Fishing Villages in Cornwall | Life of Local Mariners
Fishing villages of Cornwall exude an historic charm and quaintness that have long made harbors like those of Mevagissey and Polperro alluring to travelers. Yet many visitors don’t have the chance to connect with the way of life that underpins the distinctive character of these iconic port towns.
We’ll take you beyond the daytripper’s romanticized glimpse of Cornwall’s waterfront to see its essence through the eyes of the local fishermen whose boats are such eye candy to tourists. Let us introduce you to Rodney Ingram and Andrew Trevarton of Mevagissey and Tim Coultis of Polperro.
Come along as we dive into a maritime culture that has endured across the centuries, facing unpredictable and wild weather; depletion of fish stock; high costs associated with owning a boat; competition from foreign fishermen; onerous government restrictions; and rising real estate costs making home ownership prohibitive.
Read on to find out about the industry and way of life that created the distinctive character of the fishing villages in Cornwall.
The Allure and Reality of Life on the Cornish Coast
Cornwall is a peninsula at the remotest southwestern edge of Great Britain that boasts almost 300 miles of gorgeous shoreline, surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and the English Channel. Cornwall’s stunning beaches have long been a draw for surfers and artists seeking exhilaration and inspiration.
The region’s wild and rugged coast has a different kind of meaning for the generations of fishermen who have sought sustenance from the sea here since the Stone Age.
Cornwall's many snug harbors and picturesque coves are the delight of visitors but the area's mariners know the coastline is rough around the edges and frequently battered by churning seas. Despite tourism showcasing Cornwall’s charm, the heart and soul of this place lies in a world renowned maritime heritage that by its very nature is fraught with hard work and danger.
I was keenly interested in knowing why someone would choose this way of life. And so I asked.
Mevagissey Mariner on Cornwall State of Mind
I met Rodney Ingram just outside John Moor & Son Boat Builders near the Mevagissey harbor. Rodney, 76, is a retired fisherman who has lived in Mevagissey all his life.
I asked him what he thought was special about Cornwall.
“Cornwall’s always been different,” Rodney said. “Basically, we have our own language. There are, I think, about 1,000 people who still speak it. It’s not being used as such, but there’s 1,000 people that it’s very similar to Welsh and Breton. We’re a bit like Wales, or Scotland, or the Isle of Man, or Brittany, or the Basque people in Spain. We tend to think of ourselves as an independent nation. And Cornwall has always been a bit different, it’s a state of mind.
“We like to think we’re a bit different,” Rodney said with a twinkle in his eye. “We’re very laid back. Very laid back. There’s a Cornish expression that goes, “I’ll do it directly,” not directly meaning immediately. Directly is some indeterminate time in the future."
"As in 'when you feel like it'?" I asked.
"When I feel like it," Rodney said with a laugh. "That’s Cornwall for you.”
Catching Pilchards at Eleven Years of Age
“I think I was probably about six when I first went out. When I was 11, in the school holidays, I used to go out on the drifters they used to catch pilchards. All the boys used to go out and have a trip out all night on the boat, and we used to steer the ship.”
“While they were pulling the nets in, we would steer the boat, and I used to have a landing net of any fish that dropped out of the net, so I would scoop up. I did that when I was 11, all one summer. And did it the next summer. And when I was 13, one of the crew fell off a wall, and hurt himself, and they took me on, on a half-share. At 13, I was on the half-share for the summer holiday.”
“I did that all the time I was at college on the holidays,” Rodney went on. “Then I was an officer in the Merchant Navy, and did ten years on cargo ships. When I’d saved up enough, I had a boat built, and I came back, and went fishing.”
Four Generations of Trevarton Fishermen
One evening along Mevagissey harbor, I struck up a conversation with Andrew Trevarton as he mended his nets next to his boat Galatea.
Andrew had an equally early start in the fishing villages in Cornwall; he couldn’t even remember his first trip out, claiming that he must have been younger than five years old when he went out with his grandfather.
