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A brief guide to sport in Cornwall

Image above (courtesy of Cornish Pirates): Newlyn versus Penzance, 1938

Cornwall is widely known as an idyllic holiday destination, thanks to its glorious golden beaches and charming towns and villages.

As many of us tend to only visit this beautiful county for one or two weeks of the year on a family break, we can often overlook some of the many diverse features which make Cornwall such a fascinating place. With this in mind, we are going to spend some time looking at the various sports that are played in the Duchy, their history, and the extent to which they are still practiced today.

Sport may not be the first thing we think of when picturing Cornwall but, if we stop to think about it, it is easy to see why the county is actually the perfect place for trying out a new activity. With its crystal clear seas and miles of unspoiled countryside, there are limitless options if you want to get active when you next stay at one of the Cornwall holiday sites available in the region.


Image above (courtesy of Cornish Pirates): The Pirates pictured after winning against Exeter to lift the EDF Energy National Trophy at Twickenham in 2007

Rugby, of course, is hugely popular throughout the UK and much of the rest of the world, but it is currently enjoying particularly strong growth in Cornwall, both in terms of participation and as a spectator sport.

Much of this success can be put down to the impressive recent performances of the Cornish Pirates, the county’s biggest team. We were therefore delighted to be able to speak to a representative from the Pirates about their history, their greatest successes, and the exciting plans they have for the future.

Image above (courtesy of Cornish Pirates): Penzance & Newlyn RFC played its first ever match at home to Guy’s Hospital on 22nd September, 1945

“After Penzance RFC was formed in 1876 and then Newlyn RFC around 1894-95, local rivalry was eventually put aside, and nearing the end of WW2 there was a strong desire for the clubs to amalgamate.”

“The new Penzance & Newlyn RFC played its first match back in 1945, and in time the club provided many players to the Cornwall county XV. International honours were also achieved, with two Pirates, John MacGregor Kendall-Carpenter (Captain) and John ‘Ginger’ Williams, actually playing in the same England side back in 1951. Prop forward ‘Stack’ Stevens was also first capped in 1969, and toured with the British Lions in 1971. However, this was at the start of a decade when the standard of rugby to which supporters had become accustomed began to diminish; when the England RFU’s Clubs Championship was introduced back in 1987-88, the Pirates were placed in the Cornwall & Devon league, which took three years to get out of.”

Image above (courtesy of Brian Tempest): Pirates in pre-season game away to Exeter Chiefs

“In the mid-1990s, former player Dicky Evans, a successful businessman based in Kenya, became the club’s President and main benefactor at the advent of professionalism, and the Pirates climbed steadily through the league system. Their progress culminated in the historic first game in National One (the then second tier) away to Bristol in 2003.”

“The team was still referred to as Penzance & Newlyn RFC, however, after finishing a lofty fourth in National One back in 2005, decision time beckoned. It was felt that to maintain the ambition to play at the highest level, the membership needed to back the vision of our then President, Dicky Evans. Key proposals agreed by club members included a change of name for the first team to the Cornish Pirates, and relocating to play first team matches further ‘up county’ to a bigger catchment area.”

“The Cornish Pirates played one season at Kenwyn, near Truro, followed by four at Camborne, during which the winning of the EDF Energy National Trophy in 2007 was a wonderful achievement, as was becoming the first ever winners of the British & Irish Cup in 2010.”

“Returning ‘home’ to the Mennaye Field, Penzance, for the start of the 2010-11 season, credit was due for reaching the RFU Championship finals in both 2011 and 2012, but there was also considerable frustration in relation to the hoped for Stadium for Cornwall. Indeed, during recent years it has been all about consolidation and striving to keep afloat during an uncertain and testing period.

“In September 2016, however, a group of investors (including the previous owner Dicky Evans, two rugby businessman from New Zealand and two previous directors), backed by a professional business board, reinvested and restructured the Company, which has embarked on an ambitious plan to build a professional rugby team capable of winning the Championship and thus promotion to the Premiership.”

Image above (courtesy of Brian Tempest): Pirates in pre-season game away to Exeter Chiefs

“The forthcoming development of a Stadium for Cornwall will be a facility capable of hosting the highest level of rugby and other sport, and extending the supporter base throughout the county.”

“The Cornish Pirates are focused on building partnerships with businesses, communities and sporting organisations throughout Cornwall. The stadium business organisation will be structured around the four pillars of Sport, Hospitality, Catering and Events, to provide the county with the first class facility it needs.”

“As the stadium project progresses, every effort will be made to keep everyone updated.”

Extreme and water sports

There are some ‘sports’, of course, which are not competitive in nature and are simply popular for the great physical challenges they pose, the chances they provide to enjoy beautiful scenery, or a combination of both.

You will already know that surfing is practiced by a huge number of people in Cornwall, but this is far from the only water-based activity which sporting novices and experienced athletes alike can enjoy when they visit the county.

