Changing Fortunes at Port Gaverne

A short history of the Port Gaverne area in North Cornwall

The present tranquillity of Port Gaverne belies the bustle of bygone ages, for in the buildings and structures all round stand the evidence of an industrious past. Many of Cornwall’s commercial activities have been represented here, the local people making use of the resources of land and sea: fish, slate, and ... tourists!

There has never been much of a resident population. 160 years ago there were only 35 people living here; now there are even fewer. Port Gaverne was always a place of work for the residents of Port Isaac, particularly the womenfolk. With the ebb and flow of industrial activity over the years, we have seen adaptation rather than wholesale rebuilding, so that the hamlet we see today has remained virtually unchanged for almost 200 years.

Port Gaverne 1840 showing occupiers and field names
Port Gaverne 1840

Originally called ‘Port Kerne’ or ‘Karn Hun’, little reference can be found prior to the 19th century. John Norden, writing in 1584, said “Port-kerne, a litle cove for fisher-boates; and ther was somtymes a crane to lifte up and downe suche comodities as were ther taken in to be transported, or browght in and unloden: and ther have bene divers buyldinges, now all decayde since the growing of Portissick.”. From his comments, we can infer that Port Gaverne was more prominent than Port Isaac in earlier years. There was a pier built in Port Isaac in Tudor times, which may have caused our fisherfolk to move over to the more protected cove.

In 1762 we find an early reference to industry, with a lease on a plot of land for loading sand. Lime-rich sea sand was once a very important commodity, used as a fertiliser on acid Cornish soils. The early fortunes of the Bude Canal and the Bodmin and Wadebridge Railway were both founded on the demand for this commodity. In Port Gaverne, it was a prime source of income to the local people. Sir John Maclean, writing in 1872, mentions that by digging the sand at low tides and placing it above high water for the farmers to collect the local women and children could earn as much as their seafaring men-folk. By Maclean’s time, the use of sea sand was in decline, although it was still being dug here well into the present century.

Carting Sea Sand from the beach c1900 Note the sand heaps on the beach
Carting Sea Sand from the beach c1900 Note the sand heaps on the beach

1802 saw the first interest of the Guy family in Port Gaverne when Warwick Guy leased out land to build the first fish cellar or ‘pilchard palace’ in the cove. Four generations of the Guy family dominated Port Gaverne: Warwick Guy, who died in 1819; his son Mark, who died in 1851; Warwick Richard Guy (1821-1905); and finally Mark Guy, who died in 1918. After that first fish cellar, another three soon followed, giving us those large U-shaped buildings still present in Port Gaverne.

Warwick Guy and the slate boats c1875 Note children by his feet peering at the camera
Warwick Guy and the slate boats c1875 Note children by his feet peering at the camera

With their romantic names, ‘Venus’, ‘Liberty’, ‘Rashleigh’ and ‘Union’, the four cellars were working flat out in that first quarter of the nineteenth century. Even though the main fishing season lasted only about eight weeks in the late summer, the quantities landed were prodigious. In 1811, when pilchards became scarce, two of the cellars between them processed around 250 tons of fish in a single week. By 1815, when the shoals had returned in large numbers, a cellar in neighbouring Port Isaac handled over 300 tons in one week. This suggests that the Port Gaverne cellars could have handled around 1,000 tons a week. In 1811, pilchards sold for £40 a ton, and even with the lower price of £22 in 1815, the return on the Guy’s investment must have been colossal.

Seine Fishing in Port Isaac Bay 1835
Seine Fishing in Port Isaac Bay 1835

 

The riches of the sea were exhaustible, and by the late 1820s the shoals were in serious decline, never to return to those record levels. For the Guy family, who has invested wisely, the time had come to turn to shipping and the slate trade to protect their income and maintain local employment.

The start of the Delabole Slate Road c1875
The start of the Delabole Slate Road c1875

The Delabole Slate Quarry, five miles inland, had been in production since Elizabethan times. In 1807, the slate company quarried out the existing road down to Port Gaverne enabling access to easy sea transport to markets at home and abroad. An attempt to avoid the final steep descent and give easier loading was made in 1860 by cutting a dogleg track across the ‘Main’, terminating in a newly-built quay. This was not a success, since a ship moored to the quay would be severely damaged in a swell. It was soon abandoned. The track and quay now make a well-graded path onto the cliffs.

Loading Slate at Port Gaverne c1875
Loading Slate at Port Gaverne c1875

 

Around 100 ships a year came here to service the slate trade. Capable of carrying fifty to eighty tons, they were flat-bottomed and able to settle upright on the sand. Heavy mooring ropes were tied to posts set into the rocks on either side of the beach. A few of the granite posts can still be seen, and the deep round rock pools tell of the location of the wooden ones. The slates were loaded by women who passed them aboard by hand and packed them in straw. While the women were working, their children would play at the head of the beach, being looked after by the older ones.

Several of the ships belonged to the Guy family. Warwick Richard owned six in the 1860s, and many of them were built in Port Gaverne. One local ship, the ‘Surprise’, was reputedly given her name after Mr Guy had seen the size of the shipwright’s bill! Shipping is a two-way traffic, and on the inward voyage coal would be brought from Wales and general merchandise from Plymouth. Limestone was also important for the limekiln, the remains of which are still there. This was run by Theophilus Phillips, who provided whitewash for the cottages and lime for the nearby fields.

In the 1890s the railway came to Delabole, then even nearer, to Port Isaac Road station, a few miles inland. At a stroke this killed off Port Gaverne’s slate exports and coastal trade, but laid the foundation for a new industry - tourism.

Within a few years Port Gaverne was opening its doors to visitors. In 1897 the sail lofts in the Rashleigh cellar were slung with hammocks to form dormitories for parties of schoolchildren. In 1906 there were sufficient numbers of tourists to support two cafes, while the beach had six bathing huts. The Union Inn, now the Port Gaverne Hotel, found tourists to replace sailors, and ‘Headlands’ was turned into a hotel.

The Guy family estate was broken up on the death of Mark Guy in 1918. The ‘Venus’ and ‘Liberty’ cellars were sold to Mrs Ashton who quickly sold ‘Venus’ on and converted ‘Liberty’ into the Bide-a-while Hotel. During the war, both these cellars and the Headlands Hotel were home to evacuee children, some of whom still live in the area. The ‘Rashleigh’ and ‘Union’ cellars were acquired by the Price family, who bequeathed them, together with the beach, to the National Trust to protect the cove for future generations.

Bide-a-While Hotel c1935, now Gullrock
Bide-a-While Hotel c1935, now Gullrock

The Bide-a-while Hotel became Gullrock holiday cottages, and Venus cellar is now Green Door cottages, one of which is called Venus. The Union cellar at the head of the beach was restored in 1992 and is still used by fishermen to store their pots. The Rashleigh still keeps the original open-plan courtyard and contains two holiday cottages.

Today the cove is quiet but as you walk around, think of that late summer week in 1815 when 1,000 tons of fish were carted across the beach, and of the times later when three large ships abreast were loaded and unloaded here. It would be a pity if we were to forget what past generations achieved in Port Gaverne.

Malcolm Lee