BBC's 'Poldark' drama attracts tourists to film locations in Cornwall, England -- including us
By JOLENE CARPENTER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 11, 2015
It was late afternoon on a partly sunny September day in Charlestown, a harbor town in Cornwall, England, on the filming set for the BBC’s smash hit television drama “Poldark.”
Security officers repeatedly asked crowds of onlookers to stay behind barriers while actors in 18th-century garb — a couple of Redcoats, some laborers, a pretty young woman clutching the arm of a gentleman in a tricorn hat — filmed and refilmed a scene. It was “Places!” then “Action!” and within minutes, “Cut!” Each time the director halted the action, the actors — not stars of the series, but most likely Cornish locals — smiled or laughed and retook their original positions. It didn’t seem to bother them that appearing in a BBC hit series involves a lot of standing around and doing things over.
In a couple of hours it was tea time on the set, and the characters flocked to an outdoor table a few feet from the crowd. A young man dressed as a Redcoat thrilled a few visitors by flashing a charming smile and chatting with them as he drank tea from a paper cup. He seemed keenly aware of dozens of eyes and cameras (including mine) trained on him, and he appeared to be reveling in the moment.
This is what I had come to Cornwall for! My best friend and I had become “set-jetters” — in current travel lingo, people who get on a jet to visit television or movie filming sets. We had both been captivated by the BBC One remake of the story of British Army Capt. Ross Poldark, who returns to Cornwall after fighting in the Revolutionary War. He finds his home in ruins and his fiancee, having thought he was dead, engaged to his cousin. To rebuild his fortunes, he reopens one of his family’s tin mines. Thus the scene is set for rivalry, lust and all the other plot elements of a good potboiler.
As if the rugged, craggy landscapes and seascapes of Cornwall aren’t enough eye-candy, it happens that the series’ star, Irish actor Aidan Turner, who plays Ross Poldark, has fans around the world swooning. He is tall, dark and handsome, with an impressive set of six-pack abs. Of course, viewers get to see them, because Ross must strip off his to shirt to cut the corn near his home with a scythe. He also skinny-dips in one episode as his then-servant, Demelza, steals a secret glimpse from a clifftop. While the scene suggests that Demelza is getting an eyeful, the audience can only make out a suggestion of Turner’s rugged physique in the Cornish coast’s perfectly turquoise waters.
Unfortunately, the stars were not on the set when we were in Charlestown, so the gregarious young Redcoat was presenting the only opportunity I had to chat with an actual “Poldark” actor. I wasted no time threading my way through the crowd to get closer. As I arrived at a spot in front of him, he was busy chatting with Charlestown resident Lindsey Mercer and her teenage daughter. I broke in apologetically, introduced myself and asked the actor’s name and home town. Noah Ball, he said. He was born in the Cornish town of Camborne and currently lives in Falmouth, about 20 miles south of Charlestown.
Fumbling for conversation, I asked him whether “Poldark” is important to Cornwall. Mercer and her daughter giggled, because in Cornwall, that’s a silly question. Luckily the young Redcoat graciously answered.
“‘Poldark’ is enormously important to Cornwall because it makes people realize it’s here,” Ball said in an accent that I found a bit difficult to understand at first. “I’m Cornish born and bred. It’s a great place to come back to because it’s got a lot of history, and it’s a beautiful place to be if you like the outdoors.”
Mercer had heard my American accent, and she looked at me incredulously.
“Have you come all the way from the States to see this?” she asked. She said she and her daughter live “just around the corner” and “We come down quite a lot” to watch the actors. “They are all quite open to people watching the filming,” she said.
Well, the actors — especially the extras — may be, but the producers of the series appear less enamored of the crowds. According to the U.K.’s Telegraph newspaper, in early October the crew was forced to halt filming due to hundreds of fans aiming flash cameras at Turner, lighting up night shots and wrecking the 18th-century ambience.
Since the BBC has committed to five years of “Poldark” beyond the episodes currently in production, fans are almost certainly going to mob filming locations in greater numbers. While this may be a nuisance for the BBC, it’s good news for Cornwall; the series has brought a huge influx of tourism. People in the Cornish tourism business have a name for it: “The Poldark Effect.”
“‘Poldark’ has become very famous on television around the world,” said our guide, John Marshall, owner of Cornish Welcome Tours. “In Australia, in Italy, in England, in America, everyone is watching ‘Poldark.’ Because the Poldark Effect is so strong, the legacy is expected to last 10 years from now. Then it will start to tail off — but it won’t go away. For at least five years it will be very strong for tourism. ‘Poldark’ has become the symbol of Cornwall, if you like — it captures what Cornwall is.”
The history of Cornwall is woven deeply into “Poldark’s” plot, because it’s a story about mining. Ross Poldark, a man of noble birth who identifies more with the common folk who live on his land, tries to provide a livelihood for them by giving them work in his mine. Fishing, the second-largest industry in Cornwall in the 1700s, also takes a starring role. Pilchards (sometimes called “Cornish sardines”) were once vital to the Cornish fishing industry, with hundreds of families in every fishing village involved in catching, salting and selling them. In “Poldark,” the local people fear they will starve during the winter if the annual pilchard harvest is poor. Luckily, the fish come in, and all rejoice.
“You could not film ‘Poldark’ anywhere other than Cornwall,” says Marshall, “because there are no tin mines anywhere else. You’d have to build your own. You’ve got the rugged cliffs, you’ve got the seascape, you’ve got the landscape — this is all part of the Poldark story. It’s the magic of Cornwall, really — you can’t replicate that anywhere else.”
