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History of Boscastle

A view over a quiet Boscastle harbour on a sunny day
Boscastle harbour | © National Trust Images/Joe Cornish

For most of the 19th century, Boscastle was an important commercial port. Discover more about the nearby Valency Valley, which inspired the Victorian writer, Thomas Hardy, and the village’s recovery from an unexpected flood.

A commercial port

One hundred years ago, Boscastle was the only place where a boat could pull into harbour along 40 miles of the north coast of Cornwall. Boscastle was then a busy place with a commercial port for most of the 19th century.

All heavy goods had to be carried by sea, on ketches and schooners that traded through the small port. Many vessels brought supplies in from South Wales and Bristol but even cargoes of timber direct from Canada came into Boscastle.

Hard working harbour

Hauling goods up Boscastle's steep hills needed strong teams of horses. Many were kept at the Palace Stables which is now the local youth hostel. The blacksmith's forge and lime kiln can still be seen and act as a reminder of the work carried out here. The harbour trade started to decline when the railway was built through nearby Camelford in 1893.

Flood alleviation

Flash floods in 2004 caused by exceptional rainfall devastated the village and destroyed homes and businesses. The force of the water washed 100 cars out to sea, flattened around 1,000 trees and deposited 20 years’ worth of river sediment in the village in a day.

The damage to the village and surrounding countryside was repaired in a sympathetic way to keep the character of the village. There is now a flood alleviation scheme in place, as well as natural systems which help reduce the impact of any heavy rainfall.

A path cutting through dense overgrowth on either side
A path by Valency River | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

Valency Valley

The woodland in the Valency Valley used to be coppiced which is a form of woodland management. At intervals between 5 and 15 years the trees would be cut back to ground-level. The wood was sold for a variety of purposes including fencing, firewood, charcoal and bark for tanning leather.

Thomas Hardy

The Valency Valley was visited by the Victorian English novelist and poet, Thomas Hardy, when he came to restore St Juliot's church (not National Trust) in 1870. It was here that he met Emma who became his first wife. Emma Gifford was living at the rectory with her sister who was the rector's wife.

As well as working on the church, Hardy explored the North Cornwall coast with Emma. He wrote many poems and stories inspired by the local scenery and people. It's hard to identify the people or the places in the stories and poems as Hardy disguised them. Other visits followed and the couple were married in London during September 1874.

Hardy wrote several poems in Emma’s memory following her death in 1912. He returned to St Juliot the following spring and designed a memorial tablet to Emma. You can find it on the north wall of the church, as carved by a stonemason in Boscastle.


The white lookout tower located on the summit of the headland was a useful landmark to sailors looking for the entrance to the harbour. The tower is shown on old maps as having varied names including Pleasure House, Prospect House and observatory.

The nearby site of an Iron Age cliff castle is evidence that Willapark was used as a defensive site and tells us that humans have occupied the area since 200BC.

A view over the fields towards the Forrabury Stitches at Boscastle
The Forrabury Stitches at Boscastle | © National Trust Images/Rhodri Davies

Forrabury Stitches

Sitting inland from Willapark is the high ground of Forrabury Stitches. The Stitches are evidence of a medieval way of farming. This series of fields is divided into 52 stitchmeal plots of farmland. A method of crop rotation that dates back to Celtic times still exists and is one of the best three surviving examples of stitches still being farmed in England today.

Crackington Haven

The small village of Crackington Haven is situated further east along the coast. It began life as a small port importing limestone and coal for the lime kiln and exporting slate from small, local quarries. Traces of a donkey path can still be seen going down to the beach. The donkeys were used to carry sand, stone and slate back up the steep hill for upward transport by cart.

A view into Boscastle harbour and village

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