Mevagissey was first recorded as a hamlet in 1313, although there is evidence of settlement from as far back as the Bronze Age. In the fourteenth century it was known as Porthilly ('Saltware Cove'), but a hundred years later it was merged with the neighbouring hamlet at Lamoreck, and the new village was named after two Irish saints, St Meva and St Issey ('Meva hag Issey' in Cornish, 'hag' meaning 'and').
There was a quay in Mevagissey from medieval times, but it provided little shelter from easterly gales, and in 1774 an Act of Parliament was passed to allow the construction of East Quay and West Quay. An outer harbour wall was added in 1888 but it was seriously damaged in the Great Blizzard of 1891 and it was another seven years before it was rebuilt. Unusually, South West England fared particularly badly in the freak weather that winter. In the March, Devon and Cornwall were cut off from the rest of Britain for several days, when 200 people and 6000 animals were killed in the strong gales and heavy snowfall.
In the seventeenth century, the port's main sources of income were pilchards and smuggling, and the buildings around the seafront included a boatyard, a cooper's workshop, a fish merchant's shop and various warehouses for the goods brought in by boat.
Mevagissey is said to have been the first town in England to have electric streetlamps. The Mevagissey Electric Supply Company built a power station on West Quay in 1895, powering the lights (and the lighthouse) by burning the oil squeezed from the pilchards when they were processed.
- From the car park entrance in Mevagissey turn right and walk up Valley Road (the B3273) to where Church Lane joins from the right. Just after the junction turn left onto the lane signed as a footpath and cycleway to Heligan. Stay on the lane, ignoring turnings to left and right, as it sweeps around past Cheesewarne Farm.
Here you are walking along 'The Coast and Clay Trail', ('Lergh Arvor ha Pri' in Cornish), part of the Cornish Way cycle route, on route 3 of the National Cycle Network.
- Fork left just after Cheesewarne Farm, bearing right at the next fork, at a gate, to follow the cycle path as it climbs gently to the top of the hill, where there are excellent views over much of the Heligan estate. The path curves around the head of the valley before coming to another fork.
A settlement was first recorded at Heligan Mill in 1356 when it was spelt 'Helyganmille', and it is thought that there was a mill here from that time. The area was occupied from much earlier, however. In 1787 a rare Romano-British brooch and ring were found in the Polmassick river near Heligan, thought to have been imported from Ireland in the sixth century when waves of Celtic missionaries arrived in Cornwall to help stem the tide of Anglo-Saxon paganism which threatened to overwhelm Christianity after the Romans left.
Meaning 'willows' in Cornish, Heligan was the seat of the Tremayne family for more than 400 years. It is particularly known for its 'Lost Gardens', which were created by the family from the middle of the eighteenth century but abandoned after most of its gardeners were lost in the First World War. The gardens were neglected for over 75 years, but in the 1990s they were restored to their former glory, and now they are open daily all year round (for details see www.heligan.com).
- Turn left at the fork, staying on the cycle route as you cross the wooden bridge and carry on along a path running parallel to the Mevagissey-Gorran Haven road.
- After passing some tumbledown farm buildings at Peruppa you come to another junction. Ignore the path to the left, which leads back to Heligan, and turn right instead, passing beneath the road as it runs over a nineteenth-century bridge built for the Heligan estate. Stay on the cycleway as it descends gently through the trees into the Pentewan Valley.
- At the bottom of the valley, the cycleway turns left to run parallel to the B3273 St Austell-Mevagissey road. Carry on ahead, crossing the road at the nursery.
In the nineteenth century, the Pentewan Valley was a major transport route for china clay, brought from the St Austell area to the harbour at Pentewan. The St Austell River was straightened and its banks strengthened. Today's cycle path travels along an old horse-drawn tramroad, built alongside the river in 1830. In 1874 the trams were replaced by a narrow-gauge railway, but by 1918 this had closed after the harbour silted up.
Until this time, for almost two millennia the river's industry had been based on tin. In his 1758 'Natural History of Cornwall', William Borlase wrote: `The most considerable stream of tin in Cornwall is that of St Austell moor, which is a narrow valley about a furlong wide (in some places somewhat wider) running near three miles from the town of St Austell southwards to the sea.' He went on to detail ancient artefacts found in the river indicating that even in prehistoric times it was being worked for its tin. He told of signs where 'the old men had been', including charcoal ashes, human remains, and bones of animals 'of a different description from any now known in Britain'.
In 1780 there were two mines working the stream for its tin: Happy Union, working downstream, and Wheal Virgin, heading upstream. By 1829 they were 1.6km apart, and they closed a few years later, in the 1850s, when the supply was exhausted.
- Just past the caravan site, the path turns abruptly right, crossing the St Austell River to a junction on the far side. Turn right here, heading towards the coast at Pentewan. When the track splits into two, keep right, heading away from the river and into the trees. As you approach Pentewan the track bears right, away from the old tramroad, and then bears left to the road.
- Turn left for a short diversion into Pentewan, with a pub, refreshments and toilets; but otherwise, turn right to continue to the main road. Turn left here, following the South West Coast Path along the road towards Mevagissey, until you come to a footpath on the left, beside the entrance to the holiday park.
- Turn left on this footpath, staying with the Coast Path as it heads out to the cliff top. From here it descends almost immediately to the cove at Portgiskey, where the remains of nineteenth-century pilchard cellars and boatyards can still be seen, and then climbs to Penare Point.
At Penare Point there are terrific sea views, back over Pentewan Sands and Black Head to the red-and-white striped daymark tower on Gribbin Head, on the far side of St Austell Bay. On a clear day, you can see as far as Rame Head, at the mouth of Plymouth Sound.
After rounding Penare Point the Coast Path heads towards Mevagissey. Just north of the village, you pass a path leading down to Polstreath Beach, where dogs are permitted all year round. From here the path descends steeply into a narrow valley before climbing again to the outskirts of Mevagissey. Cross the grassy area to descend first on a tarmac path and then down steps, until you come to the harbour.
- At the harbour turn right to walk along the East Wharf, following the street around to the right to come out opposite the cross. Turn left here, onto Church Street, turning right a moment later to walk up River Street and back to the car park.