Falmouth is not one of the tiny photogenic Cornish coastal villages typically advertised as tourist destinations. It is altogether more complex in its history, but no less vivid and compelling a place.
Its first purpose was to guard the entrance to the third-largest deep-water harbour in the world. Pendennis Castle, on the headland, still dominates the town and looks across to its sister on the St Mawes headland – paired monuments to Tudor military strength and the threat posed by the Spanish.
The town centre and working waterfront lie in the protected curve of the harbour below the castle. Fishing was always an ingredient in the waterfront, but its location as the last significant port of call for westbound ships (and the first landfall for inward-bound traffic) quickly established it as a major centre for shipping, with local agents prospering on world trade. Australian grain clippers were sent to ‘Falmouth for Orders’ where they were given the final destination for their cargos.
The postal service developed from the first packet ship network based in Falmouth. The harbour was thus a working place; a focus for local industry and international trade. It had, and still has, a no-nonsense air about it. The waterfront was for business. The main street parallelled the harbour, and businesses enjoyed front doors on the street and back doors to the water. But between a number of them, small alleys or ‘opes’ gave passers-by enticing views and access to the waterfront.
Falmouth has a busy town centre with an inspiring art gallery and one of the earliest polytechnics in the UK, and it still delights with the intimacy of the high street and the glimpses of the harbour in all its moods.
It was not until the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century that Falmouth really became a holiday destination. At that point, many Cornish coastal villages started to lose their character as working harbours as the tourist industry gradually took over waterfront buildings and access roads from the fishermen.
But in Falmouth the tourist industry could open up its own waterfront without disrupting the traditional harbour frontage. Beyond the protection of Pendennis Castle, on the seafront, Falmouth had a largely undeveloped shoreline of beaches and rock pools – useless as a harbour in a gale, but perfect for play in July and August. The Falmouth Hotel was built in the late-nineteenth century, and followed by a string of hotels and boarding houses. In the present economic climate, those hotels are fighting a battle for survival, and many have been replaced with flats and retirement homes, but the front remains the part of Falmouth where people promenade, swim, and enjoy the sunset.
The great thing about Falmouth is that it remains a working port. The docks continue to repair ships and build yachts. These activities (including, sometimes, a good deal of noise) and the employment they bring keep the place honest. And the last fleet of working sail in England (prevented by a local statute from using engines) fish for a living and on the weekends race for fun. Working and yachting communities are rarely this closely allied.
That very real relationship between honest work and pleasure in the environment is most clearly embodied in the contrast between the working harbour and the tourist beaches. The seeimingly inevitable fate of a single-aspect harbour is that the tourist industry erases the history of its working life. In Falmouth that needn’t happen. I do not argue against change; there has been, of course, a gradual increase in the number of pubs, restaurants, and other commercial enterprises on the working harbour front. So far these have been consistent with the scale of the existing buildings and the opes between. I hope that this will always be the case, and that the town will continue to be enriched by its two faces to the sea. The difference between the two in scale, material, and aspect gives Falmouth its character and the pleasure for a visitor lies in being able to enjoy the vivid differences between its complementary faces to the water.
Director of Long & Kentish Architects, and previously of Colin St John Wilson & Partners. Recent projects include a renovation of London’s Jewish Museum and the book Artists’ Studios.