In 1688, Falmouth was designated England’s Royal Mail Packet Station, with a monopoly on handling mail to all corners of the empire. The Chain Locker, then called the Marine Hotel, was a boozer with a few dank beds for sailors who manned the swift mail ships.
Two years ago, brewer St Austell bought the listed building and spent a cool few million on a refurb. It found the walls, of Cornish cobs (horsehair and mud bricks), beyond repair. It couldn’t alter the structure, which meant adding only six bedrooms over a single, staggered upper floor. In the revamp of the ground-floor pub, every flag and pendant, photo and memento was put back exactly where it belonged. The result is a proper snuggy, foaming-beer pub, and local sensitivities had to be respected. When an ancient piece of wallpaper was found downstairs, it was framed, wall and all, in order to preserve as much as possible. Since its reopening in September, the place has been packed to the gills.
The bedrooms are named after working boats. Ours, Muriel, is spacious, with views across the marina and the naval yards. Like the rest of the hotel, it has wooden floors, and the walls, painted plain grey, are enlivened by old photographs, drawings of sea creatures and maritime artworks, including a lovely picture of a sperm whale over the bed.
With spotlights and a big circular lampshade, a tiny wooden desk, comfy chairs and exposed beams, it’s neither dull nor corporate.
The bathroom is bigger than I expected, with a shower over the bath (other rooms have only a shower cubicle), but the low beams meant my 6ft-plus frame had to contort to get properly wet. A heated towel rail and lockable windows kept Brian at bay.
We had dinner in the busy 90-cover restaurant, with its harbour views, large terrace and balcony, several booths and private dining spaces. The local oysters were meaty and very fresh; the hake was crisp and full of flavour. Dinner costs about £75 for two, including wine. I enjoyed a hoppy, aromatic IPA called Underdog, a true session ale. There are also small-batch ales and local gins to try. There’s a wheelchair lift to the restaurant, but not to the rooms.
Unlike many towns in south-west England, Falmouth is underrated. It’s prettier than Penzance, livelier than Totnes, a lot grittier than Salcombe, and benefits from the presence of 4,000 students at the local arts-focused university. The bars and restaurants are buzzing, the coffee excellent (Espressini was my favourite), there are plenty of pasty shops (try Picnic), loads of veggie and vegan food on offer, and the whole vibe is youthful.
We spent a couple of hours at the overpriced National Maritime Museum Cornwall (£12.95, for “annual membership”), which has some engaging exhibits over five floors, a gallery celebrating Falmouth’s internationalism (25 countries once had consuls here) and a temporary show devoted to Captain Bligh and the Bounty (until 7 January).
Falmouth Art Gallery (free), above the library, is excellent. Exhibitions change all the time but the one we saw, OUTspoken (ends 4 November), was an enthralling retrospective dedicated to socially and politically driven art scenes through the centuries.
Art, food, sea views, a proper pub, a good storm; beat that for a weekend on the coast.
• Accommodation and food were provided by the Chain Locker (doubles from £90 B&B, 01326 311085, chainlockerfalmouth.co.uk)
Ask a local
Henrietta Boex, director of Falmouth Art Gallery
The Working Boat pub
I live 10 minutes from the stretch of the South West Coast Path from Swanpool to Maenporth. This walk evokes the world of Henry Scott Tuke (1858-1929), who painted the local youth on Newport beach and the shipping in Falmouth Bay.
Every year (usually in May) Falmouth School of Art (part of the university) holds graduate shows. The standard is very high, and it is exciting to spot up-and-coming artists, illustrators and designers.