The Fal estuary in Cornwall is the third largest natural harbour in the world, fed by six main tributaries and 28 smaller streams and rivers.
Its deep channel makes it navigable for big commercial vessels several miles upriver as far as Tolverne’s famous Smuggler’s Cottage and it has long been used as a safe haven for large ships to find shelter in heavy weather. Smaller boats can go all the way up to Truro on the right tide.
During the recession several huge freighters were left to rust in the upper reaches of the Fal, dwarfing the cosy rural surroundings and becoming an unlikely tourist attraction.
More than six decades earlier in 1944, that same stretch of the river was used as the assembly point for the American troops ahead of the D Day landings. General Eisenhower stayed at Smuggler’s Cottage in the run up to the daring operation.
Reaching depths of over 100-ft, the main estuary channel is strangely named Carrick Roads, harking back to a time long before tarmac or cars, when waterways provided the more effective routes for travel and transportation.
Thanks to geographical good fortune, the Fal has always been a strategic maritime stop-off thus like so many sailors before us we pointed our bow towards that great submerged valley.
The Fal has a bit of everything – discreet creeks, quiet anchorages, lively towns, medieval castles, stately homes and wooded walks all encircled by bucolic loveliness stretching as far as the eye can see. It would be easy to spend a week exploring on land and water without ever leaving the Fal.
We had a peaceful sail from Fowey, the sun glowing through a thin layer of cloud and a light easterly breeze which carried us slowly around Dodman Point. It was beginning to seem the bright and beautiful weather would last forever.
The entrance to the River Fal is impressive with its mile-wide opening bordered by Henry VIII’s castles at Pendennis Point to the west and St Mawes to the east.
We decided to explore further upriver before anchoring for the night so headed on past Falmouth, Mylor and St Just.
The river narrows just after Feock, as you pass under the gaze of Trelissick House which sits atop its hill looking down river towards the open sea.
After rounding to port, there is a straight narrow channel which passes the historic King Harry Ferry, the oldest chain ferry in the country running since 1888 which used to form a key crossing on the pilgrim’s trail to Saint Michael’s Mount.
Thickly wooded on either side, the river bends again at Smuggler’s Cottage and shortly afterwards splits into its two key tributaries, the River Fal running off to starboard and Truro River to port. While rounding this corner you glimpse a property of such grandeur it is hard to believe it could be privately owned. But privately owned it is for Cornwall is a region where many great family estates have survived and thrived into the current Millennium. Pete and I gazed up awestruck at Tregothnan House, the seat of the Boscawen family since 1334. The name Tregothnan literally translates to ‘House at the head of the valley’. Extending thousands of acres across fertile Cornish countryside and benefitting from the county’s mild climate, the estate is home to the UK’s first tea plantation, among other things.
We chose to anchor in the quiet bay below Trelissick House, which seemed quite modest by comparison.
Formerly the home of one of Britain’s first female MPs, the admirable and formidable sounding Ida Copeland, Trelissick is now owned by the National Trust so we rowed ashore the next morning to take a look. In the sunshine, of course.
On that day, in June 2018, Pete and I officially entered middle age as, persuaded by the staff manning the entrance, we found ourselves signing up for joint National Trust membership.
“We do use the car parks quite a lot,” we agreed, keen to justify our actions. “And there are lots more places on our sailing route.”
I didn’t need to add that we both listen to Radio 4 and enjoy Gardener’s Question Time.
Proper justification came in the form of Trelissick’s rambling gardens of green dappled shade and lavish plants which the panel of Gardener’s Question Time would no doubt be able to name. Surrounding the gardens, wide stretches of parkland offered sweeping views of the river where we could see N’Tiana at anchor, gleaming white in the sun.
In the afternoon we moved on to St Mawes which sits opposite Falmouth, five or so miles downriver.
After two abortive attempts at picking up a mooring buoy, having lost my temper – and pride – I moodily took the helm while Pete used his favourite lassoing technique to get the b***** attached. Then as if to distract us from my ineptitude, the most extraordinary thing happened.
It started to rain.
We looked up and the blue skies of the morning were being rapidly engulfed by thick grey clouds. A strong breeze got up from the east, pelting us with sharp little rain drops which steadily grew in size.
