We are required by law to make the following announcement. At the rear of each deck is an orange box, each containing sixty five life jackets. In the unlikely event of an emergency remain seated. Remain calm. Don’t panic, ’coz we’ll be doing that. Listen carefully to instructions given by the skipper and the crew, as we’ll be shouting them to you from the shore…
It gets a laugh every time. Just around the corner from the docks the first passenger ferries of the morning are embarking from Falmouth town’s Prince of Wales Pier and Custom House Quay offering an alternative, and often speedier, route to neighbouring villages of Flushing, Mylor, St Mawes. The more leisurely pleasure cruises upriver to Trelissick, Malpas and Truro, or out into Falmouth Bay and the mouth of the Helford River generally operate from Easter to early autumn, and come complete with an informative, if not necessarily the most accurate of commentaries by the skipper.
It’s amazing just how quickly stepping off the main street of the town and on to a boat renders Falmouth anew with a holiday atmosphere. Bunting strung between the lamp posts on the pier has come free and the loose end streams out in the breeze, its segments simplified versions of a sailing ship’s signalling colours are framed against the bright sky. Now the seagulls’ cries seem in their rightful place, as they wheel overhead, or look down from the tops of the lamp posts with one yellow eye, ever hopeful that someone might be eating chips this early in the morning. Someone foolishly throws some crumbs from their alfresco breakfast for the motley crew of pigeons nodding around on ground level. It’s always easy to spot the tourists in Cornwall.
On board the ferry a parent is eager for their children to sit down.
But we’re watching the duck!
It’s not a duck, it’s a cormorant.
He’s a youngster – the bird, that is – ashy grey above water and sleek as a torpedo below. The water’s very clear and we watch him propel swiftly around just under the surface. A shoal of tiny blue fish that had collected right by the boat quickly makes itself scarce.
Minx. Doodle. Ygor, Falmouth. Iris Elizabeth. Myfanwy. The Fal Estuary has around 4,700 leisure craft moorings, including Port of Truro, the Penryn River, Mylor and Falmouth harbours and it’s easy to see the attraction on a day like today. After the oversized hulls of the vessels in the docks the array of craft moored up to coloured buoys across the expanse of water seem incredibly small to be sailing the open sea. Agnes Grace. Wanderlust. Common Sandpiper with her rust coloured sails, another that’s clinker built and pea green. I think their names sound lighter and more appropriate to their size and usage than those emblazoned in feet high letters on the tankers, but realise I’m only associating the names with the boats on which I’ve seen them: Tina Theresa and Freja Atlantic would look just at home scribed on the bowsprit of a yacht despite the fact they belong to massive Danish tankers. Then again Lotus Express sounds more like it belongs to a Chinese takeaway than anything waterborne. Ships have been named after women since the time of the Phoenicians and are always referred to as she, unusually in English where most inanimate objects have no gendered pronouns. It’s a custom so old that no one really knows how it came about, though it’s thought that the tradition was handed down from days when ships were named after auspicious goddesses, and then the next most important mortal women such as the queen, or the admiral’s wife or mother. A ship as a female entity was considered the only lucky woman to have at sea, and perhaps the feminine association came about through the ship’s role as a nurturing guardian to the sailors. Lloyd’s List controversially decided to stop referring to vessels as she in 2002, saying it needed to move with the times and keep in line with the nautical industry of the rest of the world, though the Royal Navy quickly replied that it would not be abandoning the tradition, even though many of their ships are named after male historical figures or geographical places.
The skipper’s commentary points out one of the larger houses on the waterfront of Flushing’s headland. It’s painted a hideous green that clashes with its rooftiles and is, apparently, owned by Johnny Depp; although I’m sure another time it was Madonna, and that the time before that it was someone else equally unlikely. The house might be grand enough and the land holding considerably more extensive than anything I can imagine owning in my lifetime but the acre parcels of land surrounding these most luxurious of the Fal estuary’s properties are dwarfed by the adjacent Trefusis estate, which covers most of the headland between the Penryn River and Mylor Creek. A footpath circuiting what feels like the coast but looks like the river cuts through rough pasture half-enclosed by hedgerows that have overgrown the original boundaries. From the river below the green of the field is almost always broken by the bright splotches of walkers’ anoraks: usually middle aged couples or families – most with a dog – except for the one with the red rucksack and the notebook scribbling down names of flowers and shapes of clouds, keeping half an eye on the state of the tide and another half out for cow pats. The cows themselves are nowhere to be seen as I tramp through their thistle-flowered sward, but the next day I see them from the river, blocks of black and white spread up the same slope, all facing the same direction with their heads down.
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.