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The Ancient Woods of the Helford River

The Ancient Woods of the Helford River

The Helford River is a place of wonder and delight: one of the very few places in England where ancient woodland meets the sea. This is oak country, and the oaks have the surprising variety of size and shape that only Cornwall and Devon oaks can offer. Smooth wooded hillsides, subtly mottled with the different greens and browns of individual oak trees, sweep down to the high-water mark.

The coast is a series of branching drowned valleys, submerged by the rising sea level after the end of the last Ice Age. The last trees hang down over the low cliffs or, in the pills and little creeks, grow out horizontally for forty feet over the water.

To the few people who set foot in the woods are revealed hillsides of bluebells, jungles of holly, sudden headlong ravines and bottomless swamps of golden saxifrage. A few yards away, on the other side of a ridge, the oaks are so dwarf that, if you are tall enough, you can look out over their tops. Ribbons of woodland, dark and complicated and often impenetrable, run from the side-creeks up the valleys and far into the hills.

The timeless qualities of this landscape were celebrated by Daphne du Maurier in her novel Frenchman’s Creek. In spring or winter, in places where the estuary is wooded on both sides, seaweed catches in the boughs of living trees at high water, and where layers of great oaks lie on top of each other where they fell into the mud of the pills.

Three centuries ago, the Helford was a busy place and much less wooded. Ships unloaded at Gweek and Merthen Hole, the whole area would have reeked with charcoal-hearths and fumed with arsenic from tinworks. The Second World War and then the Town and Country Planning Act, prevented urbanisation from spreading much beyond Porthnavas Creek, and as most of the Helford woods belonged to private owners, they were saved from modern forestry.

If you would like to discover this unique area for yourself there are many ways to do so. Public footpaths criss-cross the area, linked by the foot ferry at Helford Passage so you can discover both the North and South banks. You can head out on a kayak or paddleboard adventure from Budock Vean’s own private foreshore with knowledgeable local guides, or the less strenuous option of a 90 minute boat cruise. If you want to get deep into the woods themselves and re-connect with nature, then a Forest Bathing excursion with local guide Paul Simmons is recommended.

Useful Links

Thank you to Little Toller Books or letting us reproduce some of the introduction to the book by Oliver Rackham “The Ancient Woods of the Helford River”.

Walking Routes:

iWalkCornwall

National Trust: Helford River Walk

National Trust: Frenchman’s Creek Walk

South West Coast Path: Helford River area

Explore on the water:

Helford River Cruises

Koru Kayaking and Koru SUP

Local conservation groups:

Helford River AONB

Helford Marine Conservation Area

Clean Ocean Sailing

One Bag Beach Clean and Plastic Free Helford River

Wellbeing:

Forest Bathing with Paul Simmons

Sound Bathing with Ali Gunning