Looe has a reputation as a quaint old fishing town, picture postcard, sleepy in winter, bustling in the summer. All true, to some degree, but itís an easy description. What is it about Looe that attracts visitors year after year to stay for a week, a fortnight, then in many cases the rest of their lives?
As youíll see from the piece below by local fisherman and author Paul Greenwood, Looe is a town of great tradition but itís also in a state of constant change. And maybe thatís why Looe is a place people quickly fall in love with. Itís a historic small town without the small-town attitude. Itís welcoming, outward-looking and has a real energy about it, whatever the season. Thereís always something going on...
Paul Greenwood, fisherman and author.
For centuries, Looe was a fishing and merchant port, poor but hard-working, the pace of life spiced up now and then by piracy and smuggling, shipwreck and war. There were good times and bad, but mainly it was just bare living to be earned from week to week and year to year. The sailors took their ships to sea on both coastal and ocean trading ventures as the seasons and weather dictated. The hardy fishermen worked the channel for pilchards, the Isles of Scillly and Ireland for mackerel, as far north as the Shetlands and down into the North Sea for herring. It was hoist sail and follow the shoals Ė or starve. While in the boatyards beside the river, shipwrights laboured with saw and adze, maul and plane, building and refitting the brigs and schooners, ketches, cutters and luggers that the town earned its living with, as in those days all vessels were built of wood and all were powered by the wind.
The wives of these men ran the homes that were in the warren of cottages known as the back streets, bringing up the children, cooking and washing, buying the food and paying the rent and praying that their husbands were safe. Although at sea in those days nobody was ever really safe, just maybe not in too much danger.
Then change came. First the railway, which took trade off the coastal barges, but brought in a new revenue with the first trickle of a novel phenomenon: tourists. Then came steam-powered ships built of iron and steel too big to trade from Looe. They quickly ousted the wooden wind powered ships and Looe lost its merchant fleet.
And what of the fishing fleet? Fishing has always been a story of boom and bust, a cycle that has endured for a thousand years, but now it is very difficult to say just what might happen. Today, the go-ahead skippers of the port have invested in modern steel trawlers too big to work from Looe. Plymouth is now their base. They leave behind in Looe an ever-decreasing fleet as the older skippers in their smaller boats approach retirement, and few young men are attracted to take up the uncertain life of the modern commercial fisherman. But Iíve seen all this before. With fishing you never know what is around the corner and despite the obstructions and limits imposed on the industry by Europe and the government, itís not dead yet
In the 1990s hundreds of years of tradition came to an end as the last yards that built the wooden boats closed down. The redundant warehouses that once stored the inward and outbound cargoes of the merchant fleet have been converted into shops and flats. And the railway that supplied the town with all its goods and tourists is now reduced to a couple of carriages and a tiny station.
The old Looe that endured for centuries has gone. But what of the town today?
Well, men still take their boats to sea, bringing back catches to be sold at the market on the quay, fish merchants stay busy in their packing sheds and offices dispatching lorry loads of seafood all over the UK and Europe, so the core of the town still functions and long may it do so. (Indeed Rick Stein heralds the Looe fish market as one of the UKís very best.) In truth, though, few people nowadays look to the sea for their bread.
The previous generations have bequeathed us a beautiful old town built around its harbour, meaning that the town can earn a living by just being what it is. (That little railway line I lamented before is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful branch line trips in the UK and is justifiably a big pull for visitors.) The tourism that began with a trickle of the curious (read Wilkie Collinsí Rambles Beyond Railways, 1858) has developed into its main industry. Fishermenís cottages, many of which were condemned (with hindsight, it now seems ludicrously) as uninhabitable in the 60s and 70s, are now beautifully restored with all mod cons and are much sought after as holiday accommodation. There are high class restaurants and cafes, gift shops, art galleries and of course, fine old pubs serving good food and ale just as they have for centuries unbroken.
A family day out on Looeís big sandy beach need only cost the picnic that you take, while a few hours on the tide crabbing at the harbour side is great fun for everyone. There are boat trips around the bay, landings on Looe Island and excursions to Fowey and Polperro, while glass-bottom boats take you out to view the wonders of the deep up close. If you fancy a bit of fishing, there are two-hour mackerel trips, half-day reef fishing and for the more serious-minded, a full day out wreck fishing for conger, ling and pollock. For those with real ambition, thereís shark angling, for which Looe is nationally famous.
An evening stroll along the quay when the trawlers are landing the dayís catch is always interesting, and if a six-in-the-morning start to your day doesnít fill you with dread, you can watch that same catch being sold at auction in the market.
And that is my town, as it was, and as it now is. Thereíve been many changes over the last hundred years and doubtless there will be many more in the next hundred. But with good stewardship through the generations Looe will, I believe, remain a lovely place to live. Whatever happens, you should always be able to buy a Woods rum in The Olde Salutation Inn.
© Paul Greenwood, 2011.
Buy Paulís authentic accounts of a Cornish fishermanís life in the 1960s and 70s Once Aboard a Lugger & More Tales from a Lugger at www.polperropress.co.uk
Making Waves - Looeís 1st Music Festival, 23-25 Sept
Put it in your diary. Looeís first annual music festival in late September this year is creating a bit of buzz now. With three stages booked up and more than 50 acts confirmed over the 3 days, it looks like this is going to be a big event and thereís already quite a bit of excitement about it in town. As well as a very strong local line up including Pentorr, Black Friday, Out of the Boxes, Oscar Rodriguez (OD) & Penndrumm, thereíll be appearances from Adrian Edmonsonís & Roy Wood.
See full line up and buy tickets at looemusic.co.uk