“My first experience? Well, that would be very difficult to say, because I’ve been fishing since I can first remember with my father, and my grandfather before that. My first experience, I would have been less than five years old, going out in a small boat from not here, a small boat from a little village 8 miles to the south of here called Portloe, a very small place, where they pull the boats up on the beaches, boats of about 7-8 meters long, approximately. And I was given a handline with a piece of wood on it, and once a fish took the hook, the wood would flip and come to the surface of the water. I could see the fish, and I could pull it in then. ”
“And many times, I would go there to go fishing with my dad, and my grandfather, and if it was too rough, they wouldn’t take me out, and I used to have to stay with my grandmother. But I used to go down onto the beach, and wait for them to come in, and I’d pick up shells, and things. And there was a little stream, something like that, and I would float little shells, and bits of wood, and things down the stream until they got back, which I was eagerly awaiting.”
"But my grandfather didn’t really want my father to go into fishing," Andrew said. "And my father also said he didn’t really want me to go into it. He didn’t dissuade me. He gave me encouragement, but he tried to encourage me to be interested in other things, but I’m afraid I wasn’t."
"Why did each of the two generations encourage their sons to do something different?" I asked.
"Because fishing is very hard," Andrew said. "You want better for your children, more than you experience yourself. I enjoy my job, but I didn’t really encourage my own son to go into fishing, but he works with me.
"I think fishing is deep-rooted in Cornwall," he continued. "It is for me, and for my son. He looked at me, and said to himself, 'Well, dad’s made a living all his life'. He’s quite bright, but not interested in the academic life. So, he’s followed in my footsteps. I tried to push him away from it, but you can’t stop people doing what they want to do, really."
A Hue and Cry for Pilchards
Most of the fishing villages in Cornwall originally caught a fish called ‘pilchards.’ During those times, pilchards were used in their entirety. From the meat which would be salted and canned, to the fish oil which would be converted into heating and lighting oil. Throughout Cornwall, the scent of fish was commonplace.
Pilchard fishing was at its most successful in the mid 18th century through to the second half of the 19th. After that time, pilchard fishing decreased exponentially and was replaced for fishing for various other native species such as crustaceans and white fish. Nonetheless, pilchard fishing remains central to the fishing villages in Cornwall.
Fishing Villages in Cornwall | Mevagissey
Named after two saints, St Meva and St Issey, the founding of this fishing village in Cornwall is thought to date back to the year 1313, when it was known as Porthilly. When Viking king Sweyn Forkbeard lost power, Megavissey was split into four manors which led to the building of the first stone harbor. This truly cemented Megavissey as a stronghold of the fishing villages in Cornwall, as well as the rest of the UK. Hundreds of years later, a new harbor was built atop the medieval quay, in 1774.
Modern times see hundreds of visitors looking to lay their eyes on this historic harbor, and watch as fishermen continue the work of their forefathers. Accessible by public transport, Mevagissey is a five hour train ride from London and just a two hour train ride from the nearby city, Plymouth. This village is set in a valley, with two beaches for visitors to bask in the sun in summertime. Visitors can be lucky enough to see their dinner coming in to meet them in the form of lobster, skate, cod, or monkfish, all as a result of the hardworking Cornish fishermen.
Anyone looking to learn more about Mevagissey and its rich history, can learn more by visiting The Mevagissey Museum.
Polperro Fisherman and Community
Tim Coultis is a fisherman from Polperro, a fishing village of Cornwall, located in the SouthEast region of the county. The river Pol runs through Polperro and many visitors flock to this village every year to get a taste of its iconic harbor. Historically, Polperro has connections to piracy and smuggling like much of Cornwall. However, the fishermen of modern Polperro use their skills for less nefarious means. Though the village itself still has fishermen, the industry has become significantly more difficult in recent years due to government regulations and the positioning of the harbor itself.
