The origins of a fishing village...
The idyllic village of Port Isaac has a recorded history that dates back to at least the fourteenth century, when it was first officially registered as a fishing settlement. Evidence suggests that there has been human occupation in this part of Cornwall going as far back as the Iron Age, and today Port Isaac remains one of the most isolated villages in Britain. The name ‘Isaac’ is said to derive from the word ‘Yzack’, which translates from the Cornish language as ‘Corn’, however, there are suggestions the name is connected to the little-known Cornish saint ‘Issey’.
Port Isaac’s natural harbour provides one of the safest refuges of any port along Cornwall’s rugged and often windswept North Atlantic Coast. The breakwater walls here were first developed in the 16th century, during the reign of King Henry VIII, and then later re-built in the 1920’s and 30’s. Works have caused the beach to drop considerably, but keep the port secluded and protected, allowing the village fishermen to safely use the beach to work on. However, they must plan their trawls carefully as they are only able to get their boats in and out of harbour when the tide is high.
Throughout history, the fishing industry has played a crucial role in the life and economy of Port Isaac. The local speciality was Pilchard fishing; with large shoals bringing great wealth to local fisherman for many years. These fish were often covered in salt and then crushed to reap their valuable oils; often more valuable than the dried fish, which was mostly exported into Europe. However, by the 1920’s the Pilchard stock had declined, forcing fishermen to catch Herring, which then also failed in the 1940’s. Now, Crab and Lobster are the main catch of the day, as well as Mackerel and other flat fish.
But Port Isaac has not solely relied on fishing throughout its history, with mining, quarrying and coasting important, as well as trade boats arriving with their cargoes of coal, timber and stone. Mining industries are intrinsically linked with Cornwall’s industrial past, and certainly significant loads of locally sourced metals past through Port Isaac’s harbour, before these industries declined due to competition in other parts of the world. Developments in the railway system, and then road transport, eventually put paid to Port Isaac’s role in many of these traditional industries.
Changes on the horizon...
Throughout Port Isaac there are numerous historic and interesting properties. The market square, known locally in Cornwall as ‘The Platt’, is the centre of the old village and all its activity. Most of the village centre was developed in the 18th and 19th centuries, and there are 90 protected buildings located along the winding lanes. Probably one of the villages’ most famous features is Temple Bar, aptly nick-named ‘Squeezy-belly-alley’. Set between two cottages, this was listed as the narrowest thoroughfare in the world at less than 50 centimetres wide. Other notable buildings include The Old School, The Manor House; where Methodist preacher John Wesley may have stayed on some of his 14 visits to the village, and Port Isaac’s only pub; the Golden Lion.
Port Isaac’s location, beautiful scenery and great history made it the ideal setting when crews were searching for a filming location for a new TV series, Poldark. Filmed in the 1970’s, Poldark is based on the novels of Winston Graham and tells the story of local man Ross Poldark who has returned home to Cornwall after fighting in the American Revolutionary War. Subsequently, the village of Port Isaac has also featured in other TV series, and on the big screen in films such as Oscar & Lucinda and Saving Grace, with the latter providing the source of inspiration for the production that Port Isaac is now most famously known for: Doc Martin.
In recent times the nature of Port Isaac has changed significantly, especially since the early 19th century; a time when the village was described as ‘secluded from the rest of the world’. But today, Port Isaac remains a haven in one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in Britain; set in a part of Cornwall that is officially designated as an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’. There is no town with 10 miles, and the village has retained much of its charm from its origin as a small fishing settlement.