The Poltesco Valley and Carleon Cove

Poltesco, on The Lizard’s east coast in Cornwall, is a peaceful valley with a wealth of history to explore. Discover the remains of medieval mills, 17th-century pilchard cellars and a 19th-century bustling serpentine factory, as you follow the footpath down to the cove and witness how this once industrial landscape has been softened and reclaimed by nature.

Productive pilchards

Fish were once the order of the day. Pilchards by the thousand, which were caught as they shoaled close to shore in the late summer. Carleon Cove was the site of fish cellars in the 1600s, which were based around a square courtyard, as can still be seen at neighbouring Cadgwith.  Pilchards offered the community ‘meat, money and light, all in one night’, and almost everyone was involved in the catch and its processing.  Rowing boats, directed by a ‘huer’ on the cliff top above, would enclose vast shoals of fish in seine nets, and then the fish would be scooped out with baskets. A boat was only full when struggling to stay afloat! Much of the catch was salted and pressed in barrels called hogsheads for export, and the oil was valuable too, used for lighting lamps.
The later serpentine factory removed any trace of the fish cellars, but the circular dry stone tower, dating to the 1700s, which housed the capstan for hauling fishing boats up the beach, still stands in an imposing position behind the cove.

Pilchards to serpentine

Sometime in the 1800s, fishing ceased to be important at Poltesco, and the valley was utilised for an entirely new industry, exploiting  the Lizard’s unusual geology.  Serpentine is a rare rock type nationally, but common on the Lizard, and when cut and polished  the stone rivals marble in its beauty. Its dark colour and red and green veins struck a chord with Victorian fashion, and indeed the Queen herself ordered items from a Penzance factory for her house on the Isle of Wight and serpentine pieces were shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851. A serpentine factory was established at Carleon Cove in the 1850s, initially using a large waterwheel to harness the power of the river, and later a steam engine. Great chunks of the chimney form part of the ruins visible today behind the beach, alongside the walls of the forge, workshops and the wheel pit. The factory produced items ranging from small trinkets, to vases, mantelpieces, fonts and shopfronts, and the Lizard Serpentine Company even had a showroom on the Strand. The initials LSC can still be seen on the warehouse building, although the factory later traded as The Poltesco Marble Company.
The remains of the serpentine works at Poltesco
Poltesco Valley's historical serpentine works

The end of the industrial era

The factory faltered in the early 1890s, due to high transportation costs, large slabs of stone becoming harder to source, and cheaper marble imports. Big serpentine objects had an unfortunate tendency to crack, and the stone eroded badly in polluted urban air. When the factory closed many of the workers started cottage industries shaping trinkets for visitors, a tradition that survives to this day in nearby Lizard village.

The National Trust at Poltesco

We've cared for the valley since the 1970s, managing the cliffs for wildlife (you might see our Shetland ponies out and about), and safeguarding the heritage. As well as the fishing ruins and serpentine factory, the valley has a rich history of farming and milling, and once had many orchards. 
Poltesco is one of the few wooded places within an otherwise windswept stretch of coastline, and the valley offers welcome shelter for wildlife. The woods are mainly elm, but none get very big due to Dutch Elm Disease, plus there are some oak, ash and sycamore. Otters frequent the river, and listen out for buzzards mewing overhead.  The woodland path is a favourite haunt of butterflies in summer, including if you are lucky, the magnificent silver washed fritillary. 
There is a small carpark in the old yard of Poltesco Farm, and further information on heritage and wildlife is available in the adjacent barn (free display).
Nature takes over at Poltesco
Nature takes over at Poltesco