Newlyn has an unusual makeup?a village with two characters that co-exist harmoniously, it is at once the largest fishing port in England and Wales, and the centre of one of the most important artistic schools to have emerged on our shores. Perched on the most westerly English coast, a few miles in from Land’s End, the village could have almost become blurred with Penzance, as the latter has sprawled along the coastline, were it not for Newlyn’s stubbornly singular identity.
One of the few left of its breed, Newlyn is a proper working port where the air is sour with the tang of tar, fish and diesel. All sorts of fishing vessels can be seen in the bustling harbour. Some are rusty black monsters with buff trawl booms; others are long liners, as well as crabbers and small open boats used for hand-lining for mackerel in Mount’s Bay. The scene is not postcard-perfect and that, combined with the industriousness of its people, has meant that visitors to this corner of the land have often overlooked the village.
This might be about to come to an end. At a time when its proud fishing industry is straining under the weight of increased fuel prices and EU bureaucracy, local forum leaders have taken some bold steps to buttress and protect Newlyn’s future prosperity. One of these initiatives includes the development of a local quarry into a leisure marina?called Port Penlee?with shops, hotels, restaurants and all the paraphernalia that the yachting community might require. Geographically, Newlyn is perfect as a stop-off point for all sea-going craft, be they yachts or passenger liners, and this scheme might be the key to securing Newlyn a spot on the glamour maps of the lucrative yachting world. This, combined with a redevelopment of the harbour to introduce all the necessary 21st-century equipment and bring it in line with European ports, is seen to be the key to the long term future of the community.
The hope is, of course, that neither of these developments will interfere with the core soul of the village. Because Newlyn appeals to people who are looking for the atmosphere of a living, breathing fishing port, rather than the bejewelled, rarefied Portofino or Côte d’Azur.Artists, for example, came here in droves in the late 19th century to look for real fishermen and fishwives, as much as the Atlantic light, which, on a good day, glows with a peculiar intensity.
‘It’s very like crystal,’ says Fiona Gray, director of Badcocks Art Gallery in Newlyn. ‘When the sun sets on the rocks in the evenings, it turns the granite almost pink.’
The Newlyn painters were about as close as Britain came to Impressionism and were responsible for starting a plein-air movement, following the lead from France, where many of them trained. Their simple, large depictions, often of fishermen going about their everyday lives, coupled with their square brush technique, initially ruffled the feathers of the conservative Royal Academy, until Stanhope Forbes’s A fish sale on a Cornish Beach attracted all-round praise.
This past has bequeathed Newlyn with more than its fair share of art galleries, and the interaction between artists and fishermen continues to this day. ‘Badcocks is sandwiched between two fishermen’s pubs on the harbour,’ continues Miss Gray. ‘In the evenings after we’ve closed, the gallery window tends to attract groups of amateur art critics and the fishermen have set up their own artists’ club.’
Locals are extraordinarily proud of the ‘realness’ of their village. Whereas nearby Mousehole has a considerably more attractive harbour which draws a great many more visitors, born-and-bred Newlyners feel its tourism-heavy prosperity has forced Mousehole to surrender authenticity for tweeness. And Newlyn is anything but twee. Take the food?gastronomy here means a meal of organic cuisine at the Strand Café or a proper Cornish pasty from Aunty May’s Pasty Co. ‘The village is very rough and ready,’ says Elizabeth Stevenson, director of the town’s largest fishing merchants W. S. Stevenson & Son. ‘There are no gastropubs, although some of our fish is bought for local restaurants in Penzance and elsewhere.
The fish is auctioned at the market six mornings a week but, however hearty the locals might sound, it is apparently perfectly acceptable to waive the option of rising at dawn to buy the freshest stock?most wait until the shops open on the harbour front.
Once a year, an auction takes place at a more sociable hour during the Fish Festival, which is normally held on the August bank holiday. Attractions at the festival include fishermens’ male-voice choirs, local bands, boat trips, cookery displays and the chance to board the trawlers and meet the crews.
Perhaps another reason for Newlyn’s energy and character is because it has not made a mark as a second-home market. ‘There are people who come and buy holiday homes but nothing like as many as in Mousehole and St Ives, where 80% or 90% of properties sold are holiday properties,’ explains Philip Wilkins, a local estate agent. ‘Here, the shops are open year-round because it’s a proper working port and most of the houses are occupied 365 days of the year. St Ives, in contrast, is dead in the winter.’
With the redevelopment plans of both the new marina at Port Penlee and the harbour at Newlyn, the village will no longer be limited to the trails of culture tourists and property prices are expected to rise as a result. But if all goes as the locals want it, you will still be able to soak up the genuine fishing-village ambience which so inspired Forbes and his cohorts.