There should be a sign as you enter town, "Polperro: Twinned with the 19th Century."
This once-upon-a-time Cornish fishing village has a marked preference for living in the past. On arrival, my car is consigned to the public car park on the edge of town. Motor vehicles are not allowed beyond this point. A helpful local has responded to my query for a taxi with "stretch your legs, it'll do you good". He might have added that a sedan chair would be more practical than a minicab, anyway.
I drag my luggage for a mile or more down the ever-narrowing alleys of the fishing port towards Libby's Cottage (my quarters for the weekend), where I have been warned not to expect Wi-Fi or any other form of connectivity. The letting agent has a positive spin: "We like to think of it as part of getting away from it all." It also becomes clear that we are in a mobile-phone black hole – my ever-so-smart phone will have to reinvent itself as a paperweight.
Sans phone, sans text, sans e-mail, sans internet, sans GPS, sans transportation, sans pretty much everything that has advanced humans from the Iron Age. By the time I turn the latch at the cottage, I feel like an unwitting participant in the Channel 4 show The 1900 House and am braced for an improving but dreary weekend.
Libby's, however, turns out to be charming. I never meet the Libby in question, but if she exists she's done an impeccable job of converting a humble fisher-person's home into a cosy modern holiday cottage. It may lack anything resembling a view (eyeball to eyeball with the upper rooms of the cottage across the alley), but the interior more than compensates.
Stripped pine floorboards and bright white walls set the tone. The furnishings are neutral oatmeal, stone grey, and marine blues – the marine theme carries on in the inevitable framed displays of complicated knots and bits and bobs of furniture made from driftwood. The overall style is simple, functional and pleasingly Scandi-inspired – a re-imagining of the British seaside in the post-Ikea era. It is comfortable. All in all, the weekend is looking up.
Indoors, Libby nods to the 21st century, but outdoors Polperro clings stubbornly to its marketing myths, most of which seem to rely on some combination of pirates, piskies (sic) and pasties. Ye cutesy shoppes compete to out-twee each other; Sweet Pea, Going Cuckoo, The Good Life all make a grab for your attention and custom. But the Oscar for sickliness must go to The Moon and Sixpence (aka "Cornwall's Fairy Kingdom"), a one-stop shop for pink goods. It is possible that I am not of their target demographic – which seems to be five-year-old girls – but you have to wonder who comes to a fishing village intent on purchasing "sparkly sequinned kitten heel mules to turn every little girl into a princess!".
It's not just the faeries. Everything in Polperro feels small. Including the news. While the outside world is rocked by the turmoil of the eurozone, Cairo and Libya, the headlines in the Cornish Times scream "Ninety Year Old Escapes Blazing Flat In Polperro". Ever competitive, the rival Cornish Guardian counters with "Pensioner Recovers After Fire" and goes on to deliver a knockout "2 for 1 Pasty Offer". The parish noticeboard carries a warning from the local constable about a crime wave sweeping the village. Five burglaries occurred in Polperro last June. Locals are asked to report any "suspicious activity".
In this small town they have a model village. How tiny would that have to be, I wonder? I never find out because the attraction has been closed all year due to a fire. The other main attraction, the Heritage Museum of Fishing and Smuggling in the harbour, is also closed. A notice says as much on the black door. "Sorry" it says, "The museum is now closed until next" – and then, in bigger letters, it hits you – "Easter." The notice seems to revel in the audacity of the idea. This museum is not simply shut until tomorrow, or the weekend, or next month. The curator hasn't just popped out to lunch. It is defunct good and proper until ... Easter. Next year.
It is November and like many seaside towns out of season, Polperro feels a bit ghostly. But out of season has its compensations. The symphony of noise as night falls is best appreciated when the narrow streets are empty. The mewling of gulls echoes off the stone walls and cottages, and is punctuated by the sharp percussive clack of jackdaws settling down to roost. The incessant waves crash ever louder against the harbour wall. And out in the open water, bell buoys peal as they respond to the rolling swells of the Atlantic.
This is the time of year that locals can reclaim their town. In The Three Pilchards, a couple of Saturday-night birthday parties are shaping up. Hormonal teenagers are loudly comparing notes on birds they have "shagged". One lad much prefers if "the bird" goes home rather than stays the night, another doesn't mind if she sticks around but only if "she is fun". An even louder man further up the bar is spinning a tenuously medically themed yarn that includes a graphic description of sticking his finger up his anus. The word "anus" generates much hilarity and is repeated for effect.
These are the unnumbered cousins of Johnny "Rooster" Byron in Jez Butterworth's play Jerusalem – loud, earthy, unapologetic, English. A holidaying couple having dinner next to me are visibly flustered. The husband jabs the anus man on the arm and remonstrates "Do you mind? We're trying to eat here." "Nah", comes the reply, "you carry on then, mate."
The real threat to eating well in Polperro doesn't come from ribald conversation but from the food. I try three of the six pubs in the village – let's name and shame – the Blue Peter, the aforementioned Three Pilchards and the Crumplehorn Inn. They all seem oblivious to the food fetishism that has become a national obsession on telly. Their fare is from an antediluvian period before Jamie, Hugh, Gordon and Nigella. Here portions rule. Quantity scores over quality or creativity. Plates are piled high with generic dishes. Veg "curry", for instance, is a mountain of chopped veggies in a sweet-and-sour gloop, topped with a poppadom dripping with oil. It's the kind of "curry" they used to serve at school dinner. On this showing, Polperro has an opening for a Rick Stein or two.
When I ask the publican in the Blue Peter what activity he would recommend to tourists, he has little hesitation. "Have you got a decent pair of boots?" he replies, before suggesting the cliff-top walk towards Fowey. It is, he adds, one of the more challenging walks in Cornwall, but well worth the effort.
The South West Coast Path stretches for 630 miles from Dorset through to Cornwall and the six-and-a-half mile stretch between Polperro and Fowey must surely count among the most spectacular sections. The path begins behind the Blue Peter Inn and is marked "To The Cliffs". It climbs past the last house in the village to a viewpoint. From here Polperro's geographical advantage is evident: it is a protected inlet situated in a cleft of the surrounding cliffs, an obvious haven for the smugglers and privateers who once sailed this coast.
The path runs sometimes along the top of Chapel Cliff, and occasionally cuts into the side of the cliff walls. Vertigo sufferers are probably best advised to give this a miss. Today there is no one else to be seen and the only accompaniment to the crunch of my boots is the boiling and hissing of the white water as it crashes onto the rocks far below. The views out to sea and down the south-west coast change with the wind – the clouds and the light rearranging the monumental landscape from minute to minute. At Raphael Cliff, the stone has formed in vertical slices before tumbling like a house of cards into the sea. There is a small stone arch at Blackybale Point and a dark shingle beach at Broad Cove where the water has taken on the milky texture of jade.
The ocean is constantly harrying the base of the cliffs. There is something heroic in the way the rocks have evolved over the millennia into a series of buttresses supporting the land mass against the ravages of the waves. This is a natural fortress, a formidable rock defying not just everything the mighty Atlantic throws at it but the tide of history and time itself. This is England.
How to get there
Sankha Guha stayed at Libby's Cottage as a guest of Blue Chip Holidays (0844 704 4987; bluechipholidays.net/libbys). It is available to hire from £649 for seven nights and £462 for three nights. Blue Chip Holidays has more than 900 properties for hire across the West Country, Wales, and the Isle of Man.
*We have been asked to make clear that the vegetable curry mentioned in Sankha Guha’s review was not served at the Crumplehorn Inn, and that Polperro is not located in a mobile-phone black hole – the town receives coverage through a number of providers. We are happy to clarify the matter.