Winston Graham set his ‘Poldark’ series of historical novels in Cornwall, where he’d lived for over 40 years. In the recent TV adaptation of Poldark, the full glory of the dramatic coastline has entered all our homes. Ross Poldark (curly-locked Aiden Turner) and his lady-love Demelza (red-head Eleanor Tomlinson) spend a lot of time galloping across rocky cliff tops, wandering moors, quaffing ale in crowded inns, dallying in Cornish manor houses and canoodling in the clover. Cornwall has never looked so good. (Neither has Aiden Turner …) The tiny harbour of Charlestown stands in as an 18th c version of Truro, and filming has been going on there for Series 2 that starts September. Following a visit to nearby Eden Project, I decided to detour from St Austell to have a look round.
Real life is not a travel brochure; and on the day I visited, it had been raining hard and was still cloudy. Nor was there any sign of Mr Turner and crew. Even so, the charm of this quaint Grade II Listed Harbour is immediately apparent. Unlike many places in Cornwall, it’s still relatively unspoilt. Built by entrepreneur Charles Rashleigh (hence the name) in the late 1700s to support clay mining and fishing industry, it retains an air of Georgian elegance. The Inner Harbour is currently home to Square Sail (who own the harbour) Tall Ships, which add to the authentic atmosphere.
The Outer Harbour has original buildings which add to the period feel of the place I walked along the wall and gazed out across St Austell Bay. It was easy to imagine ships setting sail from Charlestown in its heyday, taking their cargo of clay around Britain to feed the growing pottery business and fishing boats bustling off along the coast at dawn. Large waves slapped against the stones and seagulls swooped around in chaotic flight as the wind picked up …
There’s a sloping shingle beach which didn’t look too inviting; a group of school kids were huddled up beside the steps and two children, sensibly clad in wet-suits, were diving off the harbour wall. I made my way past the freshly-painted old fishermen’s cottages, some of which offer B&B accommodation.
One of the main attractions in the village is Charlestown Shipwreck & Heritage Centre. It tells the history of Charlestown and tales of shipwrecks and smugglers. “Smuggling was at its peak between 1700 and 1850 when a full time living was to be made from the ‘trade’. These men were known as ‘free traders’ because they plied their ‘trade’ across the English Channel supplying not only luxury goods, but everyday items as well. With the government imposing extortionate taxes, many everyday items such as salt, tea and handkerchiefs were not within reach of the common man so the Free Trade was relied upon for these basic necessities; unbelievable when smuggling today is synonymous with more dangerous trades such as drugs and weapons.”
There are displays on The Titanic and World War II, a viewing gallery over the harbour accessed through a disused clay tunnel and lots more for children and adults. I was getting a bit peckish so I had to choose between the Pier House Hotel (the big cream building on the Harbour side) or the Tall Ships Creamery. Tempted by local ice-cream, I went to the Creamery. Good choice – simple fare, friendly service and yes, very good ice cream!
My final stop was the Charlestown Gallery, which has just the right balance of tasteful of Cornish souvenirs, combined with original, quirky craftwork made by the owner, Gemma. I got a bright blue keyring and Gemma told me stories about the filming of Poldark. Seems that Aiden Turner is as genuinely lovely as he is hunky …
Having spent a very pleasant couple of hours I left to explore more of the Cornish coast. The skies were clearing and I was in for a lovely sunset at Polkerris Beach. Ross Poldark may not have made an appearance in Charlestown, but this little slice of Cornish history had made a big impression and well-worth the detour.