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Exploring Polperro: A Guide to Cornwall’s Hidden Gem

the narrow streets of Polperro near the harbour in Cornwall

Nestled along the southeastern coast of Cornwall, Polperro stands as one of the region’s most enchanting destinations. This historic fishing village, with its narrow winding streets and quaint cottages, is an emblem of Cornwall’s rich maritime heritage.

I was born and grew up only 20 minutes away from Polperro and spent most of my childhood (and still now, in my 40s) visiting Polperro and the surrounding beaches and towns. Driving down into the town takes me back to being 12 again, the road is encircled by steep hillsides on either side which finishes at the tranquil Polperro Harbour.

I used to be greatly amused as a kid, watching the huge coach trips winding down the roads and parking in the car park that nestles at the top of the village. I knew they would all love it as much as I always have.

Polperro Cornwall!

The opening of Polperro harbour with a boat filled with flowers

Polperro was once a smuggling haven, its significance in Cornwall is manifold. Historically, it thrived as a centre for the pilchard fishing industry, with the community’s prosperity closely tied to the ebb and flow of the sea. In the 18th and 19th centuries, hidden coves and secret tunnels around Polperro were frequently used to illicitly transport goods, evading heavy taxation.

Today, while fishing still plays a role in local life, Polperro is mainly celebrated as a haven for artists and tourists alike. The village’s idyllic setting, combined with its rich history, attracts visitors from far and wide. The preservation of its traditional character and its commitment to its roots make Polperro a quintessential Cornish charm.

Houses next to Polperro harbour

The beauty of this quaint little village is that it has managed to retain an air of mystery and seclusion. Although very busy in the summer months, it doesn’t compare to more commercialised towns in Cornwall such as St Ives and Padstow.

A visit to Polperro has always felt like stepping back in time, where the rush of the modern world dissipates as soon as you leave your car at the large car park at the entrance to the village (there is no parking permitted in the village, something I think all Cornish villages need to implement!).

It really hasn’t changed in the 40+ years I have been going.

The Best Things to Do in Polperro

Even though it is a small village, there is plenty to see and do in Polperro. With its rich maritime heritage and picturesque scenery, it has pubs, museums and art galleries for all.

Explore the Streets

narrow streets of Polperro

With its narrow alleyways, typical Cornish homes and streams running through the middle, probably my favourite thing to do is to just wander the streets.

As no cars (apart from locals) are allowed to park on the streets, it is the perfect place to take a leisurely walk and explore. If you are a keen photographer, like myself, it was wonderful being able to take photos without a pesky van or 3 (always) getting in the way! 🙂

And Whilst You’re Exploring, Visit the Independent Shops

sign posts in Polperro
Flying pasty thieves!

So many shops! Like most towns in Cornwall, Polperro is a huge tourist destination and the shops have you covered. What I love is the eclectic mix of what you’ll find.

There are plenty of local small businesses selling crafts, Cornish produce, Cuckoo clocks and Piskies (for all you emmets, Cornish piskies are a fairy tribe that were blamed for leading travellers away).

It Would Be Rude Not to Have a Pasty or Two

3 cornish pasties
The famous Cornish pasty! My favourite has to be a beef and stilton pasty.

Polpero is not just a feast for the eyes, but also the palate! The village’s rich maritime heritage and fertile landscapes lend themselves to a culinary tradition deeply rooted in the sea and the land. A visit to Cornwall is incomplete without sampling its most iconic dish, the Cornish pasty. Originally a staple for tin miners, these savoury pastries are filled with a mixture of beef, potatoes, swede, and onions.

In Polperro, local bakeries and eateries pride themselves on crafting pasties that are both traditional and innovative, often using family recipes passed down through generations.

Sample Fresh Seafood

the 3 Pilchards pub in Polperro

Given its coastal location, Polperro boasts an abundance of fresh seafood. From mussels, crabs, and lobsters to mackerel, cod, and plaice, the catch of the day is a recurring feature on menus.

