Make a new home in an old Cornish pub
The inside of the Admiral Benbow glows; its puzzle of panelled booths and unevenly shaped mahogany tables glimmering under the light of old brass oil lamps converted with muted electric bulbs.
The shelves of the 17thcentury Penzance pub are crammed with an eclectic assortment of memorabilia. An ancient brass diving helmet commands one corner shelf, model ships with matchstick masts jostle for space on another, and a tambourine balances on an oak beam. It’s so reminiscent of the inside of an old galleon that you can almost hear the whisper of the sea. Owner Alan Marsh settles himself behind a round corner table. “It’s not just a pub,” he says, beckoning to his wife Trish, who chats to a regular f from behind the bar. She passes Alan the Benbow’s latest accolade: a framed certificate from drinks i industry advocacy group Camra, awarded in late 2016 “in recognition of the outstanding historic importance of parts of its interiors”.
The value of the painted ships, figure heads, anchors, diving gear, lifebuoys and other nautical memorabilia is hard to quantify. Even after 15 years, Alan keeps finding things he never knew existed in the sprawling two-storey pub.
The collection is the legacy of Cornish marine salvor Roland Marsh, who renovated the pub in the Sixties. His most famous find was a collection of Greek pottery lost on the HMS Colossus, the 74-gun Royal Navy ship wrecked on the rocks of the Scilly Isles in 1798. The pottery had been collected by Sir William Hamilton (husband of Admiral Nelson’s mistress). The fragments have been reconstructed and are now displayed at the British Museum; a piece of the embossed hull of the Colossus hangs from the Admiral Benbow’s rafters.
Less glamorous pieces of wreckage include a triangular chunk of one of the infamous Torrey Canyon lifeboats, and a battered lifebuoy from the HMS Mulheim, which went down in 2003, the last ship to be wrecked along this treacherous stretch of Atlantic coastline skirting Land’s End.
The 17th-century pub is situated on Chapel Street, which winds its way up from the harbour to the centre of Penzance. It is the fictional home of
Treasure Island’s Jim Hawkins and the not-so-fictional base for a band of smugglers, the Benbow Brandy men. Trish takes curious visitors through the pub’s kitchens to the dark entrance of the cramped tunnel the smugglers used in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s now blocked up less than 20 metres in; the discovery of its exit to the harbour caused quite a stir when it was discovered in 2008.
The pub has attracted visits over the years from a peppering of famous folk, from the Hairy Bikers who filmed inside it, to Hugh Grant, who popped in for a drink five years ago on his way to a wedding in the Scilly Isles, and the Rolling Stones – after all, the pub is less than a hundred yards from Abbey Hotel, bought by iconic Sixties model Jean Shrimpton (now run by her son). The Poldark cast, however, has yet to drop in for a drink. But it is not all tourists, sailors and celebrities; the pub is home to the Penzance folk club and the Cornish Pirates Rugby Club, whose flag dangles near the pub’s entrance.
Alan, a former policeman, bought the pub because of its history and hopes that there is someone else out there with the same passion who will want to buy it from him. The pub is for sale through Millers Commercial for £650,000.
It is not the only 17th-century pub with a good story for sale in the West Country. The Pack o’ Cards is said to have been built from the winnings of a card game: it sits on a 52ft by 52ft plot, has four floors, 13 rooms, 52 stairs and 52 windows.
Renovated in the early Nineties, it was bought by Debbie and Chris Batchelor 20 years ago. “We were tired of the London rat race,” says Debbie, who wanted a better lifestyle for their children, then eight and 10. “It’s been wonderful, a great place to bring up a family.” They live in a huge flat over the pub, in Combe Martin, Devon, but say the stable block is ripe for conversion.
This pub is a favourite among locals as well as a landmark on the tourist map; it featured heavily in the muchpublicised guidebook B------- to Alton Towers: Uncommonly British Days Out. The Pack o’ Cards is for sale at £894,850 with JD Commercial. Another 17thcentury pub for sale is The Old Smithy Inn at Welcombe, Devon, a mile from the coastal footpath, which has a separate owner’s house. For backpackers on a budget it offers an unusual – and even older – billet for the night: two sets of bunk beds in a converted 14thcentury stone outbuilding, said to have once been a pig shed. The Old Smithy Inn is for sale with Christie and Co for £625,000.
Aye aye: the Admiral Benbow, right, houses a collection of maritime memorabilia, left
Jackpot: the Pack o’ Cards in Coombe, above, is said to have been built from the winnings of a card game
A-list: its clientele includes the Hairy Bikers, below, and Hughg Grant, right