Nick Hasell visits a port that seeks to broaden its horizons.
Falmouth's pastel hotels and the vague tropicality of its palm-lined avenues betray little of the town's industrial origins. Yet before its role as riviera resort or retirement haven, Falmouth was an active seaport; before anything else, it still is. "Almost everybody in the town is related to somebody who works down here," attests Michael Deeks, director and general manager of Falmouth Docks and Engineering.
Yet ship repair, the yard's core business, has always been a cyclical affair; no more so than in 1979 when, in the midst of a world recession in shipping the then owner, British Shipbuilders, cut 1,200 jobs overnight. Several years of near inactivity followed. The dock's emergence from the doldrums largely coincided with its acquisition by A and P Appledore in 1984, bringing with it a new strain of entrepreneurialism. Frequent forays abroad to secure orders were combined with plans to broaden the yard's activities, resulting in 1987 in the setting up of Falmouth Cargo Handling - a "very useful earner", according to Deeks. Appledore currently turns over some £20.5 million and ranks as the second largest ship repair facility in the UK.
The sudden lay-off of the dock's 160 casual workers in March this year, however, has again highlighted the short-term nature of its activities, simultaneously acting as a spur for further diversification. A principal move is the setting up of a European ferry link out of Falmouth, viewed by Deeks as "the key to opening up manufacturing industry in Cornwall". Falmouth is also actively marketing itself as a port of call for cruise ships redeployed from the Caribbean to Europe for the summer months.
Any attempt to address the economic development of Falmouth inevitably returns to the flamboyant figure of Peter de Savary (or "PdeS" as his monogrammed overalls and hard hat would have him). Although he has divested himself of the majority of his stake in Appledore, de Savary is still very much in evidence in a series of specific projects. Falmouth Oil Services was set up in 1986 as the result of his happening across several disused storage tanks on one of the remoter quays. The realisation that some 44% of the world's shipping passed within 14 miles has since given rise to a highly lucrative bunkering service. The commercial success of Pendennis Shipyard, a luxury yacht building outfit, as yet remains untested. Its first project, a 123-ft ketch, goes on the market this summer for an anticipated £5 million.
While de Savary's various investments in the docks have brought accolades from the maritime community - a "godsend" in the eyes of one harbour official - others have taken exception to his propensity for extensive housing developments. Few deny that Port Pendennis harbour village, a £40 million, 14-acre marina complex, is a vast improvement on the derelict land that preceded it. Thus far the take-up rate for the 115 houses and flats has been relatively slow. "It's just very sad that we're going through this semi-collapse in the market," laments project director Martin Lock.
Some locals have expressed doubts that Falmouth will be able to sustain such a development, but the scale of de Savary's commitment is certainly impressive. "Sometimes you're going to need outsiders," observes Lock.