Lying at the far end of Mount’s Bay just three miles or so from Penzance, Mousehole (pronounced Mouzel) has always been one of my favourite villages in Cornwall. The narrow streets and alleyways converge at the picturesque harbour that was once full of fishing boats, but now, in the summer at least, is full of tourists instead.
Come out of season at a time when southerly gales can do their worst, and you’ll see a totally different Mousehole. The harbour and tiny cottages are built out of local granite which is so characteristic of this part of Cornwall, and so necessary to keep out the elements. Mousehole is where the protection of Mounts Bay gives way to the rugged West Penwith peninsula, and for me, Mousehole in wintertime is the best time of all.
Where the name Mousehole derives from is unclear, but one of the theories is that it was the name given to a cave in a nearby cliff. Whether it was actually used by a family of mice may be debateable, but there’s not much doubt that it would have been used by smugglers. Of course, it’s always possible that Mickey and his friends were partial to a drop of Napoleon Brandy.
Back on the harbour is a shop also called the Mousehole, and it’s as a good a place as any to begin a walk around the village. Like many Cornish fishing villages, the narrow streets can be a bit of a maze, but if you follow this short trail, you’ll soon be able to get your bearings, and also maybe learn a bit about the place at the same time.
The harbour as it looks today was constructed in the 19th century, and apparently became so overcrowded with fishing boats that at times you could walk across to the other side of the harbour by just walking across the decks of the boats. Mackerel and Pilchard fishing was the main source of income, but it would have been a hive of activity all around the harbour with net drying, fish processing and boat building.
The natural course to take is to follow the road around the harbour past the War Memorial and The Ship Inn. Opposite The Ship is a building that used to be known as The Lobster Pot and was a well-respected hotel and restaurant until it closed up in the 1990s. Many celebrities have stayed here including Dylan Thomas who brought his new wife Caitlin to honeymoon here after their marriage in Penzance in 1937.
Continue along into Grenfell Street to the signpost that leads out of the village, but keep left and continue along Grenfell Street to Nigel Hallard’s studio.
I first met Nigel many years ago, and not only was he a fabulous artist, he was also a great bloke. He allowed me to take a few photos of him at work including the one below. I sent him copies of those I took and he asked me if I would take some for him. Naturally I was chuffed, especially as he painted what I enjoyed taking photographs of. I wasn’t so chuffed though when he explained to me that he wanted pictures of chickens not seascapes. I’m not sure how we got our wires crossed, but he was happy to pay me, and at least it gave us a both a laugh.
I realised that he, like many artists presumably, paint not just for themselves, but also what people will buy, which of course is not necessarily the same thing. The system must work because he even sold a painting to John Major who was Prime Minister at the time and gave it pride of place on a wall in 10 Downing Street.
I bumped into him a couple of years ago and had a chat, but I was sorry to hear that in May of last year (2020) he died, so it’s more than possible that his studio won’t be here now.
Just past the gallery, turn right into Keigwin Place and check out the 14th century building just up on the left with the granite stone portico called Keigwin.
It has often been said that long standing residents of Mousehole have a different complexion to other Cornish men and women – and a lot of that belief stems back to The Mousehole Raid of 1595.
The Mousehole Raid was part of the Anglo-Spanish War, and although the Spanish Armada had been defeated in 1588, there were still ongoing hostilities between England and Spain. Cornwall is the part of England nearest to Spain and was therefore the most vulnerable at the time. As the word ‘Raid’ suggests, this was an unexpected surprise attack by four Spanish Galleons with at least 400 men.
The Mousehole inhabitants had little choice but to flee as quickly as possible, but there were some who stayed behind – one of them being Jenkin Keigwin. He was killed defending his home, but the building survived, and is the oldest left standing in the village.
Before leaving Keigwin Place look for the plaque opposite Keigwin House marking the home of Dolly Pentreath, reputedly to be the last person to speak Cornish as her native tongue.
From Keigwin Place re-trace your steps back towards Grenfell Street and follow the path down to the harbour, or more precisely The Wharf. It’s the oldest surviving part of Mousehole and an ideal spot to sit and watch the local boatmen maintaining their craft. From here you can walk around to the Old Quay and look at the harbour from a different viewpoint.
Instead of describing a return journey I reckon it’s best for you to discover your own Mousehole. There are numerous alleyways with plenty of character but whichever ones you take you’re bound to find yourself back at the harbour at some point, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to pop into The Ship Inn. I have lots of fond memories of this place, and even though it’s changed a bit, it’s still a smashing place to finish up in.
I fell in love with The Ship the first time I set foot inside of it. The pub oozed character in a way that only a real Cornish fishing village pub can. The thick set granite stone walls could probably tell as many tales as the fishermen that came in here could. The local characters were friendly and for many years I kept in touch with some of them, but sadly I’ve lost touch with them now.
One of the local characters that I didn’t meet was a man who went by the name of Tom Bawcock. He is celebrated every year on the 23rd December when The Ship serves up Stargazey Pie.
Tom Bawcock appears to have been a 16th century local fisherman who came to Mousehole’s rescue after a period of prolonged bad weather. With fish being the main source of food, and no boats being able to leave the harbour, the village was facing starvation. As Christmas approached, Tom Bawcock braved the storms and took his boat out to sea, returning with enough fish to feed the whole village. The story goes on to say that the whole catch was baked into a pie with the heads of the fish gazing out of the pastry to prove that there was fish inside. I’ve never witnessed the celebration, and although I like eating fish, when it’s staring at me I don’t.
If eating a pie with fish heads isn’t your thing, it doesn’t mean to say that it’s not worth coming to Mousehole at Christmastime because the decorations are worth coming for alone. The whole village is festooned with lights but it’s the harbour that takes centre stage. Below are a few pictures from 2013.
The official switch-on is usually held around the middle of December with the lights coming on each evening until after the New Year. They’re usually on from 5-11pm. The exception is on 19th Dec when the lights are dimmed between 8-9pm in memory of the Penlee Lifeboat Disaster. The tragedy occurred in 1981 and will be the subject of my next Mousehole post. One of those who died on that fateful night was the landlord of The Ship Inn, Charles Greenhaugh.
POSTED – OCTOBER 2021