Continuing the series on Cornish Hostelries, Kiera Smitheram takes a stroll down to Penzance Prom to explore a pub that revolutionised the Cornish tavern scene in more ways than one.
The Yacht Inn sits at the Northern point of Penzance’s famous promenade. It boasts stunning views over the bay to a never-ending horizon that, when crossed would find France. It is perched at the top of a gentle slope past St. Anthony’s garden outside of the main town.
The Yacht was built in 1936 and designed by Colin Minors Drewitt, the year after the open-air swimming pool, the Jubilee Pool, opened. The original Yacht site was a pub for local seaweed gatherers who would often walk in, still dripping in salt water. It was little more than a cottage. When the new establishment was constructed on the site it was designed to resemble the bridge of a luxury cruise liner. This indulgence on the seafront helped to establish Penzance not only as a profitable trading port but a hot destination for the international clientele. Post-war prosperity during the ‘Roaring’ 1920s and early 1930s, combined with the growing emancipation of women of all classes, meant that the seaside was more accessible for families and groups of women who had the freedom to travel together unchaperoned.
Penzance is home to one of the largest railway stations in Cornwall. The county was one of the last places in Britain to receive a line in 1859, despite being home to the inventor of the steam powered moving engine, Richard Trevithick. The line from London Paddington to Penzance still runs today with the route virtually unchanged, and the station is a testament to the original idea of the line – to bring city slickers, artists, and the middle classes to the once unfashionable fringes of their own country.
Many people make a pilgrimage to this end of the town to see some of the last remaining Art Deco architecture in Cornwall, which stands as an epitaph to the artistic communities that sprung up along the Penwith Peninsula during the 19th and 20th centuries. Novels like ‘Summer in February’ and ‘The Shell Seekers’ depict this part of Penzance vividly and the pub is no exception to this novel-like state of existence.
The two-storey structure has a long whitewashed façade that curves with the slope leading down to the road with bright blue boarders to suit its maritime namesake, with an outside seating area to enjoy the view over the glistening bay. It is not what most people expect when they think of a traditional Cornish pub at first glance; most of the outside features have been very well-preserved aside from the addition of television antenna and a few plastic frames around the windows to keep the winter breezes from seeping in too often.
The bar is reminiscent of a sea vessel, made of dark wood polished to a high sheen that would pass any ship’s inspection. There are also nautical artefacts decorating the walls. A huge bay window (that holds up a balcony) allows light to come streaming in all year round. It has an open feeling to it but still has the friendly intimacy that Cornish pubs have a knack for. The guestrooms upstairs are modern and airy but the sweeps of the building and nods to its heritage can be seen if one isn’t distracted by the unmatched views. It is quite a contrast to the sturdy angular buildings around it.
During the summer Golowan Festival the entirety of this area is decked out with huge banners depicting divers in Art Deco style bathing costumes. The road along the prom is closed off to house a funfair and the annual ‘Pirates on the Prom’ World Record attempt. A cavalcade of characters can be seen using the pub to shelter from the blazing sun and stay hydrated in all their nautical finery.
The pub being located so near to the Jubilee pool sees faces from all over the world. Its location by the prom is ideal for those looking for refreshment after a summer stroll or warmth following a bracing winter wander. It is also just over 1000m away from the famous Newlyn Gallery making it a prime spot for culture lovers of all calibres. It welcomes its many regulars as well as visitors with a selection of fine ales, spirits, and dining options. By comparison to other pubs in the area such as the Turk’s Head and the Admiral Benbow, The Yacht Inn is a new establishment but it has a rich history to match any of its in-town counterparts.
The Yacht boasts a significant piece of brewery history; it was brought to life by the very first female brewery manager in Cornwall. Hester Parnall (1866-1939) was the eldest daughter of the second marriage of Walter Hicks, the founder of St Austell Brewery. When Hicks died in 1916 she took over as chairwoman of the then named Walter Hicks and co. Brewery until her death. Her two brothers were unable to take over the business; Walter Hicks Jr. died in a motorcycle accident in 1911 and her other brother was not suited to the gruelling managerial mountain. Her nephew, Walter Gerald Hicks, who was to take over in the place of Hicks Jr. was killed in Flanders Field in 1915. In spite of these tragic events, Hester rose to the challenge of keeping her family’s prized business afloat.
