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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.