Ancient oak woodland meets secluded coves, hidden creeks and tranquil waters to create the perfect setting to escape to and leave behind the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
About the Helford
Subtropical plant species rise up the banks of deep sheltered valleys, reflecting upon the surface of the water to provide an inviting emerald hue, which brightens to turquoise in the summer months. For those seeking remoteness, or the nourishment of nature, the Helford and its many beaches and creeks are calling out. Here, woodland creatures scuttle through the undergrowth; egrets, waders and oystercatchers forage amongst the shallows of the water for food; and if you time it right, on a quiet spring morning you may catch a deer swimming from one of the river banks. The Helford is the type of place which you can fall instantly in love with. A place of timeless beauty and ambience, which provides an almost otherworldly sense of escapism.
The Helford’s Landscape and Wildlife
The Helford River is one of the most unspoilt regions in Cornwall. A flooded river valley, its peaceful waters feed into seven enchanting creeks (Ponsontuel Creek, Mawgan Creek, Polpenwith Creek, Polwheveral Creek, Frenchman's Creek, Port Navas Creek, and Gillan Creek). Towards the mouth of the river a number of salt-kissed beaches can be found, their backdrop a tangle of leafy foliage and colourful gardens open for the public to enjoy. Protected by the river mouth and lush valleys, these beaches are sheltered from the elements in almost all conditions, making them a blissful setting for relaxation and enjoying the display of nature.
With over fifty miles of secluded shoreline to explore, it’s easy to get lost in the beauty of this part of Cornwall. In the summer months, it has a distinctly Mediterranean feel, whilst in the winter it’s possible to set out on a micro-adventure without coming across another soul. On the northern banks of the river, Porthallack and Porth Sawsen beaches sit nearest the river mouth, gazing towards its upper reaches. Further downstream are Grebe and Durgan, havens for those with a sense of connection to the water. Grebe is known as a popular wild swimming spot and family beach, whilst the slipway at Durgan makes it a hit with the boating community. Both are backed by woodland and foliage and on a warm day feel nothing short of a slice of paradise. Amongst the other beaches are Polgwidden Cove, accessed via Trebah Gardens, and Helford Passage Beach, also home to the Ferryboat Inn.
As you travel towards the southern side, and onto the Lizard Peninsula, the Helford region becomes noticeably more wild. