Neil Sowerby finds solace with Cornish seaside scenes, tattooed hands and crab on chips
I do like a lodging with a view. Preferably of a large expanse of water. The very name of our apartment, Harbour Strand, had a salty tang about it. "Shipshape in Falmouth" was the promise, and it more than delivered.
Cosy as Captain Cuttle’s cabin. Everything In Its Right Place, as the Radiohead song has it, but surely sea shanties fit the bill better for one of Britain’s great nautical settlements.
With its estuary views, it would make a fine place to stay; we just relished a hearty evening menu that featured devilled crab and smoked beef cheek dumplings
The view from our second floor bolthole was of bobbing craft of all shapes and sizes, against a backdrop of the Carrick Roads estuary, the third-largest natural harbour in the world. As a mid-morning squall swept across it, distant St Mawes across the water shrouded in mist, we battened down the hatches. With a glass of grog in hand behind rain-spattered floor-to-ceiling glass.
Seafood - and eat it
The storm passed, and by sunlit early afternoon, the choppy seas were pure azure. Time for seafood. The options were diminished a year ago when the pandemic impact closed Rick Stein’s Fish on Discovery Quay, but still going strong is the nearby (and excellent) Harbour Lights, which has featured in the National Fish and Chip Awards Top 10.
Harbour Lights lies 50 metres from Harbour Strand. Even closer was the venue for our first meal in Falmouth. It had to be at The Seafood Bar and the succession of small plates had to include crab loaded chips. They are essential ballast if you plan to work your way through the eight beers on tap in this cosy space. Most are from the bar’s owners, Verdant Brewing Co., for whom this is a most welcome side project.
These hazy IPA specialists were founded in town eight years ago, but the swanky new state of the art brewery and taproom is four miles upstream in Penryn, the original port when Falmouth was just a marshy foreshore.
It’s a 20-minute suburban trek to Verdant from Penryn Station. With a restorative schooner of Lightbulb Extra Pale Ale at your elbow, you should order a massive Neapolitan wood-fired pizza and consider a rescue taxi – eventually. With all the history in mind, though, by water does seem the way to go. After all, nowhere in Cornwall is more than 17 miles from the sea.
Off-season in Cornwall
Since we were staying out of season we were denied excursions out to Helford Passage and other spectacular inlets. Even the year-round ferry across to St Mawes and the Roseland Peninsula was halted by filming on the Prince of Wales Pier. No hardship. There was so much to explore in Falmouth itself. Alongside all the regulation pasties meet piskies Cornish tourist tat there’s a rough-edged dock town meets bohemia vibe. The dominance of the Falmouth School of Art in the University has spawned a colourful gallery culture.
Accessed via a "Fauvist" yellow outside door, our Harbour Strand base sat high above a South African restaurant, part of a procession of global food options along Arwenack Street. It’s a sort of contemporary testimony to those heady 17th century times when the port’s meteoric rise was confirmed by the granting of official packet ship status, so the world beat a path there.
And if there was always a strong element of piracy in the mix, even among its independent-minded Kilgrew dynasty, instrumental in Falmouth’s rise, the port also harboured Quaker and Jewish communities (the former synagogue high above the town offers panoramic views).
Arwenack (it means white water) Street leads to Arwenack House. Dating back to 1385, it was rebuilt in the 1580s by the most prominent of the Kilgrews, Sir John, first governor of Pendennis Castle.
That artillery fortress was built in the late 16th century to guard the harbour approach from the French, Spanish and other potential invaders. It also allowed Sir John to pillage carte blanche. His daughter-in-law, Mary carried on the buccaneering tradition with a rare ferocity. Notably, after inviting two Spanish merchants to feast at Arwenack, she slipped away via a secret passage to board their ship, slay crew members and plunder its treasures before returning slyly for supper.
After a revenge campaign, she and her two servants were charged and sentenced to death. They went to the gallows in Launceston; she was pardoned at the last minute by Queen Elizabeth.
Cornwall's seafaring legacy
Pendennis Castle, run by English Heritage, is open to the public, and the hour’s round trek to the headland is rewarding with spectacular views en route of today’s commercial dockyards. But the real starting point to appreciate Falmouth and Cornwall’s seafaring legacy has to be the National Maritime Museum Cornwall, just across the road from Arwenack House, now remodelled as an upmarket housing complex.
The museum must rank among the UK’s finest hands-on heritage attractions. Now nearly two decades old, the architecture is inspired by the boatbuilding sheds that once occupied the waterfront site. It houses 15 separate galleries packed with nautical objects and memorabilia, centred on the National Small Boat Collection.
