A Short History of Port Gaverne
Cornish Rock Tors is based in Port Gaverne, a small fishing hamlet situated in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and a Heritage Coast Area. We run our activities along beautiful and unspoiled stretches of the wild Cornish coast, but our centre of operations is in an equally beautiful, historic, and interesting setting.
Our roadside office above the beach is in a former pilchard cellar, now owned by The National Trust (we are a National Trust ambassador business and they are our landlord). There are four such historic buildings in the that hint at the cove’s industrious past, and the history of Port Gaverne is well worth sharing:
Port Gaverne’s Origins
Port Gaverne, like so many places in Cornwall, is a name that’s developed over time from the old-Cornish description of the cove. Malcolm Lee of Gull Rock has researched Port Gaverne’s history extensively and states that Port Kern or Karn Hun mean “rocky haven” in the local dialect (there are several branches of the Cornish language), and a it is likely that “Karn Hun” mutated into “Gaverne” as a spoken name before it was written down. Port Gaverne doesn’t appear in many records before the 1800s; fishing boats were launched from the beach but when a pier was constructed on the west side of Port Isaac’s natural harbour in the early to mid 1500s it is thought that many fishermen moved their boats here.
“…was a pere, and sum socour for fisschar botes.”
– John Leland, 1538
From the mid 1700s sea sand was collected at Port Gaverne (often by the wives and children of fishermen) and sold to farmers, it’s high lime content making a good fertiliser for Cornwall’s acid-rich soils and therefore an important commodity.
Pilchard Fishing and The “Pilchard Palaces”
At the turn of the century Port Gaverne’s fortunes began to improve when the entrepreneurial Guy family (who had significant interests in Port Isaac) began to invest in Port Gaverne in 1802.They leased land to build fish cellars, nicknamed “Pilchard Palaces”, for the processing of pilchard and herring before diversifying into ship-building to capitalise on Port Gaverne’s proximity to the famous slate quarry at Delabole. Warwick Guy built four large U-shaped fish cellars and named them “Venus”, “Liberty”, “Rashleigh” and “Union” (where Cornish Rock Tors is now based).
In July, when warm weather causes an increase in plankton in the seas off the coast of Cornwall, huge shoals of pilchards used to arrive on the coast to feed on the plankton. The pilchard fishing season was around eight weeks long, but could last through until December and was the main focus of villagers. In the fish cellars, pilchards would be packed into barrels with salt between each layer of fish, and then pressed using heavy stones to extract the oil. The oil was sold to fuel streetlights, and the fish were then washed and re-packed to be exported (often to Italy and sometimes to the West indies). Each wooden barrel, called a “hogshead” contained around 3000 fish and a ton of pilchards sold for between £40/ton (1911) and £22/ton (1915). The shoals didn’t always come though, and the fortunes of fishermen ebbed and flowed until finally the fishery declined and collapsed altogether in the late 1820s. During those three decades of prosperity the Guy family would have profited hugely from the pilchard fishery – even during the glut year of 1815 when supply caused prices to drop, it is estimated that Port Gaverne’s four cellars could have processed around 1000 tons in a good week.
Following the decline of the pilchard fishery (and despite diversification into fishing for herring and smoking kippers), the Guy family and Port Gaverne turned their attention towards shipping slate; the quarry at Delabole has been quarried continuously since the 1600s and is still regarded as producing some of the finest slate available. By the mid-1800s nearly a thousand men were employed to raise an average of 120 tons of slate per day at Delabole. The slate company developed the road from Delabole to Port Gaverne (five miles) to accommodate their horses and heavy carts, cutting the final descent that the current road still takes from the rock. In 1860 they then attempted to avoid this final steep section by pushing a lane out onto the Main (now a broad grassy path coming down from the Headland Hotel), that then turned back and terminated in the quay on the north side of Port Gaverne. This second option was soon abandoned however, as any ships moored alongside the quay would be damaged in bad weather. Instead, as had been the case previously, large flat-bottomed ketches continued to beach on the sand where they were secured with lines to keep them upright (the lines were anchored to stone or timber posts on either side of the cove) and then slate was brought alongside by horse and cart and loaded aboard by hand to be packed in straw in the ship’s hold. Many of these ships, mostly single-masted smacks and two-masted luggers up to 77ft, were built in Port Gaverne and owned by the Guy Family – in the 1860s Warwick Richard Guy owned six of the ships exporting slate from Port Gaverne and shipping coal or other goods back to Cornwall on their return journey.
The Arrival of The Railway, and Tourism
Up until 1893 Port Gaverne was the main export route for Delabole slate, but then the railway arrived at Delabole, and later at “Port Isaac Road” station several miles inland from Port Gaverne – now the site of Cornish Tipi Holidays whose lake we use for team building and foul weather multi-activities.
With the pilchards gone and the railway providing a more reliable and “timetable-able” method of transporting slate, Port Gaverne’s period of industry drew to a close. But what the railway took with one hand, it gave with the other in the form of visitors and tourists; trade that the businesses here still rely on to this day. The Guy estate sold the Pilchard Palaces, that had once been so busy, on the death of Mark Guy in 1918. Venus and Liberty were converted into holiday accommodation – Liberty (the furthest up the valley) into the Bide-a-While Hotel which then became Gullrock Cottages, and Venus (just past the Port Gaverne Hotel) became Green Door Cottages. During WWII evacuee children were accommodated in these former cellars (some of whom stayed on after the war), and the Parish Council installed large concrete tank traps on the beach, concerned that Port Gaverne presented an attractive option for an enemy invasion. These tank traps were never used for their intended purpose but instead became backrests for sunbathing locals!
Port Gaverne Today
The Union and Rashleigh cellars had been purchased by the Price Family who bequeathed them to the National Trust along with the beach. Union Cellar is the building backing onto the roadside on the north side of the cove, at the bottom of the hill up to Port Isaac; Cornish Rock Tors is based in one part of the cellar and another is used by the local fisherman’s association for storage. Rashleigh Cellar (which houses Port Gaverne’s public toilets) is behind Union Cellar just off the main road and has been kept as an open-plan U-shaped courtyard with two National Trust holiday cottages at the rear. We’ve recently been granted a lease on part of Rashleigh Cellar by The National Trust, to use for equipment storage and possibly some changing cubicles. This means that for the 2020 season our roadside space in Union Cellar will be converted into a lighter and brighter office and check-in space with tea and coffee facilities for customers and a small shop, and then customers can go round to Rashleigh to get kitted-up and get changed ready for their activities. As a young business, it’s amazing to be operating in an area and out of buildings that have so much history, and to be adding our own chapter to that story.
If you’d like to absorb a bit more of Port Gaverne’s history then we’d certainly recommend heading over to the Port Gaverne Hotel (formerly the Union Inn, where visiting sailors would stay) and soaking up some of the amazing old photographs that hang on their walls depicting Port Gaverne in days gone by. You can also find further detail on Port Gaverne’s history, written by Malcolm Lee, on Gullrock’s website.