It isn’t hard to imagine all the hard work that goes into fishing, and that goes beyond actually going out to sea. Tim comes from generations of fishermen in Polperro, another fishing village in Cornwall. He claims his family have been fishing since records began.
“I’m the last one, though,” Tim said. “But the number of the boats has just gone down. Polperro, a hundred years ago, would have probably had between 80 and 120 boats, each employing four to six men. And now, there’s four – four boats, employing five people. That’s it.”
21st Century Fishing in Cornwall
Fishing in Cornwall today looks much different than it did 200 years ago, from the catch itself to the regulations required by the government. It’s said that fishing in this area is bigger than Wales or Northern Ireland, seeing over 18,000 tons of fish landed in just 2020. This brought £43m of revenue into Cornwall, and is growing every year.
Though pilchards were what the fishermen of the past were catching, modern fishermen have had to turn to other species to remain afloat. Sole is one of the most lucrative species caught, as well as crab, anglerfish, pollack, and cuttlefish. Haddock is another catch, most frequently used in the iconic British dish: fish and chips.
But it isn’t all delicious food and wealth for fishermen these days, there are a lot of challenges that come with the industry, especially in a post-Brexit Britain. It is said that over 90% of the fishing industry in the UK voted to leave the EU back in 2016, after promises that fishermen would get back control over British waters.
In the last few decades, the fishing industry has suffered in Cornwall due to impossible entry costs for young fishermen as well as less demand for fish domestically. More than 60% of fish that is caught by these fishermen is sent to Europe, where trade regulations have changed after Brexit.
“I think there’s only about ten pilchard ring netters in the county,” Rodney said. “There’s two or three who work from here. Some of the Newlyn boats come up, and work from here at times. But they catch more fish, actually. I think they catch a little bit heavier fishing now than they used to, but it’s limited. They have a quota, and they don’t overfish their quota, and I think – and sardines are very prolific in the Channel out here. There’s a lot of fish out there.”
The introduction of these quotas have complicated fishing for many of the smaller fishermen that rely on their catch.
“The problem is: they’re small boats,” Rodney explained. “We can’t go very far. Like, the biggest boats in the harbor can probably go 50-60 miles. But the smaller boats, basically, are limited. Like I’ve got a little boat. I’m limited to a piece. They’re sort of like three miles each way from the harbor, and three miles offshore. And we’re limited to what we can catch. We can only catch what goes by the door.”
Demands on Workers for Modern Fisherman
A lot of the restrictions also require some technological advancements that boats like Rodney’s simply can’t maintain.
“There’s no cabin or anything like that, and they’re wanting me to report the weight of fish I have on board, and the species, before I land. I’ve got nothing on board that I can weigh them with," Rodney continued. "I can guess, but if I’m more than 10 percent out on my estimated weight to my landed weight, I will then get a nasty letter from the powers that be saying that I’m misrepresenting what I’ve landed.
"And the other thing is how do I do this in a boat which is basically a wooden canoe? It’s open. I’ve got a mobile phone, but if it’s dark, or wet, it won’t do. It’s sort of like you sending a fax message or anything, it’s not as if I’m in a nice warm cabin, and sending it off, so, I think a lot of the regulations are a little bit over the top.”
Fisherman Andrew credits this to restrictions from belonging to the EU. "Well, the quotas have been very, very restrictive on us, and have given our foreign neighbors vast amounts of fish, and they come right into our shores, pretty much, and I’m not allowed to catch them, which is quite restrictive at times. So, the politics around that, I think, have been very, very unfairly administered, and dished out. And that’s why the Cornish – or in fact, fishermen nationally want to come out of the EU. Back in 1972 or ’73, whenever we joined, we had a total number of fishing men at sea – I think it was over 75,000 men at sea."
“And for every man at sea, they estimate there are six paid men, or six jobs, let’s say, women, men, ashore. We are now about 12,000 people, and all of this – and all of this has been the policy of the EU to cut the British fishing fleet down, so the French can come in, and help themselves. So, the politics have been awful for us, absolutely awful. And on top of that, foreign national fleets have been allowed to have brand new ships built on EU money that we’re all paying into.”
