Head west on the A394 from Helston to Penzance and a left turn will bring you to Porthleven the most southerly port in mainland Britain and an excellent base for exploring South West Cornwall. A harbour full of yachts and fishing boats, narrow streets climbing the steep hillsides and spectacular views, Porthleven has long been that happy Cornish mix of fishing port and holiday resort. A happy mix of working village and holiday centre, Porthleven offers a variety of accommodation and you'll find restaurants, pubs, galleries and gift shops trading alongside fishmongers and chandlers.
The town was once a centre for boat building, its long harbour wall protecting the port from the winter south-westerlies which rage across Mount's Bay. Nowadays, you'll find a welcome in the harbourside cafés, restaurants and inns and enjoy time browsing among the gift shops - you might even like to buy some of the day's catch at the Quayside Fish Centre. Porthleven's name is thought to come from the old Cornish porth (harbour) and leven (level or smooth), probably because the harbour was once a flat marshland on the banks of a stream flowing into the sea at a small cove. The stream still flows through the valley and divides the village into the two parishes Sithney to the east and Breage to the west.
By the 14th century, a hamlet of fishermen's dwellings had established itself around the cove, separated from the sea by a bar of shingle where the boats were kept. This community continued to grow and by 1700 had been joined by farmworkers and miners.
Then in 1811, to meet the demand for coal and supplies for the nearby mines, together with the need for a safe refuge for the fishing fleet, the construction of the harbour began; the project was to take 14 years and the workforce included many prisoners from the Napoleonic wars. It was opened in August 1825 with a feast of roast beef and plum pudding for the whole village.
In 1855 the harbour was leased by Harvey and Co., of Hayle, who created a deeper inner basin which was protected by the massive timber baulk gates still in use today. Trade increased dramatically with imports of coal, limestone and timber, and exports of tin, copper and china clay. From the 1850's the Porthleven boatbuilding industry became a major employer. The large slip saw the launch of clippers, schooners and yachts destined for ports around the world. Two Porthleven-built trawlers still work from Brixham but the last boat was launched from here in the late 1970's.
Much of Porthleven's daily routine is still played out in the harbour, with houses and cottages cramming the hillsides for the best view. Boats still fish from here, the main catch being crab, lobster and crayfish.
A few yards from the harbour you can soak up the sun from the beach or take the South West Coast Path east to the wild Lizard Peninsula or west to the spectacular cliff-edge tin mines of Rinsey. Come in the summer and you'll catch Porthleven in its holiday clothes, with quayside concerts by the town band, gig racing and the festival of St. Peter's Tide.
As you stroll round the harbour, you'll be passing buildings which can tell a story or two of times past, when the quayside heaved with activity. As you turn into Breageside, the three storey building across to your right was built in 1889 as fish-curing cellars which turned thousands of hogsheads of pilchards for export. The Wreck and Rescue Centre started life in 1893 as a china clay store; up to 7000 tons of china clay from the Tregonning Hill quarries were kept here prior to export. As you walk a little further on you'll see a ruined turret-like building, once a lime-kiln, built in 1814 to produce lime for the construction of the harbour and the building boom which followed.
The two cannon either side of the harbour were once fired in anger at Napoleon's navy during the battle of Brest and come from the frigate HMS Anson, wrecked on Loe Bar in 1807 with the loss of 120 sailors.
Just round from the Ship Inn is the old lifeboat house, built in 1894. Porthleven had its own lifeboat service from 1863 to 1929, which ran 28 missions and saved 50 lives. The village retains strong links with the RNLI and each August holds a colourful Lifeboat Day. The Bickford-Smith Institute, with its imposing 70ft clock tower, was built in 1883 as a Literary Institute by William Bickford-Smith of Trevarno. The building featured in the national press in 1989, when pictures showed the tower engulfed by enormous waves.
A walk to the nearby market town of Helston takes you along Loe Bar, a huge shingle bank separating the sea - it is not safe to bathe here - from the tranquil waters of Loe Pool. Quite a surprise after your seaside stroll, the beautiful lakeside and woodland paths take you through the National Trust's Penrose Estate and along the Cober Valley to Helston.