River Fal 10: Midstream

King Harry Reach (where?)

A path leads right along the riverbank from Tolverne to King Harry Ferry. I imagine this is what the private path around the edge of Tregothnan’s land must be like: narrow, overgrown in places, winding sympathetically around the twisted oak trees whose roots provide built-in steps on the sloping parts, and trip hazards on the flat. Their branches frame scenes of the opposite bank, sometimes a clear view across water broken by a yacht or a passing river taxi, other times a snapshot of the mothballed shipping looming large in mid channel. Once, a chapel near here was dedicated to King Henry IV and Queen Anne, prompting the river crossing just below to become known as King Harry’s Passage. Though its namesake is long gone these woodlands are still labelled Chapel Wood on the map, and King Harry’s name passed on to the ferry service.

The tide’s lowered just enough to expose the bottom step to the roadside at King Harry Reach, but I still get my feet wet touching down on the slipway. A line of cars are backed up waiting for the ferry to arrive: it’s midstream and chugging its way towards us link by link on its 270m chain. The floating bridge, as it’s sometimes called, has connected the Roseland with Trelissick since 1888, when it replaced a 500 year old rowing ferry service that would carry a gentleman’s horse but required a farmer’s horse or livestock to swim alongside. Now there’s more call for transport for four-wheeled than four-legged people-carriers: the King Harry Ferry can take thirty six vehicles saving a twenty seven mile round trip between the villages of Feock and Philleigh.

It wasn’t until I sat out in the middle of the river on a pontoon and took a moment to admire my surroundings that I realised how connected I’ve become to this river. Rivers and waterways are so much a part of the British landscape that many people have profound personal connections to them, often through childhood experiences fishing or messing about in boats, or by local association having lived or worked in close proximity to a river. Until recently I’d never really had a river of my own, even having lived near the Fal Estuary and for several years I hadn’t really connected with it. Now I find I know more about it than ever before, but I feel I’m just beginning to find out how little I know, and how much more there is and there will always be to discover. My attempt at documenting the journey of its tidal cycle suddenly seems futile and ridiculous. How did I ever think I could write the river’s story? How could anybody? All I can report is my own tale, a series of snapshots that must seem like grainy sepia tints compared to the truth. I’m beginning to comprehend that I can never begin to comprehend the river’s point of view, there’s too much involved. Too much water, too much land, too many lives, too little time. Time is short: our time is short, and river time? Immeasurable.

I’m suddenly overwhelmed by the thought that the river as it is now, the Ria Fal, has been flooded twice daily by the tide for ten thousand years. And before that how long was it just river, carving its dendritic pattern towards the faraway sea an eternity ago? That far ahead into the future the river will probably still be here, flooded again, the ria extending a little more inland if mankind’s predictions on sea level rise have any truth in them; or drained, or still continuing the same. My life will be just a flicker in the river’s story; less even than a mayfly’s blip of an existence compared to our own, their whole life lived in a single one of our days. Time is short. Eternity: how long?

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?

Heraclitus on Rivers by Derek Mahon – read it online here

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