Candida Lloyd watches the world go by in Polruan - where cuteness comes with character
When, in 1478, the King sent his serjeant-at-arms to enforce the law among wilful members of the community at Fowey estuary in south- east Cornwall, the man was dispatched back to London minus his ears. Today you can expect a friendlier welcome, particularly at the charming village of Polruan that huddles on one side of the mouth of the Fowey estuary.

The heart of the village is made up of a mass of stone cottages divided by a network of narrow streets. Yet despite the cute looks and the consequent summer hordes of visitors, this is still very much a place with its own character. You see it at its empty best at this time of year.

An attractive harbour overlooks the estuary where a flotilla of boats is criss-crossed by container vessels laden with china clay. Opposite the village is the pretty town of Fowey, accessible by a 50p passenger ferry.

Reaching Polruan by car is not easy. A tiny vehicle ferry operates from further up the estuary; otherwise you have to take part in a 40-minute cross-country rally through the narrow back lanes. But once you fight your way through, the stresses of working life evaporate; you can put on jeans and a big jumper, and flop.

The two pubs in the village are subtly demarcated: one has a wide range of food; the other a wide range of local characters. There are also a couple of general stores, tea shops, and a bakery offering pasties for 60p. The place seems like an updated Cornish version of Under Milk Wood.

A boat-building business still operates in the harbour, along with a scattering of fishermen. In Polruan's heyday vast quantities of pilchards were brought in to be salted and pressed in stacks up to 6ft high. The yards, known as "pilchard palaces", where the stacking took place can still be seen attached to houses along the waterfront. Another feature of the village is a 14th-century stone blockhouse, which was linked to a similar fort on the opposite side of the estuary by a heavy chain. To prevent pirates and enemy ships from entering the port the chain was simply yanked up.

But the best thing about Polruan is the water life. You can spend hours just looking out on the estuary watching the river trade.

Apart from gawping, walking is the other reason for visiting Polruan. Follow the coast east and you immediately step out on to some of the country's finest cliff paths. Plunging into deep valleys or up into rocky outcrops, the walking can be tough going, but the views are always glorious.

Inland, several beautiful paths trace the side of the estuary. The best known is the four-mile circular Hall Walk created by the Mohun family of Hall, who were the local bigwigs in 1585. The path was a kind of 16th- century Disneyland. Local serfs cut out the walkway, which zigzags down the steep hillside to the river, and planted vast numbers of trees and shrubs for the benefit of promenading ladies and gentlemen.

The walk takes you through the centre of Fowey, which manages to keep the number of shops selling sailing shoes and pasties down to a bearable level, and past the home of Daphne du Maurier, many of whose novels, including Rebecca, were inspired by the area.

But the most sensational walk starts at the 16th-century bridge at the hamlet of Lerryn, several miles out of Polruan. A riverside track goes down to the ancient Ethy Quay, where sail barges used to bring their wares. The tide laps into Lerryn Creek twice a day, bringing with it the scent of the sea. The five-mile circular walk twists and turns alongside the creek and through some woodland which was recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086. The path eventually turns inland at the old river quay at St Winnow.

At the hamlet is a church which contains a shrine to two men from St Winnow. From what must have been a simple rural lifestyle, the two local boys grew up to become Army officers and ended up fighting thousands of Zulu warriors in the battle of Rorke's Drift. After the church the track goes past a ruined mill and ends up at an 18th-century manor house. Hikers should ensure that their return to Lerryn, across a set of stepping stones, coincides with the licensing hours. At the local pub you can enjoy a pint of good Cornish ale. Alternatively, you can buy mugs of tea and coffee from the village shop, and if it's warm enough, sit on the nearby green, and watch the birds.

Walks in the area: National Trust booklet, Coast of Cornwall series No 21, Fowey. Tourist office: The Ticket Shop (in the Post Office), 4 Custom House Hill, Fowey (01726 833616).