Looe is an attractive town and fishing port at the mouth of a steep sided valley on the south coast of Cornwall. Buildings climb up the hillside above the river which divides the town into two - West Looe and East Looe. These were originally two completely separate towns with their own parish churches and were linked by a wooden bridge.
East Looe now includes the harbour, quayside, main shopping streets, sandy beach and Banjo pier. It always seems to have been the busier and more important settlement.
West Looe with the C14th Church of St Nicholas, was always quieter. Hotels and boarding houses were built along the water front and houses climb up the hillside.
Looe’s economy has traditionally been based on fishing. In middle C12th the Order of St Benedict built a chapel in Looe Island with a rudimentary lighthouse service using beacons. This was linked with another chapel on the hillside above West Looe. Both are now in ruins.
East Looe was granted a charter by Henry II at the end of the C12th to hold a weekly market and also a Michaelmas Fair. The town was sufficiently large and important to be able to send 20 ships to the siege of Calais in 1347. Many of the low lying areas were subjected to frequent flooding so fishermen’s houses were constructed with living quarters upstairs and a storage area on ground floor used for boats, tools and fishing tackle.
East Looe continued to thrive during the Middle Ages and Tudor period and was a busy port. Its wealth was based on ship building and fishing (particularly pilchards and crabs), and increasing trade with Newfoundland. Wool and textiles were another important export. Its layout particularly around the harbour area in East Looe retains the Tudor street plan with narrow streets. The Old Guildhall in East Looe is thought to date from 1540.
Looe’s fortunes were in decline in the early 1800s with the war against Napoleon when French ships blockaded the port preventing the fleet reaching their fishing grounds.The town was also badly damaged by heavy storms and flooding in 1817.
The building of the Liskeard and Looe Union Canal in 1828, linked Looe to Liskeard and opened up transport links within the area. Business boomed and East Looe became a major port and one of the largest in Cornwall, exporting local tin, arsenic and granite, as well as supporting thriving fishing and boatbuilding industries. The quayside dates from the mid C19th and was built to handle the increasing demands of the shipping trade. It was lined with warehouses and a retaining wall, designed to help protect the town flooding at high tide as well as providing a walkway along the sea front for the increasing number of visitors to the town.
The mouth of the river frequently became silted up preventing ships gaining access to the harbour. Initially a long groyne was constructed but didn’t solve the problem. In 1897, local engineer Joseph Thomas proposed a more substantial pier with a circular end - the Banjo Pier. He was so confident his design would work, he refused payment until it was built and proved effective. This proved a success and has since been used around the world to solve similar problems.
The medieval stone bridge over the river was replaced in 1853.
The canal rapidly became unable to meet the increasing demand for transport and a railway line from Liskeard was built along the towpath of the canal arriving in Looe in 1860. Not only could this satisfy all transport needs, it was quicker, cheaper and more efficient to move good by rail than by canal. The canal became redundant and was used less and less, eventually closing completely in 1910, although traces of the canal can still be seen alongside the railway.
The railway also brought increasing numbers of visitors to the town and it was named ’the playground of Plymouth’. Hotels and tourist facilities were built.
A lifeboat station opened on East Looe Beach in 1866. A new Town Hall and Guildhall was built in 1877. Around this time, recommendations were made that the two town merge under the control of a single district council.
Looe remains a working fishing port with a fleet of trawlers, potters and netters together with an expanding number of hand-line fishermen. The majority of the Looe fleet consists of day boats, meaning they go to sea and return each day. Fish are sold by auction at the fish market every day.
It is also a centre for shark fishing and other fishing trips as well as leisure moorings, but remains primarily a tourist town.
The old sardine factory in West Looe is now a Heritage Centre.
There are information boards around Looe with details of a heritage trail.