A romantic past
Newquay looks back on 1600 years of history and a dramatic change of identity from fortified cliff settlement, through tiny port to premier resort. Iron Age Man smelted ore here for weapons and tools, Industrial Age Man made it his conduit for the trade in tin and china clay, but Modern man found its hidden gold: the chain of 11 beaches that have transformed Newquay in less than a century into the most popular resort in Cornwall.
Sixteen hundred years ago all that existed within the modern boundary was a settlement on Porth Island .
In 1439 Bishop Lacey of Exeter allowed the burghers of what was then called Towan Blistra to build a New Quay. It was the beginning of the Town’s second life as a fishing port culminating in the arrival of the great pilchard shoals in the 18th century and the galvanising cry of Heva! from the whitewashed Huer’s Hut, still standing above the harbour.
When the pilchards went, the Industrial Revolution came, turning Newquay from a fishing to a commodity port loading tin, lead and china clay. The famous six-oared gigs you can watch in harbour races originally competed to put pilots on board incoming vessels.
Because of its position at the heart of Cornwall, Newquay makes the perfect touring base to explore its history and legend. To the north-east is Tintagel where Merlin wove his spells and King Arthur held court. To the east is Roche Rock, spiritual home of the Cornish Gorsedd and the wildly beautiful moorland of Bodmin. And south is 11th century Restormel Castle, one-time home of the Black Prince, the beautiful valley of the Fowey and a lushly different riviera of sleepy estuaries, secluded coves and picturesque fishing villages like Mevagissey.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, low wages from fishing and agriculture were supplemented by smuggling and, more sinisterly, the wrecking made famous in Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. Crantock hid many a cargo of silks, spices, and brandy from the Revenue Men, and wreckers used to swarm from the villages of St Columb and St Mawgan at news of a ship in difficulties near the jaws of rock called the Bedruthan Steps.
Cornwall has its own language with a 2,000 year tradition and close ties with Welsh and Breton. As late as the 18th century peasants resentful of English ways and taxes would say My ny vynnaf cows sawsnek ( I will not speak English ), but now the language is heard only in bardic revivals of verse or plays in Plen an Gwary -open-air theatres.
Near St Austell, the Wheal Martyn Museum turns the China Clay industry into an absorbing adventure trail. If that kindles an interest, continue the heritage quest to Poldark, near Helston, with its immaculately restored 18th century tin mine and village. You cannot take in all Cornwall’s historic buildings in one holiday, but you can see them in perfect miniature at the St Agnes Leisure Park. And why not end the holiday on a high note, with the last word in high-tech staging of Cornwall’s dramatic history, the multi-sensory Last Labyrinth at Land’s End.
Cornwall has a special talent for bringing alive its history in museums, displays and theme parks – and the best and brightest are all within easy reach of Newquay.
The Heritage Trail will rarely take you far from the beauty of St Austell Bay. For many visitors the Bay’s sandy beaches; smuggler’s coves; miniature harbours and sea-carved cliffs are enough – yet there is more, much more, to be discovered here.
The Heritage Trail includes attractions which illustrate the region’s rich and colourful past and explains many of its present-day activities. Follow the Trail and history will come alive for you in surroundings to delight all who have time to pause awhile and enjoy what is on offer.
Whatever your interests, no matter how varied your tastes, you will satisfy them on the St Austell Bay Heritage Trail.
You will also leave Cornwall with a better understanding of the area and all it has to offer. If you do not have time to take it all in …… well, there is always next year!