River Fal 12: Alternative Perspectives

– The Roseland – St Mawes (where?)

It would be easy to misinterpret the name Roseland but in fact rose stems from ros, the Cornish word for heathland, which would once have been the main habitat of this peninsula. Now it’s mostly farmland but with much of that given over to grazing, the high summer of wildflower meadows, dog roses in the hedgerows, and adjacent private gardens blossoming bright in the late afternoon sunshine, this really does seem to be a land of roses. Gardens fare particularly well in Cornwall because of the climate: for all we might complain about the rainfall it is the combination of this, the milder winters and warm but not too dry summers that make the area such a haven for plants. As with the churchyard garden at St Just some parts are almost sub-tropical, with the coastal river valleys providing the perfect combination of shelter, warmth and moisture for these miniature jungles.

This eastern shoreline of the Fal Estuary is far less populated than the western side, but it might have been different, had the development of Falmouth’s deepwater harbour had an alternative setting. At one time it was suggested that it be built along the St Just stretch of the estuary, but its current location was preferred because of the extra shelter given by the Pendennis headland to the south. Had the harbour been developed here, this rural landscape would have looked quite different now, and would possibly have ended up being developed further than Falmouth Docks have been as the wharves could have been built over a much deeper part of the channel here. This would also have meant that there would have been no need for dredging to take place in order to upgrade the docks’ capacity for the cruise liners. The list of possibilities is endless: ultimately the Falmouth that I know would never have existed, and the Fal without Falmouth is a strange thought. Not only that but the entire Roseland peninsula would have taken a different direction. Could St Mawes, which retains a much more quaint, holiday-cottage atmosphere compared to its twin town across the river mouth, have been developed into a port as thriving and important as Falmouth was in its seventeenth- and eighteenth-century heyday? If that were the case then surrounding villages would surely have taken on different roles, and the access route overland, which is a winding road crossing the River Fal at Tregony and skirting round towards the coast at Gerrans Bay, could have become the equivalent of the A39 trunk road from Truro to Falmouth. Until Falmouth’s development in the 1600s Penryn was the town of greater import, and it could well have remained so had ‘Falmouth’ grown up on the opposing bank of the river, with the small settlement once known as Smithwick remaining a lesser fishing harbour, evolving to a picturesque tourist destination in the western lea of the Fal Estuary.

It’s always enlightening to look at things from another side and find you find you see them better from a different perspective if only because familiarity dulls the details. Falmouth itself looks much bigger seen from the Roseland shore, its terraces spreading out along the hillside and up the Penryn River. Seeing it from this angle reminds me of a famous, though not altogether accurate, painting by J. M. W. Turner, part of a series of works that stemmed from his tour of the South West in the summer of 1811 whilst on commission to produce watercolours to be turned into engravings for a topographical book entitled Picturesque Views of the Southern Coast of England. Although he rarely painted directly from nature Turner made a vast number of sketches which he would manipulate into compositions later on in the studio. Thus came about the final painting of Falmouth Harbour, with its recognisable elements of the two castles of St Mawes and Pendennis, the headlands and harbour, and town in the lea of the peninsula. However Turner repositioned the town on the opposite shore – roughly where St Mawes is in real life – and moved the architecturally pleasing form of St Mawes Castle into the foreground, setting it low on the beach at what equates to Swanpool Point at the far end of Gyllyngvase, rather than crowning the headland on the eastern side of the estuary. The result is a picturesque view, but like much of the picturesque, not exactly natural or even realistic, though well proportioned and aesthetically correct in its make-up.

His South West tour made a great impression on Turner, and marked an important transition in his development as an artist. A great painter of the English pastoral, he went on to become famous for his impressionistic representations of the drama of landscape and weather, something that can have been in no short supply in this part of the world. It is thought that the quality of light for which Cornwall is so famous in the world of art inspired Turner’s experiments on light in oils which he went on to develop during his time in Italy.

It is the light that is most remarkable as I head towards St Mawes myself; the late afternoon sun plays on the harbour water, lowering in the sky but still so hot I feel like I’m getting sunburnt. The tide’s low enough to walk the river beach, whose only real concession to fluviality is the number of oak leaves mixed in with the seaweed on the tide line. By the time I reach the town the afternoon is promising to spill into the sort of evening that will stretch warm and bright for hours later than should reasonably be possible. The place is bathed in a sauntering atmosphere of little to do and nowhere important to be, which the river estuary seems to be endorsing by lying low and leaving the harbour all sand for the children to extend their beach hours right up until tea time.

More on this?

For more on Turner in the South West click here

and for an online gallery of his sketchbooks and more of his artworks including some of the Falmouth paintings and other compositions of Cornwall’s landscapes click here


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.

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