HEYLYOW – Cornish Estuaries

(This article, or something pretty close to it, was first published in the April 2014 issue of Canoe and Kayak UK)


Stood at the stern, water boiling close to each gunwale, the fisherman did look a little uneasy. I’m not surprised. His boat was fine I should add, but as all thirty or forty foot of it surged onwards towards Padstow, I doubt he expected to see a canoe surfing in on the same wave. Well the spot is called Doom Bar after all.

To be honest, the ride was growing little more interesting that I’d intended. Despite knowing the area well enough to predict what was happening, the sudden tide-born change from flat calm to bumpy surf fun, these waves were a touch larger than I’d expected. Nothing to worry about of course – assuming the slightly alarming bend in my paddle didn’t grow any worse that is.

As it shuddered in my grasp (I could swear I heard it creak) I tried to look nonchalant. Understandably concerned, this Cornish seaman raised an enquiring thumbs up. I grinned manically in reply. Well, this certainly wasn’t the moment to free a hand and wave back. Padstow Bay. Quite a place.

Watching pilot gigs racing in Padstow Bay.

Ok, so that’s probably the last adrenalin rush for this discussion, but then there’s much more to estuaries than wave riding thrills (fun though they are). Each of the rocky indentations scattered liberally around the coast of this fine county has something special to offer.

Padstow Bay.

From the craggy micro-harbour of Boscatle on the north coast to that mighty body of water spread out for boating fun beyond Falmouth to the south, we’re looking at variety. Cornwall may not have much in the way of canoeable rivers, but the various sandy, marshy, rocky or just plain big and wet points at which those often short watercourses meet the sea more than make up for it in range and diversity. I’ve written about the estuaries of Devon before, and the fun they offer the canoeist. Now I’ve moved next door – a little further west and a little more wild.

Jutting out confidently into the Atlantic, Cornwall bears many similarities to its neighbour – lots of granite, far fewer people than ‘up country’ and a stunning coast. While not split like Devon’s, the Cornish coast does share two distinct sides – a southern shoreline, occasionally palm-fringed, gazing out over the English Channel, and the other side, the rough side, facing the North Atlantic full on in a ‘come on, give me all you’ve got’ sort of way.

Like Devon, the estuaries on each coast are pretty different too. In general, the northern ones are small, as if stunted by those harsh conditions. And there aren’t that many either, just the tiny openings for the River Jordan at Boscastle and the Gannel flowing out over its sandy bed next to Newquay, the admittedly fairly large Camel estuary at Padstow, and then little Hayle (literally Heyl, the Cornish for estuary), way down the coast near St Ives. In contrast, as if blooming where they bask in the sun, the southern estuaries are big, sometimes very big.

In fact, The Fal estuary is said to be the third largest natural harbour in the world. Truth be told, it’s not actually an estuary, but then nor is the Fowey estuary or Helford River either. Like the Kingsbridge estuary just a little further east along the coast in Devon, these bodies of water, poised between sea and land, are technically rias, or vast drowned valleys. I’m not holding that against them of course, or throwing them out of this collection. Rivers still run in at these breaks in the coasts after all (so that’s an estuary in my book). Besides, my interest here isn’t so much in geographical accuracy, but in identifying good places to paddle. And these are good.

Looking out from Falmouth Harbour.

Much as I’d love to set my bow to the misty horizon when I launch onto the sea, I know that except on the calmest of days, and in the calmest of weeks, I’d best leave that sort of thing to the salt-encrusted sea kayaker. At the helm of a canoe, I’m after room to explore, but with a little more (ok, a lot more) protection from the elements. As countless past ship’s masters have learnt, battling their way, fingers crossed, up the sometimes not so friendly coastal approaches to Britain, these southern harbours provide a wonderful escape from wave and wind. Everything down here on the sunny Channel coast seems to be trying to help. While on the north side of the county a pretty hefty tide hammers in an out of those often restricted harbours and estuaries, carrying vast lumps of excited sea water at sometimes alarming speed, the tides to the south are civilised, gentle and slow. Peace reigns across these great natural harbours, and the Fal, Helford and Fowey estuaries are coastal canoeing havens (or is that heavens), even if they are sometimes a little hard to get onto.

A quiet corner of the Falmouth estuary.

And you do have to search around for the easiest access points for launching. Sometimes you need to be quite determined and resourceful. The problem with Cornish river mouths, and anywhere else on the English or Welsh coast for that matter, is that the prettier they get, the busier they grow, especially in summer. And these are very pretty stretches of coast.

Once locked into a road system designed long ago to serve just a few small carts on their way to tiny villages built for only a handful of fishing families, physical limits alone are going to make things interesting. Add lots of other visitors, some occasionally quite scary car park fees, and then throw in a few of those lovely height restriction bars (I know, my vehicle is over 2m high, so I must be bad to the core) and the approach to your paddle location of choice can sometimes be a little trying. Mind you, I’ve never known a time when half an hour on the water hasn’t washed all that frustration away.

Helford River in winter.

Don’t despair though, despite the apparent problems there’s nearly always somewhere to park your canoe-carrier and reach the water. In fact it’s not actually that difficult to wend your way right into town to launch from a number of waterside car parks. You’ll find these in Falmouth and Fowey, and in relative abundance in Looe. I must admit though, I still prefer to find a quiet estuarine corner, sometimes even a free one. Just one specific piece of advice here, if you care for the health of your bank balance and the state of your blood pressure – avoid Mylor.

Don’t underestimate the size of these estuaries either, particularly off Falmouth, where you really need to keep your eyes peeled. Especially in summer, spots such as Carrick Roads (a wet bit, despite the name) are as busy as any on land, with sailcraft and powerboats of almost all sizes ploughing merrily backwards and forwards. You certainly don’t choose to paddle here if you want solitude.

