This remote seaside hamlet, tucked away from modern life, has not always been so tranquil. Within living memory, the valley regularly echoed to the sounds of blasting and rock-crushing from the cliff quarries, and little more than a century ago, the beach was busy with seine fishing boats launching or bringing home the catch.
Costal trading ketches, drawn up on the shingle at low tide, would unload their cargoes of coal, salt, grain or manure into waiting wagons. The village reeked of fish oil wafting from the pilchard cellars.
Porthallow was first recorded in 967 as Porthalaw. Today it is goes by Porthalow in Cornish, and is known locally as Pralla.
By the late 13th century it was the chief fishing village in the area. The Cistercian monks at Beaulieu Abbey built a slipway and fish cellars here, and port levies show that Porthallow paid only slightly less rent that Fowey.
The village grew during the Middle Ages and by the mid-16th century had a water mill to grind corn brought into the cove by boat. It worked up until 1946, and the mill house still stands.
A Methodist chapel was built in 1838 and, 60 years later, a village school. Both were later enlarged to cater for an increasing population – more than 60 pupils regularly attended, and in 1942 these included war-time evacuees. The school closed in 1960 and the chapel followed in 1977. Both are now private homes.
Surprisingly the village had no mains water until the mid-20th century, and mains sewers were only installed as recently as 2000, thanks to political pressure and EU funding.
In 1937 one of the two pilchard cellars was converted into the Porthallow Institute and Reading Room, and has now been rebuilt as the village hall. Both the hall and the beach are held in trust by the Porthallow Village Association.
Porthallow grew steadily as a pilchard fishery for hundreds of years, and by the early 19th century, four or five seine boats operated from the cove. The pilchards were brought ashore and carried to two cellars in the village, where they were salted, bulked up and left out for several weeks while the blood and oil drained out. The cured fish were then washed and laid into barrels, or hogsheads, for export to the continent.
The pilchard shoals were often huge. News reports in August 1932 tell of 1,400 hogshead landed at Porthallow in two days – more than 4,000,000 fish. In the early 20th century, the shoals visited the Cornish coast less often and, by the 1920s, pilchard fishing with seine nets was a thing of the past.
Today pilchards are caught with ring-nets and sold as Cornish sardines. The Newlyn fleet catches 4,000 tonnes each season. The main catches in Falmouth Bay are lobster, crab and squid, as well as red mullet, haddock, monkfish and sole.
On the seabed off the cove lies the wreck of the SS Volnay. In December 1917, this British merchant steamship, carrying supplies from Montreal, struck a German submarine mine near the Manacles, a set of treacherous rocks. She sank without loss of life but, to the glee of locals, her cargo – perfume, tinned meat, fruit, coffee and cigarettes, as well as shell ammunition – washed ashore, burying the beach in luxury goods five feet deep.
Bay of Panama
Further north is the wreck of the four-masted Bay of Panama. One of the largest steel sailing ships of its day, it was en route from Calcutta to Dundee in 1891 with a cargo of jute, when it ran onto the rocks at Nare Point in a severe blizzard and ferocious winter seas. Half of the 40 people aboard lost their lives, some freezing to death as they clung to the ship’s rigging.
There were small quarries just east of Porthallow in the 19th century, but it wasn’t until 1896 that large-scale quarrying of gabbro and schist, mostly for roadstone, began taking place here and to the south of Porthoustock.
Gabbro is a coarse-grained igneous rock, the most abundant in the deep oceanic crust, while schist is a coarse-grained metamorphic rock, with layers of different minerals.
The stone was crushed and graded and carried by tramway to the quay at Porthoustock to be loaded onto ships. The industry provided much-needed employment for local men and in about 1910, terraced houses for quarryworkers were built at Porthkerris.
Geologists travel from far and wide to stand on the beach at Porthallow, which is within a Site of Special Scientific Interest. On the southern side of the beach you can see the Lizard Boundary Fault, which stretches west from Porthallow across the peninsula to Polurrian Cove.
The fault line marks the place where geological activity 280 million years ago gradually thrust the sea bed up and on to the land. The result of this obduction - where a raised section of the sea floor ends up on land - is known as an ophiolite. Ophiolites are very important as they give an insight into the composition of oceanic crust, which is normally inaccessible below the bottom of the ocean. The Lizard area represents one of the best example of an ophiolite complex in the UK.
The Five Pilchards Inn stands in a unique position at the mid point of the South West Coast Path National Trail. This inspiring coastal walk stretches for 630 miles between Minehead in Somerset, along the coast of Devon and Cornwall, to Poole in Dorset. As England’s longest waymarked footpath, the trails captures heritage, wildlife, geology and extraordinary scenery along the way, and is one of the best walks in the world.
The halfway point is marked by a granite sculpture on the beach at Porthallow, on which is engraved a poem called “Fading Voices”, made up of words and phrases representing the community of Porthallow, or Pralla as it’s known locally. The other side is engraved with the names of local flora and fauna. The village has a shingle beach to the sea, with far-reaching views to St Anthony’s Lighthouse, St Mawes, Falmouth, and the Roseland Peninsula. Dogs are welcome on the beach all year round.
Established in 1830, the Inn sadly shut its doors in early 2019, but was acquired later that year by Pralla Limited, dedicated to renovating, refurbishing and bringing this focal point of the Porthallow community back to life. The Five Pilchards has seen just 16 landlords in 190 years, the latest being David and Vanessa Leatherdale, who have lovingly overseen the regeneration of this hidden gem. Future visitors can play their part in the next chapter of The Five Pilchards Inn.