All along the Cornwall coast, there are spots that were used by smugglers, with many close to our boutique hotel, Fowey. If you fancy some challenging walks and learning about the hidden, and less than reputable past of Cornwall, these are the places you should seek out:
A little way along the coast from Fowey, to the east, is Looe. While the open beaches of Whitsand Bay made for fine landing - when the coast was clear for any covert runs - smugglers who were seeking a more discreet approach to Looe would head for Looe Island. There are various stories about the inhabitants of the island and their involvement with the trade. They were either brother and sister or father and daughter, but whatever their origins, they stored the contraband in a cave, which was hidden even from the smugglers, who would pay a fee for everything being stored. Then the pair communicated with a farmer on the mainland who would distract the customs authority and signal the coast was clear by riding a white horse along the coast. Many stories seem far-fetched, but that is often the case when it came to the daring antics of smugglers.
Just a short distance from Looe is the hamlet of Talland, whose bay was a favourite for smuggling boats arriving from the continent. In the graveyard of the church, there is a gravestone commemorating a man called Robert Mark, who died in 1802. Local legends about him vary. One story is that he died from gunshot wounds when on a smuggling trip, which comes from the epitaph on his tombstone, as one line reads: "I by a shot which rapid flew, Was instantly struck dead." However, another account says he was not a smuggler, but a revenue man shot by a smuggling gang. Robert Mark was not the only possible smuggler in Talland, as the vicar would foster stories of raising the dead, so villagers would avoid the church when smuggling went on.
This popular little tourist spot has its harbour intact, with white washed houses looking over the water, and it is easy to see why this charming place was a favourite for smugglers. One of the most colourful Polperro legends involves a man called 'Battling Billy' who ran the inn. When faced with the problem of moving kegs of brandy, he came upon the idea of using a hearse, which only worked well until he was found out. Apparently, his ghost still haunts the cobbled streets. A more factual story is of the Lottery, a Polperro smuggling ship which was highly sought after by the authorities, whose unfortunate smugglers on board would have a sad fate, either by hanging, exile from the village or constantly hiding for the rest of their lives.
The story of a failed smuggling job close to Fowey tells us how difficult it was to press charges against smugglers back in the 18th and 19th century, even when the evidence would point to guilt. During the landing and smuggling, a fight broke out, with a coastguard being injured. Even though five smugglers were arrested and over 400 gallons of brandy captured, they were acquitted after weapons were deemed as not dangerous and several character witnesses were provided in the smuggler's favour.
Like Cawsand, close to Plymouth, Mevagissey was a town renowned for its boat builders. The large vessels built there in the 18th century, when smuggling was most prominent, were capable of great speeds and could make the crossing to the continent in just a day or less. This is where the leaders of smuggling gangs went to get their vessels for transporting their contraband.
Image by: Robert Pittman