Falmouth Harbour

Falmouth Harbour

I don’t know how many hours I’ve wasted trawling through facts and figures about the smallest this and the largest that, and now here’s another one. Some people claim that Falmouth is the third largest deep water natural harbour in the world. There are so many variables about what constitutes the criteria for that claim, that I’ve given up trying to get to the bottom of it (the claim I mean, not the harbour).

There’s a difference between a harbour and a bay for instance, and I think it’s fair to say that Sydney Harbour is the most likely candidate for being the largest. The other contenders will have to fight it out because it’s not clear cut. Falmouth however, does qualify as being a natural harbour because it’s really a tidal drowned river valley, or ria, to give it the proper name – and it is deep.

Several rivers merge to provide fresh water for the harbour and they all end up in Carrick Roads, the main body of water in Falmouth Harbour. Its unusual name comes from the Karrek Ruen (Black Rock) which is a potential hazard at the mouth of the estuary between St. Anthony Head and Pendennis Point.

The Black Rock (Karek Ruen), left of centre

To protect this safe haven from any potential enemies, King Henry VIII built two castles – one at Pendennis on the Falmouth side of the estuary, and another one across the water at St. Mawes, both of which are open to the public, and another couple of posts, hopefully, for the future.

Before these castles were built it was necessary for ships to travel further up the estuary to keep out of harm’s way, and until a local man by the name of Sir John Killigrew saw the potential of building a deep-water harbour behind the protection of the two castles, Penryn was more important than Falmouth.

Falmouth started to benefit from Killigrew’s foresight, and by 1689 it became an important part of the communications network when the famous Falmouth Packets (lightly armed sailing ships) started delivering mail to all corners of the developing British Empire. For the next 150 years Falmouth was the most important communications hub outside of London: One notable piece of information that landed at Falmouth was the news in 1805 of Nelson’s victory (and death) at Trafalgar. The message was transported by stagecoach to the Admiralty in London and took 37 hours to cover the 271-mile journey. The occasion was commemorated in 2005 by the inauguration of the Trafalgar Way. To learn more about the Falmouth Packets, it’s worth paying a visit to the National Maritime Museum Cornwall (NMMC) on the harbourside.

Gallery in the NMMC showing the History of the Packet Ships
Gallery in the NMMC showing the History of the Packet Ships
A Postal Packet
A Postal Packet

By the middle of the 19th century, sail was giving way to steam, and to try and keep hold of the Packet Service it was decided to build docks in a relatively shallow part of the harbour, with a channel of deep water connecting it to Carrick Roads. Two graving (dry) docks were built, as was a railway from Truro to allow for the export of China Clay.

The new development never saw the use it was really intended for because the Admiralty had taken over the service and transferred most of the business to Southampton which was nearer to London. Instead the import of grain, coal and timber filled the void along with fuel and salvage facilities, but the docks never became a major port for container and commercial shipping. These days, its main focus of activity is on ship repairs, refuelling, waste disposal, and the building of luxury yachts.

The Royal Navy's logistical support ship the RFA Mounts Bay
Tanker in for repair at No.2 Dock (The Queen Elizabeth Dock)

Being able to drop anchor in the safety of Falmouth Harbour also allows for large ships, such as these couple of Reefers (refrigeration ships), to take shelter or await orders.

Reefers awaiting instructions

Anybody reading this who hasn’t been to Falmouth before is probably wondering if it’s worth coming here just to look at some docks, but the harbour has much more to offer visitors than that. If you’re into sailing, then you’ve come to the right place. There are any number of sailing clubs around, and one of them is on Restronguet Creek where Ben Ainslie, one of the most successful Olympic sailors of all time, learnt to sail. You can see his Finn boat that won him a gold medal in the 2012 Olympics inside the NMMC.

