Ruth Craine’s Port Quinn – A journey through its history & landscape.

A Cornish sunset

‘Looking in the other direction there is Kellan Head, which is at the start of the 3.5 mile coast path connecting Port Quin and Port Issac. The walk is affectionately called ‘The Rollercoaster’ due to the nature of the terrain, it’s rarely level and often very steep going up or going down’

Port Quin is a tiny hamlet situated on the North Cornwall coast, it sits between its larger and more famous neighbour Port Issac (Port Wenn in the TV programme Doc Martin) and Polzeath, a busy tourist spot attracting surfers and beach lovers.

It’s name literally means ‘White Cove’ from the Cornish words ‘Porth’ meaning harbour, and ‘Gwynn’ meaning white.

The hamlet and surrounding area is managed and run by the National Trust, but despite its now diminutive size it has quite a history, including fishing, mining, smuggling, a disaster at sea, a rich man’s folly and more recently being used as a film location for the TV adaptation of the book Poldark by Winston Graham.

The photo below was taken from the South West Coast Path at Kellan Head looking from the seaward direction into the cove.

Kellan Head

During medieval times boats from Port Quin sailed to Wales, where they traded in coal, lead, antimony and manure, along with the transporting of building materials from nearby quarries.

The mainstay of the local economy for many years centred around the pilchard season, this operated between August and December. 

The fresh catches were placed in several large drying sheds in the village, before the goods were transported for sale. These former fish cellars have now been converted into holiday rentals. In the above photo they are visible just above the slipway on the right of the harbour. We stayed in one of the properties for the duration of our stay, it is one of the handful of places in the area still owned by a local family and not the National Trust. 

The below photo is of Quay Cottage, a former 18th century fisherman’s cottage built overlooking the harbour. It is one of the most photographed properties in the village. It too is now holiday accommodation, though it appears to have had a darker use in the past as a base for smugglers.

Smugglers accommodation

The following photo was taken at low tide, I’m standing in the entrance to a cave looking across the beach into the entrance of a larger cave.

If you walk around 80 feet inside the cave (I didn’t the rocks were slippery) and look up there is a hole through which you can see the sky. Legend has it that years ago smugglers would bring their booty into the cave where it would be unloaded and hoisted up by rope through the hole into the garden of Quay Cottage. From there the goods would be distributed throughout the county and beyond.

Quay cottage

Along with the fishing and smuggling another industry which thrived in the village for a time was mining, there were two mines recorded, Port Quin mine and Gilson’s Cove mine. Port Quin mine was somewhere to the rear of the main village, of which it seems nothing remains.  The below photo is of the two now disused shafts of Gilson’s Cove Mine which sit either side of the South West Coast Path a short stroll from the village.

Disused mine shafts

The shaft nearest to me drops down through the rock to sea level, the one on the cliff edge is much deeper and goes some way down below the level of the sea. Both have now been fenced off with some Cornish slate uprights and a bit of wire, with a view I believe of attempting to stop the unwary hiker tumbling to their death. Between these shafts are the remains of the platform for the horse whim, a device which was wound to bring up ore from the mine.

It was a mixed lead, silver and antimony mine, a small amount of copper ore was also extracted. The mining industry in this area was thriving around the same time as the fishing industry and appears to have gone into decline around the same period as the fish stopped appearing in great numbers.

This brings us to the story of a disaster at sea. With the pilchard and herring catches being in serious decline, the once thriving village of  the early 19th century which was home to 93 people was starting to shrink. Some people were leaving looking for work in the surrounding area, others were emigrating to Canada.

Desperation lead to the entire fishing fleet including all the men of the village being put to sea one Sunday, thus breaking the Sabbath. The story goes that God was so angry he blew up a fierce Atlantic storm and every single boat and all the men aboard were lost at sea. This along with the decline in the mining this gave rise to Port Quin being called ‘The village that died’. 

A census in 1841 showed that only 23 of the original 93 people were still living in the village, there was a lot of farming around the area so one can only assume that was where they were employed. Eventually the village became deserted and the houses fell into disrepair or vanished altogether.