Extra zest is provided by temporary exhibitions. We loved the Monsters of the Deep show, on until January 2023, a blockbuster exploration of our fixation with giant sea beasts, real and imaginary. Believe in them all from krakens to leviathans, mermaids to giant sea spiders? That makes you a "cryptogeographer" (or maybe just a crank).
But then again who would have credited that Coelacanths existed? Until the discovery of South Africa, in 1938, of one of these primitive, lobe-finned fish that live up to 2,300 feet below the ocean surface. They can reach 2m or more and weigh 90kg – a strange link in the evolutionary scale. The NMMC show has the first specimen ever loaned out.
Fascinating stuff but above all, fun. You are greeted at the exhibition entrance by a huge, menacing eye that blinks to a terrifying 3D effect, enhanced by the fusing light rays with bioluminescence particles, gathered underwater.
Bizarrely, upstairs, the three-dimensional nature of tattoos is showcased in a separate exhibition. For this, the Museum commissioned an installation, The 100 Hands, based around a hundred silicone arms, each tattooed with an original design by a hundred of the UK’s leading exponents. Well, tattoos still have pirate associations, so very Falmouth.
And so, to beer
After which it is a relief to entrap ourselves in the lair of the wolf, its blazing-eyed skull louring over the bar of the former Falmouth Working Men’s Club. Welcome to Beerwolf Books, a unique fusion of pub and bookshop tucked away in Bells Court off Market Street. For fear of spillage you have to leave your ale on a table when you cross over to inspect the literary stock, a mix of new and remaindered at easy prices. Across a somnambulant hour or two in a comfy leather chair, I swigged a trio of hoppy pale ales and bought Paul Muldoon’s Selected Poems: 1968-2014 and Kevin Toolis’s The Irish Wake. Maybe I should have majored in stout, there was such an Irish feel to the place. It reminded me obliquely of The Winding Stair in Dublin without the affected litterati.
Certainly, Beerwolf engendered a rare thirst in us. Falmouth has a fine booze offering. Cross over the wide space of The Moor to The Seven Stars pub. The words classic, trad and boozer barely do it justice. Unspoilt here means no new decoration since the Fifties, beer from the barrel and Draught Bass.
This freehouse was first granted a licence in 1660, and the same family has run it since 1873. That’s seven generations and counting. Doyen of the family was undoubtedly the Rev John Barrington Bennetts, who spent nearly 60 years behind the bar while also serving his congregation at the Parish Church until his death in 2011. His less than spiritual legacy? The weekly pasty club. At the pub, not the church.
That establishment, on the long drag of Church Street between Arwenack and Market, goes under the grand name of "King Charles The Martyr". All very political. At the end of the Civil War, the future Charles II fled into exile via Pendennis Castle. Following the Restoration of the Monarchy another Killigrew, Sir Peter seeking a charter for Falmouth proposed the church project in tribute to the executed Charles I.
Eating and drinking in Falmouth
Enough history. Where further to eat and drink in the town? Newcomers include Laute, a cutting edge craft bottle shop and bar at 43 Killigrew Street and Kernowine, an impressively stocked bar and wine school at no.22.
To eat look no further than The Star and Garter, a beautifully restored Georgian townhouse lodging and restaurant. It’s at the top-end of the town’s most boho stretch, High Street. With its estuary views, it would make a fine place to stay; we just relished a hearty evening menu that featured devilled crab and smoked beef cheek dumplings. With Verdant beer on tap.
After a final evening of inevitable jolliness and with a 360 mile homeward road trip to come, where better to clear your head and focus than a morning on the "seaward" side of Falmouth – the beaches of Swanpool and Gyllyngase? The former is more attractive with wild breakers and inland a bird-thronged lake; a bracing stretch of the South West Coastal Path leads to the latter, more obviously seaside, big hotels lining the top. Not quite the Falmouth of the Killigrews and their piratical crews ruling the seas. For that vibe you need the view from Harbour Strand.
It’s a 700 mile round trip from Manchester via the M6, M5, A30 and A39. At the end was our Falmouth apartment, dog-friendly Harbour Strand.
This is just one of Aspects Holidays’ cottages in the Falmouth area.
For full tourism information on Falmouth visit this official site.
Visit Corwall also covers the whole glorious region.
Recommended reading: The Levelling Sea by Philip Marsden (Harper Press pb, £9.99). One of our greatest living travel writers explores the startling rise to prominence of his Cornish hometown.
Follow Neil Sowerby's adventures in food and travel on Twitter @antonegomanc
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