Restaurants such as “The Three Pilchards” and “The Blue Peter Inn” are just a couple of places where seafood enthusiasts can indulge in dishes that celebrate the village’s maritime legacy, with Michelle’s restaurant being one of my favourites.

Grab Yourself a Cream Tea

shops, cafes and pubs by Polperro harbour
There are plenty of places selling cream teas, with tables and chairs outside

A quintessential Cornish experience, cream teas are a must. Picture freshly baked scones served with clotted cream and strawberry jam, accompanied by a steaming pot of tea. It’s a ritual that encapsulates the essence of Cornish hospitality.

Tea rooms and cafes dotted around Polperro offer this classic, in settings that range from quaint to luxurious, we visited The Plantation Tea Rooms and were thoroughly impressed. Just remember, the jam goes first, the proper Cornish way!

Polperro Harbour & Headlands

Polperro harbour with colourful bunting and fishing boats

With your belly full, it’s time for a brisk walk around the harbour and Headlands of Polperro. Despite its popularity, Polperro Harbour is very serene. There is a flotilla of fishing boats that line the harbour, each with its unique design, colour and name.

Lining the harbour is a medley of buildings that reflect Polperro’s rich past. Whitewashed fishermen’s cottages, former net lofts, and old merchant houses stand shoulder to shoulder, their facades bearing witness to centuries of change. These structures, with their slate roofs and flower-filled window boxes, offer a delightful backdrop for photographers and artists.

Polperro harbour with fishing boats and holiday homes

If you carry on past the Harbour, it will lead you to the South West Coast Path which will take you towards Looe in one direction or all the way to Polruan in the opposite direction. Both paths will take you through small settlements and hamlets with quaint cottages and beautiful Cornish coves. The South West Coast Path from Polperro is a whole day out in itself.

Polperro Beach

polperro beach looking over towards the cliffs of Polperro
View from Polperro Beach. Image: Photo by Karen Cann

A small yet enchanting sandy beach with the clear blue waters of the Atlantic at your feet. Dotted with rocks and tidal pools around its peripheries, these pools are teeming with marine life when the tide is low. Children and adults alike can spend hours observing crabs, small fishes, and various marine plants, making it an educational exploration as much as it is fun.

However, it is a very small beach, so don’t go to Polperro expecting a day out on the beach or you will be disappointed. Polperro is the destination!

Willy Wilcox Cottage and Cave

The tale of Willy Wilcox is one of a fisherman and smuggler who lived in Polperro in the 18th century.

According to legend, Willy was hiding from the press gang (groups that would force men into naval service) or customs officers (due to his smuggling activities) when he sought refuge in one of the many caves along the coast. As fate would have it, the tide came in, trapping him inside the cave. He was never seen again.

Over the years, many tales have been spun about Willy Wilcox’s ghost haunting the caves, making it a point of intrigue and a draw for visitors to Polperro.

Willy Wilcox’s cottage, located near the harbour, is one of Polperro’s historic homes. Overlooking the sea and close to the cave associated with the Willy Wilcox legend, the cottage stands as a tangible connection to the village’s storied past.

As with many iconic buildings in Cornwall, especially with views, it is now a holiday home. I shall save my views on AirBnB and 2nd homes in Cornwall for another day…

Chapel Pool

Nestled amidst Cornwall’s dramatic coastal landscape, Chapel Pool is a tidal sea pool with calm waters, shielding you from the strong currents and waves of the Atlantic Ocean. It has unparalleled scenic views with swimmers being treated to a 360-degree panorama, encompassing rugged cliffs, expansive ocean horizons, and the distant silhouettes of boats and ships.

Model Village and Land of Legend

Model village in Polperro, Cornwall

I’ll be honest, I couldn’t believe this was still going when we visited recently. One of my earliest childhood memories was of the Model Village and being scared of the Cornish Piskies. But, equally delighted at the miniature village, an exact (almost) replica of Polperro.

