The meandering streets of Kingsand and Cawsand were all but deserted when we went wandering there one winter’s afternoon. The twinned villages fringe adjoining bays, clinging to the hillside above the Tamar Estuary in south east Cornwall. The river marks the county boundary – Devon, and the port city of Plymouth to the north, Cornwall to the south.
The communities of these rugged shores run together so it’s hard to know when you have left one and entered the other. They have always looked to the sea for a living, although these days this is more about providing seaside holidays for outsiders. The place had a determinedly deserted air during our December visit. Many of the houses are now second homes; unoccupied out of season.
Once, though, it would have been a teeming place – a thriving fishing community from the medieval period, and the centre of the pilchard trade from the early 16th century. You can still see the remains of the fish cellars, or ‘pilchard palaces’ that were built along the shore north of Kingsand. These were for the storage and processing of fish, and there’s a surviving example, the red sandstone building, on the far right of the next photo.
Smuggling was the other big business – its heyday running through the 1700s and into the 1800s. The place was a smuggler’s haven in fact – with some fifty vessels dedicated to the nefarious trade in contraband liquor.
And then there were the pirates. In 1604 one especially notorious rogue, a Kent man called John Ward, upped the stakes of his earlier career as a privateer, and decided to join forces with the Barbary pirates of North Africa. He stole a French merchant ship off the Scilly Isles and headed for Cawsand, even then a well known centre for Cornish smuggling. Mooring in the bay there, Ward went ashore and set about recruiting local smugglers to join his enterprise as a Barbary pirate.
The Barbary corsairs were slavers, mostly North Africans from Algiers, Tripoli and Tunis, but there were Dutch and Englishmen operating with them too. They terrorised Britain’s south west shores for 300 years, snatching people from their homes. By 1626 there around 60 Barbary men-of-war preying on communities of the Devon and Cornish coasts, and attacks were almost a daily event. A parliamentary committee of 1645 established that there were at least 3,000 English men, women and children held captive in Algiers. It was only in 1816 that combined British and Dutch forces ended their power, at which time four thousand Christian slaves were said to have been liberated.
As for Ward, he and his happy band of recruits wormed their way in with governor of Tunis, he who had made that city rich by providing a haven for pirates and taking a cut of their loot in goods and captives. Ward captured many ships, and directed his own pirate fleet. Then built himself a palace with his ill gotten gains and lived a life of drinking, gaming and swearing, to name the least of the vices he apparently indulged in. One wonders what happened to his Cawsand recruits. Did they ever go home? Ward himself gave up piracy, got married and took to raising chickens. He died of plague in Tunis 1622.
And now, after that little diversion, some more turny-twisty byways and shorelines from Kingsand and Cawsand, accompanied always by the sea’s ebb and flow on the nearby rocks, and the cries of gulls:
Thursday’s Special: winding. Please visit Paula to see her astonishing interpretation of this week’s theme.