– Place to St Anthony Head (where?)
The final – or maybe the first, depending on which way round you look at this – creek to join the Fal estuary is the Percuil River whose own mouth forms St Mawes harbour and whose course separates the St Anthony headland from the rest of the Roseland, creating a peninsula on a peninsula. The almost-isolation of its geographical situation is echoed in the quiet countryside clothing these shores. After Place House, the one-time ancestral home of the influential Spry family, the near-hidden cruciform of the 12th century church behind the mansion is the penultimate footprint of manmade construction before reaching the very tip of the land. Nestled in the midst of a conservation area and flanked by overhanging trees and rampant wildflowers, St Anthony’s church feels somehow more sympathetic to its rural surroundings than the slightly pretentious facade of its neighbouring mansion.
I turn a corner and suddenly I’ve left behind all trace of woodland and meadow that have exemplified the latter stages of this journey downstream. The flora becomes edgy and littoral: thrift instead of cow parsley, sea campion replacing red. A sharp drop to my right reveals a secluded cove at the cliff base. There is no more river now. There is no more estuary, even: I have reached the Cornish coast of the holiday brochures.
Chunks of rock edging outwards from cliffs of Portscatho slate enclose sand exposed by the receded tide. The colours are vivid and jewel-like – pewter, gold, turquoise, sapphire – under the early evening sun. The temptation to scale down the cliff and be the first to touch foot to that sand is overwhelming – except I know that even if I managed to reach the bottom without breaking my neck I’d never be able to get back up again.
The farthest tip of land that forms the eastern gatepost to the entrance/exit of the Fal mouth is known officially as Zone Point, and unofficially as Fraggle Rock, with the iconic St Anthony Head lighthouse perched on the brink. Fully automated in 1987 it shines a white beam to the inner Falmouth Bay and a red beam out to sea, the light spreading for fifteen miles. You can easily see that far from here, out beyond the bounds of the estuary, away south west along the Lizard, past Rosemullion Head and the Helford Estuary, with Goonhilly Earth Station and the wind farm on the horizon, all the way to Manacle Point and the scattering of rocks a mile and a half off that headland.
Directly on the other side of the river mouth across just over a terrestrial mile and just under a nautical mile of water Pendennis looks like an island, the stretch of land connecting it to Falmouth hidden behind its high ground. Black Rock looks far away, whereas from the other side it looks like it’s in the middle of the channel and just a stone’s throw from either shore. It stands tall out of the water, the rocks at its base uncovered. All land is enlarged by the temporary retreat of the sea. There’s a pleasing symmetry to seeing it again at the opposite end of the day, having reached the shore – sea not river shore – at low tide again for that almost-imaginary moment of slack water when everything rests in anticipation before submersion resumes.
I take a seat under some maritime pines growing the biggest fircones I’ve ever seen on an actual tree. Above me a black speck of a bird is keeping very still high in the sky. I wonder if it’s a peregrine falcon. Named for the Latin peregrinus meaning ‘pilgrim’ or ‘traveller’ it would be a convenient stroke of luck for me to be able to end my narrative journey accompanied by such a creature, but at this distance all I can make out is an outline, and I’m not a good enough ornithologist to be able to identify it from that. However the possibility is distinct as they are nesting here on the cliffs just round the corner: there are police notices demanding constant vigilance against nest raiders and suggesting you call the Non-Emergency Hotline Immediately if you see anyone Acting Suspiciously in this area. That in itself is appropriate enough for me, especially considering the ties this location has to the early Celtic holy men – the peregrini – who migrated here centuries ago, hoping to come closer to their God in the near isolated sea-fringe. They were following the example of Egyptian desert-wanderer St Anthony the Anchorite who was the first ascetic to seek the wilderness, although this was not actually the same St Anthony to whom the mediaeval church at Place was dedicated and after whom this peninsula is named. It would be too precious to consider this excursion following the tidal ebb and river flow a pilgrimage, despite the number of holy connections that seem to have cropped up along the way. But it has been a metaphorical journey of discovery, following a well-worn route centuries – no millennia – old: a journey into landscape, place, time and tide, during which if nothing else I have discovered how short a theoretical twelve hours and twenty five minutes really is in the scope of these much greater contexts.
And then the bird is gone just as suddenly as it appeared, leaving the clean shapes of seagulls in its place. I can hear a pod of oystercatchers piping away on shoreline. Something spooks them and they rise together, flashing their bold piebald markings as they wheel around as though marking the turn of the tide with a black and white flag. It’s not really the finish line. Already the tide will be making its way back in, rising inch by inch up the quaysides, the root-warped banks, the creeks; creeping one drip-lap at a time up the rills between the mudflats where the egret stilts along the saltmarsh.
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.
– St Anthony Head lighthouse is owned and run by Trinity House, and although you can’t visit it you can stay in the converted lighthouse keeper’s cottages at its base if you don’t mind the risk of the occassional foghorn blaring into your holiday
– For more about peregrine falcons J A Baker’s The Peregrine is not only the definitive work, but a beautifully lyrical piece of nature writing