Ben Ainslie's Olympic Gold Medal winning boat
Ben Ainslie's Olympic Gold Medal winning boat
The Lookout Tower of the NMMC
The Lookout Tower of the NMMC

While we’re on the subject of great sailors, there’s another one associated with the NMMC. Sir Robin Knox-Johnston was the first person to perform a single-handed non-stop circumnavigation of the globe in his small ketch Suhaili which left Falmouth on the 14th June 1968.

In actual fact he was a participant in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, and was the first to arrive back in Falmouth on 22nd April 1969, even though his boat was one of the smallest. It went on display in the museum for a while but due to shrinkage of the wooden planking had to be removed. This quite remarkable sailor also became a trustee of the museum.

A view of the NMMC from the water
A view of the NMMC from the water
Entrance to the National Maritime Museum Cornwall in Events Square
Entrance to the National Maritime Museum Cornwall in Events Square

If you’re more like me than Sir Robert Knox-Johnstone, then you’ll probably want somebody else steering the boat around the harbour, in which case your next port of call, so to speak, should be the Prince of Wales Pier, because this is where most of the ferries and pleasure boats depart from.

Ferries run regularly to St Mawes and Flushing, and Enterprise Boats run a regular service to Trelissick via St Mawes, but there are often other trips on offer as well.

The Prince of Wales Pier
The Prince of Wales Pier
Boat Trip Kiosks on the Pier
Boat Trip Kiosks on the Pier

Whether you just want to have a trip around the harbour or go sealife spotting, there are always plenty of options, and you never know what you might see.

Cruise Ship Artania

One thing you can be sure of though is that your trip won’t be as demanding as the one that set off from Falmouth on 26th March 1942. Operation Chariot involved marine commandos who were given the unenviable task of putting the German occupied port of St Nazaire out of action to prevent it being used to maintain its increasingly destructive Atlantic fleet. The raid was successful and put the dock out of use for the rest of the war. It came at a price though. Out of 622 who took part, 168 were killed, and apart from 27 who managed to escape, the rest were captured. There were 5 Victoria Crosses awarded (the highest military decoration for gallantry) for what became known as ‘The Greatest Raid of All.’ Look for the memorial to these unbelievably brave men on the pier before you leave.

Memorial to Operation Chariot
Memorial to Operation Chariot

As you might imagine, Falmouth hosts a number of events throughout the year, particularly during the summer, when the harbour seems awash with boats. Back in 2014, I was here when the Tall Ships Regatta was taking place, and as anybody who has seen it will tell you, it’s a fantastic spectacle. There were a few people making a spectacle of themselves around the beer tents too – all good natured though I hasten to add. Below are some pics from the event.

Talking of beer, one of the best places to finish our trip around Falmouth Harbour has to be Custom House Quay. This was the harbour that the Falmouth Packets used, and I’ve no doubt that many a sailor has stumbled ashore here after an arduous journey from some far flung place with sea legs that could barely make it to the Chain Locker – and I don’t suppose things improved after a grog or two in the bar either.

There are plenty of pubs in Falmouth other than the Chain Locker, but I suggest if you want to try any of them, I would do so before coming to Custom House Quay. Every time I come here to sit on the pub’s terrace next to the harbour I swear I’m just going to have the one pint of Proper Job – but every time I fail. You’ve been warned.

The Chain Locker
The Chain Locker
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Custom House Quay
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27 thoughts on “Falmouth Harbour

  1. toonsarah

    I’d obviously heard of Falmouth Harbour but never visited, despite several childhood holidays in Cornwall, and I hadn’t realised how big it was nor what large ships it could take. The Chain Locker looks a super spot for a beer – or several 😉

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks again for taking a look Sarah. Family holidays in Cornwall are often different to holidays taken later on in life I suppose, and you’re right about the Chain Locker 🙂

      Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      You’re too kind Francesc. Thanks.
      I always think of the middle of the week as Wednesday, which makes Thursday the last but one working day of the week, not that it matters much now anyway.