Mining died out long ago in Cornwall, and very little fishing remains, so tourism now sustains the county. “Without tourism, Cornwall would die; it could not sustain itself,” Marshall said. “So having a series like Poldark is absolutely a lifeline for Cornwall.”
KNOW & GO: Poldark locations
BBC One’s “Poldark” epic costume drama takes place against Cornwall’s stunning landscapes, as dashing Ross Poldark rides his horse along the rugged coastline. It might surprise travelers to learn that the filming locations are in some cases as much as 40 miles apart; several tours require five days to a week to visit them. We only had two and a half days for the “Poldark” portion of our tour, so Cornish Welcome Tours customized our itinerary. Here are the highlights.
One of Cornwall’s designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Bodmin Moor is a remote, heather-covered landscape of thin soil sitting on top of hard granite. In places the granite breaks through the surface, forming hills crowned by fantastically shaped rocks. Wild ponies graze on the moor, and a group seemed unfazed when we stopped to take their pictures just a few feet away. In “Poldark,” the main characters’ houses are filmed on the moor. Tour-goers can see the stone cottage used as Nampara, Poldark’s home, from a few yards away, as well as some of the miner’s cottages, located near the village of St. Breward. In the same area, you can glimpse Dr. Dwight Enys’ house from the outside and pass people riding horses rented from the stable that provided all the horses for the filming.
In 1791, what was a small fishing harbor became a port for transporting tin and copper from the nearby mines. The port is now home to square-rigged sailing ships and is used to portray the town of Truro in the new version of “Poldark.”
“The great thing about Charlestown is that it was finished in 1799, and substantially it has never changed,” said our guide, John Marshall, of Cornish Welcome Tours. “It is now a conservation area because it is the only unspoiled tin port in Cornwall and the only historic unspoiled port in England. Charlestown is as original as it was built. It’s the perfect location for filming, particularly ‘Poldark,’ because they don’t have to change anything — they just have to put a few barrels and a few sacks on the original pier. It’s history ready-made.”
Near St. Just, the tour visits the Botallack and Levant mines, each of which appears in the new “Poldark” series, with Botallack and nearby Wheal Owles portraying Ross Poldark’s mine. (“Wheal” is the ancient Cornish word for “mine,” according to our guides.) Spectacularly situated on the side of a cliff, the engine houses of these mines were built at the height of the Cornish mining boom. Levant Mine was used in the series as Tressiders Rolling Mill, and it’s the only Cornish beam engine in the world that is still driven by steam pressure on its original mine site. (The beam engine was a device used to raise the ore and pump water out of the mines.) This area doubles as Nampara Valley in the series.
• Pedn Vounder beach, on the South coast at Porthcurno, about three miles east of Land’s End, is of the most widely photographed beaches in Cornwall. It was used in “Poldark” for the night time scene in which the locals collect goods coming ashore from a wrecked fishing boat. This part of Cornwall is full of smugglers coves that were used predominantly during the 18th century, and the area is littered with the remains of ships that came to a fateful end just off the coast.
• Porthgwarra, a picturesque fishing hamlet in a small cove. The cove, which was once a busy fishing harbor, has a slipway, caves and tunnels that evoke images of the bygone smugglers and wreckers for which this area is famous. In “Poldark,” it’s where Ross takes his morning swim in the buff. During filming, the beach cafe is reported to have stayed open until 4 a.m. serving the cast and crew Cornish pasties, or traditional meat and vegetable pies.
• Porthcothan, used to portray Nampara Cove, near Ross Poldark’s home. The sandy beach here is backed by grassy dunes and cliffs. Although the waves here have been fierce enough to wreck ships in storms, they usually are not too dangerous for amateur surfers.
There is nothing specific to “Poldark” about the Cornish cream tea, but it is a tasty tradition going back many years in Cornwall. We enjoyed a delicious tea at Rosemergy Farm near Morvah (www.rosemergy.com). Our guides instructed us in the correct way to enjoy a cream tea: You spread jam on top of a freshly baked scone and follow it with a generous dollop of cream whipped to the consistency of a light butter. According to our guides, John Marshall and his daughter, Sarah, you have not taken the first bite properly if you do not have a large dollop of cream on the tip of your nose!
We toured with John Marshall of Cornish Welcome Tours and his daughter, Sarah, “Poldark” aficionado, blogger and operator of a tour company called The Poldark Experience. The Marshalls are pleasant company who share facts and insights about Cornwall while ferrying you from site to site, keeping things conversational and fun.
• Cornish Welcome Tours (www.cornishwelcometours.co.uk) offers tours of both Cornwall and Devon tailored to the traveler’s interests, ranging from antiques to zoological gardens and many subjects in between. Film location tours of “Poldark,” the BBC’s long-running comedy “Doc Martin,” and Rosamunde Pilcher’s novels can be arranged for one or more days, with a daily cost from 258 pounds (about $396) per day. Pickup and return trip from your airport or train station as well as accommodation also can be provided. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
• The Poldark Experience (www.poldarktours.co.uk) offers three tours that cover Cornwall and the “Poldark” series; prices are 258 pounds per day. E-mail email@example.com. The company is planning a “Poldark” weekend in 2016 that will include attending an 18th-century costume ball.
• For general tourism information about Cornwall, go to the county’s official tourism site, www.visitcornwall.com.