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Looe is an attractive town and fishing port at the mouth of a steep sided valley on the south coast of Cornwall. Buildings climb up the hillside above the river which divides the town into two - West Looe and East Looe. These were originally two completely separate towns with their own parish churches and were linked by a wooden bridge.

East Looe now includes the harbour, quayside, main shopping streets, sandy beach and Banjo pier. It always seems to have been the busier and more important settlement.


West Looe with the C14th Church of St Nicholas, was always quieter. Hotels and boarding houses were built along the water front and houses climb up the hillside.



Looe’s economy has traditionally been based on fishing. In middle C12th the Order of St Benedict built a chapel in Looe Island with a rudimentary lighthouse service using beacons. This was linked with another chapel on the hillside above West Looe. Both are now in ruins.

East Looe was granted a charter by Henry II at the end of the C12th to hold a weekly market and also a Michaelmas Fair. The town was sufficiently large and important to be able to send 20 ships to the siege of Calais in 1347. Many of the low lying areas were subjected to frequent flooding so fishermen’s houses were constructed with living quarters upstairs and a storage area on ground floor used for boats, tools and fishing tackle.

East Looe continued to thrive during the Middle Ages and Tudor period and was a busy port. Its wealth was based on ship building and fishing (particularly pilchards and crabs), and increasing trade with Newfoundland. Wool and textiles were another important export. Its layout particularly around the harbour area in East Looe retains the Tudor street plan with narrow streets. The Old Guildhall in East Looe is thought to date from 1540.

Looe’s fortunes were in decline in the early 1800s with the war against Napoleon when French ships blockaded the port preventing the fleet reaching their fishing grounds.The town was also badly damaged by heavy storms and flooding in 1817.

The building of the Liskeard and Looe Union Canal in 1828, linked Looe to Liskeard and opened up transport links within the area. Business boomed and East Looe became a major port and one of the largest in Cornwall, exporting local tin, arsenic and granite, as well as supporting thriving fishing and boatbuilding industries. The quayside dates from the mid C19th and was built to handle the increasing demands of the shipping trade. It was lined with warehouses and a retaining wall, designed to help protect the town flooding at high tide as well as providing a walkway along the sea front for the increasing number of visitors to the town.

The mouth of the river frequently became silted up preventing ships gaining access to the harbour. Initially a long groyne was constructed but didn’t solve the problem. In 1897, local engineer Joseph Thomas proposed a more substantial pier with a circular end - the Banjo Pier. He was so confident his design would work, he refused payment until it was built and proved effective. This proved a success and has since been used around the world to solve similar problems.

The medieval stone bridge over the river was replaced in 1853.


The canal rapidly became unable to meet the increasing demand for transport and a railway line from Liskeard was built along the towpath of the canal arriving in Looe in 1860. Not only could this satisfy all transport needs, it was quicker, cheaper and more efficient to move good by rail than by canal. The canal became redundant and was used less and less, eventually closing completely in 1910, although traces of the canal can still be seen alongside the railway.

The railway also brought increasing numbers of visitors to the town and it was named ’the playground of Plymouth’. Hotels and tourist facilities were built.

A lifeboat station opened on East Looe Beach in 1866. A new Town Hall and Guildhall was built in 1877. Around this time, recommendations were made that the two town merge under the control of a single district council.

Looe remains a working fishing port with a fleet of trawlers, potters and netters together with an expanding number of hand-line fishermen. The majority of the Looe fleet consists of day boats, meaning they go to sea and return each day. Fish are sold by auction at the fish market every day.




It is also a centre for shark fishing and other fishing trips as well as leisure moorings, but remains primarily a tourist town.


The old sardine factory in West Looe is now a Heritage Centre.


There are information boards around Looe with details of a heritage trail.


A walk around East Looe

Looe needs to be explored on foot. There is a large carpark at Millpool on the edge of town. A land train runs during the summer months from the car park to East and West Looe.

The car park is built on the mill pond of the Old Mill, a C17th tidal mill, which originally had four waterwheels. This had lock gates at the seaward end. The flow of incoming tide would open lock gates allowing the mill pond to fill with water. When tide turned, the force of water in the mill pool forced the lock gates closed. The mill was originally used for grinding corn for brewing. It was last used in the late 19th century for grinding bonemeal. It is now a gift shop.


There are good views up stream from the stone bridge across the river which separates West and East Looe.


With limited time, I only had chance to explore East Looe. It wss a dull and overcast afternoon and not good for photographs...

The War Memorial just across the bridge was unveiled in 1921 to commemorating the dead of the First World War. The names from the second World War are recorded in scrolls at the base. Unusually, there are more names from the Second World War.


Fore Street is the main shopping street with many small shops. The Guildhall and clock tower is on Fore Street overlooking the quayside. The ground floor was used as a drill hall with the court room above. It was used for meetings of the town council. The ground floor is now a retail outlet and the upper floor can be hired for weddings


Beyond the Guildhall, Fore street becomes a lot narrower and is lined with shops on bnoth sides.


This is the medieval heart of Looe with many small narrow alleyways.


Smugglers Cott on Market Street was built in 1420 using timbers salvaged from the Spanish Armada. It is one of the oldest buildings in Looe


Near it is the Old Guildhall Gaol and Museum. This dates from around 1450 and was the Town Hall and Magistrates Court for East Looe until 1878 when it was replaced by the New Guildhall. It was also the town goal and the small windows of the cells can still be seen down the side of the building. It opened as the town museum in the 1970s and has displays covering Looe’s history, especially fishing, boat building and smuggling. The cannon displayed outside was rescued from Looe Bay. It is thought to have come from a C17th Swedish warship. During the Napoleonic Wars it was one of the six cannons on the waterfront intended to scare off the French.



The area around the museum is full of very narrow streets not wide enough for a car. These are now lined with attractive well maintained houses.




St Mary’s Church near the Quayside was built as a chapel of ease for the parish Church of St Martin, built on the hillside high above the town. Only the C15th tower survives as it was used as a landmark by the Admiralty and Trinity Board. It was whitewashed and acted as day marker for shipping until WW1. The rest of the church was rebuilt in the C19th. It was declared redundant in 1980 and has been converted into sheltered housing.



Church House is opposite the church and dates from the C16th and was reputedly once a tavern. It is now luxurious self catering accommodation.


St Mary’s Church and the old town overlook East Looe beach with its expanse of sand protected by the Banjo Pier at one end and the fancifully named Mount Ararat at the other end. Beyond the pier is the mouth of the river and hotels and houses of West Looe



The old lifeboat station and watchtower overlooked the beach. This was built in 1866 after several lives were lost when local boatmen went to the add of a fishing vessel. Their boat capsized in breakets on their return to the shore.


The station closed in 1930 when the RNLI decided lifeboats from Fowey or Plymouth could cover the area. The station was reopened again in 1991 for the summer months.

A new lifeboat station was built and opened in 2002 on the quayside and now houses two inshore lifeboats. The first floor has an observation point as well as training room and offices.


I've been on the fence about Looe, but this article makes me want to stop by there. Lots of history here, which is always an attraction for me! Is West Looe worth a visit as well (if time permits)?

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