Back on the north coast, and despite an almost equally impressive parking fee and rather long portage (especially when the tide is out) I do enjoy a visit to Boscastle. It might be small, really quite small, but fun here is in definite inverse proportion to available space. This chink in the cliff armour of the coast is so pretty you might even enjoy a walk out along the cliff before launching. Just sit and marvel at the structure of this tiny jewel of a harbour/estuary. If someone had set out to design a refuge along this exposed cliff-hung section of coast, they could hardly have done better.

Venturing out to the mouth of Boscastle Harbour.

Potter out in your canoe on a good day, past the two stone breakwaters, and it’s clear that the angled entrance offers incredible protection from the worst the sea can conjure up. Head out carefully during even quite rough weather, and someone happy on moving water can marvel at the way the waves are slowed up and pacified, turned from wild white-capped hooligans at the harbour mouth, into lumpy fun just inside. Don’t push too far out though.

A day when it might be a better idea to stay within the shelter of the Breakwater.

Not least because so much of the fun, at least at the right moment, can be found close in to the breakwaters anyway. At the right level of tide (pretty low) and in the right weather (pretty rough) the presence of a tunnel, cut deep beneath the protecting cliff, is betrayed by a something that has all the characteristics of some buried sea dragon. Paddle in close(ish) to the inner tunnel mouth, listen for the heavy thump of another wave way over on the other side of the promontory, and then wait for the impressive blast of spray. Then, as you rush to point stem or stern towards the cliff, a wave will swell and burst from the maw of this undercliff beast, before sweeping you away as it radiates out across the harbour mouth. It’s nothing extreme of course, but the surge is big enough for plenty of fun – until the tide lifts, the dragon calms, and the game drifts away.

Playing with the Boscastle Harbour dragon.

Just down the coast, and close to all the surfing fun at Newquay lies the Gannel. Unlike the mighty estuaries to the south, this is no easy boating proposition, at least not unless you have a canoe – and a tide timetable. This does at least mean that it’s quiet, possibly the quietest of these busy Cornish river mouth locations.

Timing your visit to the Gannel is all-important though, especially if you want to launch from upstream near the main road into town (the car park to the west of the river is expensive and height-barred to vans). Match your visit with the tide and a pretty big body of water is yours. Arrive at anytime other than highish water and you’ll find a lot of sand, some of it very soft, nasty and well worth avoiding. For a truly great day, fall downstream with the ebb in the morning, spend the day doing beachy things at the mouth, and then let the tide nudge you back to your waiting steel steed.

The Gannel estuary, at low tide.

The Camel estuary, and Padstow Bay where we started out, is big, varied and almost unbelievably pretty. Sometimes, even on a quiet day, it can be surprisingly wild out there, especially anywhere with Doom in the name. In the upper reaches though, around Wadebridge, it is all fairly marshy and quiet. The middle section, the estuary mouth, is easy-going, with plenty of places to pull in, rest and avoid the passenger ferry crossing unceasingly between Padstow and Rock. Not surprisingly, ‘The Bar’ marks something of a change from the seaside to… well, just the sea. In fact, beyond Doom Bar is definitely beyond the estuary. Watchful and experienced canoeists will love it out there – on a good calm day – but it is busy, filled with sometimes fast moving water and very fast moving boats.   Apparently, some canoeists even camp on the beaches out in the bay.

The whole experience can be pretty quick to empty your pockets too of course, particularly if you want to launch from anywhere near Padstow or Rock (there is even a launching fee!). I keep meaning to park in Wadebridge and use the tide to travel up and down from the bay, but haven’t yet got round to it.

Hayle is small, fairly hemmed in, and perhaps not the first port of call for the visiting canoeist. Looe on the south coast isn’t that big either, at least not compared to its neighbours, but this mouth to two watercourses (the West Looe River and, yes, you’ve guessed it…) is certainly very pretty. In good weather an expedition out to St George’s Island, just to the west of the harbour mouth, is well worth the minor effort.

A small bay, just beyond the mouth to the Fowey.

So that’s all of them, except for that great big lump of bustling water with Plymouth in its name, shared with Devon. On the basis that an estuary is defined by the tidal reach of the river, the nineteen miles that the flood pushes inland up the Tamar makes this estuary a very long one. Even this far from the sea, the tide is only halted artificially by a weir. A visit to the upper Tamar offers excellent canoeing (at least once you’ve negotiated the mud).

The Tamar estuary.

Further downstream, facing the urban sprawl of Devon’s largest city, Kingsmill Lake and the long winding mouth of the River Lynher offer some surprisingly impressive and unpredictably wild sections of water. However, unlike the deep waters of the rias to the west, where the state of the tide has relatively little influence on the opportunities available to the paddler, visits here really do benefit from the moon having pulled a little water in for you to use. I can’t count he number of times I’ve been in the area, busy on some strange scheme or another, canoe ready for deployment, but forced to stare out over shingle and mud. The area isn’t called Hallamore, or sea marsh for nothing.

Mind you, all that shingle and mud is covered in activity, or at least it’s covered in wading birds. That’s not surprising really. After all, canoeists aren’t the only form of crowd-averse wildlife attracted to these wonderful areas of intermixed land, sea and river. Perhaps because they’re often so big, even the busiest of these estuaries provides somewhere quiet for some species or another. The Tamar estuary for example is one of only three in Britain to provide a home for the shrimp Palaemon longirostis. Only one other estuary in the UK offers a spawning ground for the Allis Shad. In fact, so attractive are Cornish estuaries to wildlife that some species are still moving in. Recent Environment Agency surveys of estuarine fish populations have discovered Gilthead bream and Norwegian Topknots in the Fal and Camel for the first time.

I’d say those little fish have got it right. What better place to spend your days than a Cornish estuary?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *