According to King Harry’s Cornwall Area Map the Fal-Ruan Estuary Nature Reserve is populated by giant ostrich-sized waders that look a little like curlew. That is, of course, if you take their symbolic representation at face value. I can hear the real life curlew calling, but cannot see them. It’s such a recognisable sound, sorrowful and shrill, but for some reason it’s not a sound I can ever recall in my mind when I’m elsewhere. That sound belongs to wide waters and mudflats; which is exactly what this reserve is made up of. It’s difficult to get a good view of the site, partly because it’s a landscape of so little relief that when you’re standing on a level with it you can only really see what’s directly in front of you, and partly because there’s very little direct access to this part of the river as it’s surrounded on all sides by private farmland and unless the tide is right in the channel is un-navigable, reduced to little more than a wiggly blue worm meandering its way through the mudflats on the map. Even on a spring high tide it makes for treacherous sailing, as sandbars that would usually be exposed at high water on an average tide are immersed, though never covered by enough water to eliminate the possibility of running aground.
It seems strange now to think that little more than a hundred years ago barges regularly shipped out cargoes from the brick works that operated out of Trelonk on the southern shore of the river between 1891 and 1907. A crumbling quay and a chimney stack are all that remain now, flanked on one side by furrowed fields, and the other by a tidal squelch. But that’s precisely why it’s such a perfect place for conservation: it is a place reserved for nature primarily by its inaccessibility.Cornwall Wildlife Trust, who run the reserve, are explicit about deterring attempts to gain access via the mudflats which are ‘impassable’ and ‘potentially dangerous’. Personally I wouldn’t be tempted, having seen their extent on a satellite photograph: it probably wouldn’t just be your wellies that got stuck in that amount of mud.
However un-enticing an environment this is to humans, tidal flats provide excellent feeding grounds for avian visitors and are the most biologically productive coastal habitat due to their rich levels of organic matter that supports a wealth of fauna. Greenshank and black-tailed godwit are among the waders that favour the Fal-Ruan Estuary, though much greater numbers can be found at low tide when the mudflats are fully exposed, probing for food in little danger of sinking with their splayed feet spreading their negligible bird-weight over as wide an area as possible. At just after high tide a pair of swans glide over the flooded surface. A little egret – a delicate relative of the heron that’s only become common in Britain since I had my first pair of binoculars – picks her way round the edge before lifting off and heading southwest towards Ardevora.
The notion of the sublime to the ridiculous springs to mind traversing from a depopulated expanse of mud to Smuggler’s Cottage at Tolverne, which is solely the reserve of people. It’s August Bank Holiday, the sun’s out, and the forty odd tables outside the Tea Bar are full. They’ve run out of sugar bowls. The bar manager wonders aloud to a waitress what he’d give for a full rota of staff and appliances that work. A girl behind me, barely two years old, is having trouble comprehending that it’s possible for there to be this much of a wait for ice cream. Sadly life is full of disappointments. Happily the cream tea by the river is not one of them, even after such a lengthy queue. The scone is fresh out the oven. The jam is thick with locally grown Kea plums. Even the tea is as English as it could be, brewed from the only tea actually grown in this country on the Tregothnan estate across the river, whose owner just happens to be descended from Earl Grey.
The tea bush, Camellia sinensis, was first introduced to the UK two hundred years ago, and while camellias are often grown as ornamental additions throughout British gardens, Tregothnan is the only place to cultivate them for tea production. They served the first genuine cup of English tea in 2006, 350 years after the brew was first sipped by Britain’s gentry. Now it’s difficult to imagine tea being an upper-class exclusive, but in times past it was a precious commodity kept under lock and key so the servants couldn’t steal it.
This is the closest I’ve ever felt to being trapped in a postcard or stuck to the front of a chocolate box, as I sit outside the so-picturesque-it’s-almost-fake Smugglers’ Cottage and break the crust of my clotted cream with a teaspoon. The cottage belongs to the Tregothnan estate and was built as a ferryman’s home, but despite its charming, creeper-covered exterior it has had an important role in twentieth century history. The slipway and concrete road here were built for the disembarkation of 27,000 American troops in preparation for the D-Day landings, and Eisenhower himself visited to address them. One of the flagpoles flies a Stars and Stripes in commemoration alongside a Union Jack, which seems strange in Cornwall where St Piran’s flag is usually strung up as a matter of point. To make up for Tolverne’s apparent lack of Cornish loyalty I make sure I put the jam on my scones first – though the real reason I do it this way is because I discovered a long time ago that it’s much easier to put cream on jam than it is to try and spread jam on cream. Practicality over patriotism any day.
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.
Click here for some tea recipes and links to more information about Tregothnan tea plantation. I’d definitely recommend tea at Smuggler’s Cottage (something about eating the produce in an appropriate location, like fish and chips being so much better at the seaside) but if you can’t get there some of the produce is available at select outlets and establishments, including, of course, Fortnum and Masons!