Cornwall: Singing in the smugglers' den

For pirates, painters, and anyone else who loves a Cornish fishing village, Polperro is the place, says Linda Cookson
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For all you landlubbers, there are two ways into the famously beautiful Cornish fishing village of Polperro. You can approach by road or by cliff path.

If you choose the road, you'll need to leave your car at the public car park at the entrance to the village and walk the half mile or so down towards the harbour. Or - if you're that way inclined - take a ride with the Polperro Horse Bus Company and make your arrival by horse and cart. The disadvantage of this option is that it will be hard to kid yourself that you're not a tourist. Thousands of visitors descend daily on the village at the height of the season. In minutes you'll have joined the throng and be jostling through the gamut of party stalls, ice-cream barrows, postcard shops and the like. As tourist spots go, Polperro is by no means unbearably twee. But it's a pity to hit the lucky pixie charm shop and the fish and chip outlet ("Chip Ahoy!") before you've had even a sniff of sea air.

Far more enticing is the approach on foot, along the glorious National Trust coastal path linking the village with the fishing towns of Looe in one direction and Fowey in the other. It's hard to imagine a more magical first view of a village anywhere in the world. As you round the headland, a tiny, picturesque harbour unfolds before you. The accompanying vista of centuries-old fishermen's cottages nestling in narrow crooked streets and clinging to steep hillsides is a scenic artist's fantasy.

Whichever way you arrive, a major joy is to explore the winding streets and passageways, and to marvel at the character and charm of the buildings. Straight lines are hard to find - amid a jumble of assorted shapes and styles, architectural pragmatism rules supreme. Individuality flourishes. Jaunty windowboxes and hanging baskets create a riot of colour against the paintbox white of most of the cottages. One house has been covered entirely in shells brought home by its owner, a sea captain.

Polperro remains a working fishing village, though the standard catch is now mackerel rather than the pilchards that used to abound. But it is still steeped in the history of its heyday as a smugglers' den. Nestled in its sheltered ravine setting, the village became an ideal location for smuggling in the 18th century - with consignments of contraband brandy, gin and tobacco coming from Guernsey. This history is celebrated in Polperro's memorabilia-packed Heritage Museum of Smuggling and Fishing, situated in an old pilchard factory overlooking the harbour.

During this century, Polperro has become more of a magnet for artists. The East Cornwall Society of Artists mounts an annual exhibition at the Ebenezer Gallery near the entrance to the village. And down by the quayside, the Peak Rock Artists Studio & Gallery is a working studio open to the public. From 20-28 June, the third annual Festival of Arts, Music and Drama will take place in the village. Performers will include the famous Polperro Fishermen's Choir, plus visiting artists such as the guitarist Bert Jansch and the poet Brian Patten, whose Cornish poem for The Independent appears opposite.

Should you weary of the bustle within the village itself, do remember the loveliness of the coastline. The sandy beach at nearby Talland Bay is only a mile along the Coastal Path, with Looe some three-and-a-half miles farther on. If you don't quite feel up to that exertion, you can always head inland, following the stream from Talland Bay to Bridals Lane, once a spot notorious for smuggling runs.

If any sort of walking feels too much like hard work, take one of the half-hourly trips on a local fishing boat along the coast from the harbour. Or why not let a pony do the trekking? The stables at nearby Lansallos Barton (01503 272192) hire out horses for accompanied cliff-top rides. Absolute beginners can clop contentedly along the rocky pathways in the knowledge that they're on two safe pairs of hooves.

For a staunch Methodist community (John Wesley preached there twice in the 1760s) Polperro is reassuringly well stocked with pubs. My own favourites are the Blue Peter, on the end of the quay, and the Three Pilchards, beside the harbour. The Noughts & Crosses, formerly a bakery, is also worth a visit. Its name comes from the book-keeping habits of its 17th-century owner.

Eating out in the evenings is excellent. All pubs offer food - the Crumplehorn Inn, at the entrance to the village, is the best in my opinion - and there's a surprisingly wide variety of restaurants. For a change, try The Mermaid Pizza.

To see Polperro at its loveliest, stay overnight. For longer stays, hiring a cottage is easily the best bet. The main specialist provider is Polperro's Black Horse Agency which handles some 26 holiday properties (01503 272303).

For shorter stays, the Crumplehorn Inn - which also offers self-catering apartments - does bed and breakfast for two people sharing a double room at pounds 40 a night (01503 272348). Bed and breakfast in the Old Mill House Hotel in the centre of the village (01503 272362) costs pounds 45 for a double room (extra charge for the four-poster).

But if money is no object, venture that mile or so along the cliff path to the Talland Bay Hotel (01503 272667). This attractive country house, dating back to the 16th century, is set amid gorgeous gardens and overlooks the sea. Dinner, plus bed and breakfast for two sharing a double room with sea view, could set you back as much as pounds 190 at the height of the season. But prices are less steep at this time of year: dinner, bed - in a room with a sea view - and breakfast cost pounds 72 per person, and there's a special offer of pounds 110 per person for two nights including dinner and breakfast, but minus the view.

For details of the 1998 Polperro Festival of Arts, Music and Drama, call 01503-272129