– Tolverne Reach – Lamorran Woods – Sett Bridge and Ruan Lanihorne (where?)
The further up the Fal Estuary I go the fewer the rivers I find it starts to be comprised of. At Tolverne I could follow the westerly branch up to Malpas, where the Heron Inn overlooks the junction of the Truro and Tresillian Rivers, and the pub’s avian namesakes roost in the trees on the opposite bank or stand still in the shallows waiting to spear their next meal. I could even go by boat, as cruises run all the way up to Truro during high tide. Instead I choose the easterly branch to find the tidal limit of the true Fal. Along this stretch it’s known as the Fal-Ruan, as it combines the two rivers of these names. I plan to walk, sticking as close to the riverside as I can, following a path marked on my map that skirts the woodland edge of the land between the Truro River and the Fal. But people make plans and the Lord laughs, or so the saying goes. Lord Falmouth that must be in this case, owner of the Tregothnan estate that covers much of that area and whose estate managers have foiled my attempts to assert my right to roam with their gates and very inaccessible private land. It’s fitting that the main photograph used on estate propaganda is that of a garden door ajar, a beam of sunlight glancing through the gap from within. I discovered that guided tours of the gardens are available but only to those with a spare fifty quid in their back pocket: clearly this garden door is half closed and not half open.
So I go by road, treading streets so empty the only vehicle I see is the post-van which laps me twice. I feel like I’m seeing the countryside through green-tinted goggles as I walk along lanes sunk so far down between their flourishing hedges that it feels like walking in a holloway. I’m certainly not in Falmouth anymore.
It’s raining by the time I reach Sett Bridge, and stepping out from under the shelter of the trees it quickly becomes apparent how heavily. I stand on the bridge in my waterproof looking south west across a wide tidal flood plain of intersecting swatches of saltmarsh and flooded creeks. This is high tide, at the highest tidal point of the Fal, and for the first time I actually feel like I’m looking at an estuary. Away east the Ruan River runs down from the village of Ruan Lanihorne, but here at last is the Fal itself, by itself. Not for the first time it occurs to me what a misnomer Falmouth is. True enough the town stands at the mouth of a river, but if you look on a map it looks more like the mouth of the Penryn River than the Fal; and the Fal at that point isn’t just the Fal it’s also the also the Kennal, the Carnon, the Callenick, the Kenwyn, the Allen, the Tresillian and the Trevella Rivers too, rival waters running in the same stream as another under the navigational title of the Carrick Roads. Here is the real mouth of the Fal, just below this bridge.
Behind me, facing north, the river continues, but from here on up the water only flows one way: downstream. It emerges from a line of trees to the east and flushes through a water meadow that’s looking particularly lush in all the rain. I go off-road and follow the river to the woods, getting soaked as I tramp through waist high vegetation, uncertain how deep each footstep will plunge. Iris and hemlocks are shoulder high; it’s almost possible to feel the meadow growing in the fecund damp of the Cornish summer. Under the trees I shelter from the rain surrounded by a tapestry of sounds and their corresponding movements. The woods are alive. The river is alive. It sounds like there are people further up the hill in the woods above me, chattering and rustling around. I realise it’s actually a group of squirrels high in the tree branches, and track their progress through the canopy by way of the moving showers of drips they leave in their wake. Wrens and tits seem to be finding a lot to complain about too, and a very loud bee goes past on collision course with my head until I duck out of the way.
It all feels very inland, there’s nothing coastal about this Fal, all green and brown and mud-bottomed, ten foot wide and potentially wadeable. This is such a different river from the salty expanse of the Carrick Roads. Though the water looks brown it really is quite clear, taking on the properties of the muddy bed and the reflected tree canopy above. It must be quite deep in places too: there’s a tree trunk that’s completely submerged, but it’s all relative. Given its width and capacity a few miles downstream I think I expected the Fal at this point to be larger than it is, swimmable perhaps, although I can’t realistically imagine actually doing this I daydream about floating downriver all the way to the sea. Maybe I’ll send a stick down. Or a rubber duck. Or a paper boat with a message written on it. The water would warp it and run the ink, rewriting its own story as it went along.
The tide will already have turned. Below the bridge the water flows the right way again and away from me beached inland while the river’s heading back to the sea.
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.
‘Ideogram for Green’ by Alice Oswald – she’s done a lot of good rivery things but this is just right for the wood and watermeadow rain-green of this part of the Fal. You can find it in Woods etc. (2005) ISBN: 9780571218523