Josie Fernihough has lovingly restored Falmouth’s old coastguard station, carefully preserving many historical artefacts along the way
Words by Alice Westgate
When the Antiques Roadshow came to Falmouth last summer, local resident Josie Fernihough brought a lifeboat tally board to show the experts. She had plucked it from a skip outside the town’s Old Coastguard Station 20 years ago and had treasured it ever since. It turned out to be worth £300, which was considerably less than some of the items brought to the National Maritime Museum that day. But Josie was not in the least bit disappointed. “To me it is priceless because of the role it played in saving lives,” she says. “We owe the coastguards and lifeboats so much.”
Josie eventually bought The Old Coastguard Station and, as well as renovating its dilapidated interior, she rescued many other aspects of its maritime heritage. “We are guardians of history and should always respect the past,” she says.
The building, which stands on Pendennis isthmus, dates from 1902 and was originally a garrison housing the war department’s married quarters. It was built at the same time as many of Pendennis Castle’s outbuildings, and Josie still has a copy of the original calico-drawn plans. The coastguard took over the building in 1956 and stayed for 25 years until it transferred to its new home on the headland. The Old Coastguard Station then sat empty and under threat of demolition from developers until Josie and her former husband moved in during 1992.
“It was in a terrible state, totally derelict,” remembers Josie, “and had rainwater running down the internal walls.” Yet its location was stunning, with clear views over Castle Beach and far out to sea; on a fine day you can see The Manacles from its dormer windows.
“To do the whole renovation at once would have cost a fortune,” she says. “Instead it happened bit by bit over the next 20 years, as and when we could afford it.”
The first few years were particularly gruelling. “I spent many months cooking on a makeshift stove,” says Josie. “Luckily we were used to camping. I wore a lumberjack shirt and wellies for a long, long time.”
But gradually the house took shape. Josie created a kitchen and dining room from the old operations room, and made the station office into a sitting room. This was the only part of the house that was plastered as it had belonged to the chief coastguard; all the other rooms were bare brick. “We couldn’t afford a plasterer, so we just painted the brick,” says Josie. This was a happy accident, though, because along with the chunky old cast-iron radiators, the uneven brick walls give a wonderful sense of character.
While the renovations took place, Josie began researching the history of the building, crediting her love of heritage and archaeology to her rich cultural background. “I was born in Malta, but lived in Rome for much of my life, where there is a great passion for the past,” she says. “My father’s family is Egyptian and my mother’s family is Greek, and I have subconsciously absorbed all those influences over the years.”
Inspired by this, she sought out many of the people who had once lived and worked here. “One particular retired coastguard, Aubrey Tucker, was a mine of information. He worked at St Just and then Port Isaac before he came to Falmouth. He was involved in some incredible rescues, and gave me fascinating newspaper cuttings detailing many of them.”
A memento from this time – a wooden stretcher called a hawser bearer that was carried by hand on cliff rescues – was another of the artefacts that Josie rescued from a skip. It now hangs from the kitchen ceiling, where it functions as a beautiful hanging rack for pots and pans.
The lifeboat board made famous by the Antiques Roadshow hangs in the adjoining dining room. Its evocative hand-painted letters spell out the names of local lifeboat and coastguard stations. Josie also has a pair of coastguard’s binoculars from this era, still in their leather case, as well as the old telephone exchange box from the station office.
Further treasures can be found on the ground floor of the house, which Josie now runs as a comfortable self-contained holiday cottage. It was originally the coastguard’s boat store, and rows of hooks that would once have been hung with oilskins still feature in the hallway. Best of all, the old shutters at the front of the building have been retained and renovated; they now open on to a south-facing courtyard garden that Josie describes as “a little bit Mediterranean”.
Nothing old has been wasted or forgotten in this renovation; an old window with its beautiful brass catches has been turned into a glass-fronted cupboard in Josie’s kitchen, and the original station plaque is proudly displayed in the stairwell.
“I love saving things,” says Josie. “Some people make it a habit of throwing things out; but I keep things, store things and record things. I even have a book detailing everyone who has lived here from 1906 and what jobs they held. I love telling their stories again today.”
The Old Coastguard Station is clearly in very good hands. “I am honoured to live in Cornwall and am very proud of the building in which I live,” says Josie. “I could have bought a little house that needed no work and I could have had lots of expensive holidays, but sometimes sacrificing things is best. I am the custodian of this place and I will do everything I can to preserve its soul for future generations.”
You can rent the ground-floor apartment at The Old Coastguard Station through Classic Cottages. It sleeps four (plus cot) and costs from £387 per week. Short breaks also available off-season. At all times of year, Josie’s delicious home-made scones, newspapers and an open fire will greet you on arrival. More details at www.classic.co.uk, tel. 01326 555555.