Despite the line of men that became fishermen, none of Andrew’s forefathers wanted their sons to continue the profession. When asked why, the answer was easy enough for Andrew.
“Because fishing is very hard. You want better for your children, the more you experience yourself. I enjoy my job, but I didn’t really encourage my own son to go into fishing, but he works with me.”
“In the last week, or the last six days, I’ve been at sea for five days, leaving home at about four in the morning,” Andrew told me. “I’ve been putting in long days, and getting home – I think my latest evening this week has been nearly ten o’clock at night. I haven’t been at home in the evenings before seven-thirty for the whole week. This morning I was up at seven o’clock to tend the boat. I’ll still be up at half-past three tomorrow morning to go again.”
For many fishermen, this problem is personal: it affects their families. Andrew knows what this means especially since his trade was inherited. There are plenty of stories like his across many of the fishing families in Cornwall. Government restrictions on local fishermen that don’t affect larger vessels cause great disadvantage.
“I want to see a future for my son,” Andrew elaborated. “I want to see enough of a future that will sustain my pension, because he’ll take on the boat. I will still have a hand in that, but I will repair his equipment and things, but I mean for him to be able to make a good living, himself, not just doing it to keep dad with a few pounds in his pocket.”
Competition with French Fishermen
Nowadays, Cornish fishermen have just six miles of waters off land reserved for them, meaning the rest is free game. With steep competition from foreign fishermen, it’s not an easy time to be a fisherman in Cornwall.
Rodney explained this further. “Off the Cornish coast, French trawlers can come within 6 miles. This came about after the war when we had a 3-mile limit, and they used to come into 3 miles at that time, and the French trawlers in those days were small like us. They were the same sort of class of boats as we’ve got here, 50-60-foot long maximum, and they didn’t have a bigger impact.”
Rodney claims the problem now is that these French trawlers are much bigger now, capable of fishing up around Iceland and the Arctic. These boats can be four or five times the size of Cornish fishing boats, and fishing in the same waters as the smaller boats. Once these French trawlers go through, there’s very little left for the Cornish fishermen to catch.
“A couple of days last winter,” Rodney described. “When there was a strong wind, an offshore wind, we had 25 large French boats going up and down the 6-mile limit here, just off here, and basically wiped out for the next three months any sort of local grounds for the local boats.”
Much like Rodney and Andrew, Fisherman Tim experienced extreme adversity when faced with EU regulations. He explained that they’ve actually had to dump more fish stock than they’ve kept, simply because of EU quotas. His vote to leave the EU was entirely based on reviving his industry.
“I wasn’t so much worried about severing ties with Europe. I just wanted Britain to take control of its own fishery stocks. Every country should look after their own. The French people aren’t at all bothered about the state of the English stocks. They couldn’t care less if they wiped them out. It’s not theirs.”
Tim noticed that the difference between British and European enforcement was vast. “English authorities are very excitable in their enforcement. Whereas, the Europeans don’t bother at all. The English like to rubberstamp everything. Every rule has got to be enforced to the nth degree.”
While these difficulties have caused problems in Mevagissey, Polperro’s fishing industry has suffered disproportionately for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, it doesn’t seem to solely be the increase in regulations that has decreased industry in Polperro. The younger generations have started to move away, and with good reason according to Tim.
Fishing Villages in Cornwall | Polperro Harbor Complications
Polperro is home to an incredibly quaint harbor, ancient fishermen’s houses, and iconic Cornish coastline. It is the northern of the two fishing villages in Cornwall we’ve discussed, and just an hour and a half train ride from Plymouth. Running through the village is the River Pol, a 7 mile long river.
Polperro is historically a fishing port, with pilchard fishing and a processing port that ran for centuries. The pilchards that came from this village were exported all over Europe to places like France and Italy. The numbers of pilchards decreased in the 20th century and the sardine fishing industry became less significant, though there are still 12 commercial vessels that bring in fish.
