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History of Mousehole

The Town With Beauty That's More Than Skin deep...

Mousehole History

The village developed around
the floating fleet and it appears in record books dating to 1266 as an important fishing port.

  • It's pronounced Mow-zul.
  • The mood you catch Mousehole's harbour in will depend on the season.
  • The legendary lights commemorate a local folktale.
Located on the western edge of Mounts Bay about three miles west of Penzance, this is a place that the guidebooks call the quintessential British harbour village and that Dylan Thomas crowned 'the loveliest village in England'.

"Cornish village with stunning good looks and more seeks discerning visitors for fun, frolics and a first-class holiday." If Mousehole was on a dating website it goes without saying that you'd love the photo, but don't be fooled into thinking she is vacuous beneath her exquisite exterior. Picture-postcard Mousehole is not just about good looks – there's a spicy history to keep you entertained and interested too.

The first and most important piece of information for me to bestow upon you is make sure you get her name right.

It's pronounced Mow-zul. Never, ever refer to her using the name of a rodent's home you might find lurking on your skirting board. Some say she got her name from the large cave at her western end, which for years was a smuggler's hideout, others that it derives from the Cornish word Moeshayle, meaning 'at the mouth of the river of young women.' My advice is to pick your favourite – we don't know the answer and Mousehole herself is likely to remain coy about this particular origin story.

Now you're on first-name terms it's likely your first encounter will be with the harbour. The village developed around the floating fleet and it appears in record books dating back to 1266 as an important fishing port.

The mood you catch Mousehole's harbour in will depend on the season. In spring you can often see seals gathered on St Clement's Isle just off the coast and once home to an ancient hermit (Mousehole's ancient name was Porth Enys, or, 'the port of the island' after this islet). In summer there's the chance to relax on the sandy beach as the aquamarine sea recedes into Mounts Bay. In autumn take a walk around the harbour walls where part of the South Quay dates from 1390 and is possibly the oldest pier in Cornwall. Then winter sees Mousehole put on her Christmas glad rags in the shape of her famous (and I mean FAMOUS) Christmas lights, whilst offering you a slice of Star Gazy pie.

Confused yet? Let me explain. The legendary lights commemorate a local folktale. One Christmas, the village was starving so a man called Tom Bawcock set sail in his fishing boat with a group of villagers and his cat Mowzer. The story goes that the cat sang the storm to sleep, allowing the men to catch seven types of fish. The sky soon darkened and the storm returned before they reached the shore, but the villagers guided the intrepid crew back to Mousehole, each holding a lantern to light the fishermen's safe passage home. Tom Bawcock's eve is celebrated every 23rd December when a seven fish Star Gazy pie is baked. The story is beautifully told in Antonia Barber's illustrated book The Mousehole Cat by Walker Books and if you're looking for a memento of your visit, or a gift for a friend, I would highly recommend a copy.

Star Gazy pie consists of potatoes, eggs and a pastry crust as well as the fish, which are placed with their heads looking out of the crust, gazing at the stars. Try one at the Ship Inn and whilst you're there remember to prop up the bar in the corner where Dylan Thomas and his wife Caitlin would often enjoy a tipple. Thomas spent his honeymoon in Mousehole in 1938 and returned many times in his life. There is speculation that, despite his Welsh origins, Dylan based the village of Llareggub in his masterpiece Under Milk Wood on this coastal Cornish delight. I would speculate that the name of the play's main character, Captain Cat, might well be a witty clue, but in any case try reading the name of the fictional town backwards for a moment of titillation.

It's difficult not to fall in love with Mousehole at first sight, but the more you get to know her, the deeper you sink.

Another famous inn in the history of the village is the Keigwin Arms, which has now been turned into a private residence, but still bears a plaque outside commemorating the night when Mousehole was burnt to the ground and the inn was the sole surviving building. Squire Jenkyn Keigwin was killed on his doorstep when a band of Spaniards raided the village on 23rd July 1595. Headed by Carlos de Amesquita, the force of 200 men then moved up the coast and raided Newlyn and Penzance. It's said the attack was in retaliation for 1495, when Mousehole sailors were the first to spot the infamous Spanish Armada approaching English shores and issued the warning to Sir Francis Drake in Plymouth. The Armada was later defeated by Queen Elizabeth I's navy, with Drake at its head, in 1588.

The Keigwin Arms can be found on Keigwin Place at the end of Grenfell Street (it's the building with two pillars holding a section of it up and a black fence). It featured in the TV series Poldark and also claims a place in history as the inn where the woman generally recognised as the last fluent speaker of the Cornish language used to enjoy a pint and a pipe. A colourful character, Dorothy 'Dolly' Pentreath was legendary for cursing in a fierce stream of Cornish when she got angry. One story tells of her chasing a press gang come to take Cornish men to the navy back onto their boat and away from the village! Dolly died in 1777 at the age of 87, she is buried in the church at nearby Paul where a monument marks her final resting place.

It's difficult not to fall in love with Mousehole at first sight, but the more you get to know her, the deeper you sink. Beyond the harbour and the history you'll find a maze of winding streets that's easy to get blissfully lost in. You'll find authentic artists' studios and galleries, exotic banana and fig trees made possible by the mild climate and a local community that is lively and welcoming. Make a date with Mousehole – you won't regret it.