The perfect pirate path

From illegal Highland stills to walled-up Cornish caves, Britain has a rich history of illicit trade – and the bootleggers’ old trails and hideouts make for perfect, swashbuckling family walks. Try smuggling one of these into your next family holiday.

Coastline near Porthleven

Penzance to Porthleven, Cornwall

PIRATICAL PAST: In the 1780s, half of all the brandy drunk in Britain was smuggled through Cornwall, and the Carter brothers – John, Charles and Harry – had a large hand in it. Operating from around 1770 to the early 1800s, John became known as the King of Prussia and Portleah Cove branded Prussia Cove. In nearby Bessy’s Cove, John is said to have adapted the entrance to the caves with slipways to haul in and store his contraband. Time-slips, such as Kenneggy Sands’ chain ladders down to the beach, bring alive the physical challenges smugglers faced bringing their bootleg barrels to market. 

SMUGGLERS’ ROUTE: A bracing 13-mile hike from Penzance to Porthleven begins with fine views to St Michael’s Mount, and passes through Marazion and Perranuthnoe, via the sandy beaches of Perran and Praa. As you round the cliff-tops at Cudden Point and Trewavas Head, you can see the marooning tides and shipwrecking rocks that lay in wait for the smugglers at every treacherous cove, even if they’d successfully negotiated the Revenue’s cutters patrolling out at sea.


PHOTO: Coastline near Porthleven by Tim Green.

Robin Hood's Bay

Ravenscar to Robin Hood’s Bay, North Yorkshire

PIRATICAL PAST: Isolated Robin Hood’s Bay was the ideal place to evade 18th-century taxes on tea, brandy, silk and muslin. Cargo landed at the beach could be smuggled up the cliff through the town’s characteristic narrow alleys, or ‘ginnels’, which hosted cat-and-mouse skirmishes between the locals and customs officers. For lighter loads, women would carry bladders filled with spirits under their skirts, or concealed bales of silk under loose fishwives’ dresses. 

SMUGGLERS’ ROUTE: At breeze-blasted Ravenscar, 600ft above the North Sea, the search is still on for a secret tunnel from the old Ravenhill Inn coach stop to the beach, half a mile downhill. An 11-mile circular route from here to Fylingthorpe, via Howdale Moor, Robin Hood’s Bay and Boggle Hole, offers the North York Moors in a nutshell, with cliff-top sections of the Cleveland Way, rock pools, cobbled lanes, heather moorland, and the old Peak Alum Works.


PHOTO: Robin Hood's Bay by Tom Tolkien.

Aldeburgh Moot Hall

Sailors’ Path, Suffolk

PIRATICAL PAST: Throughout the 18th century, the River Alde provided a secluded route for taking wine, tea and brandy inland from ships landing at Aldeburgh (its Moot Hall pictured), avoiding paying duty at Aldeburgh Custom House. When customs official Jeremiah Gardner drew his sword on a gang near Snape in 1727, the smugglers cut off his nose.

SMUGGLERS’ ROUTE: The six-mile Sailors’ Path follows the Alde through marshes and reeds, where yellowhammers sing. Smugglers must have slithered and dived like the local otters to avoid detection. Boardwalks now take walkers across the marshy areas, so we can only imagine sinking up to our knees under the weight of an illicit load. 


PHOTO: Moot Hall in Aldeburgh by Martin Pettitt.

For the full version of this article featuring more smuggler's routes, pick up the Summer 2014 issue of Walk Magazine from Cotswold Outdoor or why not join the Ramblers and get it delivered to your door four times a year?