Fowey: from port to page

This Cornish town has long enchanted creative visitors, says Hilary Macaskill

The first sight of Fowey, with its jumble of Georgian houses and pastel-coloured cottages running down to the busy river below, has captivated visitors for centuries. Though Queen Victoria was alarmed when she was taken up "some of the narrowest streets I ever saw in England, and up perpendicular hills", she thought Fowey "very pretty". Poet Robert Bridges called it "the most poetic-looking place in England" and Peter Pan author, J M Barrie, wrote "it is but a toy town to look at, on a bay so small, hemmed in so picturesquely by cliffs and ruins, that of a moonlight night, it might pass for a scene in a theatre".

Kenneth Grahame was so smitten on his visits to his friend "Q", academic and novelist Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (the inspiration for the talkative Ratty in Wind in the Willows), that he chose to marry in the parish church of St Fimbarrus. The Victorian splendour of Fowey Hall (now a hotel), which was built on its commanding position at the top of the town for Sir Charles Hanson who later became Lord Mayor of London, is said to have been the model for Toad Hall.

The most famous fan of Fowey, however, was Daphne du Maurier, who first visited in 1926 with her family to find a holiday home.Ferryside, by the quay in Bodinnick, was where she wrote her first novel and the author later lived at nearby Menabilly, model for Manderley in her best-selling novel Rebecca.

In May 1997, eight years after her death, the Daphne du Maurier Festival was inaugurated on the croquet lawn of the Fowey Hall Hotel before moving to Festival Village, a tented encampment on the sports fields of the community college.

This year, the event is relaunched as the Fowey Festival of Words and Music, perhaps taking its cue from last year's sell-out performances from broadcaster Terry Wogan and classical guitarist John Williams. Du Maurier still has a leading role, with workshops, readings, talks and walks, some of which are based on her Cornish novels, such as The House on the Strand and The King's General.

From her first days in Fowey, Du Maurier felt that "the place has taken hold of me", as she wrote in her diary; "ships anchored, looming up through blackness ... the splash of muffled oars ... " The enduring appeal of Fowey – a port with a long maritime history, sending ships to join battle against the Spanish Armada and supplying boats for D-Day – is that sense of life on the river. Ferries shuttle across the water frequently, carrying cars between Caffa Mill and Bodinnick, and passengers between Fowey and Polruan, the village on the opposite headland.

Most days, big ships are escorted by tugs to the china clay works upriver. Some evenings, teams of rowers pull their way on their training runs to Readymoney Cove, just beneath St Catherine's Castle guarding the river mouth. And there are the Troys, small yachts with brightly coloured sails which dart about the harbour in twice-weekly races in summer. The boats, so-named because of Q's novels about Fowey – "Troy" as he called it – are a centrepiece of the Royal Regatta in August.

The first time we visited Fowey was during the Regatta, when we stayed on a friend's catamaran, moored in the midst of the hordes of visiting craft in the harbour. Our excursions to shore focused on the delights of Kittows butcher and deli and Fowey Fish – conveniently sharing quarters with fine wines – where Karen the fishmonger advised a tentative purchaser on how to cook lemon sole.

We also worked our way round some of the old pubs, such as the 16th-century Ship Inn and the King of Prussia on the Town Quay. The streets were crowded and there was a carnival-like atmosphere every day (the carnival actually takes place mid-week) and we were glad to escape back to the peace on the water.

One day, we walked from Polruan up to Lanteglos to the small church where Daphne married the handsome young major who, three months earlier, had come up the estuary in his boat Ygdrasil in the hope of meeting the author of the book that had entranced him: The Loving Spirit, Daphne's first novel. After their "wedding breakfast" of sausage and bacon on board Ygdrasil – and a bottle of champagne that Q had rowed out to them – they set sail for Frenchman's Creek, down the coast.

The contrast between the pleasantly bustling town of Fowey and Frenchman's Creek, south of Falmouth, could not be greater. The creek is an inlet off the Helford River, deserted and still. Hidden among the woods that creep down to the side of the river is a lime-washed cottage, let by the Landmark Trust. It is, in customary fashion, simply and comfortably fitted out, with appropriate reading matter – which includes the novel Daphne wrote, several years after her honeymoon, Frenchman's Creek, recounting the love affair between an adventurous English lady and a French pirate (she joined him on a marauding expedition to Fowey).

One March weekend, we walked through the woods by the creek to Helford to buy the papers. It was low tide and the skeletons of fallen trees had eerily emerged from the mud along with occasional grounded boats. In summer, Helford estuary is crowded with yachts and pleasure cruisers, but that sunny day it had the atmosphere of a ghost town that can cling to a Cornish village out of season. The shop had run out of papers, so we drove to Land's End in search, past Goonhilly Downs and a sign for Telstar Taxis: the first live transatlantic television broadcasts via the Telstar satellite were picked up here.

But the best times were back at the cottage.

Past visitors, as the log-book showed, had paid homage to Daphne's novel by re-enactments – bringing black eye patches, lace collars and once, apparently, a cutlass. It was really enough for us to sit on the bench outside the cottage and listen to the stream gurgling close by. "We couldn't have picked anywhere more beautiful," said Daphne. She was right.

'Daphne du Maurier at Home' by Hilary Macaskill is published by Frances Lincoln

Travel Essentials

Staying there

Frenchman's Creek can be rented from the Landmark Trust (01628 825925; Prices start at £352 for a three-night break.

Visiting there

Fowey Festival of Words and Music runs from 8 to 18 May (01726 879 500;

Fowey Royal Regatta runs from 18 to 24 August (01726 832133;

More information