A collaboration of coast and countryside organisations on The Lizard Peninsula

CadgwithOver 200 years ago, the small fishing community of Cadgwith was riding high on the pilchard boom, when huge shoals, several miles wide, migrated to Cornish waters every year. The catches were colossal: in October 1845, Cadgwith fishermen netted well over 15 million pilchards in a single day! 

If it wasn't for this bounty, it's doubtful whether Cadgwith would be here at all. Although the hamlet of Porthcaswith was recorded in 1358, it wasn't until the 17th century that pilchard fishing became big business, and the oldest cottages date back to that time. By the 19th century there were six pilchard companies operating here, the beach was crowded with seine boats and every building clustered around the cove was involved – as lofts for storing nets, capstan houses for winching boats ashore, and cellars where the fish were pressed to extract the valuable oil, then salted and balked, and packed into barrels known as hogsheads.

Cabbing with wormBy the 1920s the large pilchard shoals were no more, and nowadays the seine nets are used, rarely, to catch shoals of mullet. Cadgwith boats put out strings of pots from August to December – for crabs, spider crabs and lobsters – and nets are worked all year round for monkfish, cod, pollack, red mullet, John dory and ling. On Thursday evenings in summer, and some weekends, there are fishing competitions for locals and visitors alike.

The cove's boats and fishermen provided a colourful backdrop to many scenes in the 2003 feature film Ladies in Lavender, directed by Charles Dance, starring Maggie Smith and Judi Dench. In 2011 the village was again in the spotlight when explorer Monty Halls spent many months working with Cadgwith fishermen for his BBC TV series The Fisherman's Apprentice.

The Cadgwith Gig Clubhouse was, from 1867 until 1963, home to Cadgwith's five lifeboats which rescued 398 lives, including 227 from the Star liner Suevic in 1907. Inside are some of the club's four pilot gigs – six-oared racing boats – as well as illustrated displays giving details of lifeboat and gig club history. Visit Cadgwith on Buller Day, and you may see as many as 20 gigs racing in the bay. 

Buller day Next door is the Watch House ice cream and gift shop, in the former Customs Office and lock-up. Smuggling was rife in the village – in 1816 four Cadgwith men, caught with contraband brandy, were pressganged into the naval blockade of Algiers – and Revenue men were billeted here. Later the Admiralty established a coastguard station (the terraced cottages at the top of the hill) and signal house (the look-out hut overlooking the cove).

The Cadgwith Cove Inn has been serving pints to fishermen and travellers for three centuries, and its walls are a pictorial history of the cove's residents. It hosts folk music on Tuesday and the Cadgwith Singers most Fridays. Close by is the Old Cellars Restaurant; relax over a cream tea in its cobbled courtyard and you'll be sitting where once barrels of pilchards were pressed by long beams (the squeezed juices were used as lamp oil). Another pilchard cellars, Fort York, now houses the Crows Nest Gallery, the Cadgwith Cove Crab shop, and the Cadgwith Fish Seller. Beside the footpath up to the car park stands the tiny hut of St Mary's Church, a former Catholic chapel built in 1895; inside are memorial paintings to two Cadgwith fishermen lost at sea in 1994.

Published: Nov 2013
Author: Bill Scolding
Photos: Bill Scolding

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