Falmouth is a great town. A quirky artsy place with colourful bars, restaurants and cafes at every turn. It’s like a miniature Brighton with less pretension and a lot more boats. Its high street is lined with eclectic independent shops, selling art, antiques and a strange blend of hippy rags and yachting regalia. The people are friendly and slightly vague.
Falmouth has a university and prestigious art school, which explains the youthful, creative crowd. It is also one of the major centres of British sailing with a competitive home racing fleet and thousands of visiting yachtsmen throughout the season. It is often the last port of call before a channel crossing south to Brittany and then on across Biscay. Or the reverse. It is the jumping off point for the Scilly Isles, southern Ireland or Wales. It is also an essential destination to anyone wanting to explore south Cornwall in a boat.
We were lucky to get a spot against the pontoon in Falmouth Haven where there were boats of every style and nationality. Unlike most marinas where it is quite evident that at least half the boats are either never used at all or are used solely for the purpose of sitting on deck while tied safely to the pontoon and enjoying sundowners, in Falmouth these were universally well sailed boats. Even the most polished had that sea-stained weathered look about them.
Proof of this came the next day when a large proportion of them left for their next port of call.
In the evening I went for a run, through the town and past the docks, where huge ships hummed away like sleeping giants, up to Pendennis Point. I stopped to explore the rocky promontory with its little secret beaches and swimming spots, ending in the squat old fortress on the point, above which a motley crew of van dwellers had gathered in the car park with their deck chairs, dogs and ice creams.
I ran on along the beaches on the other side of Falmouth packed with beach bums, body boarders, paddle boarders, sun-bleached children staggering about like drunks in the sand with their impossibly yummy mummies keeping a relaxed eye.
Everyone appeared to be slim, tanned and beautiful, oozing with health and well-being. A group of what looked like trainee life guards were being taken through a group work out, the evening sun casting a glistening glow on their tightly defined bodies. I stifled a laugh. Baywatch eat your heart out, Falmouth is where it’s at.
Maybe it’s the outdoor beachside lifestyle or maybe the Cornish have just won in the national looks lottery. Either way, Falmouth’s beaches that day were certainly a strong argument against the claim the English are an ugly race.
Pete returned with our friend Iain that night and after re-provisioning in readiness for the descent of several more friends that weekend, we had a quick and easy sail just four miles along the coast to the Helford River.
To describe the Helford River, I defer to the beautifully crafted words of of Daphne Du Maurier whose romantic adventure Frenchman’s Creek was inspired by its quietly flowing waters: “In those days the hills and the valleys were alone in splendour, there were no buildings to desecrate the rough fields and cliffs, no chimney pots to peer out of the tall woods. There were a few cottages in Helford hamlet, but they made no impression upon the river life itself, which belonged to the birds – curlew and redshank, guillemot and puffin.”
Aside from the proliferation of summer visitors on land and sea, the Helford seems to have changed little since these words were published in 1941. Its unblemished banks remain devoid of any sizeable settlements with several winding thickly wooded tributaries feeding the main river. It is in one of these hidden river branches that Jean-Benoit Aubéry, the French pirate and hero of Frenchman’s Creek seeks shelter leading to his love affair with Dona, Lady St Columb.
The Helford River is now a popular holidaying spot for both landlubbers and sailors with its small beaches teeming with visitors and the river itself crammed with moored boats. Its popularity means visitor moorings are often full in peak season and rafting is necessary. We conveniently picked up a buoy opposite the Ferry Boat Inn, a welcoming waterfront pub with excellent grub.
With a group of friends, we explored in our new inflatable kayak. By explored, I mean paddled gently about three miles up the river, fuelled by beers and pre-mixed gin and tonics. We landed on a crispy river beach near a boat long abandoned on the mud which had begun to take on the appearance of a wrecked pirate ship. There we took up station in the sun, where a steady flow of drink and talk descended into increasingly loud ‘Yarrrring’ at any passing piece of driftwood.
Exercise done for the day, we paddled back to the welcoming solidity of N’Tiana, deciding we would do the denizens of Helford Passage a favour by remaining on the boat for the evening rather than venturing to the pub. The next day was… uneventful.
Left alone again, Pete and I sailed for Penzance on Monday morning. Penzance is the last town on the south coast before Land’s End. It is not, as one might expect, full of pirates although it does host some fruity characters. It is not as twee as many of the Cornish coastal towns, still carrying that layer of grit and grim that comes of being a commercial port, albeit a very small one.
It is a pretty place built on a hill that leads down to a curved headland, with winding streets that do not seem to follow any town planners’ logic. It has a generous share of pubs, cafés and delis all calling out to day trippers to come in and feast on their wares.
The small inner harbour is accessible through a hydraulic gate open for just two hours before and one hour after high tide. The harbour is a far cry from the glitzy polished marinas that line much of the south coast, this is a working harbour, small and crowded and smelling of oil and old fishing nets. We entered at midnight and tied up four boats deep to the dock but safely ensconced.
It was a brief but much needed stop to restock on water, gas, petrol and food before crossing the Bristol Channel.
But before we left Cornwall, there was one last marine pilgrimage we had to make. We left Penzance and sailed not west but directly east to anchor below the high majestic rocks of St Michael’s Mount.
St Michael’s Mount could have been designed by an ancestor of Walt Disney. The medieval turreted castle sits high atop its conical island, surrounded by the rushing of the waves, until the tide falls low enough to expose the granite causeway linking it to the mainland for five or so hours before it is once again separated by sea. It is the stuff of folk lore and fairy tale and yet there it sits, as defiantly real and solid as the granite upon which it is built.
Home to the St Aubyn family since 1650, the mount is now managed by the National Trust and visited by thousands of awestruck tourists throughout the year. It has a permanent population of 35 or so, most of whom work on the island and live in the estate buildings clustered around its tiny harbour which dries completely for a few hours either side of low tide.
Benign weather made it possible for us to anchor right below the mount, just outside its harbour wall so we could easily row ashore. We waited for the seawater to subside from the causeway and walked across to the mainland, against the flow of tourists going the other way.
Marazion, the mainland town sitting opposite the Mount is appropriately picturesque with the smartly refurbished Godolphin Arms offering up a cold pint and tempting menu on a terrace overlooking the beach and Mount – and N’Tiana, anchored alone in the bay.
A proper exploration of St Michael’s Mount the next morning – brandishing our newly acquired National Trust membership – unveiled more of its magic, much of which lies in the fact it is still a family home and not simply a tourist gimmick or hollow relic. The St Aubyn family have private quarters but have opened up much of the gardens, castle and its historic interiors and furnishing to gawpers like ourselves. It is a rare slice of living breathing history connecting us in a clear unbroken line to our 12th century past.
Waving goodbye to the living and the ghosts of the Mount, we motored south west in the eerie calm airs, brewing with thunderstorms, hoping to make it around Land’s End and across the Bristol Channel before the skies spilt their contents. A pod of dolphins leapt and surfed past our bow as we headed out to sea, a perfect farewell to England.