It was a tough name to live up to; Hicks Sr. had mortgaged off his own farm for a risky venture that to everyone’s surprise payed off and is now one of the biggest providers of ales, wines, and spirits in the South West. The unprecedented success of her father, followed by such tragic circumstances, made many write her off. Being a women and a young wife also played their part in the initial prejudices that sprung up against her. The sceptics were proven very wrong indeed. With the help of a series of General Managers she became a director in 1911 and five years later became Managing Director. Her upward momentum continued which saw her elevated to Chairman, a post she held until death in 1939. During her tenure, Hester took the company from strength to strength. Accounts given by employees say that she was a formidable boss, and warnings would be sent along the system of pipes running through the factory floor by a sequence of pre-determined taps to warn everyone when she was coming. She oversaw numerous acquisitions of establishments including that of ‘Huxtables’ of Newquay, which doubled the brewery’s incomes during very lean years. She was responsible for the complete rebuilding of the Yacht Inn after the art deco fashion of the nearby lido. She also added a second story to the White Hart Hotel in St. Austell (which you can read about in Chris Knight’s ‘At the Hart of it All’ here). In 1931 she purchased the house and estate of Point Neptune near Fowey, which became her residence until her passing in the April of 1939, five months before the outbreak of World War II.
Ruling the Company with “the grace of a duchess, combined with the aplomb of the successful businessman” Is how Clifford Hockin, a then office boy in the fledgling business, described her command over the company. Her influence has never faded and today over 70% of the hotels, bars, and inns supplied by St. Austell Brewery are run by women, either independently or as part of a couple. It is why so many female members of the Yacht team feel at home: they are upholding a noble and history-changing tradition of women at the helm of hostelries.
Inclusivity is at the core of the Yacht to this day. It has a natural advantage of being one of the larger pubs in Penzance and is able to host bigger events but even in the chill of winter they keep the door open to local special interest groups, societies, and teams.
In the 1960s and 1970s, like a lot of establishments up and down the country, the Yacht fell on hard times. A number of factors have been attributed to its decline during this period; the famous frequent power shortages of the 1970s limited its opening hours and function opportunities and although tourism still turned a profit, the winter months were extremely trying and people were less willing to face the storms for a drink when they could stay in with new electric blankets and television sets (providing the power didn’t go off). It seemed that the connections being made in pubs was dying until something unexpected returned to save the pub scene – music. Music is an integral part of the Yacht’s running. They are strong believers in the tradition of pub singing and often songs can be heard late into the night. Pub singing of this nature is not entered into as much as it used to be, with more pubs choosing to bring in bands and entertainments that suit a dining experience. Although the Yacht does serve food, it is more of a drinking house, and the entertainment is often provided happily by its patrons. Much of Cornish singing comes from the aural traditions that shaped the musical landscape of the county; from the sea shanties of the sailors and fishermen coming into port, to the miners heading into the pits and quarries. Even the church helped to establish the anthem-like singing and spiritual unity of people across all classes and cultures. Nowadays the songs tend to be more secular (some of them have slightly saucy undertones in their lyrics), but many cultural and religious influences can still be heard. Songs about the mines are haunting reminders of the struggles of the workers during the closure of the mining industry in the 1980s. At the core of the melodies are songs of unity and joy during adverse times or tales of lazy days in the sun.
Today, groups like ‘Shout West’ keep the aural traditions of music in the Yacht alive, “Someone ‘strikes up’ a first line and we’re off!” is how Pip Wright, the group’s founder describes the process of turning idle chatter into a night of song and laughter. Though they are not the first group to use the pub for communal singing, they hope not to be the last. In a hotel originally intended for the nouveux riche it is the locals descended from farmers, fishermen, and foundry workers that are keeping its soul intact.
Many tourists who come to Cornwall during the summer season seek out pubs for that ‘authentic’ Cornish experience. What that authenticity is, has been the debate of those in the field of Cornish and Celtic Studies since the idea was established. Ideas held over of locals living like caricatures from novels by Stoker and Shelley still resonate when bookings for evening meals are made. This trend has been turned to profit by many local entrepreneurs who have managed to capture the magic of Cornwall for a small fee. Some love it, but it could be seen as a novelty; a passing fad of what people think Cornwall is instead of seeing Cornwall as it actually is. Although the Yacht does utilise its vivid history and unique design to draw in new visitors every year, it never loses the sense of what it is. In the words of one its bartenders, “There’s something different about Cornish pubs”.
Cornish Studies (volume 1), edited by Philip Payton, Exeter University Press, 1993
All images courtesy of Chris Knight and the St. Austell Brewery Archives.