Spotlight on Port Isaac, Cornwall, UK
December 3, 2012 Leave a comment
I will start off by saying that I have never been to Port Isaac. So why am I spotlighting a place I’ve never been to? Mostly because of this place:
For those of you who don’t recognize this, it’s the home and office of Dr. Martin Ellingham, the main character from the show Doc Martin, which I have watched all five seasons of in something like two or three weeks. The town in known as Portwenn in the show, but it is shot in Port Isaac, and after watching the show I felt compelled to do a Google Streetview tour of the city, and I think there are some important lessons to learn from it.
I think that it is important to understand why Port Isaac is where it is before we discuss why it looks the way it does. The town is built on the cliffs surrounding a long beach with large tidal differences and few large rocks, making it a perfect place for boats to anchor without having to build a formal pier. The fishermen simply beach their boats at low tide and walk up the beach to the town. Though the port was built in the reign of King Henry VIII, the center of the town as we know it today dates from the 18th and 19th centuries.
This means that the roads were built primarily for people and manually-powered vehicles traveling at a low speed. The roads are narrow, windy, and fairly steep. There seem to not really be any blocks to speak of, just a few main roads radiating from the port that have short side streets branching off of them. There is very little in the way of private green space, although some houses do have gardens in the rear, but they come right up to the street. Uses are largely mixed, with restaurants, pubs, chemists/pharmacies, and schools mixed in with houses. Most buildings have no setbacks from each other. Each building, despite many of them sporting either fieldstone or whitewashed facades, is unique, and creates a series of surprises as one walks the street. Despite being built for people or horsecarts, the streets are still largely accessible by car, they just have to drive slowly and respect pedestrians in the pathway.
Then we come to a sort of transitional area. The buildings here, though some of them are still of older vintage, are mostly from the early modern period. Buildings in this area are becoming more formalized, rectilinear, and though still largely custom built are beginning to include more manufactured materials, especially windows. Buildings are beginning to be set back from the street, and many have made space for cars. This is first part of the city where people felt it was necessary to separate pedestrian and vehicular traffic, and austere sidewalks lacking trees and much in the way of width begin to show up. Although largely residential, and much of that detached homes, there are some stores and public facilities thrown into the mix. Although this area is not the picturesque village that people come to Port Isaac to see, it’s still a reasonably nice area, especially if you value a larger home and a yard more than the beauty, character, and convenience of the older town.
At the southeast end of the town is where the quality of development takes a nosedive. There are a series of single family and townhouse developments that are cheaply built and mass produced. My guess is that a developer somewhere came in and saw that he could sell houses for a huge mark-up because of the sea view, and by building the cheapest houses possible he could maximize his profits. These places have true cul-de-sacs, and the car is every present. There are sidewalks, but nowhere to walk to. A great lesson on how to build a complete human environment is a half mile away, and these places look like the builder never even saw it.
Port Isaac shows the decline in quality of development over the past century, but only because it has such great examples to start with. From the underwhelming edge of town to the nice transition zone and finally to the exemplary harbor area, this town shows a range of environments in a very small space that a student of urban design can learn a lot from. Someday I’ll have to make a visit and take it in in person.