Polperro model village

My kids and their cousins loved it! In this age where entertainment is loud, fast and full of technology, they spent a good hour or two going around the miniature buildings, creating stories and being fascinated with the detail. I could see why this tourist attraction was busy, and still going after all these years.

Polperro Heritage Museum of Smuggling and Fishing

Polperro heritage museum of smuggling and fishing

This museum is nestled right next to the harbour and contains a fascinating insight into the history of fishing and smuggling from the late 18th Century to date. Polperro was one of the most notorious smuggling hubs in the UK, but it reinvented itself as a successful fishing village. It is housed in an old pilchard factory so you are completely surrounded by real history.

Visit the Art Galleries

the harbour of Polperro
The beauty of Polperro entices many artists to the region

I love visiting art galleries and Polperro has them in spades. The most notable is Ebenezer Gallery which is in an old chapel and displays work by the East Cornwall Society of Artists Ltd. Other artists and galleries worth a visit include:

Take a Boat Trip

the entrance to Polperro harbour
The entrance to Polperro harbour

There is no better way to see Polperro than from a boat! In the summer season, you can enjoy a two-hour fishing trip onboard the boat “Smuggler”, or take a 30-minute pleasure trip from the harbour, a one-way trip to Looe (and walk back to Polperro on the amazing South West Coast Path) or take a half day visit to Fowey, with 2 hours to explore the town.

After a Busy Day, Eat in The Blue Peter Inn

Blue Peter Inn in Polperro
The corner of the Blue Peter Inn where you can see it is built into the cliffs.

I have mentioned this pub before, but it is such a treat to eat here, it gets its own mention! Although we didn’t visit this time around as I had 5 small kids with me (and didn’t want to inflict them on other diners!), I have been here before and it is worth visiting, just for the seafood.

This award-winning pub is built into the rocks, overlooking the harbour and full to the brim with history, relics and smuggling artefacts. It is renowned for its culinary offerings and serves a range of dishes, with an emphasis on fresh, locally sourced seafood.

Beyond food and drink, the inn often hosts live music sessions, enhancing the vibrant atmosphere and providing entertainment for its patrons. The staff, known for their warmth and friendliness, add to the overall welcoming experience. It epitomises the timeless charm of a Cornish fishing village.

Polperro Accommodation

the Crumplehorn Inn in Polperro
The Crumplehorn Inn at the entrance to Polperro

Whether you are staying a night, or for a whole week, Polperro has a lot to offer.

How to Get to Polperro

Polperro harbour

The easiest way to get to Polperro is by car.

  • If you’re driving to Polperro from other parts of the UK, you’ll likely be using the A38 or A390 which lead to the A387, the main road into Polperro.
  • Be aware that the streets of Polperro can be narrow and are mainly pedestrianized, so you’ll need to park your car in the main car park located at the top of the village and walk down. The walk from the car park to the harbour is scenic and takes about 10 minutes.

By Train:

  • The nearest railway station to Polperro is Looe, which is about 4 miles away.
  • Trains to Looe can be caught from Liskeard, which is on the mainline route between Plymouth and Penzance.
  • From Looe, you can take a taxi or a bus to Polperro.

By Bus:

  • There are bus services that run between Looe and Polperro, making it easy to get to the village if you’re in the area.
  • Other nearby towns and cities also have bus routes that pass through or terminate in Polperro, but the frequency can vary, especially outside of peak tourist season. From Looe to Polruan via Polperro, you need to take the 481 and the 72 from Plymouth via Saltash and Looe.

By Foot:

  • If you’re feeling adventurous and enjoy walking, you can take the South West Coast Path, which runs through Polperro. This offers a scenic route, especially if you’re walking from Looe or another nearby coastal location.

