October 10, 2003

Wet And Windy In Port Isaac

They talk a lot about the weather here in Cornwall, and I’m beginning to understand why.

When we first arrived, it was as though we hadn’t left Califonia. Hot and warm, with hardly a cloud in the sky. But as Fall approaches, that is changing. The days are mostly cloudy now with patches of sun peeking through. It rarely pours, more like a slight mist all of the time.

After twenty five years in California, the change is nice. Instead of being drawn to the outdoors all the time as we were in Marin, we are more liable to be inside, building a fire, playing games, baking cookies, reading, and writing.

We went to Port Isaac today for lunch. The streets up and down are just barely wide enough for one car, which means that if you meet another car it can be quite a trick to get by. When you get to the bottom of the hill you are at the port, and if the tide is high, there is nowhere to park. Today the tide was low, and the sign said to be off the sand by 4:00pm (or, I imagine, you’d be waiting for the next tide to be towed out).

We walked up the narrow streets, and I popped my head into a pasty shop. I asked where a good place to have fish and chips was. She pointed across the street, and so we went to the Golden Lion for lunch. As you walk in it’s easy to imagine that this pub hasn’t changed in several hundred years, and you can almost feel the ghosts of mariners from days gone by. If you drop anything on the floor it rolls quickly away from your seat, not from the mariners ghosts, but from the noticeable tilt to most everything inside.

Nathaniel is very much into pirates these days, and so he and I went around the inside pretending that the various lanterns and objects on the walls had belonged to pirates. Several of the paintings and pictures on the walls are of rescues by the lifeboat service, and they are pictures full of danger and tension, showing men in oil slickers, wearing life vests made of cork, rowing out to sea to save a ship in distress. The bravery of those men is hard to imagine, but it isn’t hard to imagine that many of those who survived stood in this very pub telling tales of their experiences.

The man behind the bar, barely older than a boy really, was from Port Isaac. He had been recently to New Zealand for six months, and I could overhear him telling the locals who came in for a pint that he wasn’t sure where he was going next, but it probably wasn’t going to be Port Isaac.

This reminded me that I had seen an article in a local weekly about how the town of Port Isaac was slowly imploding (my word, not theirs). So many of the houses around here have been snapped up as second summer homes that housing prices are rising beyond the locals’ means. It also means that fewer and fewer people are actually living in town year round, and so shops like the butcher and fish monger and post office don’t have as much year round business, and they’re starting to find it hard to stay open.

No one seems to know how to stop this downward cycle, but if they don’t, all these lovely coastal towns, which are currently full of real working people, will find it harder and harder to stay real towns, and they will become more like the cutesy towns of Sausalito and Tiburon that we left behind in Marin.

By the way, the fish and chips were some of the best I’ve ever had – the plate came with a whole half of a freshly caught cod, dipped in batter, and fried to perfection. So if you’re in Port Isaac, do stop in at the Golden Lion and try the fish and chips. And as you walk around the streets, imagine what it will be like when the fishing boats are gone, and the shops are full of nothing but espresso bars, clothing shops, and artist galleries. It will be a sad day when that happens, because a little slice of Cornwall will be gone forever.

Posted by: Frank @ 2:30 pm — Filed under:


  1. Hello, just doing some reseach on the net for my latest project and come arcoss your acticale. Glad your fish ‘n chips was a enjoyable dish, I would have been the chef working at the goldan lion at the time. I will send the website details that i’m designing at this present moment when it is up and running. Thanks for the good review all the best Dylan

    Comment by Dylan Pattenden — October 6, 2006 @ 1:52 pm

  2. it must be nice to go where ever you want and not have to worry about money? i was born in st austell and dreamed of showing my two boys where i was born but would have to win the lottery to even think of it . i went to school in marin , larkspur and enjoyed reading about your travel and sites
    you are truely blessed to have such a life
    i always thought i would be able to take mom back to cornwall someday. thank you for sharing

    Comment by vicki — November 17, 2007 @ 3:55 am

  3. An interesting article. I live in Port Isaac with my artist wife, the kid who served your fish and chips in the Golden Lion pub is my great nephew and being a town councillor I’m currently trying to organise a new car park on the outskirts of the village to replace the tidal one in the harbour. Of course the shops have changed, they have everywhere as superstores and malls take over, and the harbor grocery store has become an art gallery, and a clothes shop owned by the wife of a TV personality, but our fish shop is still thriving. My brother-in-law and another nephew operate one of the seven remaining fishing boats in the harbor, making a living lifting crab and lobster pots with the catch served in the local restaurants. The second holiday - summer - home issue is not as straightforward as it seems. The former fishermen’s cottages clustered around the harbour look cute but they have poor thermal insulation and are cold and damp in the winter. Back in the 1960’s most of them were condemned by the authorities as unfit for human habitation. They are great for a holiday but most are unsuitable to raise a family and the truth is that even if local people weren’t outbid by outsiders they probably wouldn’t want to live in them. About 90% of the houses in the harbour ‘conservation area’ are now summer homes or holiday rentals. However, their owners keep local people in work, the men repairing and maintaining and the women cleaning before each new holiday rental moves in. And the visitors eat in local restaurants and buy artwork. The big change since you wrote your article is the TV ‘Doc Martin’ comedy series that is filmed here each summer starring Martin Clunes as a grouchy ex-surgeon turned village general practitioner. It is a British version of the 1990’s USA TV comedy series ‘Northern Exposure’ with Jewish New York surgeon Joel Flieschman sent to the fictional Cicely in Alaska. Martin Clunes played Burbage in the multiple Academy award film ‘Shakespeare in Love’. ‘Doc Martin’ has been a huge worldwide success with KTEH in San Jose planning to air Series 4 when it becomes available through USA distribution to Public Broadcasting stations. It has also brought thousands of visitors - hence the much needed new car park well away from the narrow harbor streets.

    Comment by Martin Bell — March 10, 2010 @ 10:21 am

  4. This story has been very interesting as i was surfing the net looking at houses to rent in Cornwall. When my husband retires I was thinking that it would be great for him to go back to the UK (we live in Australia) for an extended six months holiday. On our last visit there I was very much looking into my ‘Ellery’ Ancestry from Cornwall and we visited Port Isaac. What a magical little place. I agree about the change and how it affects the villages. Looking into renting for six months you can also see how it affects the rental costs too. Winter is reasonable but come the high season the rents skyrocket - and who does not want to spend some of their time in Cornwall during the summer months. If we happen to make Cornwall - it seems the fish & chips at the Golden Lion are a must. Thanks for posting your story.

    Comment by Joanne Warby — October 28, 2010 @ 12:52 am

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