Polperro was also home to famous naturalist, Jonathan Crouch who was the village doctor for many years. His writings have been upheld as some of the most important documentations about the village.
Modern Polperro sees much of its revenue coming from tourism, due to many difficulties with their harbor.
Mevagissey is a larger harbor, compared to Polperro. So if these regulations are hurting the big harbors, it’s hard to imagine what it’s doing to the small ones. When asked about his opinion on the matter, Rodney had a lot to contribute.
“It’s got a very awkward entrance,” Rodney explained. “They have a harbor gate they put down if the wind is the wrong way, and they are open to the prevailing wind. Here, we can get out. We’ve got a double harbor. The boats can be safely afloat at low tide in the outer harbor, unless there's a very, very strong wind.”
The fish have to go somewhere, once they’ve been brought in, and Rodney says that’s a hard task to complete in Polperro. Even more than that, getting young people into the industry is important to keeping it alive.
Fisherman Tim notes that though Polperro is a beautiful place to live, it’s become increasingly expensive to live there. From parking your car to renting your home, it’s hard for working class people to survive.
When it comes to his career in fishing, Tim has had to make the unfortunate decision to move on from it. He stated that it started with a dwindling in good fishermen, there just wasn’t anyone with experience in Polperro anymore.
“What’s happened is there’s a lack of good crews,” Fisherman Tim said. “Well, we ended up having to take on people who were coming from the Job Center, and most of them had sort of drink and drug issues, and it’s not safe at sea with people who are either drunk, or stoned. It’s hard. So, we made a decision that it was the end, like, and we just sold it all, and plus all the political instability is – that’s been terrible. We’ve dumped more fish in value in the last two years than we’ve kept, because of ridiculous European quotas, and rules, and things like that.”
A Future at Risk for Polperro Fishermen
“The young people have moved out of the village, and it’s – the wages aren’t great. But anywhere in Cornwall, the wages are very poor, and fishing was a thing that people used to stick around for,” Tim explained. “The money was good. I made very good money when I started fishing, but now we're forced to dump everything, which affects you psychologically. I know boats that have caught 100,000 pounds worth of seabass in one haul in three hours, and they’ve had to shovel every bit of it over the side.”
So where do these fishermen go from here? The future of Polperro seems to be in tourism, and Tim has turned to taking out tourists on his boats. It just happens to be more lucrative to cater to the current state of the world. He does have some complaints for the people trying to move to Polperro.
“Polperro has a lot of restrictions on what you can and can’t do, which is great. People move to Polperro, and say, ‘Oh, we’ve moved here. We absolutely love it. If only we could change this, change that, and change something else.’ It’s like, ‘Why did you move here if you want to change it all?’”
Much like the other fishermen we’ve interviewed, Tim has become disenfranchised with the industry due to EU regulations. While he doesn’t have anything against the EU, he’s incredibly disappointed with how it’s affected his livelihood.
His wife has opened her own restaurant, attempting to stay ahead of the tourist boom. If you’re interested in supporting the small business of a Polperro native, you can visit “Michelle’s” right in the center of Polperro village.
Piracy and Smuggling in Cornish Villages
This isn’t the first time fishermen saw restrictions in their industry. In the 1700s, Britain was being spread thin across several wars with America and France. Domestic taxes continued to rise, along with a decrease in employment rates, which meant piracy seemed pretty enticing. These factors historically contributed to the flourishing of the Golden Age of Piracy. It was more profitable to smuggle goods underground than to try to accumulate wealth through legal means. It was quite enticing for Cornish fishermen to be given the opportunity to thwart their exploitative government. In some ways, it was an act of rebellion.
To this day, Mevagissey has plenty of trapdoors and hidden passageways that show just how rampant smuggling was just a few centuries ago. Mevagissey has also been home to incredible shipmakers historically, and that was especially relevant during the smuggling era. It’s said that the ships that came out of Mevagissey could cross the English channel in just one day, an incredible feat for the time.
