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Penzance could be regarded as the first or last seaside town in mainland Britain depending on your point of view. Situated in the far western tip of Cornwall this is literally the end of the line. Several miles to the west is Land’s End after which the next stop is the East coast of America. Far from being a backward outpost of civilisation though, Penzance is in fact a fairly cosmopolitan town with a long established artistic and bohemian community.
I grew up and currently live in Penzance. I can't think of many other places I would live. The town offers just enough variety without having the issues of bigger towns. It is also located within throwing distance of some of the most beautiful and evocative scenery anywhere.
The History of Penzance
Penzance takes its name from the Cornish ‘Pen Sans’ meaning holy head. This has been taken to refer to both the headland by the harbour upon which a chapel was first built and the head of Saint John the Baptist which is one of the town’s symbols. The town appears to have really become established around a thousand years ago and has grown around the harbour ever since.
Leading from the harbour straight into Penzance’s town centre is the historic Chapel Street. An eclectic mix of 17th, 18th and 19th century architecture Chapel Street is home to two churches, innumerable pubs, some good restaurants and strangest of all the Egyptian House. Built in1830s and styled on a museum in London the building originally housed the mineral collection of a local geologist. Of all the pubs it is the Turk’s Head which is the oldest but the Admiral Benbow which is the best known. The Benbow was the home to Robert Louis Stevenson's character Jim Hawkins from the book Treasure Island. Other historic references include the house of Maria Branwell, mother of the Bronte sisters, the house of the Pears soap inventor and the Union Hotel where admiral Horatio Nelson’s death was announced following the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
The high street – Market Jew Street
Penzance’s main strip is the oddly named Market Jew Street. Whilst it is a street and there was once a market here there is no connection with anything Jewish. The street is dominated by the cupola crested Market house with its neoclassical pillars at the rear. Directly behind is the statue of Sir Humphry Davy, the town’s most famous son.
For a town of 20,000 inhabitants the shopping in Penzance could best be described as adequate. Most of the high street chains have a presence here and there are a few half decent pasty shops but beyond this don’t expect too much. The nearby, pedestrianised Causewayhead has a slightly more interesting collection of shops, most notably Mounts Bay Trading.
The Pirates of Penzance
To some extent Penzance's fame can be attributed to Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera the Pirates of Penzance. The story is set in Victorian times and concerns a young man, Frederick, who falls in with a bunch of kind hearted pirates. In reality the opera's links with the town are fairly tenuous and you will find very little in way of reference to it.
In modern day Penzance the only Pirates are the local rugby team, who are now named the Cornish Pirates. The team is based at their Mennaye Field club and play in the preofessional UK national Championship league.
In the summer of 2011 it was seen fit to attempt to take the World record title of 'the most pirates ever gathered in one place'. Taking place on Penzance's promenade the attempt was successful smashing the previous record with a total of nearly 9,000 pirates!
Things to see and do in Penzance
Penzance’s greatest asset is its location on the coast. It has an attractive working harbour and the only Promenade in Cornwall. However, to some extent neither of these features are exploited to their true potential. There are a couple of cafes on near the harbour and wharf, but perhaps the best placed is the outdoor café alongside Penzance’s Jubilee Pool. The pool is a fine example of a 1920s art deco lido. Located on the original ‘holy headland’ at the eastern end of the Promenade this is truly one of Penzance’s greatest assets.
The promenade stretches for around a mile towards the fishing port of Newlyn. In the summer it makes for a pleasant stroll or even a swim of one of the ledges at high tide. In the winter, on a force 8 southerly gale, it’s a different story. Waves crash into the granite wall, exploding up to 60 feet in the air.
There are two galleries of significance in Penzance for the culturally initiated. The first, Penlee House gallery and museum is located in the town’s park. It features regular exhibitions of the paintings of the Newlyn artists such as Norman Garstin and Stanhope Forbes who pioneered the areas artistic heritage. The town museum is hosted upstairs with a permanent collection detailing life in Penzance since Stone Age times.
The other gallery is the relatively new Exchange, which features contemporary art of local, national and international standing.
The town’s other unique draw are the sub-tropical Morrab Gardens situated between the town and Promenade. These feature a range of plants not found in the open elsewhere in the UK. Collections of palms, tree ferns, Japanese Bitter Orange, giant rhubarb and even banana plants abound.
In late June Penzance is host to the festival of Golawan, an ancient festival that has recently been revived. It features two weeks of events around midsummer culminating in Mazey Day where the streets of Penzance are thronged with parades, street stalls and drunkards! There are also a few nods to some much older traditions such as Penglaz, the Penzance 'Obby 'Oss who makes an appearance the night of Mazey Eve.
Mousehle Christmas lights
West Cornwall Moors
Mine engine house
Located at the end of the narrow Cornish peninsula Penzance is within striking distance of not one but 3 coasts with Land's End less than 10 miles away. To the west by the fishing port of Newlyn which is the biggest in England. Despite this it still retains a great deal of its rough and ready charm along with a couple of art galleries. A little further along the coast is the archetypal Cornish fishing village of Mousehole, which is actually pronounced as 'Mow-Zul'. Besides its huddle of fisherman's cottages around the little harbour the village is probably best known for its Christmas lights which feature old favourites such as the whale in the harbour and an enormous robin on the adjacent hillside.
To the east is the historic town of Marazion, home to St Michael's Mount and a great family beach. Well worth a visit. North and west of Penzance are the West Cornwall moors which stretch to St Just in the west and across to St Ives in the north. These moors are littered with the remnants of Cornwall's ancient and more recent industrial heritage. The Iconic engine houses of the tin mines that once powered Cornwall's role in the industrial revolution lie silent and empty like monuments. Often these sites are juxtaposed with monuments from ancient times such as Mulfra, Chun and Lanyon Quoits. These ancient sites complement the desolate beauty of the moors perfectly and feel as if they have always been there.
Penzance is also the gateway to the Scilly Isles with both the ferry and helicopter leaving from the town. The boat takes around 2 and a half hours and the helicopter half an hour to cover the 30 miles to the islands. Both boat and helicopter are a great way to get a unique view of the Penwith coastline.
Penzance guest houses
Where to stay in Penzance
As one of the longest established seaside resorts in Cornwall there is no shortage of accommodation in Penzance. A plethora of grand guest houses and hotels overlook the seafront with the Queen's Hotel the grandest of them all. For B&Bs there is a row of fine regency houses set back from the promenade at Regents Terrace, many of which offer rooms.
The other option is to stay outside of Penzance in one of the surrounding fishing villages such as Newlyn or Mousehole where there is no shortage of cottages to rent. On the other hand you could choose a more dramatic location on the moors in locations such as Morvah.