As well as being a beautiful place for visitors to explore, the River Fal has also always been a place of commerce. It is difficult to imagine that this enchanting and seemingly unspoilt river, with its steep sided densely wooded banks has ever seen any industry at all over the last few centuries, but it has and is still supporting commercial activity.
In bygone days the river was used by ships to access quays for loading produce from the tin, copper and clay industries on which the adjacent estates of Tregothnan and Trelissick drew their wealth. These loading quays were sometimes located many miles inland in villages no longer navigable, such as Tregony. The runoff from the various industries were directed into the very same rivers and creeks that the ships navigated, and over time they become silted. Some quays still remain, including Roundwood Quay which is also the location of an iron age fort and ancient woodland. Now it is a popular picnic and swimming spot.
Although those industrial days have long gone from the river, they have been replaced with new more environmentally friendly trades. Some obvious, and some not so.
The most obvious is the ‘Fal River’ company which transports thousands of people between Truro and Falmouth every summer on their fleet of pretty ferries. On our sailing trips, we often see the ferries hurrying back and forth with their passengers looking enchanted as they view the river and listen intently to the skipper talking about the sights. We always wave to them and they wave back, directing their cameras toward us to capture our pretty sailing barge.
Whenever we are sailing in the river, we can easily imagine being one of the sailing vessels of yesteryear, navigating the various reaches of the river. The skills required have not changed, with a considerable knowledge of the river, along with its tides and currents being key.
Though absent in 2018, surprisingly large ships often get laid up in the reaches of the river while they wait for work or seek new buyers. These would often surprise many visitors but reinforces the character of what is still a working river, these days managed by the Port of Truro.
There are still some ships that come and go on a regular basis to the commercial quay at Newham near Truro, a few miles inland from the river entrance. These days this part of the river dries out to muddy flats with a narrow channel, but on spring tide high water a ship is able to navigate here and while still empty has just enough water to turn around and back in to receive its cargo from the quay. The ship will depart fully laden on the next high water, often with inches to spare beneath its hull. The cargo these days is mostly scrap metal, destined for recycling in other parts of Europe or overseas.
Anybody navigating along the river will be enchanted by the setting of Tolverne cottage, also know as smugglers cottage. This is currently a private residence but has had various uses over the years, including during the second world war when it was a location used for embarking american troops and vehicles for the the d-day landings. It is a truly picturesque part of the river, which is a part of the sprawling Tregothnan estate.
A less obvious industry and one which always surprises our guests when we talk about it, goes practically unseen as it occurs during the winter months. During the summer months the only tell tale signs are a few row boats secured close to the river banks and at low water, ‘withies’ (sticks pushed into the mud) are visible which mark the edges of dredging areas . The industry is the gathering of oysters! Not farmed oysters but wild oysters which thrive in the Carrick Roads and the River Fal. Uniquely, the gathering is performed under sail or oar, no engines can be used. The crop is usually a good one and has remained completely sustainable for generations only due to the fact that the gathering is done by engineless vessels. While rowing boats are used in the narrow river channels, the vessel of choice in the more open waters of Falmouth is the famous Falmouth Working Boat, which are passed from generation to generation and some of which are reaching surprisingly old age, but are still often seen racing in open waters off Falmouth during the summer months.
There are few places around the UK which boast such an interesting array of past and present industries, yet have retained, at at least been allowed to return to their natural beauty. The River Fal is one of them.
Sailing barge Drifter offers sailing trips from 2 hours to all day in the River Fal. More information at www.sailingbargedrifter.co.uk