Nowhere epitomizes the gentle southern coast of Cornwall more than the Helford River does. Streams trickle slowly down into peaceful, secluded creeks, which join the river as it heads out to sea.
Being tidal, the river and its inlets offer the perfect habitat for marine and bird life, and the whole catchment area is protected by various environmental groups and organizations. The river is also the perfect habitat for the yachting enthusiast, and the overall scene is one of peace and tranquility – but it hasn’t always been that way.
The source of the river lies just above Gweek, which due to its proximity to the former mines at Wendron, allowed the village and the river’s upper reaches to be involved in the export of tin and copper and the importing of coal and timber for operating the mines. These days, even though there’s a thriving boatyard, it’s hard to imagine that this was once a bustling port, because apart from people coming to visit the Cornish Seal Sanctuary, Gweek has reverted back to being a sleepy little village.
A stretch of water like the Helford River is actually known as a Ria. This means that the river which runs through the valley is drowned by the incoming sea. From Gweek to the mouth of the estuary is just 5 ½ miles by boat, but the shoreline is something like 25 miles, so it makes sense to take in the surroundings from the water if possible. Unless you’ve got your own boat, the only reliable option is to use Helford River Cruises, a small independent outfit that is based at the Budock Vean Hotel in Porth Navas Creek.
You can park up at the hotel and walk through the grounds down to the creek where the boat, HannahMolly, is kept. If you’re tempted to stop at the hotel for a liquid lunch beforehand, I suggest you don’t overdo it because the tiny boat has no facilities on board and you’ll be on there for an hour and a half. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
As the boat leaves the foreshore it navigates its way down Porth Navas Creek and into the Helford River where it takes a course eastward towards the mouth of the estuary.
The little boat gives you a cormorant’s eye view of the river which doesn’t make it easy for taking photographs or eating a cheese and pickle sandwich, but it does help to give you a closer feel for the surroundings: Some people may say a bit too close.
Some lovely houses overlooking the river came into view as we started to head downstream, including one belonging to the Queen drummer Roger Taylor who grew up in Truro.
A short distance downstream is Helford Passage which is a cracking spot for a drink or three at the Ferry Boat Inn, before catching the ferry across to the lovely village of Helford where you can top up with another a couple of drinks at the Shipwrights Arms.
The Helford River Cruises boat isn’t a hop on-hop off service, so if you want to do a pub crawl between Helford Passage and Helford Village, you’ll need to find an alternative means of transport, or stay locally – which is not a bad idea if I’m being honest.
Another good reason for staying in these parts is that not far up the road from the Ferry Boat Inn is the 200-year-old Trebah Garden. Trebah has been rated amongst the world’s top 80 gardens, which may or may not mean very much, but it’s certainly on my list of top gardens to visit.
It may be classified as a garden but I prefer to think of it as a wooded glen with exotic plants. A natural spring runs down through the valley providing the perfect environment for shade and water-loving plants such as ferns and Gunnera.
The lush valley descends to Trebah’s own private, secluded beach on the river at Polgwidden Cove. On 1st June 1944 peace at this lovely little spot was shattered when soldiers of the 29th US Infantry Division commandeered it as their embarkation point for the D-Day assault on Omaha Beach.
After the war, Trebah had a succession of owners including Donald Healey, the famous racing driver and car designer who used some of the outbuildings here to develop his cars. He also helped to restore the post-war beach and lower gardens.
Garden lovers are well catered for around here because just up the road from Trebah is Glendurgan, a garden owned and maintained by the National Trust. I’ve still yet to visit this one, but I have no doubt that it would also be well worth a visit.
Below the garden is the tiny village of Durgan, and from here the river gradually opens out until it reaches the mouth of the estuary, and so if you haven’t fallen asleep yet, we’ll continue our journey back on board the HannahMolly as it turns around and follows the southern shore back upstream.
The boat sails past Helford village and Frenchman’s Creek, and then keeps to the south of Groyne Point before reaching Merthen Wood whose sessile oaks cling to the slopes as they spread down towards the river – and have done for hundreds of years.
At Merthen Wood the boat turns around and heads back towards Porth Navas Creek, but first it sails up Frenchman’s Creek, the very same one immortalized in the novel by Daphne du Maurier. It’s easy to see where she got her inspiration from and you can do a 3-mile circular walk from Helford that will bring you back to the Shipwright’s Arms, but it’s probably best to do it when the tide isn’t completely out.
The final leg of the journey takes us across to Porth Navas Creek and up to the village of Porth Navas before returning back to our starting point.
The top speed of the HannahMolly is 15 knots, and it’s the sort of trip that could make some passengers doze off, but that’s the beauty of the Helford River – it’s just that sort of place.
POSTED – SEPTEMBER 2021