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Shipwrecks and Famous Faces

Shipwreck and Heritage Centre, Charlestown

Evenings At The Museum

With just a few short weeks left of the holiday season our local visitor centres are finding different ways of attracting tourists while adhering to social distancing. Top priority for everyone in these difficult times is ensuring visitors are as safe as possible while enjoying what Cornwall has to offer.

Richard Larn first opened the doors to Charlestown’s Shipwreck Museum in 1976 with exhibits from his own collection of diving discoveries; Richard officially retired in 1996 handing over to John Kneale who in turn sold to Eden’s founder Tim Smit in 2016. Tim and his team set about redesigning and modernising the layout of the Museum, enhancing the exhibits and creating a fresh and vibrant centre that appeals to all ages. Richard Larn remains a close friend of the Museum and Richard’s photo is proudly displayed in the Museum today.

The Museum is now offering special guided tours for limited numbers on Thursday evenings and I joined the very first tour this week; with numbers limited to 12 participants this inaugural tour sold out very quickly.

Included in the ticket price of £22.50 is a pre-tour supper on the outside deck of the new Rebellion restaurant; there is a good choice of ‘stacks’ and I plumped for the Kale and Hemp with coleslaw. I can honestly say it was the best veggie burger I have eaten, I usually find them to be dry and tasteless, but this had a moist and flavour filled centre with a perfect outer crunch. What a start to the evening, melt in the mouth deliciousness washed down with a refreshing Pimms.

Fed, watered and wearing face masks, we met our friendly guide at the Museum entrance to begin our tour. Daniel is the perfect tour host; knowledgeable about the Museum and its vast array of artefacts, he also shares historical and lesser known anecdotes based around shipwrecks and sailors.

Part of the attraction of the evening tours is wandering through the underground tunnels and following the old clay truck rails out to the harbour; sadly the tunnels are currently closed at other times due to social distancing requirements. The evening tours are worth joining as these tunnels are an amazing piece of our china clay and nautical history.

The Museum boasts over 8000 finds from about 150 ship wrecks, from White Star liners to oil tankers the unrelenting sea has claimed ships and lives for centuries, while our fascination and curiosity with the losses never wanes. What is it about doomed ships like the Titanic, the Mary Rose, the Lucitania and the Torrey Canyon that compels us to investigate and romanticise their tragic stories?

The sea is a cruel mistress, but countless brave explorers set sail for the unknown, wealthy passengers queued up for maiden voyages of ‘unsinkable’ ships, fishermen today continue to risk their lives eking out a living while volunteer life boat crews stay on high alert for their next shout. Growing up in Fowey I vividly recall lying in bed at night, listening to storms raging and hearing the ominous sound of three rockets going up to call the lifeboat out. I hated those rockets, knowing that brave local men and boys would be rushing to the quay with no thought for themselves, hoping they would be saving lives and not recovering bodies that night. Those long, scary sleepless nights instilled me with a terrible fear of the sea, I haven’t ventured in or on it for years, but I am also weirdly fascinated by the stories and the relics that have been recovered from the murky depths.

Charlestown has found fame as a top film and television location, legions of Poldark fans flock to the ancient harbour for a glimpse of something they recognise from the telly. Over the years the beautiful Cornish village has welcomed a host of household names including Bill Nighy, Kate Winslet, Tom Hardy, Tim Burton, Helena Bonham Carter and Edie Falco. The Shipwreck Museum has devoted a room to stars who have trod the cobblestones with wall to wall photos of familiar faces, a joyous homage catching those faces in off guard, relaxed moments or hard at work perfecting a scene. Included in this hall of fame is the man more usually found behind the camera, local photographer and reporter Paul Williams. Paul has the unique talent of capturing his subjects at just the right moment and the Museum curators have used his work to produce a superb montage of the history of filming in Charlestown.

Compare and contrast the photos of the glamorous and the famous with early sepia photos of the real Cornish men and women who lived a hard and often short existence working on and around the sea. No matter how good a film or series is the harsh reality of the lives of our Cornish ancestors is usually glossed over a la Hollywood.

If you have a fascination with the sea, her treasures and her history of luring the pioneers, the brave and the innocent to a watery grave, you will enjoy Charlestown’s Shipwreck Museum. Book early for the upcoming Thursday evening supper tours, with limited tickets available you will miss out if you leave it until dreckly. To book your evening supper tour visit –

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Sheila Vanloo

August 2020

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