River Fal 6: Hydrology

– Restronguet to Trelissick (where?)

Just upriver from the conjunction of Restronguet Creek and the Carrick Roads stands Porthgwidden, Cornish for ‘white bay’: a pale Art Deco style building which must have an impressive view right down the estuary out to sea. The house was originally owned by the Holman family, who made their fortune, yes, you guessed it, in mining. An even more appropriate name would perhaps be Aberfal, the Cornish for mouth-of-the-Fal, as it is less than half a mile upstream from here that the estuary narrows considerably, leaving the name Carrick Roads behind on the nautical map and officially becoming the River Fal. Physically the river finally loses the feeling that it’s a piece of trapped sea and starts to feel a little more riparian. I apply the term with deliberation as although its meaning is to all intents and purposes ‘rivery’, the word derives from the Latin riparius: ‘of or related to the bank of a river’. Our own word river itself is of appropriately convoluted origin fed by both riparius and the Old French rivere, which in turn was related to arrive, meaning ‘to bring a ship to shore’. Another connection is to rival from rivalis: Latin for ‘a person using the same stream as another’. It seems fitting that a thing so varied and variable as a river should have a name influenced by as many different but related roots, as if the word itself is echoing the ever-moving body of water that connects and combines its tributaries, and unifies stream, eddy and flow between its own confining banks.

The trees are partly responsible for the adjustment in atmosphere from coast to river. Rounding the bend as the river leaves the Carrick Roads you lose sight of the river mouth, and thus also of the sea itself, and this, combined with the narrowing of the channel makes the banks of the Fal a much more dominant part of the landscape. The way the trees cut off in a sharply defined line that marks the extent of the rise of the tide attenuates the sense of being in a drowned valley: there is so little transitional space between river bed and bank and dry land that it really feels as though the water’s flooded right in to the countryside. As the tide’s still on the rise the tree roots are exposed below high water mark: gnarled and bonelike, bleached by the saltwater. Above this line the woodlands thickly clothe the valley slopes up to the sky, a densely packed swathe of green that from a distance looks like a stack of broccoli heads at the greengrocers. In fact they’re oak trees, and up close they’re as impressive as but twistier than parkland specimens, clinging to steep slopes and curling their branches round as they reach towards the light.

It’s an interesting area for growing things. On the one hand the milder temperatures and frequent rainfalls make an enticing climate for lush vegetation; but on the sloping valleys of the ria the thin, often acidic soils aren’t very fertile and tend not to retain moisture well. The higher ground can be subject to blustering winds, but as the river and creeks have wound their way through the landscape they have created a series of peninsulas each with their own microclimates of shade and shelter, damp and dry, exposure and enclosure.

Cryptomeria, Heliotropium, Halesia carolina, Carya, Camellia, ‘Red Devil’, ‘Mary Swaythling’, ‘Firecracker’: they could be the names of more boats, but in fact they’re plants adorning the rambling pathways of Trelissick garden that clambers over the promontory between Channels and Lamouth Creeks on the western shore of the Fal. The original riverside woodlands provide shelterbelts for the more exotic planting within the garden itself, and the gardeners have taken advantage of the variations in relief and exposure to cultivate different horticultural styles within the single setting. Like Porthgwidden, and many of the larger houses or estates locally, Trelissick was raised into prominence on riches gleaned from the minerals industry. The Daniells bought the estate, enlarged the park, laid out the pleasure gardens and transformed the house from a two storey villa to the Georgian mansion that can be seen facing out down the estuary today. It was Trelissick’s next owner John Davies Gilbert who diversified the planting, as his son Carew was a traveller who brought back specimens to the gardens from all over the world. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw a great trend in exotic planting and hybridisation, as explorers and scientists spread out through the Empire collecting new and beautiful plants the like of which had been neither seen nor imagined at home in England. Cornwall provided the ideal nursery for cultivating sub-tropical species and many of the larger estates not only made excellent showcases for the latest must-have floral exquisites but were the perfect sites for hybridisation. It’s strange to think that now commonplace British familiars like naturalised rhododendrons were once strange and rare when they’ve now taken over and conservation organisations like BTCV or the National Trust gather together armies of support workers to dig them out where they’re not wanted.

Trelissick Garden and Woodland walks view from the grounds towards the Carrick Roads

The National Trust was gifted the garden, park and woodland of Trelissick by Mrs Ida Copeland in 1955, and although the house remains family owned the Trust has continued to manage the grounds ever since. The Trust also owns a large proportion of the countryside surrounding the Fal Estuary, including much of the Roseland and St Anthony Head. Estuaries have been a priority environment for the organisation in recent years with the aim of conservation and restoration whilst allowing as much of the landscape as possible to remain accessible to the public. They might charge what sometimes seems a disproportionately high fee for entry into some of their properties, but when you consider the huge swathes of coast and countryside made available by the Trust for us to tramp all over for nothing that are equally well tended that ticket price starts to seem a little more reasonable.

Summer is hydrangea season in the garden. They flourish under the boughs of cherry trees, creating banks of bubbling colour: blues soft and bright, muted pinks, purples, reds, frothing whites. Their flower clusters are grouped into ‘lace-caps’ and ‘mopheads’, fairly self-explanatory, except I can’t help thinking the mopheads look more like those kitsch 1950s shower caps with flowers stuck all over. I like the word hydrangea and keep running it over in my head. Hydra, hydro, ranger: a water-ranger, is this what I am, wending my way upriver with the tide, ranging all over its banks and beaches? Looking the word up in the dictionary I find it is of Greek origin and means water vessel in reference to the shape of the seed pods, which seems even more apt. I think also of Hydra, a mythological beast like a many-headed water serpent, that as soon as you cut off one head two more grow in its place. Between the specimen trees adorning the terraces of Trelissick a glimpse of azure Fal twins with the blossoms in the shrub layer, as the river reflects the August sky. How like a many-headed serpent itself, this snaking watercourse of so many sources. I don’t doubt that if it were possible to cut off one of the Fal’s tributaries two more would form to replace it. Water is remarkably tenacious and unmanageable, as ambitious planners always fail to remember when they embark on their schemes of re-channelling and straightening a river only to find it attempts to remake its own path under the next storm flood.

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.

More on this?

Trelissick Garden is open year round, and the wider park and woodlands are accessible for free. Enterprise Boats offer a summer ferry service (April-October) running between Falmouth and Malpas/Truro (depending on the tide) that stops at Trelissick, which is a really good way to see the river and its surrounding landscape.


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