Falmouth and the River Fal

One of Cornwall's most beautiful sea and river locations circled by areas of outstanding natural beauty and historic country estates and gardens.

The River Fal Drifter Falmouth Neil & Debbie

The River Fal

The River Fal is one of Cornwall's most beautiful rivers which is surrounded by areas of outstanding natural beauty, historic estates and lush gardens. It has always had a strong maritime connection with it being a natural safe harbour for shipping for many hundreds of years. The river allows navigation from the sea (Falmouth) to the cathedral city of Truro 9 miles inland.

Although the entire length of the river from the sea to the city is commonly refered to as the River Fal, it comprises several rivers including the Truro, Tresillian, Fal, Kennal/Carnon and Penryn rivers as well as numerous smaller creeks. The source of the River Fal is located approximatley 18 miles inland from the sea at Goss Moor and joins the navigable river via Ruan creek.

Antique chart of the River Fal

The river separates two equally beautiful Cornish peninsulas, the Roseland to the east and the Lizard to the west. The former is also known as the 'Cornish Riviera', the latter boasts the most southerly part of mainland UK at Lizard Point. A trip to this part of Cornwall would be incomplete without getting on the water and discovering this enchanting place.

Where the river meets the sea at Falmouth, the waters are a wide estuary known as the Carrick Roads. It is ringed by the beautiful villages of St Mawes, St Just, Mylor and Flushing. The waters are always active with ferries, yachts and ships going about their business and pleasure. Although the town of Falmouth is now Cornwall's biggest habitation and a busy commercial port, historically the ports of Penryn and Truro were where most trade took place, these towns being further into the river and more easily protected.

A few miles into the river and it quickly becomes narrow with steep densely wooded banks along most of its length. In parts it is deep enough to allow large ships to sometimes moor within when not in use, or with a high tide navigate to Truro for cargo.

View of the River Fal from Trelissick gardens

All parts of the river are effectively a commercial port owned and managed between the Falmouth Harbour Commissioners and the Port of Truro. It is a wonder that even after centuries of industrial activity in the local area that it remains unspoilt and wild. The balance between recreation, commercial activity and nature is perfectly controlled.

Where the river narrows from the Carrick Roads is the Trelissick estate (now owned by the National Trust) with its large sweeping lawn leading up from the shore to the beautiful historic house and gardens. The walks here are some of the best in the area and a popular place to bring dogs for exercise. There is an anchorage and beach in front of the gardens from which the views all around are spectacular.

Trelissick house anchorage

Opposite the house is Tolcarne beach, remote but popular with boaters and campers who are often seen having BBQ's during the summer. This part of the River was used in the production of Disneys 1950's 'Treasure Island', pretending it to be a tropical paradise. More recently some scenes in Poldark were also filmed here. The beach also was also used to load American troops and vehicles for the the D-Day landings.

A little further into the river we come across the first sign of commercial fishing activity in the form of a Mussel farm. There are perfect conditions in the river for the growing of some of the best mussels and oysters in the South West. The oyster fishery is unique in that they can only be collected using oar and sail and the oyster punts and sailing boats (known as Falmouth working boats) are seen doing this during every winter throughout oyster gathering season.

The river becomes much quieter from here and the water is an emerald green. At high tide it trickles against the lowest branches of the trees, and as the tide recedes it exposes rocky edges and beautiful serpent-like fallen trees. Further upriver in creeks, mud flats become exposed which feed a rich variety of birds, sometimes with rare visitors. The difference between low and high water in the river can be as much as 5 meters.

Further along this reach of the river is the King Harry chain ferry, a service operating since 1889 and considered to be one of the most beautiful ferry crossings in the world. The ferry crosses the River at the location of an ancient pilgrims way to St Michael’s Mount. The current ferry has a glass side, allowing its passengers glorious views of the River. This is often the first glimpse of the river visitors get, but the advertisements onboard for various river trips will hopefully encourage them to experience the river's full beauty, including perhaps onboard our own traditional sailing barge.

King Harry Ferry Cornwall

It is here that you might come across one or more large ships on commercial moorings, this will typically be in times of recession. The ships bring a good income to the port and local businesses. In recent years there have been very few ships using the river in this way due to good economic times.

On the next bend of the river is the idyllic Smugglers cottage at Tolverne, which was an important location at the end of World War 2 where US troops and vehicles were also loaded onto invasion vessels. General Eisenhower visited and stayed at the cottage just before the invasion. For many years the house was a popular tea room and housed WW2 memorabilia, but it is now a private residence.

Opposite Tolverne is the pre-historic settlement of Roundwood, one of the earliest known in the area. The more recent stone quay which can be seen here was once used to load cargos from various industries in the area, these days it is a quiet and popular picnic spot. Also here is the beautiful hamlet of Coombe lying on its own drying arm of the river.

Smugglers cottage at Tolverne, River Fal

A little further upriver, the Tregothnan estate now appears on the eastern shore. This private family residence has been occupied by generations of the same family since the 13th century. Owning much of the surrounding land, the estate has been instrumental in keeping the river unspoilt and wild to this day. Tea is grown on the estate, and also honey is harvested from its bees which feed on its diverse flora, including #Manuka.

Tregothnan House Cornwall

Here the river divides. The River Fal continues East into Ruan Creek where it eventually reaches its source many miles inland on Goss Moor. In ancient times sailing ships could navigate the Ruan as far as the village of Tregony quite a way inland, but over the centuries it has become silted and shallow.