Polperro, however, saw smuggling as a prosperous industry since the harbor's development in 1300 CE. While the harbor may cause problems for modern fishermen, its seclusion was perfect for smuggling several centuries ago. Much like Mevagissey, Polperro’s piracy began to surpass legal fishing during the 1700s. Liquor, tobacco, and even textiles were smuggled through the ports, allowing residents to survive despite steep taxation.
Zephaniah Job is one of the most famous smugglers coming out of Polperro, if not all of Cornwall. After coming to Polperro seeking a legal occupation, Job found himself doing the bookkeeping for pirates that couldn’t read themselves. He had his hands in the smuggling industry for nearly 30 years, accruing what would amount to nearly £4.5 million dollars in today’s money.
It wasn’t until Methodism came to Mevagissey in 1750 that smuggling ceased, since rationalizing piracy and religion isn’t exactly easy. Piracy in Polperro came to a close in the 19th century, after a strict Coast Guard was founded and penalties became more common.
If you’re interested in knowing more about the fascinating history of smuggling in Polperro and you happen to be in the area, stop by The Polperro Heritage Museum of Fishing and Smuggling, located by the harbor within a former fish processing house.
The museum itself houses much of the history of maritime culture in Polperro from the 18th century onwards. In its walls you’ll find photographic records dating all the way back to 1860, providing insight into this fishing village in Cornwall. There is also a broad collection of model ships to view, showing how the vessels have changed over the decades. If you have a heritage link to the village, you might even find some of your family history there.
As the challenges faced by Cornish fishermen increase, it may seem like this way of life is destined to live in the halls of museums. However, Andrew, Rodney, and Time have a hard time imagining a better existence. Such is the spirit of maritime culture.
Cornish Identity in the Modern Day
Fisherman Andrew has noticed the changes in Mevagissey, and Cornwall as a whole. Mostly, he’s seen how tourism is taking over fishing in terms of leading industry. He isn’t bitter though, and sees tourism for the opportunity that it is. He recognized that though the industry in the fishing villages in Cornwall has dwindled in his lifetime, it isn’t the people that caused this, but rather politics.
“I may have a few views about my own industry,” Andrew says. “But at the end of the day, I’m a realist. People have got to have jobs, you’ve got to generate income, and if somebody is employing people, a staff to run a business, and then they are making a decent income, and they want to build something.
Rodney explained as well: “Well, the thing is there’s no other industry in the village more than the tourist industry. If a young man wants to work locally, basically, the only other job is fishing. And the bigger boats employ the youngsters. They get the tickets, and then they earn a bit of money, and then they think, “Oh, I’m going to have my own boat,” and we try and encourage that as a harbor. The harbor is very nearly full. We haven’t got much room for any more boats.”
When asked why fishing held such meaning, Rodney knew how to answer. “I must admit, I’ve worked in industry. I was away at sea as a ship’s officer. I used to have to toe the line, as it were, but with your own boat, you decide what you’re going to do in the morning, and you go and do it. And if it pays off, it pays off; if it doesn’t, it’s your fault alone. If you stay out a bit longer than you should, then you have to put up with the consequences. I think it does have its advantages. You’re sort of – you’re in charge of your destiny.”
Tim had a similar answer. “It’s always a challenge to go out and get your day’s pay. I’ve never been employed, so, I’ve never had a wage packet, if you like. So, I’ve always been sort of a master of my own destiny, if you like.”
There’s a sort of pride that comes with being a fisherman in Cornwall, and rightly so. This is an industry that has survived centuries, against government restriction, devastating weather, and the changing of time. Though the seaside of the Cornish coast might seem like a place out of a fantasy novel, it's a very real place for many that comes with very real struggles. So while tourists are able to cozy up with a pint in the local pubs to enjoy watching the ships come in, the fishermen deserve an unromanticized view of their industry.
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