Pirate restaurants, pirate tours, pirate harbor cruises. Guides in three-cornered hats and flouncy shirts. Gift shops selling souvenir eyepatches.
I was almost dreading such an obvious tourism strategy.
Yet, incredibly, the town of Penzance does not commercialize pirates. Which is odd because: (1) it has pirate cred and (2) there’s that opera.
Certainly, pirates plagued the Cornish peninsula during medieval times. Raiders from the Barbary Coast and elsewhere frequently looted Penzance, plundering supplies, burning houses, and terrifying villagers.
To my surprise, I found only a couple of establishments leveraging the buccaneer connection.
One was the Admiral Benbow, a pub with a pirate figure perched on the roof.
The Admiral has been visited over the years by Gregory Peck, Hugh Grant, and the Rolling Stones (who may qualify as pirates).
Beyond the overwrought seafaring decor, the pub, it turns out, has an actual checkered past. A system of tunnels, thought to date back two hundred years, was recently discovered leading from the harbor into the Admiral’s cellar. A smuggling gang used the tunnels during the 1800s to sneak liquor and tobacco past the tax man.
The Cornish peninsula has a tradition of smuggling to avoid paying taxes. In the 1600s and 1700s, smuggling was a second job for many local fisherman. Nearby Brittany and Guernsey were the main suppliers of illicit goods, including brandy, gin, rum, tea, sugar, and vinegar.
Tax evaders, but not pirates.
Popular Victorian Era lyricist, W.S. Gilbert, and his composer-partner, Arthur Sullivan, had a different definition for pirate: one who steals intellectual property.
In 1878, their comic opera, H.M.S. Pinafore, was a runaway hit in London. Soon, hundreds of unauthorized productions of the show appeared in the United States. To better control their material, Gilbert and Sullivan premiered their next opera in New York City. Its title, The Pirates of Penzance, was a reference, not to any historical marauders, but to the pirates stealing their work.
Unique from the rest of England, Cornwall is recognized as one of the six Celtic nations. Celtic nations are areas where Celtic languages and culture have survived. Each has a Celtic language that is either spoken still or spoken in recent history. The others include Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, and Brittany.
Cornwall’s distinctive language, identity, maritime tradition, political history, and reputation for non-conformity define it and set it apart.
So does its geography. Comprising the tip of the southwestern peninsula of England, Cornwall is bordered on the north by the Celtic Sea and on the south by the English Channel. It has a population of over half of a million. Historically, tin mining and fishing have driven its economy. Both have declined. The area is known for its wild moorland and coastline.
To its credit, Penzance is a working-class town, not a tourist trap. The hilly streets are lined with charity shops and pound (dollar) stores. I arrived by train and immediately enjoyed the salty breeze.
I’ve always wanted to say that.
Pronounced MO zul, Mousehole is a village two miles from Penzance along the coast. It is a tiny place, tumbling down a hill to a tiny, mousehole-sized harbor.
Stone cottages with slate roofs are tightly wedged into streets that are really just cobblestone paths too narrow for cars. A tea shop is cleverly called ‘Hole Foods.
A former (and perhaps current) artists’ colony, the village is charmingly unkempt like an overgrown flower garden, a place to relax and go to seed. Mousehole is regionally famous for its Christmas lights, which are strung all year.
On the way back to Penzance, I stopped in the fishing village of Newlyn for a pasty. A pasty (PASS tee) is made by scooping meat and veggies onto a pie-crust circle, folding it in half and crimping it around the edges before baking. Something like a calzone, empanada, or Hot Pocket.
Pasties were developed as lunch-bucket meals for tin miners. As with French champagne, it is now illegal to call a product a Cornish pasty unless it has been sourced and manufactured in Cornwall.
In 1620 the Mayflower also stopped at Newlyn to take on supplies (pasties?) before heading to Plymouth Rock and founding the Plymouth Colony. (Plymouth, England, is only a few miles east of Penzance.)
In the afternoon I visited Penlee House, which displays several paintings by members of the Newlyn School. Following the extension of the Great Western Railway to West Cornwall in 1877, the Cornish fishing towns of Saint Ives and Newlyn both began to attract impressionists, drawn by the beauty of the scenery, quality of light, and simplicity of everyday life by the sea.
Quoits on the moor
The next day was cold and gray with whitecaps in the harbor. I rented a car for a couple of days to explore. Drove northwest of Penzance and was quickly into the hedgerows. The hedges have swallowed the stone walls that line the narrow country roads. Too high to see over, they turn the lanes into tunnels and driving into an adventure.
Visited Lanyon Quoit (KOIT), a Stone Age burial chamber near the road. Burial chambers in this area are composed of four massive standing stones and a capstone. In the 1700s, Lanyon Quoit was tall enough for a person on horseback to ride under the capstone. In 1815 it collapsed in a storm and was damaged. Eventually it was reerected at a shorter height with three uprights.
