It is pleasantly full in the Smuggler’s Bar of the Jamaica Inn in Cornwall: the small tables are crowded with people happily eating and chatting as the scent of chips and beer fills the air.
This is the legendary coaching house immortalized by Daphne du Maurier in the novel of the same name. This eighteenth-century inn, with its grey-slate facade, is the biggest attraction on Bodmin Moor, a granite wilderness at the gateway to Cornwall. No wonder many tourists are lured in on their way to Cornwall, Britain’s “subtropical” south, with its reputation for smuggling.
In Polperro, I wander through the small streets, curious as to what I might encounter around each bend. Old smugglers’ cottages are haphazardly scattered throughout the village. These days, the delightful whitewashed houses, with their tiny black-trimmed windows and pots of cheerful-looking geraniums, are rented out to tourists. One of the most beautiful villages in Cornwall, two smuggling museums highlight its darker past.
The small harbor opens onto the cliffs, where the raging sea lashes at the sleepy port. Cornwall’s staggering 500-kilometre coastline is dominated by sandy beaches and jagged cliffs. Its population were once hugely dependent on the sea and, while fishing was the most important source of income, smuggling became a welcome addition to everyday profits. A handsome reward lay in wait for the eighteenth-century inhabitant who managed to circumvent the taxes on luxury goods from France such as cognac, tea, perfume, silk and salt.
And so, the secluded county of Cornwall – with inland bays penetrating deep into the countryside – became a veritable smuggler’s paradise. An estimated 100,000 locals, including women and children, were involved in the trade. Some of the more brazen families were even said to have used light signals to run ships ashore, hoping to plunder the wreckage. These days, only tourists are attracted to the county, but the wealth they bring is even more welcome.
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