River Fal 7: Mothballs

– Lamouth Creek – Roundwood – Cowlands Creek (where?)

From Trelissick garden I meander through the wider estate to Roundwood Quay on the conjunction between Cowlands and Lamouth Creeks and the Fal. The tide waters haven’t made it all the way up here yet, and the creek mud is runnelled with mini-rivulets mapping out fluvial geomorphology speeded up and scaled down. This is where to find all the textbook river features denied the Fal by eustatic sea level rise: look, here’s some channel braiding, leading to a delta before the water drivels into the main body of the creek, and there’s even a tiny ox-bow lake over there. At the end of the creek the remains of an Iron Age fort stand in the woodlands. No one knows why it was built or what it was used for, but even so long ago the Fal must have been a geographical advantage. A troop of green clad National Trusties are wielding saws and shears in the undergrowth – probably removing more of those dreaded rhododendrons. Most environmental management is just gardening on a grander scale after all. It’s the same principle as the weeds in Mylor churchyard, just more plants growing in the wrong place at the wrong time: after all, these guys’ colleagues are weeding round the rhododendrons back at Trelissick.

From Roundwood Quay

The Quay is a haven for picnickers with dogs. They all – the dogs that is – get very excited when I arrive, with the two most inquisitive coming to investigate my open rucksack, only to look rather disappointed when they shove their muzzles in to discover raincoat, notebook, and a sorry-looking apple core. I shed my shoes and dangle my feet over the side of the quay. Given how shallow the water in the creek is it must get deep very quickly when it joins the main river: just before the channel turns towards Tolverne Reach three large ships are moored midstream. Unlike their cousins berthed in the docks or floating out in Falmouth Bay, these nautical giants aren’t waiting for the tide to turn to make their move. They won’t be going anywhere in a hurry. It has been said that the Fal is a good barometer for the financial economy: the fewer the ships laid up in these upper reaches of the estuary, the better the economy’s doing. In hard times it is often cheaper for a ship’s owners to mothball here with a skeleton crew than it would be to keep afloat at sea waiting for orders that aren’t coming in. Even so, I’m told it takes three tugs, the pilot boat and around £10,000 to lay up a ship here. Some vessels are waiting for the markets to pick up to get back to work. Others are waiting to be sold. For some this is the end of the road, and when they leave the Fal it will be for the scrap yard. The largest ship in the channel is emblazoned with the letters UECC, which leaves me fantasising for a moment that it’s been bought by University of Exeter Cornwall Campus to be used for emergency student accommodation next year. In fact it stands for United European Car Carriers, out of a job since so few people are buying new cars in the current economic downturn.

Behind the whistling calls of the waders prodding about the riverbanks a gentle thrum is emitting from the Norman Trader. It is a background noise that I find easy to blank out because of its constancy, but it makes me think how some people might resent the presence of these vessels in what would otherwise be a quiet haven. The news report on the mothballing featured clips of tourists complaining that they’d come on a cruise up the River Fal and were surprise to see the ships which were ‘not exactly a tourist attraction… bit of an eyesore really’. I could see where they were coming from, but for me the Fal is not just a peaceful riverscape that should be preserved merely to be looked at; I’ve always seen it as a working river, a geographical feature than can and should be made use of as well as something beautiful in its own right. Perhaps the reason it comes as such as surprise to some holiday makers is that they’re less aware of the long and varied maritime industrial history of the area. For myself, seeing reefers and traders alongside picturesque creeks and rambling woods feels quite in character for the river: like finding yachts at Mylor, ferries at Flushing and naval vessels at Falmouth Docks. The Fal wouldn’t be the Fal otherwise. Besides, there’s something quite spectacular in the sheer feats of engineering that keep these thousands of tonnes of steel afloat, and they’re enough of a fixture to feature on some of the more artistic versions of local maps so there’s no reason why they couldn’t be a tourist attraction in their own right.

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?

Click here then scroll down for a short video report on shipping laid up in the Fal – with bonus dolphins!

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