The Curious and Eccentric Architecture of Penzance: A 30-Minute Walking Tour

The Curious and Eccentric Architecture of Penzance: A 30-Minute Walking Tour

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One of the biggest themes of modern times is the bland uniformity of our streetscapes.

Happily, someone forgot to send the memo to Penzance.

For several centuries, it’s been ploughing its own course with a delightful eccentricity. The result is a joyous confusion of styles and creativity that survives to this day.

On even a short walk, you’ll take in buildings inspired by Art Deco, neoclassicism, pirate-chic and, er… an Egyptian sarcophagus.

If our town were a rock star, it would be David Bowie between 1969 and 1983, living every avatar simultaneously. And it’s an eclectic and inspiring mix reflecting the bohemian and creative vibe that’s at the heart of Penzance today.

Join us on a 30-minute tour of architecture guaranteed to make you smile.

Jubilee Pool

Photo Mike Newman

Start your tour at the famous pool, at the eastern end of the Promenade.

One of the most curvaceous and audacious slithers of architecture in Cornwall, Jubilee Pool never fails to make the heart skip a beat. Situated at Battery Rocks, this Art Deco, Art Noveau or Cubist-inspired lido (no one can agree exactly) was opened in 1935 as part of the Silver Jubilee celebrations for George V.

The Grade-II listed pool is one of only five surviving seawater lidos in the UK.

Apparently, it was influenced by the shape of a seagull in flight but, in truth, that’s hard to spot and it has a more abstract kind of beauty.

At the time of building it was wildly controversial and referred to as ‘the biggest white elephant Penzance has ever seen’; many councillors saw it as a less important priority than the need to improve the town’s water supply.

But, oh, what a gorgeous white elephant.

The Dolphin Tavern

Walk east towards Penzance docks and you’ll reach The Dolphin Tavern.

Welcome to the most piratey part of Penzance. This harbour and dock district still has an air of salty adventure. In fact, The Dolphin Tavern was a bit too salty for its own good until the 19th century, when the massive sea wall nearby was built to protect it from the savage Atlantic waves.

This stately granite building is one of the oldest pubs and buildings in Penzance. These days, tourists and locals watch the world go by from the seats outside. Step inside, however, and you can almost hear an ancient drunken shanty echoing from the walls.

As well as sailors’ shenanigans, The Dolphin was used as a base by famous Elizabethan naval commander Sir John Hawkins, who recruited here for his Cornish fleet against the Armada. Some say Sir Walter Raleigh smoked his first pipe of tobacco inside the pub, too, but this apocryphal story goes up in smoke on closer investigation.

The famously cruel Judge Jefferies is said to have used the Dolphin’s dining room as a courthouse and its cellar as a jail. Here he gave ‘last orders’ of the most chilling kind to rebels from the Duke of Monmouth’s uprising against James II in 1685.

The Branwell House

Walk up the narrow road past The Dock Inn. Turn right and you enter historic Chapel Street. The Branwell House is on your left.

Why have one architectural style when you can have 173? Chapel Street is a hearty cry against homogeneity, and a mission statement for architectural anarchy. And yet our first stop here is a simple, calm and rather lovely double-fronted brick house. Two reasons for stopping here.

Firstly, Cornish folk – more accustomed to rugged granite – get a little excited by ornate brick builds. We see so few of them in these parts. This one is built in the Flemish Bond fashion, which was a popular style of bricklaying from the eighteenth century.

Secondly, the house was the home of Maria Branwell, the mother of Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell Bronte. Maria was the daughter of a prominent Penzance family and left for Yorkshire in 1812, when she was married. You’ll find a small discrete plaque on the building which is, incidentally, a private residence, so no Kate Bush recitals outside, please.

The Admiral Benbow

Keep walking up the hill for a minute or two. On your right, at a crossroads, you’ll spy the iconic Admiral Benbow.

Loosen your tie a little. After the prim brick townhouse of the Brontes, we come to the bawdy and gaudy Admiral Benbow. Billed as the oldest drinking house in Penzance, it’s been around since the seventeenth century as both an illegal and above-board drinker’s paradise.

The exterior is quite something, with its tobacco-yellow window frames and life-sized sharpshooter on the roof. Stepping inside, however, is like walking into the shared dreamscape of Johnny Depp and Shane MacGowan. Decorated with wreckage and arrrr-tefacts from 400 years of maritime history, its decks, sterns, figureheads and canons plunge you into a Treasure Island movie set.

Talking of which, some say Robert Louis Stevenson stepped in here in 1880 and used the pub as inspiration for his world-famous adventure story. Whether that’s a whole lot of yo-ho-hokum or a bona fide truth, we don’t know for sure, but the pub’s nautical and smuggling credentials are 100% verifiable. In the eighteenth century, it was the haunt of the notorious Benbow Brandy Men smuggling gang and tunnels to a nearby waterfront warehouse were discovered in 2008.

Fact: you haven’t really visited Penzance unless you’ve tottered about the Benbow’s nautical paraphernalia over a drink or three.

Regent’s Square

Take a detour down Abbey Street directly opposite the Admiral Benbow, bearing left until you reach Regent’s Square.