      We’ve been getting some of your hot weather up here this week, but you can have it back now, I’ve had enough of it 🙂

      Anyway, I hope everything’s going well for you my friend. At least it’s good drinking weather.

      Reply
      1. Francisco Bravo Cabrera

        Just had a freezing cold pint my friend! But I think we’re beginning to slowly, very slowly, cool off. July is our hottest month, although August can be brutal, but today it was nice and fresh, until about 0900 hours…
        Take good care Malc, and we count from Monday to Sunday, so the middle of the week falls on Thursday.
        🙂

        Reply
  2. Stuart Templeton

    Excellent stuff as usual Malc – it’s definitely somewhere we’ll have to take Maddie. I’m still trying to remember if I’ve been there or not. It certainly seems to be worth a look!

    Reply
  3. Alli Templeton

    A wonderful tour around Falmouth Harbour and its history, Malc. I had no idea it had so much to offer. You can probably imagine what I’m going to say next: it’s now firmly on our ‘must do’ list, especially with the links with Nelson and Trafalgar, and the maritime museum. And I daren’t even tell Maddie about the Tall Ships Regatta, with all those gorgeous tall ships and the splendid pirates cutting a dash. She’d be in absolute heaven! I’ll have to look into taking her, maybe next year if they’re still doing them. And your beautiful pictures, as always, really give a feel for the place. Thanks for another great steer. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      I thought you might be considering a discussion with Maddie after reading this, but the Tall Ships Regatta usually involves a race between the Tall Ships and the venue changes from year to year. As you might have gathered, the 2020 race, which was supposed to be in Iberia, has been cancelled, but pencilled in for next year. If you want to see it you might have to go to Lisbon, although I think the finishing line is in Dunkirk, which is a bit closer to home..

      I still think you would all enjoy Falmouth without theTall Ships, and I’ve got more posts to write (Pendennis and St. Mawes Castles for a start) but I don’t want to say any more in case it depresses you. I hope you’re finding a way through all this mess.

      Reply
      1. Alli Templeton

        Ah, so the Regatta is a moveable feast. Then I shall still keep an eye on it, but won’t mention it to Maddie just yet. Who knows, maybe she’ll end up taking part one day! Normally they have a Pirates Festival in Whitby in September, so I’m aiming to get her to that next year.

        Looking forward to your next posts, as always. Trying to find our way through, thanks, and I had a very interesting conversation with our MP last night. Fingers crossed it leads to at least some improvement for us.

        Reply
        1. Easymalc Post author

          You never know, and I love Whitby. Are you aware of this sailing charity by the way?

          https://www.tallships.org/our-work

          I’m pleased to hear that you had a decent conversation with somebody who might be able to do something constructive, but I know you can’t discuss it here. I always seem to be keeping my fingers crossed for you 🙂

          Reply
          1. Alli Templeton

            Thanks Malc, I’ll drop you an email when I get the chance.

            Whitby is a great place. I love it too. Funnily enough, Maddie’s sailing instructor sails with the Tall Ships Trust, and we often go and look at the Challengers when we’re in Portsmouth. We’ve talked about the possibilties there, so again, you never know! 😉

            Reply
            1. Easymalc Post author

              I knew somebody who did a stint on the Sir Winston Churchill years ago and he thought it was brilliant. I could see it being a good thing for Maddie too if she was up for it.

              You can send me an email anytime, you know that 🙂

              Reply
              1. Alli Templeton

                I could guarantee she would be! 🙂
                I’ll be in touch over the next week or so. Thanks, Malc. 🙂

                Reply
  4. scooj

    I love this post. My grandparents lived in Flushing and I spent practically every school holiday there. Their house looked across to the docks and we had binoculars out to look at ships and yachts at the ready. Their very large house can be seen in your last picture just behind the orange life buoy, at the base of the woods. Thank you.

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      This must have brought back some memories then – and that’s some house too. I can see it a bit better on another picture I’ve got.

      Reply

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