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Fabulous Fowey

By Paul Knowles. Photography by Nancy Knowles.

The best travel advice: stop travelling for a day or two.


When you are in Fowey ­ a small seaport on the south coast of Cornwall ­ you are only minutes away from several major attractions, including the astonishing Eden Project. In fact, when you are in Fowey, you are 75 kilometers or less from 72 gardens of Cornwall (46 of them regularly open to the public), three dozen or so National Trust sites (ranging from castles to protected coastline), and about 20 English Heritage sites (from stone age villages to ruins laden with Arthurian legend).

This is the bad news.

It's bad news because visitors to Cornwall ­ especially newcomers ­ arrive with well-researched itineraries that rush them through Eden and the Lost Gardens of Heligan one day, Tintagel and Bodmin Moor the next, and Land's End and St. Michael's Mount the day after that. In our rush to see all the wonderful attractions, we miss the wonders right under our noses.

For instance, a place like Fowey ­ a quiet, historic Cornwall port ­ seems, when you're in the planning stages, to be simply a convenient place to sleep. Well, visitors who accept that premise are missing some of the most pleasant holiday days of their lives.

Cornwall is the magical, mystical, most south-westerly part of England; it's also the warmest spot, with the south coast boasting the title "The English Riviera". Palm trees and kids on the beach on some March days authenticate this claim.

If you're coming to Cornwall, by all means stay in Fowey. And when you stay there ­ then, actually stay there, for a full day or two of your holiday, and explore and enjoy this lovely, ancient community, a place that repays a bit of attention, ten-fold.

There are plenty of quaint and welcoming villages and towns along the coast of Cornwall; Fowey (pronounced "Foy") just happens to be my favourite. There are at least three ways to explore the town: on foot, by boat, and seated in one of the pubs or patios. And if you think the latter choice doesn't offer much opportunity for exploration, perhaps you need lessons in people-watching.

Fowey is small enough to explore on foot ­ although visitors should be warned that it is built into Cornish coastline, with the community stacked high up the hillside. You will be climbing fairly steep hills during any expedition on foot.

Views of the harbour ­ one of the finest on this coast ­ are breath-taking; it is such a fine harbour than in one recent year, more than 7,000 boats anchored here at one time or another. The harbour is actually the mouth of the River Fowey, which has its source on Bodmin Moor.

Walk along the Esplanade, the street closest to the waterfront, where you will find shops clearly aimed at visitors, side by side with other stores geared toward meeting local needs like the fishing industry. There is a great bookstore, featuring the works of local writers, among them the very famous Daphne du Maurier (more of her later).

You can wander around the Town Quay, and then, moving slightly up into the town, visit St. Fimbarrus Church. As usual with ancient British churches, there are bits dating back to Norman times and before, but the bulk of the building is newer ­ it¹s only 600 years old! It is dedicated to a saint who is said to have visited Fowey in the sixth century as he travelled from Ireland to Rome. But at
least as prominent as the patron saint is the name of a local family.

"Treffry," inscribed on tombs, plaques and memorial windows. The Treffrys have long been the landlords of much of Fowey; they continue to own and occupy "Place", the fortified mansion built in 1260 in the heart of the town. There is a Canadian connection ­ members of the Treffry family moved to the Norwich, Ontario area in pioneer days, where their new life must have been markedly different from their rather privileged existence in Cornwall. If their descendants ­ or anyone who can claim a Treffry connection ­ return to Fowey, they do not have to pay the fare to take the ferry across the harbour to Polruan. Other travellers pay 50 pence.

From Polruan, you get a great view of Fowey, including the Block House and, closer to the harbour mouth, the castle built by Henry VIII. Polruan has its own Block House. At the time of wars with France, a huge chain ran along the bottom of the harbour between these fortifications; one one occasion, part of the French fleet was trapped in the harbour as the chain was raised to block
their exit.

Such tails of derring-do abound in this port town. The story is told of Elizabeth Treffry, lady of the manor, pouring molten lead on French invaders from the roof of Place.

All of the streets in the heart of Fowey are narrow, twisting thoroughfares, where courtesy between drivers and pedestrians is frankly essential to survival. But politeness prevails, there is a complete absense of molten lead, and visitors will find themselves enchanted by the shops, boutiques, and dining establishments.

Higher in the town, another kind of enchantment may strike you, especially if you are a fan of Mole, Badger and Toad of "Wind in the Willows" fame. The luxurious Fowey Hall Hotel and Restaurant on Hanson Drive is the current incarnation of Fowey Hall ­ which looks remarkably like "Toad Hall", the
residence of Mr. Toad in Kenneth Grahame's much-loved book. And in fact, it is just that ­ this is the model for the mansion of the fictitious amphibian.

That's just a taste of the treats available for the explorer of Fowey. For an entirely different perspective, take to the water. The ferry to Polruan is a fine idea, but visitors will learn even more on a Fowey River Cruise. I set sail with Captain Ian Owers on his 'Troy', a motor launch that seats 22, for a cruise up the Fowey, and then to the harbour mouth. We went past the village of Bodinnick, and the house of the du Maurier family where Daphne wrote the first of her novels. (There is an annual Daphne du Maurier Festival of Art and Literature in Fowey every May.) We got a close look at the otherwise hidden Fowey Docks, built to serve the exporters of China Clay. And we got great views of the block houses and the castle, as well as the harbour mouth. Captain Owers was a fount of historical and current local information (in one breath he pointed out both Henry VIII's work and the nearby house now occupied by British comediens Dawn French and Lenny Henry). The cruises ­ river or sea ­ are highly recommended; there are options ranging from 45 minute harbour cruises to all day sea adventures. They leave from the Fowey Town Quay.

There is only one proper conclusion to such exploration ­ either by land or sea ­ and that is to enjoy a pint of local beer, or a meal of local seafood, in one of the many fine and ancient public houses and restaurants in the heart of Fowey ­ places like The Ship Inn, built in 1570, or the Lugger Inn, in  business since 1782.

I was intrigued by the result when I ordered fish and chips in a Fowey pub. The meal was served on a dish resembling a turkey platter, completely covered in mounds of chips (French fries are called chips in England; what North Americans call chips are "crisps" in the U.K.). Atop the chips was an entire plaice, head, fins and all. There was enough food for... well, for that trapped French fleet.
It was amazing.

And of course, you are in Cornwall, so you must sample the local treats such as Cornish pasties, Cornish cream, and the surprisingly excellent English Estate Tea, the first ever English tea actually grown in England, at Tregothnan garden, only a few kilometers west of Fowey.

There are plenty of places to eat in Fowey, and several good places to stay. I have two favourites ­ the Marina Hotel, right on the harbour, with glorious views of yachts, birds, and water from a balcony that might keep you right there for half your day; and Carnethic House Apartments, a Georgian hotel that was completely refurbished to luxury standards in 2006.

As I suggested ­ an Cornwall itinerary that did not include spending a couple of days in Fowey would be bad news indeed. So instead, stay in Fowey for a week, and spend the first two days exploring the town, the river and the ocean front.

Then, of course, find time to enjoy the Eden Project, The Lost Gardens of Heligan, Tintagel, Bodmin Moor, St. Michael's Mount, and Land's End. And don't forget the gardens of Trebah, Glendurgan, and Lanhydrock. Or the castles of Caerhays, St. Mawes, and Pendennis. And you have to visit Chysauster Ancient Village and the wonderful medieval house, Cotehele.

On second thought... make it two weeks. Cornwall is certainly worth the time.