Just a drunkard’s stumble from the architectural anarchy of Chapel Street, you’ll find the most perfect, orderly expression of nineteenth-century middle-class living.

Regent’s Square is a gorgeous colony of colourful stuccoed houses with columned porches and scripted pilasters.

It was designed to exacting specifications. Number 17, which belonged to the first leaseholder, was built according to a contract that demanded a ‘Roman cement’ stucco façade, a scantle slate roof and iron railings bordering the garden.

All of the other buildings in this settlement of 21 houses followed a similarly fastidious and utterly beautiful style. Collectively, they amount to a lovely piece of post-Regency/ early Victorian architecture.

The Turk’s Head

Turn on your heels and head back to Chapel Street. Head up the street and the Turk’s Head is on your right.

In 1595, the morning mists cleared over Mount’s Bay to reveal four imposing Spanish galleons. Horrified townspeople of Mousehole, Paul, Newlyn and Penzance endured a devastating raid. In Penzance, the troops marched up Chapel Street and all the way to Causewayhead, burning buildings as they went.

We interject this story to point out that not much of Chapel Street’s architecture is known to have survived that brutal day. But one pub that claims a very early ancestry is the Turk’s Head. While razed to the ground like so much else in 1595, some suggest a pub has been here since the 1200s – and that it got its name from Turks invading the town around the same time.

Whichever way you look at it, this is a very old and traditional Chapel Street pub, with a low-beamed interior, nooks and crannies for a clandestine pint and an air of ancient goings-on. And if some elements of its past are lost to history, others are intriguingly apparent: like the Admiral Benbow, the Turk’s Head boasts its own underground smugglers’ tunnel which begins from the pub’s courtyard.

The Union Hotel

Continue up the street a little way and, on the same side, you’ll reach the Union Hotel.

We move from a world of whispered plans and secret tunnels to one of the most public and ostentatious establishments in Penzance.

The Union Hotel, ‘the oldest hotel in Penzance’, traces its origins to the sixteenth century, and the present three-storey, stucco-walled building dates from the early 19th century. Inside, you’ll find a delightful Georgian lounge and the Trafalgar Dining Room, the finest example of a Georgian Assembly Room in Cornwall.

This was a place where Georgian and Victorian society came to be seen, to perform ever-so polite plays (none of your sea shanties, thank you) and to make announcements of national and historical import. Most famously, in 1805 the Mayor of Penzance, Thomas Giddy, apparently interrupted a ball in the Union to proclaim the victory at the battle of Trafalgar and the death of Nelson. It’s said that Penzance was the first town in England to receive this news.

The Egyptian House

 

Look across the road from the Union and behold.

‘You know what Penzance needs?’ said John Lavin, a Penzance mineralogist, in the early 1830s. ‘A stucco-clad, sarcophagus-style Egyptian house replete with lotus flowers and eagles in brilliant red, green and gold.’

He didn’t say these exact words, of course. But it was the extraordinary decision of this Penzance mineralogist to house his geology collection in this unexpected style.

His choice didn’t come completely out of the blue. There was something of a fashion for Egyptian-inspired architecture following Napoleon’s campaign in the North African country between 1798 and 1801, and this is one of the more wonderful survivors.

It almost didn’t make it. The building was neglected and then ‘brightly but inexpertly’ painted in 1960 (which makes us think of this, for some reason). Fortunately, it was acquired by the Landmark Trust in 1973 and refurbished to its original tones. This was achieved by stripping back paint to its 1830s colours, to provide a point of reference.

In many ways the poster child for Chapel Street’s eclectic style, the Egyptian House resembles (according to whom you ask), an abandoned Beatles cover circa 1967, a large cake, or the home of an ancient Egyptian Mr Tumble.

In fact, it’s probably all of those things and that’s why we love it.

The Market Building

Continue upwards through Queen’s Square. You’ll see your destination, The Market Building straight ahead. However, continue down Market Jew Street past the Humphry Davy statue and look back up for the finest views.

Iconic is an overused word, but the Market Building, opened in 1838, surely earns the description. Like a younger sibling of London’s St Pauls, the stately dome towers over many a view of Penzance. It provides balance to the tall spires of St Mary’s Church in Chapel Street and a focal point for the urban centre. Inside, it originally housed a market in the western half and a guildhall in the east.

The classical beauty of the design, however, with its ionic columns and porticos, was conceived according to a very earthly brief. The building was required to ‘direct its users’ attention away from the vulgarity of the streets and the uninspired and often depressingly ugly uniformity of the town.’

A bit harsh. But perhaps an accurate description of Penzance in the early nineteenth century, before a swathe of new buildings reflected the emerging confidence of this increasingly prominent market town. Other notable arrivals from the mid-nineteenth century include St Mary’s Church in 1836, Albert Pier in 1853, Trinity House in 1866 and St John’s Hall in 1867.

But they’re another story…

Penzance is famous for its award-winning eating and drinking, independent shops and Promenade views over magnificent Mount’s Bay. It’s also the perfect base for adventures into some of the most iconic attractions in Cornwall and the UK, including world-class beaches, The Minack Theatre and St Michael’s Mount.