To find out more, we spoke to Cornish Rock Tors, a company which runs a wide range of courses allowing people to become better acquainted with some of the most exciting outdoor activities around:

“Cornish Rock Tors are one of the South West’s leading adventure activity providers, and have been sharing the beauty of North Cornwall’s rugged coastline with visitors for over a decade. Based in picturesque Port Gaverne, a small fishing village adjacent to Port Isaac, join them for half day activities such as coasteering, guided sea kayaking, stand-up paddleboard lessons, and wild swimming.

“Coasteering sessions involve travelling along an otherwise inaccessible stretch of the Cornish coast, swimming into rocky coves and through exhilarating white-water features, adventuring into caves, and of course leaping from Cornish Rock Tors’ favourite jump spots.”

“On guided sea kayaking excursions you’ll paddle beneath towering cliffs, explore rocky gullies, sea caves and rock gardens, and spot all sorts of marine wildlife. Stand-up paddleboard (SUP) lessons and tours are around Port Gaverne and Port Isaac, and include full instruction (catering for complete beginners through to seasoned paddlers), visiting otherwise inaccessible rock-gardens, coves and caves.”

“Wild swimming sessions are a great option whether you’re already a wild swimming enthusiast, a triathlete in training or you’ve never left the confines of a pool. Cornish Rock Tors offer a number of swimming routes and can tailor sessions to the participant’s requirements, allowing swimmers to embrace the elements and enjoy swimming in a stunning natural environment.”

Traditional Sports

Perhaps more than most counties, Cornwall also has a rich history of playing traditional sports. Two of the most interesting and popular such activities are Cornish wrestling and shinty, which we discuss in a little more detail below.

Cornish wrestling

Wrestling, of course, has been practiced the world over for many centuries, but you may be surprised to learn that Cornwall has its own specific version of the sport.

The first written reference to Cornish wrestling (or ‘wrasslin’, as it is known colloquially) dates back to the late 16th century, although there is some evidence to suggest that it was actually practiced for several hundred years prior to this.

There are many ways in which the sport differs from the more well-known versions of wrestling. Here are a few things which make Cornish wrestling unique, and an explanation of how competitors can record a victory:

  • Three referees (known as ‘sticklers’) oversee the matches, which are scored on a points-based system.
  • Each wrestler wears a loose jacket to fight in; all moves have to be made by grabbing on to the jacket.
  • The objective is simple – floor your opponent so that they land flat (or as close to flat as possible) on their back. The flatter they are, the more points you get!

Although still a niche sport, Cornish wrestling has a loyal and devoted following and is still very much practiced today. If you want to learn more about where to see it in in action or even how to get involved yourself, the best place to go is the Cornish Wrestling Association website.


Although much more widely practiced in the highlands of Scotland, the sport of shinty also has a surprisingly strong following in Cornwall, and indeed has seen something of a resurgence in recent years.

The game – which is similar in some ways to hockey but is a completely distinct sport with its own rules and codes – is thought to have been played in some form for literally thousands of years, and continues to evolve today.

The official Cornwall Shinty Club was formed in 2012, marking a formal recognition of the sport’s recent growth in popularity throughout the county. Since then, the club has gone from strength to strength and now regularly competes with the much more well-established teams fielded by Scottish clubs.

The club’s website has plenty of information on fixtures, training and how to sign up for a practice session yourself, so why not have a go at this exciting, energetic and highly competitive sport?

Staying active in Cornwall

Whilst winning tournaments and exploring the county’s beautiful scenery are both good reasons for wanting to get involved in Cornish sport, the most important benefit of participation is how good it is for our health.

Staying active is of paramount importance and is becoming ever more difficult in a world of limitless multimedia entertainment and long working hours. Despite being one of the most unspoiled places in the UK, Cornwall is not immune to the challenges posed by stagnating levels of physical activity throughout society.

Fortunately, however, there are a number of organisations dedicated to improving public health through sport participation in the county. The Cornwall Sports Partnership is one such organisation, and we were able to speak to them about their objectives and some of the innovations they are currently heading up:

“The Cornwall Sports Partnership is one of 49 County Sports Partnerships in the UK and our aim is to make sport and physical activity a part of everyday life in Cornwall by working with other partners such as schools, leisure centres, public health, the local government and National Governing Bodies to name a few.

“Currently much of the work is around our Physical Activity Strategy which aims to get 50,000 people more active by 2020 in Cornwall & the Isles of Scilly. To help us head towards this target we run a series of projects and initiatives across the county to engage with the public to help get people more physically active.

Get Active Challenge

“At the moment we are in the registration process of the annual ‘Get Active Challenge’. This is where teams of 3 can log their activity over a 6 week period through our ‘Get Active’ website, to make their way interactively around the Cornish coastline and compete against friends, colleagues or family and have a bit of fun getting active! You don’t have to play ‘sport’ every day, even walking or gardening counts as being active! Once a team of 3 has been set up you can also get a FREE pedometer! Register to the challenge NOW!

Netball & Rounders

“We also regularly run activity sessions such as netball and rounders in a few venues across Cornwall which are aimed at those that maybe haven’t played since school or have never wanted to play in a competitive environment. Take a look on our Get Active Website to try and find a session locally.

Image Credits: Cornish Pirates, Cornish Rock Tors, leith, Nightwalker05 (

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