Leading Northwards is the deeper Truro River which allows navigation all the way to city of Truro. Here yachts will be seen lying quietly on visitors pontoons. They will often spend many days here enjoying the wild and quiet nature of the river. There is also many miles of exploring to be had along the shores and creeks, typically by dinghy, kayak or paddleboard.

Before reaching Truro the river branches off again at Malpas towards the hamlet of Tresillian. The village of Malpas has some very desirable waterfront properties and the very popular Heron Inn, where diners have a very beautiful post card view of the river from its Terrace. It is also where we usually start and finish our sailing tours of the river.

View of Malpas from the River Fal

The River Fal is a drowned valley which filled with water at the end of the ice age. These are called 'rias' and many of the rivers and estuaries in the south west of England were formed this way. This explains the unusually deep water in the river and harbour. Falmouth is in fact the third deepest natural harbour in the world with depths reaching 34 meters.

Any visitor to Cornwall should consider a trip on what is one of Cornwall's most beautiful rivers. We hope to see you soon!


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Drifter sailing in the River Fal

Drifter is a Dutch built sailing barge known as a Lemsteraak. They are well known for their beautiful design and large and comfortable deck and interior.

They are wider and sail more upright than other types of sailing boat, and use characteristic leeboards attached to the side instead of a keel.

The barge is similar to the working vessels that fished and transported supplies around the waterways of the Netherlands in the 18th/19th century.

Working sailing barges often sailed from the Netherlands to UK ports, and years ago were not an unusual site in our waters, including Falmouth.

Built in 1976, the barge is just over 11 meters long, 4.5m wide and 85cms deep, the barge is flat bottomed allowing us to sail in shallow waters.

Drifter is regularly surveyed by the Maritime and Coastguard agency for safety, and is coded for Category 4 waters.

Drifter's design suits the area very well, allowing us to sail in the shallow waters of Carrick Roads and creeks of the River Fal. The barge is also capable of doing much more adventurous voyages, we sailed the barge back from the Netherlands, via the North Sea and English Channel to Falmouth ourselves in 2017.

The hull is robustly built of steel, and the traditional and highly developed rig and leeboards are constructed from solid wood.

Drifter sailing in the River Fal

There are many different types of Dutch sailing barge, but the Lemsteraak are considered to be most sea kindly and capable.

Each winter we perform maintenance and restoration work on Drifter in order to keep the barge in truly beautiful condition.

The river is abundant with wildlife, therefore Drifter has been certified as a wildlife safe operator by WiSe.

Drifter sailing in the River Fal

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Falmouth and its neighbouring sheltered harbours and creeks are a sailors dream.

The historic town of Falmouth has grown to become Cornwall's largest settlement, and has been home to sailing ships throughout it's entire history. It is an important safe harbour and is the largest port in Cornwall (and the third deepest natural harbour in the world) for ships departing for and arriving from all over the globe.

The town itself is a vibrant place, and everywhere you go you can see that this is very much a maritime town.

The waters immediately adjacent to Falmouth are known as the Carrick Roads (Cornish: Dowr Carrek, meaning "rock anchorage"), and there are few occasions when you will not find boats, ferries and ships making their way across it. The waters are surrounded by beautiful countryside and farmland.

St Anthony lighthouse stands on the eastern side of the harbour entrance, which keeps mariners clear of the infamous Manacles rocks off the coast of the lizard peninsula.

When entering the harbour from the sea, St Mawes castle and Pendennis castle proudly sit on opposite shores, having being built by Henry VIII during less friendly times. The eastern shore is the Roseland Peninsula, designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty.

The entire area is renowned for lush tropical gargens including Trebah, Glendurgan, Trelissick and Heligan to name just a few!

The most famous boats in the area are the Falmouth working boats, still used to dredge for local wild oysters under sail in winter time, and regularly seen racing in the summer months.

Nearby, St Mawes, St Just, Mylor & Restrounguet are all outstanding places to visit by boat. And of course the jewel in the crown is the River Fal leading northwards towards Truro. A river that has managed to remain unspoilt even after centuries of local industry.

Falmouth's maritime heritage is showcased throughout the year with various events on the water and in the town including food and music festivals including the world famous sea shanty festival.

Neil and Debbie

The owners of sailing barge Drifter, Neil and Debbie Wood

Neil and Debbie will always go out of their way to ensure every aspect of your time onboard is as good as it can be.

They both have extensive sailing experience including cruising in tropical paradises, sailing on the beautiful inland and coastal waters of Europe and crossing the worlds oceans.

Over the years they have crewed racing yachts, luxury charters, sail training vessels, deliveries and have also supervised some very interesting restoration projects. Their broad experience of sailing boats, both heritage and modern, makes them very interesting people to be on the water with.

Together they chose to purchase a Dutch sailing barge because their passion is traditional vessels, and the design is well known for comfortable and social sailing. They wanted a versatile boat that was capable of sailing in shallow waters as well as being taken on much more adventurous trips.

Neil is a commercially endorsed ocean yachtmaster with over 50,000 sea miles. Debbie has a wealth of experience in both sailing and hospitality and also holds a skippers license. They have been working together on boats for 20 years.

They met while working on a 100 year old Thames sailing barge in 2000, and got married in the middle of winter because they were too busy sailing in the summer!

They want to share with you the experience of being under gentle sail in one of the South West's most beautiful locations.