After almost two weeks of uninterrupted sunshine the rain seemed exotic and not entirely unwelcome. Rain or shine, the weather was not to interfere with our plans that evening, for I had an ulterior motive for coming to St Mawes.
St Mawes is home to a hotel that has taken on a vivid mythical status in my memory since I visited with my family aged 18.
My parents were off to a wedding somewhere nearby in Cornwall and decided to make a mini West Country holiday out of it, bringing their three daughters along for the ride.
The first night we stayed in a very strict, very beige, slightly smelly B&B somewhere in Devon that reminded us all of Mrs Smegma’s boarding house, immortalised by Bill Bryson in his Notes from a Small Island.
An extensive and detailed list of rules was pinned to the back of our dingy bedroom door, which included: “No talking in the corridors after 10pm” and “Please avoid flushing the lavatory after 11pm.”
None of us, it’s fair to say, were sad to leave.
The next day we drove to St Mawes with the mustiness of the B&B still clinging to us and pulled up outside the Hotel Tresanton whereupon we were swept into another world.
It was a world of effortless elegance, relaxed manners and subtle luxury that so many hotels try and fail to create.
It was chic without being stuffy. The food was delicious without being fussy.
The impeccable service of the staff made guests feel completely at ease but never stifled.
After a wonderful lunch in the hotel restaurant overlooking Percuil River, my parents, perhaps ill-advisedly, left the three of us aged 12, 18 and 19 in situ with instructions to make ourselves at home while they attended the wedding.
And make ourselves at home we did.
After a brief amble around St Mawes, using Hunter wellies thoughtfully stored by the hotel in every conceivable size, we returned to the lavish comfort of our room and ordered two afternoon teas to be delivered to the door. My older sister, who inherited something called self-control, did not partake.
We had also noted a wide selection of DVDs available for guests to borrow so helped ourselves to a handful and spent a lazy afternoon eating our way through the three layers of exquisite sandwiches, scones and cakes artfully arranged on the tiered server and watching a series of films which in no way enhanced our cultural education.
When 7pm struck we decided it was time for dinner, so the three of us clumped down to the restaurant, again, and sat down among the greying but glamorous clientele immediately lowering the average age by about 30 years.
Upon being presented with menus, my older sister and I requested pre-dinner Bellinis. I’m not sure I even knew what a Bellini was at the time, but I found out soon enough and was excessively pleased with my choice. So pleased in fact, I inwardly agreed I should probably drink it a lot more often in future. Something I have worked hard to keep up ever since.
We went on to sup on a three-course feast of fresh fish and fine wine and returned to our room giggling, heady and bloated with good food.
Mum and Dad returned from the wedding to be presented with a bill which made them feel that, probably, the best party of the day had been right there at the Tresanton – and not at the wedding at all.
I felt it was finally time I returned and apologised to the Tresanton staff for any inappropriate drunken teenage giggling on that fabled night in 2003 – and to find out if it had retained its magic.
So, on the first grey stormy evening since our sail to Studland Bay, we dinghied ashore and made our way past the delightfully pretty whitewashed cottages to the Hotel Tresanton.
We were welcomed out of the rain with wide smiles and ushered into a plush and warm drawing room with a large open fire, where we sank back in the embrace of the beautifully upholstered sofas while enjoying our aperitifs. I ordered a Bellini for old time’s sake. It was perfect.
The hotel still carried that air of effortless grace and luxury. The dining room remained relatively simple, with the sea views providing all the decoration necessary.
I ate crab, romaine and avocado salad with homemade golden crostini followed by fresh meaty monkfish with a rich sweet piperade while Pete demolished a dainty selection of scallops, mussels and clams then hake with a rich Hollandaise-style sauce and Cornish earlies – the local new potatoes.
We shared a dark chocolate torte for pudding before finding ourselves irresistibly lured to the cocktail bar where we rounded off our evening with martinis while playing several highly competitive games of two-man solitaire and noughts and crosses.
We left the hotel repeatedly telling the charming Maître D just how brilliant she and all her staff, but mainly she, was so effusively I suddenly began to worry she might get quite the wrong impression.
The next morning was much less enjoyable as our dehydrated brains bounced around our skulls like ping pong balls. Although we consoled ourselves with the thought that it could have been much worse had we not been drinking such good wine.
Luckily, we only had to hop across the river to Falmouth, where Pete was leaving me in solo charge of our floating home for a couple of days as duty called at home.