Nothing inspires an interest in history more than true life stories of shipwrecks and smuggling contraband. In Cornwall it was a way of life for centuries. In fact many unscrupulous Cornishmen would deliberately shine false lights to mislead ships onto the rocks where they would then be plundered.
Wrecking was a major industry during the 19th century and to deter curious onlookers, wreckers spread frightening tales of ghosts, supernatural activity and even cannibals to frighten away unwanted visitors. All this goes to make the maritime museums and shipwreck centres in Cornwall wonderful places to revel in fascinating true tales!
The Shipwreck Treasure Museum is a great place to start your quest, particularly if you are staying in a holiday rental around St Austell. It has the largest collection of shipwreck treasures and artefacts in the UK with relics from over 150 shipwrecks. It has a fascinating Titanic collection, historic underwater diving equipment and tales of local maritime history dating back to 1715.
On a similar theme, the Polperro Heritage Museum of Smuggling and fishing brings to life the history of this delightful fishing community. It has a remarkably comprehensive collection of photographs and artifacts dating back to the 18th century all crammed into the tiny building on Polperro Harbour. If you do not know what a “Polperro knitfrock” is, this is the place to see one.
Boats called gaffers were used for catching pilchards which once existed in huge shoals off the Cornish coast and the Lady Beatrice is a typical example in the museum. True tales of smuggling contraband from Guernsey are clearly laid out and one of the most infamous tales involved a vessel named Lottery. The inscribed cutlass of one of the crewmen shot by the Revenue men is in the museum and his inscription can be seen at Talland Church where he is buried.
More traditional maritime attractions can be found at the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth which is one of the deepest natural harbours in the world. The museum promises “An Experience as Big as the Sea” and its landmark building beside the harbour has a lookout tower, a collection of historic and contemporary boats and 15 galleries with exhibitions, lectures and workshops on everything from lighthouses to polar exploration. It also overflows to the outside with boats moored alongside and a huge glass viewing window to see the marine life in the tidal harbour.
Another impressive attraction is the excellent Blue Reef Aquarium in Newquay. Situated in a purpose-built structure it has a gigantic ocean aquarium with a walk-through tunnel. It houses many species of marine creatures including sharks, seahorses, turtles, jellyfish, seahorses, rays and cuttlefish. It also has a successful breeding program.
Last but not least, the Cornish Seal Sanctuary has been delighting visitors for over 50 years. Set in the pretty Helford Estuary, it continues its main purpose which is to rescue, rehabilitate and release seals. It cares for around 40 pups each year as well as sea lions, otters, penguins and occasionally dolphins and turtles.
We crammed in just 5 of Cornwall's maritime attractions, but there are many more. Do you have a personal favourite from our selection? Which one, in your opinion, is a must-see for visitors?