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Head west on the A394 from Helston to Penzance and a left turn will bring you to Porthleven, the most southerly port in mainland Britain and an excellent base for exploring south west Cornwall.
A happy mix of working village and popular holiday centre, Porthleven offers a variety of accommodation and you'll find restaurants, pubs, galleries and gift shops trading alongside fishmongers and chandlers.
A few yards from the harbour you can soak up the sun on the beach, or take the South West Coast Path cast to the wild Lizard Peninsula or west to the spectacular cliff-edge tin mines of Rinsey. Come in the summer and you'll catch Porthleven in its holiday clothes, with quayside concerts by the town band, gig racing and the festival of St Peter's Tide.
As you stroll round the harbour, you'll be passing buildings which can tell a story or two of times past, when the quayside heaved with activity As you turn into Breageside, the three-storey building across to your right was built in 1889 as fish-curing cellars which turned out thousands of hogsheads of pilchards for export.
Nearby, the Myths and Legends attraction started life in 1893 as a china clay store; up to 7000 tons of china clay from the Tregonning Hill quarries were kept here prior to export. As you walk a little further on, you'll see a ruined turret-like building, once a limekiln, built in 1814 to produce lime for the construction of the harbour and the building boom which followed.
The two cannon either side of the harbour were once fired in anger at Napoleon's navy during the battle of Brest and come from the frigate HMS Anson, wrecked on Lee Bar in 1807 with the loss of 120 sailors.
Just round from the Ship Inn is the old lifeboat house, built in 1894. Porthleven had its own lifeboat service from 1863 to 1929, which ran 28 missions and saved 50 lives. The village retains strong links with the RNLI and each August holds a colourful Lifeboat Day. The Bickford-Smith Institute, with its imposing 70ft clock tower, was built in 1883 as a Literary Institute by William Bickford-Smith of Trevarno. The building featured in the national press in 1989, when pictures showed the tower engulfed by enormous waves .
A walk to the nearby market town of Helston takes you along Loe Bar, a huge shingle bank separating the sea - it is not safe to bathe here - from the tranquil waters of Loe Pool. Quite a surprise after your seaside stroll, the beautiful lakeside and woodland paths take you through the National Trusts Penrose Estate, and along the Cober Valley to Helston.
The Early Days
Porthleven's name is thought to come from the old Cornish porth (harbour) and leven (level or smooth), probably because the harbour was once a flat marshland on the banks of a stream flowing into the sea at a small cove. The stream still flows through the valley and divides the village into the two parishes of Sithney to the cast and Breage to the west.
By the 14th century, a hamlet of fishermen's dwellings had established itself around the cove, separated from the sea by a bar of shingle where the boats were kept. This community continued to grow and by 1700 had beenjoined by farmworkers and miners.
Then, in 1811, to meet the demand for coal and supplies for the nearby mines, together with the need for a safe refuge for the fishing fleet, the construction of the harbour began; the project was to take 14 years and the workforce included many prisoners from the Napoleonic wars. It was opened in August 1825 with a feast of roast beef and plum pudding for the whole village.
In 1855 the harbour was leased by Harvey & Co, of Hayle, who created a deeper inner basin which was protected by the massive timber baulk gates still in use today. Trade increased dramatically with imports of coal, limestone and timber, and exports of tin, copper and china clay. From the 1850s, the Porthleven boatbuilding industry became a major employer. The large slip saw the launch of clippers, schooners and yachts destined for ports around the world. Two Porthleven-built trawlers still work from Brixham but the last boat was launched here in the late 1970s.
Much of Porthleven's daily routine is still played out in the harbour, with houses and cottages cramming the hillsides for the best view. Boats still fish from here, the main catch being crab, lobster and crayfish.
The building of the harbour heralded the start of Porthleven's golden days of fishing. Every summer, great pilchard shoals some as much as 15 miles square - swam into Mount's Bay! Large catches were regularly recorded; 2000 hogsheads (a hogshead was a 54-gallon barrel) on 8 November 1834. So determined were the locals to get at the fish that, if there was no wind to take the boats out of the harbour, teams of men would tow the boats to the end of the pier from where they would row off hoping to find some gusts out in Mount's Bay.
Anyone walking along Porthleven quayside in 1880, at the height of this briny bonanza, could have counted 144 boats when the fleet was in - a city floating between the harbour walls. Up to 583 men and boys crewed the fleet; women and children were paid threepence per hour to salt and pack the pilchards; hundreds more were employed in making sails, nets, ropes and barrels. Fishing, as well as boatbuilding, mining and agriculture, created such prosperity for the area that many new homes were built to accommodate the influx of newcomers.
Fish is still a very important part of Porthleven life and, although much of the catch is now taken to market at nearby Newlyn, some of the best still finds its way to the village's fishmonger and excellent local restaurants!
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