Writer: Nick Carson
Jane Stevenson

To contraband cove

Saint Ildierna: provenance long-lost,
Yet seven centuries preserved
In weathered granite and grey-green moss.

Your namesake church
Guards the way to contraband cove;
Brook babbling secrets of smugglers’ merch.

Down fern-fringed path,
Roaring waves ravage jagged headlands
Kicking up spray with salty wrath.

Trundling iron-clad wheels
Have scarred this rocky ramp
With forbidden tales of illicit deals.

Here, the Cornish whisper: Lansalwys.

Taking the opportunity for a much-needed weekend break with the family, I journeyed from Bristol to the southern coast of Cornwall to experience the hidden gem of Lansallos first-hand.

Initially the trip seemed ill-fated: on Friday night we arrived at our cottage, a few minutes’ drive from Lansallos village, to be greeted with torrential rain. Worse still, it soon transpired that several of us would be tag-teaming the effects of a nasty stomach bug while we were there.

Nevertheless, on the Saturday afternoon we mustered enough courage to explore nearby Polperro, Lansallos’ better-known neighbour. The large village ticks many classic Cornish tourism boxes: fishing, fudge, and foodie delights like traditional pastries and decadent cream teas (jam on first, of course). Plus, tales of smuggling past, immortalised in a harbourside museum.

On Sunday morning, feeling decidedly better, we pulled up to the National Trust car park in Lansallos, strapped on walking boots, and installed the baby in his backpack ready to explore.

My research had yielded relatively little for us to go on, despite the tiny hamlet’s long-established heritage. There has been a settlement here since the 10th century, and the Domesday Book records it as the manor of “Lansalhas”. Back in 1086, we know it hosted three serfs, two villeins and two smallholders. And there are still just a handful of houses to this day.

Lansallos’ focal point is unmistakable: the beautiful Grade I listed St Ildierna’s Church. The name Lansallos derives from an ancient monasterial link to St Salwys (in Cornish it is Lansalwys, or “Chapel of Salwys”), but almost nothing is known of St Ildierna, to whom the church was dedicated in 1321.

After exploring the beautifully weathered building and its overgrown gravestones, we began our expedition down the narrow track to Lansallos Cove. Fringed with rich green moss, ferns and short stretches of dry-stone wall, the secluded path then opens out, giving us a glimpse of the headlands flanking the sheltered half-moon cove. Fine spray fills the air as the waves crash against the rocks. 

For its final stretch, the path becomes a narrow, steep-sided cleft through the rock. At the edges, parallel grooves have been worn into the slate by many years of iron-clad cartwheels. Legitimate users of the path will have included those gathering seaweed for fertiliser, but they also very likely included smugglers taking advantage of the bay’s sheltered location far from prying eyes.

Rugged, dramatic, and vividly evocative of a bygone age of hauling contraband from small boats onto the sand under cover of darkness, Lansallos Cove requires a deviation from the well-trodden tourist trail. But it’s well worth the short hike to experience it – even with two young kids and some still-delicate stomachs in tow.

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