It seems not everyone wanted to abandon Port Quin to the elements, one man by the name of Samuel Symons decided that this was the place he wanted to be, he was the man who was responsible for building the now quite famous Doyden Castle.

Described by the National Trust as ‘A little fortress at the edge of the cliffs on the Port Quin headland, with sea views all around.’  The photo below shows off the setting of this little 3 storey tower in all its glory, overlooking the entrance to the harbour cove at Port Quin and the Mouls rock out in the Atlantic Ocean.

A little fortress at the edge of the cliffs

Doyden Castle is now a National Trust holiday let, arrival in daylight is advised due to its close proximity to the cliff edge, they don’t want you falling into the ocean in the dark! It’s quiet and peaceful now, surrounded by sea birds and rabbit warrens, but it wasn’t always so.

Samuel Symons was a wealthy businessman from the nearby town of Wadebridge, he was a man who liked nothing better than wild parties, drinking and gambling, what he desired was a place away from it all where he could indulge in his hedonistic lifestyle with upsetting his neighbours, or being spied on by the righteous. In the 1830’s he bought the land at Doyden and constructed his folly in the style of a Medieval castle, only much smaller. The two upper floors both comprising of one room  were designed for guests and parties, the ground floor was one large wine cellar.

Symons’ parties were legendary, but they couldn’t last forever. While Symons and his revelers eventually passed on, Doyden Castle survived thanks to its sturdy stone construction. The interior has been updated to modern standards and new windows have been put in place. The wine cellar in now a kitchen, dining area and bathroom. The second floor a lounge and the third a bedroom.

The castle was used in the filming of the 1975 original TV adaptation of the Poldark novel, I believe it was the home of the doctor in the book.

There are some quite dramatic views from the headland on which the little castle stands. The photo below was taken shortly before sunset from Doyden Point looking out across the Celtic Sea, which is part of the Atlantic Ocean, towards the Pentire headland and the Mouls rock.

Looking out toward the Pentire headland & Moulds rock

Looking in the other direction there is Kellan Head, which is at the start of the 3.5 mile coast path connecting Port Quin and Port Issac. The walk is affectionately called ‘The Rollercoaster’ due to the nature of the terrain, it’s rarely level and often very steep going up or going down. We’ve completed the walk on three occasions. The return route is a 2 mile inland walk through farmland and woodland.

Kellan Head

There are many other beautiful coast path walks easily accessed from Port Quin, a regular jaunt of mine was a 3 mile or so round trip taken during the evening when OMR was engaged in angling duties on the rocks at Doyden. The below photo is taken from a place called Trevan Head looking back in the direction of Doyden Point, Gilson’s Mine and the inlet to Port Quin with Kellan Head in the distance. The large white building is Doyden House, which is also National Trust owned, it is where you park your car if you are holidaying at the castle, it also has apartments for rent.

Trevan Head, looking back down towards Doyden Point

One of the benefits of visiting Port Quin in late April and early May are the beach sunsets. For a period of around three weeks the sun, weather permitting, sets in the mouth of the inlet. At other times of year it is obscured by Doyden Headland on the left and Kellan Head on the right. We were very lucky with the weather, most evenings a visit to the beach was rewarded with some sunset photos like the one below.

A sunset finish

It is a pleasure to see a tiny hamlet having once lost its identity, people and industries and for all intents and purposes the village that died being brought back to life. Much of this I suspect down to the intervention of the National Trust. Thankfully it remains unspoiled, there are no shops, cafes, pubs etc, just a small car park and a handful of houses. As for visitors, there are a few who come to enjoy the beach and the walks, but unlike much of Cornwall it has managed to escape the developers and the tourist attraction overload, with views like this what is there not to like about Port Quin.

A Port Quinn seascape

Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed the narrative and my photographs.

Writing & Images Ruth Craine, Yorkshire, May 2022

*I would like to thank the National Trust and a handful of local history web sites who have been invaluable to me during my research.