Early morning. Falmouth is uncharacteristically still, except for the docks who make their presence known through metallic clanks and rumblings, the whine of a siren, the baseline whirr of an engine throbbing low as the subconscious. Like the estuary on which their livelihood depends, it’s doubtful whether the docks ever sleep at all. As one of the major ports in the south west Falmouth plays host to an international clientele with nautical visitors from all over the world. Lian Xing Hu, Flinterbright, Chambulk Savannah, Mar Elena, Triton Osprey: floating hulks of steel from China, Norway, Spain incoming and outgoing at all hours of the day and night for refitting and refuelling, making best use of rise and fall in the water levels in order to navigate the narrow channel of the harbour entrance.
From the viewpoint on the road that skirts Falmouth’s Pendennis headland the sight of the docks laid out in plan view below the lay-by’s railings will draws plenty of onlookers later in the day. Although this high point commands an excellent view of a large part of Falmouth harbour’s miles of water and the rural headlands across the river, the reclaimed and concreted expanse of the docks, populated with cranes and derricks and oversized ship hulls is what draws the eye. Perhaps it’s because, when viewed from above, the industrial scene takes on a scaled-down quality, as though made of Lego controlled and dismantled by a giant hand from the sky. It’s only on spotting the tiny hi-viz clad workers operating the real life cogs and levers that the true scale of things becomes apparent. Seeming too vast to ever be able to float, the 16,160 tonne, 176m ex-naval Largs Bay is relatively small compared to the maximum of 100,000 tonnes that the largest of the three dry docks can accommodate. It’s currently being refitted to become HMAS Choules, having been sold to the Australian Navy in April 2011 for £65 million. Out on one of the deepwater berths that project from the Western Breakwater lies her sister ship Mounts Bay, a semi-submersible hulk of grey metal so large that a small fleet can sail in and out of her like an up-scaled metallic version of a cichlid fish holding its brood in its mouth.
Given the impressive geography of the surrounding landscape of the Fal Estuary it would be easy to think the presence of something so industrial detracts from the attractiveness of the place. It could be that the harbour and docks are so much a part of the essence of the Fal Estuary that this makes for such a satisfying viewpoint. Nature and industry working alongside each other are characteristic of many river estuaries. These are places where trade and commerce converge on the meeting point between land, river and sea. As estuaries go this one is fairly un-industrialised, partly due to its landward isolation. Being so far down the Channel gave Falmouth the advantage when Sir Walter Raleigh chose to promote its development in the seventeenth century as a sheltered deepwater harbour much closer to the Atlantic shipping routes than other ports. These same reasons rendered it unsuitable for further development as a trade port beyond the early nineteenth century because it was so inaccessible to the major cities compared to other ports. Now Falmouth thrives instead on ship repair, refits and conversions; the largest bunkering or refuelling operation in the UK; and increasing numbers of cruise calls.
It is partly the rising numbers of cruise ships berthing here that prompted plans to be put forward concerning the future of Falmouth Docks. At 34m in the deepest part of the river mouth Falmouth is the third deepest natural harbour in the world after Sydney and Rio de Janeiro. Natural harbours are considered to be those enclosed by landforms or existing geographical features and are maintainable without dredging. However, despite the macrotidal forces keeping the channel open, parts of Falmouth harbour and the Carrick Roads are subject to heavy siltation due to the fact that the Fal Estuary is fed by so many tributaries. Around three centimetres a year is thought to be building up, which has caused a 60m reduction in channel width in twenty five years. The main channel is already significantly narrower than other main UK ports, and the deepwater entrance to the docks currently involves a dog-leg which makes for difficult navigation by the largest vessels. Concerns have been voiced that unless the navigation and berthing facilities at Falmouth are improved the port’s future usefulness may be at stake. Cruise liners of lengths over 320m are now being floated out onto the oceans of the world – twice the length of the seemingly monstrous Largs Bay – but Falmouth’s longest berth is currently only 230m, with a tidally dependent depth of 5.6m. A joint project between Falmouth Harbour Commissioners and the Falmouth Docks and Engineering Company would see the dredging of 700,000m3 of sediment from an area alongside the docks that would create a straighter, safer channel as well as a 9.5m alongside berth; and the construction of a longer jetty joining Queen’s and Northern Wharves. If the proposed plans were to be accepted Falmouth Bay could soon play host to more sea giants than just Morgawr, the unproven but oft-sighted sea monster said to lurk beneath the surface of the bay.
Of all the sea-life that might get in the way of this plan to secure Falmouth’s future maritime industry a leviathan like Morgawr would probably have seemed more impressive than the reality: no sea monster but some sea weed. The estuary forms part of the 6387.8ha Fal and Helford Special Area of Conservation because of its diversity of habitats and the quality of the wildlife found here. The underwater sandbanks are considered to be some of the richest biologically in the UK, including the largest maerl beds in the south west. Maerl is the collective name for calcified red seaweeds Lithothamnium coralloides and Phymatolithon caleaereum, which form the temperate equivalent of a thin, lilacy coral reef on the estuary floor. As well as taking hundreds of years to build up, this crusty carpet provides living space for many smaller sea creatures in the Fal Estuary, including some rare finds such as Couch’s goby. Like coral reefs maerl is extremely sensitive to sediment smothering, which is why it grows in the areas where the Fal’s tidal stream keeps this to a minimum.
In January 2011 the plans were turned down, with the disturbance of the maerl beds cited as the main objection as the planned excavations would mobilise huge volumes of sediment. The developers revised and resubmitted, with a more extensive proposal for habitat mitigation which would see six hectares of seabed within the eastern part of the channel – away from the docks on the less developed side of the estuary – dredged, but refilled with maerl which would be lifted from the areas required to be deepened for the channel improvements. Although Cornwall County Council approved the revised proposal in July 2011, that approval is on the proviso that extensive testing can positively prove the financial and ecological viability of maerl relocation as a solution to the problem. Debate still rages, but if the government gives the go-ahead, dredging could begin as early as 2013. However there are still major hurdles besides the seemingly small matter of some calcified seaweed: given that the area is under EU environmental protection if the project is approved it will create a controversial precedent for other coastal developments in protected areas.
If anything has become apparent in the port’s three hundred and fifty years of development, it is that keeping a maritime industry afloat requires it to shift with the times as well as the tide. With the extent of environmental degradation that’s occurred in the wake of the industrial revolution now becoming apparent in the UK, the fact that the next step in this coastal development has undergone such scrutiny in order to incorporate ecological as well as economical advancement for the area bodes well for the future of an estuary defined by the co-existence of its small-scale industrial attributes alongside its natural merits.
Articles in this series form part of a longer piece on the tidal section of the River Fal in Cornwall. In it I imagine what it would be like to start at low tide at the river mouth, travelling upriver to the highest tidal point at high tide, and returning back to the sea, by exploring the locations on and around the river and making my own ‘tidal journey’ inland and back out to sea. There are thirteen parts to the series. They can of course be read in order, but you don’t necessarily have to start with part 1, it being a cyclical journey there is no definitive start and end point. Each section can also be read as a stand-alone piece.