After a half-mile hike, I found the Mên-an-Tol in the moorland, a round stone with its middle holed out and standing stones to each side. Quite surreal. Mên-an-Tol is thought to date to either the late Stone or early Bronze Age. Perhaps the hole occurred naturally rather than being deliberately sculpted?
Mên-an-Tol has long been associated with curing ailments. Local legend claims that, if at the full moon a woman passes through the holed stone seven times backwards, she will soon become pregnant. So crazy, it just might work. Another legend is that passing a child through the hole nine times will cure rickets.
Drove to Trehyllys Farm and parked. Hiked uphill through the gorse and bracken to Chûn Castle, an Iron-Age hill fort. Just rocks in a circle, but apparently they were once piled twenty feet high. The fort was built about twenty-five hundred years ago. From the top I could see the Celtic Sea in one direction and the English Channel in the other.
Hiked to nearby Chûn Quoit, one of the best preserved of Cornwall’s burial chambers. Four supporting stones and a capstone. It’s been sitting there, unchanged, overlooking the sea for five thousand years.
I drove to Marazion, parked and gazed across the bay at the tidal-island castle of Saint Michael’s Mount.
The island is linked to the town of Marazion by a man-made causeway, walkable at low tide. High tide cuts off the castle from all but boat traffic. The castle has been the home of the Saint Aubyn family since approximately 1650. The earliest buildings on the summit date to the 1100s. The island is managed by the National Trust.
I would rather have walked across the causeway but the tide was not in my favor. I took a boat. The wind was howling, the chop was rough, and the boat was tossing. We were halfway across the bay when the boatman idled the engine and said, “I’ll collect your fares now.”
In 1846 Queen Victoria dropped by the castle for an unannounced visit and was entertained by the housekeeper. (No one else at home!) Lord and Lady Saint Levan still live in the castle year-round. One of their daughters recently married a local boy who worked summers at the castle as a guide.
Merry maidens and a grande dame
England practices daylight savings as well. An extra hour of sleep. Then I headed west in the rental car toward Land’s End, the most westerly point of England.
The Merry Maidens are a mini-Stonehenge, a complete circle of nineteen standing stones in a meadow. At 9:30 in the morning, I had them to myself. The stones are approximately four feet high; the circle eighty feet in diameter.
The local myth is that nineteen maidens were turned to stone as punishment for dancing on a Sunday. The Pipers, two megaliths standing in nearby fields, are said to be the petrified remains of the musicians who played for them.
I stopped twice to visit stone crosses, the Boskenna Cross and the Boskenna Gate Cross. Described as wayside crosses from medieval times, they reinforced Christianity as well as marked the way. Apparently stone crosses are found from time to time buried in hedgerows.
I parked the car in Treen and hiked to the Iron-Age cliff fort, Treryn Dinas, still defended by ramparts and ditches.
Within the cliff castle is the Logan Rock, an eighty-ton stone that rocks on its base. In 1824 it was rocked loose by a group of show-off British seamen. The locals were so angered by this act of vandalism the sailors were ordered to restore it. The castle is essentially a pile of giant granite boulders on its own island, challenging and fun to climb.
I continued to Porthcurno and toured the Minack, an open-air theater, constructed on the side of a rocky granite outcrop jutting into the sea. Some eighty thousand people attend performances each year during the summer. The setting is spectacular, like a Roman amphitheater by the ocean.
The theater was built nearly singlehandedly by Rowena Cade (1893–1983). Years ago, a local theater group decided to produce Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Cade offered her backyard overlooking the sea as a suitable location. With great effort, she and her gardener created a stage and some rough seating among the rocks.
In 1932, the play was performed with the crashing waves as a dramatic backdrop to great success. Cade continued to improve her natural seaside theater throughout her life.
Pirates in the breakfast room
Overnight, the guesthouse filled with pirates, or rather, fans of the Cornish Pirates rugby team, as well as fans of the opposition, Bristol Rugby. It was match day and all were wearing their colors. They asked if I was attending and were incredulous when I hesitated. I made some joke about being a college-football fan and they raised their eyebrows.
As it turned out, the match was quite near the B&B. The sun emerged and I decided to join them. Local color.
The venue was about the size of a high-school stadium. (The Pirates are in a lower-level division.) Fans from both teams mingled in front of food trucks selling pasties and beer. The players warmed up on the field (the pitch, as they say). A kilt-wearing drum corps marched into the stadium. The announcer promoted a fundraiser for a local charity. The stands were full.
The match started quickly without fanfare. The action was nonstop for two forty-minute halves, with the exception of the rather tedious scrums, like stalemated tugs-of-war. A fan told me the scrums were his favorite part. “‘Ere’s nothin’ beats a good scrum.” Except maybe watching paint dry.
The open-field running with multiple lateral passes is exciting. The line-out plays are interesting, something like a jump ball in a basketball game, except that teams can lift players to tip the ball. I don’t understand the constant on-the-fly punting of the ball back and forth. In the United States you never give up the ball by choice.
Sadly, the hometown team was routed 40–10. The stands emptied. The restaurants and pubs filled.
And the streets of Penzance swarmed with pirates!