Cornwall on a budget: a night in a ‘coffin bunk’ on a converted fishing boat

Our series on low-coast stays ends with the writer bunking down in Unesco-listed Charlestown harbour
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‘How tall are you?” Toni asked as I slipped off my rucksack and prepared to follow him through a tiny hatch and down a ladder.

“Six foot one and a bit,” I said.

“Ah. Well, these are called coffin bunks,” he said, indicating to the four cubby holes in the former crew’s cabin. “They’re only six foot long.”

“Happily, I sleep in the foetal position.”

“Just like sailors do then.”

This is not the sort “welcome to the bunkhouse” conversation I was expecting. But then Pen Glas – a 61-year-old, oak-built Breton fishing boat docked in a Cornish harbour – is not a typical backpackers’ bunkhouse.

I was having a couple of nights’ sneak preview before its July opening in Charlestown, near St Austell. While I lolled about, owner Toni Knights and a few highly skilled friends were still working feverishly on the final stages of a conversion that has taken the best part of a year. It’s a project Toni was evidently born for. A fisherman since he was 14 and a lifeboatman for 10 years, he’s known to his friends as Stormy (K)nights on account of his predilection for setting sail on rough nocturnal seas.

The deck of Pen Glas, in Charlestown Harbour.
The deck of Pen Glas, in Charlestown Harbour. Photograph: Ash Potter

“I knew Pen Glas’s history,” he said, “and I’ve always been a fan of French boats because they have a certain flair. I used to go out into the Channel and see her bobbing about like a duck. She’d go down as far as the Moroccan coast for tuna fish and the Isles of Scilly for langoustines.”

After saving the boat from being scrapped, Toni and friends had to strip out the fishing equipment and the large tanks in which the live catch was kept. The last bit of the conversion is ongoing, but due to finish soon (and the bunks I was in have their own shower, so anyone staying now is not disturbed). Two forward cabins are being fitted out with eight additional berths and a mock gun deck. There will also be a wood-burner, second shower, washing machine/dryer and loo (nearby portaloos are currently available for guests).

Meanwhile, an wholly original feature is the tiny galley that facilitates basic backpacker cookery of the kettle-and-toaster school. A talented artist, Toni has brightend the walls with stylised fish paintings and info signs. I took some fresh sea air on the aft deck; the fore deck hosts tables for the neighbouring HarbourQ pop-up restaurant.

Cosy … Pen Glas’s ‘coffin bunks’.
Cosy … Pen Glas’s ‘coffin bunks’. Photograph: Ash Potter

For all the changes, Toni hasn’t tried to disguise the fact that Pen Glas was once a proud twin-masted fishing boat, and though it has been meticulously scrubbed there was still a slight bouquet de poisson about the vessel. And with no portholes in my cabin and only a vague half-light penetrating the hatch, my quarters had a cocoon-like feel – curtains mean you can cut yourself off from the world.

Charlestown’s picturesque 18th-century harbour is a Unesco world heritage site and its owners have worked hard to attract classic sailing vessels – some more than 100 years old – to berth or be refitted there, and to attract visitors with harbourside eateries and sailing experiences. Or, as the harbour manager Colette Pearce put it: “Getting her back to being a working Georgian port but in a 2021 fashion.”

Winter storms played havoc with the South West Coast Path as it climbs west out of Charlestown and it has yet to be fixed, but after a detour along the road, I found it still delivered excellent Cornish clifftops. I spent an afternoon ambling by pastureland to the little port of Mevagissey. I even stumbled across a basking slowworm and its offspring on my way, before returning by bus in the late afternoon.

I dined at the Longstore, a renovated sail loft on the harbour. Filling though the tempura-spiced jackfruit burger was, I found room for a peanut butter and chocolate blondie with raspberries, lemon verbena and vanilla ice-cream – as vegan desserts go, it was a more adventurous offering than I’m accustomed to, and all the more welcome for it.

Pen Glas is docked in Charlestown Harbour
Pen Glas is docked in Charlestown Harbour Photograph: PR

Wringing the most out of my final half-day, I took a cycle ride. After passing the Eden Project (just a few miles from Charlestown) I hit an off-road section of the Clay Trails – the walking, cycling and horse-riding paths that cross the mid-Cornish china clay mining area. Before long I’d struck out along a maze of country lanes – red campion and stitchwort turning their high hedges into colourful sunlit tunnels. Chips and a pint beckoned in the flower-filled beer garden of the 12th-century Crown Inn at Lanlivery. Tarrying there a little longer than was wise, I unwillingly sped to St Austell station for my train home.

Conversion into a bunkhouse does not mean that Pen Glas is going to be confined to the harbour. Toni has plans to rig her again and put her to sea under sail, bringing back wine from France and olive oil from Sicily each summer. It’ll make a stay on her the rest of the year all the more special – after all, how many bunkhouses do you know that moonlight as an eco-friendly cargo boat?

• Accommodation was provided by Pen Glas Bunkhouse; single bunk £25, double £40 (bedding £7.50/£9.50 extra if required). Dinner was provided by The Longstore. Rail travel was supplied by GWR, which has singles from London Paddington to St Austell from £67.90


Dixe Wills

The GuardianTramp

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