Cornwall’s smuggling heritage is renowned the world over, romanticised in the pages of novels from Poldark to Jamaica Inn. Its virtually uninhabited, rocky coastline provided the ideal setting for smugglers and wreckers seeking to evade the revenue men, with the secluded bay at Talland being a particularly favoured spot for bringing contraband ashore.
A visit to south east Cornwall wouldn’t be complete without delving into the tales of the people and vessels that played their part in this illicit past.
Here are five ways to uncover top smuggling tales in south east Cornwall…
(image: A Tale of Cornish Smuggling)
Visit the Church at Talland Bay
All that remains of the once thriving community of Talland is the church. During the early eighteenth century the vicar of the Church of St Tallan was Reverend Richard Doidge, who was purportedly often seen in the churchyard in the dead of night driving out evil spirts, or in all likelihood, local smugglers.
Stepping inside, there is a tombstone erected to one Robert Mark, believed to be a Polperro smuggler killed from wounds inflicted by a revenue man’s pistol.
(image: Explore Churches website)
Take a boat to Looe Island
Now owned by Cornwall Wildlife Trust, Looe Island is said to have become the haunt of smugglers keen to avoid the customs men of Falmouth and Plymouth. Contraband coming from the Channel Islands could be stashed away in caves until the coast was clear to transport them to the mainland.
Tours to the island run from Easter to September each year aboard the small passenger boat, Moonraker.
(image: Cornwall Guide website)
Step inside a smuggling museum, or three
In Polperro fishing and smuggling sometimes went hand in hand, the local fishermen encouraged to supplement their meagre livelihood by illicit means. Fishing vessels such as the infamous Lottery (of which Robert Mark was a crewman) became embroiled in smuggling. The story of the ship’s involvement in the murder of a Customs officer is told in the Polperro Heritage Museum of Smuggling and Fishing.
(image: Cornwall Guide Online)
Back along the coast the Old Sardine Factory Heritage Centre explores the fishing industry and smuggling activity at Looe.
Head inland to Bodmin Moor and the Smugglers Museum at Jamaica Inn, home to one of the finest collections of smuggling artefacts in the country. The isolated inn provided the ideal premises for storing the contraband brought ashore at Polperro and Talland on its way up country.
(image: Jamaica Inn website)
Discover a smuggler’s cave
Set on the western side of the beach at Polperro, Willy Wilcox Cave is named after an infamous local smuggler who reportedly died in the cave whilst hiding from Customs men. His cottage sits on the cliffs above the cave, which was in Willy’s day connected by a narrow passageway. It is said that his ghost still haunts the cave today.
(image: Instagram @kledigenie)
Head out with a guide
Local Blue Badge Guide and history enthusiast, Mark Camp, will take visitors out on guided walks along the coast path or on to Bodmin Moor to explore smuggling tales of yore. You’ll be in good company – Mark escorted journalists from The Sunday Telegraph, The Independent and Country Walking magazine writing articles on the BBC TV adaptation of Jamaica Inn.
(image: Walkaboutwest website)
Of course, the notoriety of Talland Bay as a hot spot for smuggling didn’t end in the eighteenth century. The reign of one of Britain’s biggest drugs smuggling gangs was ended in 1979 when Customs and Excise apprehended a fishing boat carrying cannabis in Talland Bay, bound for Rotterdam Cottage and onwards to London.
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