No one laughed as we loaded our piles of stuff on board – hats and high factor sun lotion as well as anoraks and blankets (well, this is Cornwall), not to mention enough food and drink for about 15 people (there were five of us), and a bucket… just in case. I did warn the children that there would be no loo on the boat, but I wasn’t taking any chances.
The tide was out, so a smaller boat chugged us over to our real one, then we were given a thorough briefing on how to work it. More or less a question of turning the key one way to switch it on, and back again to switch it off. Right up my street. Our delightful young man explained the necessary emergency procedures and roped up a tender (smaller rowing boat) to the back so that we could, if we wished, anchor in the middle of the river and row out to a beach. As it turned out, we didn’t – we were a bit scared of the anchor, which was very heavy, to be honest – but it was great to have the option. And off we went.
The boat was not glamorous and, it has to be said, quite noisy and a bit diesel-y. But it was spacious (room for eight), even comfortable, and had a covered area at the front that, it turned out, was perfect for young children to clamber on (health and safety people – look away now). All in all, it was idyllic. A beautifully sunny day, with a cool breeze off the water and fabulous views all around. We rounded out of the creek, navigating past shallow bits and rocks (clearly marked on the map) and into the mouth of the Helford River itself. This stretch of Cornwall has to be one of the prettiest anywhere, and seeing it from the water was a double whammy of gorgeousness. The Helford is lined with ancient oak forests that roll right down to the water, and is full of hidden creeks and quiet little beaches. We gently motored past the gardens of Trebah and Glendurgan, navigated carefully through the luxury yachts moored in the centre of the river and pootled into Port Navas creek, rubbernecking its beautiful properties with private moorings. Having turned back when we hit the low-water mark for our boat (it varies according to the tide but, again, was clearly marked on our map) we crossed to the south side where we tied up to the pontoon at Helford (this came free as part of our day’s hire) and disembarked up its wooden stairs and along the path into the village, which is legendary for its whitewashed, thatched cottages (and millionaires per square foot). This is also where, if we’d wished, we could have got a ferry across the river to Helford Passage and its famous Ferry Boat Inn. The ferry has been running continuously since the Middle Ages, when cart and driver travelled to market on the ferry and the horse swam behind. These days, it can accommodate bicycles, dogs and buggies (not sure about horses, however).
Helford turned out to be a lovely diversion, once we avoided the expensive and not-overly-polite Shipwright’s Arms and found the marvellous gem of a village shop, a foodie haven where you can buy Vicky’s organic bread, local eggs, fresh fish and all sorts of deli delights. We wandered through the village and had an enjoyable, affordable lunch at the Down by the Riverside café (er – by the car park) before strolling back to our home-from-home and casting off again.
If we’d hired a smaller boat no doubt we could have explored even further upstream towards Gweek, but as it was our afternoon was spent chuntling along the south side of the river, where we lingered in the atmospheric Frenchman’s Creek (of Daphne du Maurier, romance and smuggling fame) and, back on the main drag again, had a giggle watching a novice water skier attempt to stand up. Ouch. At one point we just stopped and, with the engine off, enjoyed the silence and feeling of isolation. Disturbed only by the sound of my mobile ringing. Turns out the middle of the Helford River is one of the few places on the Lizard one can actually get a signal. And then, sadly, it was time to return. By now the tide was in so we were able to take the boat all the way to Sailaway’s pontoon, gliding gently to a halt and unloading all our stuff (bucket not used, I beg to add). We’d seen parts of Cornwall unobtainable from land and got a definite taste for boating, if not quite gone all salty sea-dog. Oo arr me ’earties, it was definitely a day to remember.