leading to quite a stretch of pebble beach, with the cliffs as a backdrop behind. Signs ban dogs and the removing of any pebbles

And really that is all there is to Charlestown, as far as I could tell. There aren't any shops to talk about - just a post office and a couple of small outlets, oh yes, and a pottery and picture place. If you walk from the car park away from the sea I saw one B&B and a road to the right leads to the church.

So would I recommend a visit? Well it depends on what you like to do. There are no amusements, for instance, and not even a McDonalds to spoil its original character - thank goodness! I loved it for its history and as a place where I could let my imagination run free. This Charles Rashleigh bloke must have been some visionary in his way. One of his achievements, for example, was to obtain fresh water for the dock basins by building a leat (an open watercourse) from Luxulyan Valley, some six miles away. This was some feat as the water had to travel over aqueducts and through tunnels to reach Charlestown. He covered some of the considerable construction costs, and the upkeep, by using the leat to power watermills along its journey. Now if you were to ask me why he couldn't have used the sea water on his doorstep, so to speak, I couldn't really tell you. It must have been a good idea at the time - a neat feat with a leat!

If you are ever nearby Charlestown, and have an hour or two to spare, I'd say have a visit. It lacks the glamour and fame of the nearby villages of Fowey and Mevagissey but for me it had its own special kind of magic. If you visit and get round quickly you can always take a walk along the coastal footpath and enjoy the views and fresh air - or have a drink in the Pier House Hotel bar.

If you go early on a misty morning, be warned, you may just slip through a time door and, for an instant, find yourself transported back 200 years. I'm sure that is what happened to me.

INFORMATION

How To Get There
Sign posted off the A390 east of St.Austell, Cornwall

Charlestown on the Internet

Shipwreck, Rescue and Heritage Centre

Pier House Hotel

Rashleigh Arms

MY OTHER CORNWALL OPINIONS

Cornwall's Eden Project. The now world famous enormous biomes containing plants and trees and the atmosphere of the Humid Tropics and Warm Temperate regions of the world.