Explore Cornwall's forgotten corner with a trip to the Looes

Exploring the harbour of Looe in Cornwall

The Banjo Pier and beach in Looe - Credit: David Chapman

Split down the middle by a harbour topped by striking banjo pier that once served as a traffic control system, the towns of East and West Looe are well worth a visit.

Looe is known to have been a busy fishing and trading port from at least the early Medieval period but is most famous for its unusually shaped pier.

In West Looe, St Nicholas’ Church is thought to have been built in the 13th Century and has had a varied history. Over the years this building has served as a guildhall, school and even a prison complete with a scolding cage. Being set immediately beside the harbour it is known as the fisherman’s church but it is dedicated to St Nicholas, who we all know of as Santa Claus!  

The clock in the tower was taken down about a century ago and though it was supposed to be repaired it was actually sold as scrap. A new one was installed for the millennium celebrations. The harbours of East and West Looe were originally administered separately but not always harmoniously.  

In the first half of the 19th century conflicts between the two sides prevented a successful strategy being developed for the harbour as a whole and in 1846 an Admiralty surveyor from London was sent to the harbour to begin a process of restructuring. Land was purchased, repairs undertaken and a board of harbour commissioners was established to oversee the management of both sides of Looe.

Exploring the harbour town of Looe in Cornwall

Looking down onto Looe with the lifeboat house bottom right and bridge in the distance - Credit: David Chapman

The old bridge, which was first constructed of wood in 1411, burned down and was replaced by a stone bridge, complete with a chapel in the middle, in 1436.  As part of the restructuring of the harbour this bridge was taken down and a new one constructed a little further upstream in 1853.  

The early 17th century saw a lot of disruption to normal life for the harbour communities of south western England with Barbary Pirates making frequent raids to capture people and take them into slavery in North Africa. Off the coast of Looe fishermen were frequently taken from their boats and the most audacious raid, in June 1625, saw a band of pirates attack the town. The locals had been warned of a possible invasion and many had fled to the countryside but it is said that eighty local people were captured and taken away in chains. Much of the town was set alight. In the 18th and 19th centuries the area was a hotbed for smuggling activity.

Exploring the harbour of Looe in Cornwall

A photograph of Looe taken after sunset when the lights contrast dramatically with the blue tones of dusk - Credit: David Chapman

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The harbour was probably too obvious a place for smugglers to trade openly so they used Looe Island as a base and brought the goods ashore under cover of darkness.  One particular brother and sister team were named as Fyn and Black Joan, she was particularly notorious and is said to have killed a man whose ghost still haunts the island today.

In 1827 a canal from Looe to Liskeard was begun. This allowed lime and sea sand to be carried inland for farming but also granite, arsenic and tin to be carried to the harbour for export. This supplemented the income that was made from fishing, mostly for pilchards and crabs, and a substantial boat-building industry. The canal was surpassed by the building of a railway line from Liskeard to Looe in 1860 when track was laid all the way along the quayside at East Looe as far as the beach to enable boats to be loaded and unloaded with ease.

The first lifeboat in town came as a response to the loss of life caused when local fishermen went to the assistance of a vessel in a rough sea. The first lifeboat was 32 feet long and had ten oars, it was named The Oxfordshire because families in Oxfordshire donated a significant amount of money for its purchase and the lifeboat house opened in 1866. The present station opened in 2002.

One of the most distinctive aspects of Looe Harbour is the Banjo Pier at its entrance. In the early days the mouth of the river would repeatedly become choked up by silt. The problem occurring where the river, which carries fine silt, meets the sea. This would prevent ships being able to gain access to the harbour.

The earliest solution was a long groyne constructed where the pier is today.  This had some impact but didn’t prevent the problem entirely so in 1897 local engineer Joseph Thomas proposed a new idea. He was certain that a shorter, more substantial pier with a circular end would solve the problem. He was so convinced that he offered to fund the project if it failed so long as the harbour board were to pay for it if it succeeded.  It did succeed and Thomas was paid. The idea of a ‘Banjo Pier’ has since been used around the world to solve similar problems.

Exploring the harbour town of Looe in Cornwall

Looking along the Banjo Pier to Looe - Credit: David Chapman

Today, Looe is still a bustling fishing harbour and it still has its branch line to Liskeard but the trains are more valuable for bringing in tourists than they are for exporting fish and granite! Tourism is massive in the area with the harbour, beautiful coastline, beach and surrounding shops, being the big draw.

 In September a major festival called Looe Live takes place, this is a celebration of music and arts attracting tourists at a time of year when the number of visitors is starting to drop off a little. The best place to go to learn about the history of the harbour and the town is the Looe Museum.  This is housed in a 15th century building and features displays on fishing, boat-building and smuggling amongst others.

Photography - Looe harbour is set in a steep-sided valley with many footpaths and alleys leading onto higher ground and many of these give an interesting perspective of the harbour and town.  Up close the harbour is colourful with plenty of boats and attractive buildings.  High tide is best for photography and it is great if the sea is calm allowing for reflections.  I also love dusk photos of this harbour, the colourful lights along the streets, harbour and shop fronts reflecting beautifully off the blue water at this time of day.

Exploring the harbour of Looe in Cornwall

The bronze sculpture of Nelson, the one-eyed celebrity seal - Credit: David Chapman

Wildlife - On Pennyland Rocks down by the water in West Looe is a sculpture of a seal. This bronze was created by local sculptor, Suzie Marsh, as a tribute to Nelson the Seal who lived in the area for 25 years. He commuted between Looe Island where he relaxed with his mates and Looe Harbour where he came to be fed by local fishermen and tourists. He was instantly recognisable not least because he had only one eye, when he died in 2003 he was sorely missed by everyone. Looe is a great area for wildlife, particularly of the marine type.

Offshore we have a Voluntary Marine Conservation Area at the heart of which is the Cornwall Wildlife Trust reserve of Looe Island complete with its nesting seabirds. At Hannafore Point we have an area which is great for rock-pooling. To celebrate and promote the wonderful marine life of the area we have the Looe Marine Conservation Group which organises events locally throughout the year.

Exploring the harbour town of Looe in Cornwall

Grey seals can be seen around Looe and its island - Credit: © David Chapman

To see more of David’s photography visit his website at davidchapman.org.uk or look out for his book Photographing Cornwall available in all local bookshops.