The Best Time to Visit Polperro

polperro model village

The “best” time depends on your preferences. Cornwall is beautiful all year round, even in the winter when it can be particularly wet, windy and stormy.

Late Spring to Early Autumn (May to September):

  • Weather: These months generally provide the warmest and most stable weather conditions, ideal for exploring the narrow streets, coastal paths, and nearby beaches.
  • Tourism: Being the peak tourist season, especially in July and August during the school holidays, Polperro can be extremely busy. However, this is when the village is at its liveliest, with more shops, restaurants, and attractions open.
  • Events: Various events and festivals occur during these months, adding to Polperro’s appeal, in particular, the Polperro festival which takes part in late June.

Autumn (October to November):

  • Scenic Beauty: The autumn season paints the landscape in warm hues, making it a beautiful time for photography and leisurely walks.
  • Fewer Tourists: After the summer rush, the crowds thin out, offering a quieter and more relaxed experience. This is my favourite time to visit Polperro as the weather tends to still be mild, without the rush of summer visitors.

Winter (December to February):

  • Quiet Escape: If you prefer a tranquil atmosphere, winter can be an excellent time. The village sees fewer tourists, and many local businesses might operate on reduced hours or close for the season.
  • Weather: Winters in Cornwall are milder compared to many other parts of the UK, but expect cooler temperatures and a higher chance of rain. Coastal storms can also be a dramatic sight for those who appreciate nature’s power.

Spring (March to April):

  • Blooming Flowers: Early spring sees wildflowers begin to bloom, especially on the coastal paths, offering lovely scenic walks.
  • Reawakening: As the village gears up for the upcoming tourist season, there’s a sense of rejuvenation. It’s also less crowded than the peak summer months.

Considerations:

  • Accommodation: During peak season, accommodation can get booked quickly, so it’s advisable to reserve your stay in advance.
  • Travel Costs: Prices for accommodation and some services might be higher during the peak tourist season. Off-peak months can offer better deals.
  • Events: If you’re interested in local events, festivals, or traditions, check Polperro’s calendar of events to align your visit accordingly.
dahlias of Polperro

Travel Tips

  • The village has narrow streets, often cobbled, and many accommodations may require a short walk from the main car park. Carrying lighter luggage will make it easier to navigate.
  • Polperro is a working fishing village, and locals appreciate visitors who respect their homes and livelihoods. Remember to keep noise levels down in the evenings and avoid blocking entrances or pathways with bags or equipment.
  • Cornwall’s weather can be unpredictable. Even if you’re visiting in summer, it’s a good idea to carry a light rain jacket or umbrella.
  • Make sure you have some cash on you! The large car park only takes cash (with no parking apps) and although the majority of places take card, there were still some shops and cafes where the card machine didn’t work. Polperro’s last bank closed in 2002, but the post office has a cash machine and there is an ATM near the Blue Peter Inn. However, that is a long walk if you get to the car park and find you don’t have any cash.
  • From art galleries to small boutiques, Polperro has a range of local businesses. Purchasing from them supports the local economy and often provides unique souvenirs.
  • If you’re planning to visit beaches or coves, check the tide times. Some areas might be accessible only at low tide.
  • While Polperro offers a chance to unplug, if you need to stay connected, check with your accommodation about Wi-Fi. Some areas might have limited mobile reception.
  • Whether you’re on the beach or walking coastal paths, remember to leave no trace. Dispose of your waste properly and avoid disturbing wildlife.

Polperro is still one of my favourite places to visit, and I have yet to find somewhere I love as much. It feels like you are stepping back in time, and apart from the mad rush of tourists, it is a peaceful town full of rich history.

Its status as a lesser-known treasure in the region ensures that its cultural and historical essence remains preserved, untouched by the rampant commercialization seen elsewhere.

In the ever-evolving landscape of Cornwall’s tourist scene, Polperro shines as a beacon of genuine Cornish charm, a delightful secret waiting to be discovered by those willing to venture off the beaten path.

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