Discovering the magical majesty of the Helford River and the sub-tropical splendour to be found on its shores.
Words by Hannah Tapping
Top left | National Trust Images | David Sellman
Top right | National Trust Images | Chris Lacey
Bottom Left | National Trust Images | Seth Jackson
Bottom Right | National Trust Images | David Sellman
The Helford River sits between the western edge of Falmouth Bay and the Lizard peninsula. It’s creeks and secluded shores are home to a wealth of wildlife and are renowned for their marine ecology. Fringed by ancient oak woodlands that dip their branches towards the river’s still waters as if curtseying before royalty, the banks are verdant in spring and summer with every shade of green on the spectrum. With over 30 miles of shoreline which culminate at the head of the river in Gweek, the Helford is a place of peace, play and exploration.
Gweek’s history is thought to date back as far as 450 BC when tin was traded with the Phoenicians from a port at the mouth of the Helford. Its name comes from the Cornish for a ‘forest village’ indicative that the oak woodlands on the river’s banks perhaps once covered the whole of this area of the south Cornish coast. It was a thriving port between the 15th and 17th century due to Cornwall’s flourishing mining industry and although now operating at a more sedate pace, it still has a working boatyard and is home to the Cornish Seal Sanctuary.
Helford village on the river’s southern banks, immortalised by Daphne Du Maurier in her pirate romance Frenchman’s Creek, is quintessentially Cornish. Its winding lanes and thatched cottages are chocolate-box pretty and there are many footpaths from the village that meander along the edge of the creek, where the author honeymooned after she was married at the chapel of St Wyllow in 1932 and can be explored both from the water or on foot. The National Trust’s circular walk takes you through carpets of woodland flowers in spring and summer while in the shoulder months, sheltered coves afford respite from the weather and the local pub, The Shipwrights Arms provides welcome victuals.
In season, the Helford River water taxi links Helford village with Helford Passage. Backed by the Ferryboat Inn, this gentle stretch of sand is perfect for families due to its sheltered position and safe bathing waters. Rows and rows of shells line the beach as the tide drops and here, along with Porthbean Cove on Helford’s most southerly reach close to Nare Point, you might be lucky enough to find a tiny pink cowrie shell or two – what we fondly refer to as the ‘little pigs of the Helford’ due to their colouring. From here, you can follow the South West Coast Path towards Rosemullion Head, a walk that reminds me of Mediterranean climbs as you look down upon the yachts and the clear blue water. The meadows here in summer hum with the sound of bees, while there is welcome cooling shade as the path goes through the trees before dropping down into the hamlet of Durgan.
Left | National Trust Images | John Miller
Middle | National Trust Images | Chris Lacey
Right | National Trust Images | Carole Drake
Here is where the National Trust-owned, Grade II-listed Glendurgan Garden meets the sea. Set in three shaded valleys, this incredible exotic garden is something of a sub-tropical jungle. In spring, its majestic magnolia trees are in full bloom, their flowers akin to giant pastel tea cups, while the lawns are carpeted with a host of wild flowers. The garden was established by the Fox family in the 1820s and they imported plants from all over the world giving the garden its rich horticultural diversity. Glendurgan is perhaps most famed for its maze. Planted from cherry laurel in 1833, this living puzzle provides hours of endless delight as visitors make their way to the thatched summer house that marks the centre. A recent major restoration has seen the pathways and steps returned to their former glory and an ongoing pruning and feeding process keeps the hedges neat, tidy and healthy. Durgan itself is a sleepy hamlet, surrounded by small cottages and houses, some of which are available to rent as holiday homes through the Trust. The road pulls steeply out of Durgan, halfway up which is a path that leads to a little piece of heaven. Grebe beach is sheltered from all but the wildest of winds and has become a Mecca for wild swimming enthusiasts and paddle boarders alike. On a summer’s day you would be forgiven for thinking you were on a Greek isle such is the colour of the water and the way the trees are silhouetted against the deep blue sky.
While Grebe is favoured by many, my slice of Helford paradise requires a few more footsteps. You can park at the National Trust car park at Bosveal and sidestep off the main track down to Grebe through Candy’s Gate. It’s rolling fields in summer are reminiscent of alpine meadows with its grasses dancing in the breeze and as you emerge from the woods, the grand Arts and Crafts style manor that is Bosloe House overlooks the estuary.
Top left | National Trust Images | Anna Kilcooley
Top right | National Trust Images | Chris Lacey
Bottom left | National Trust Images | James Dobson
Bottom right | National Trust Images | Chris Lacey
You can also wend your way from Mawnan Smith and amble through Carwinnion woods or begin at Mawnan Church; all will take you to Porth Saxon (or Porth Sawsen as it is sometimes known). Backed by the South West Coast Path, this is a gentle cove where walkers and sailors meet to relax on its shores and waters. Sometimes there is a little hustle and bustle as the Helford River Sailing Club retrieve its dinghies from the back of the beach and head out in small flotillas to the floating pontoon. At other times, there is just the just tink-tink sound of rigging against masts from yachts moored nearby.
With its boathouse at one end, whenever I’m here I imagine myself in a Du Maurier novel, transported back to the mid 17th century. Sadly, these shores and woodlands are no longer the hiding places for dashing French pirates but such are their beauty that I’m more than content just to be here with my literary daydreams.