Polridmouth Cove is situated a few miles west of Fowey. Pronounced “Pridmuth”, it consists of a small dog-friendly beach, several footpaths, and a small number of buildings. It is usually quiet even in the height of summer.
Because the slope of the beach is quite shallow, much of it is hidden at high tide, when the beach is split into two by a rocky outcrop. At low tide, however, an expanse of fine sand is revealed, as well as a series of fine rock pools to the west of the beach. The beach is entirely free of amenities, which may deter some visitors but will attract others.
An unusual feature of Polridmouth Cove is the series of ornamental lakes behind the beach. These were created in the late 1920s, when a dam was built behind the beach.
During the Second World War, the lakes formed a decoy site for nearby Fowey harbour. Decoy sites were a diverse group of structures, which were built all over the country under the direction of Colonel John Turner. Borrowing heavily from techniques developed at Shepperton film studios, Colonel Turner supervised the creation of more than 1100 imitation airfields, ports, and towns, each a few miles from the real thing. The aim was to fool enemy bombers into attacking the dummy site, thus protecting the genuine site.
At Polridmouth, dams were built around the lakes, and lighting set up, to imitate, as far as possible, Fowey harbour. The decoy site was considered especially important in 1944, when 2000 US Navy personnel were stationed in Fowey, in preparation for D-day.
Although it is difficult to assess the value of the decoy programme, it has been estimated that 5% of German bombs were diverted by decoys, saving more than 2500 lives. At least one bomb is known to have been dropped near Polridmouth.
The story of the bombing decoys is explained in a fascinating and well-researched book by Colin Dobinson:
More well-known than the decoy site is the literary connection of Polridmouth with Daphne du Maurier, and the novel Rebecca. Behind the ornamental lake, the wooded valley leads up to Menabilly, a Georgian mansion which was home to Du Maurier from 1943 to 1969.
Sadly, the house continues to be privately owned and there is no public access. Because of the woodland, very little of the house can be seen from any public road or footpath.
Daphne Du Maurier visited the house, trespassing, in the 1920s, and it is widely recognised as the inspiration for Manderley, the house in Rebecca. The famous opening line of the book:
Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again
was written in Alexandria, Egypt, where her husband was stationed, and is sometimes thought of as expressing the desire of Du Maurier to return to Cornwall. Rebecca was the novel which catapulted Du Maurier to fame, and five years later she was able to use the proceeds from the novel to buy the lease to Menabilly. The house also featured in her 1946 novel, The King’s General.
The cottage by the beach also plays an important part in the novel Rebecca. It was built on the site of a watermill which once supplied the Menabilly estate with grain.
The quietness of Polridmouth Cove can probably be explained by the fact that no public road reaches it. To get to the beach requires a 10-15 minutes walk from any direction.
There are four ways to walk to Polridmouth Cove:
- via the coast path from Polkerris in the west, a walk of about 2½ miles
- via the coast path from Readymoney Cove, on the outskirts of Fowey to the east, a walk of about 1½ miles (or 2½ miles from the centre of Fowey)
- from the car park at Coombe Farm, about ¾ mile
- from the car park at Menabilly Barton, also about ¾ mile
All the paths are quite rough, and not suitable for wheelchairs.
Walks around Polridmouth
There are many excellent footpaths around Polridmouth. The two car parks at Coombe Farm and Menabilly Barton can each be the base for circular walks:
From Menabilly Barton car park, head west across two fields to the cliff top, then follow the coast path south around Gribben Head to Polridmouth. From Polridmouth, a footpath (before the lakes are reached) goes uphill and back to the car-park. Total distance is about 3 miles.
It was near Menabilly Barton that Du Maurier saw a flock of seagulls circling and diving around a man ploughing a field, an incident which inspired her story The Birds, later developed into a successful film by Alred Hitchcock. The walk also visits the tower on Gribben Head. This 26-metre stone tower was erected in 1832 to enable sailors to distinguish Gribben Head from other nearby headlands. It is open to visitors during the summer.
For the second circular walk, starting from the National Trust car park at Coombe Farm, continue along the road and follow the track downhill past the farm. It is signposted to Polridmouth Cove. Follow the coast path east from Polridmouth. This goes past Coombe Haven, and St Catherine’s Castle, built by Henry VIII in 1536 to defend the town of Fowey.
Just behind Readymoney Cove is another of Daphne Du Maurier’s properties, where she lived for a couple of years before moving into Menabilly. Follow the road round to the left before Readymoney Cottage, then take the footpath on the left to return to the car park. Total distance is about 3 miles.
If you are interested in learning more about Daphne du Maurier and her connection with Cornwall, I can thoroughly recommend the biography by Margaret Forster: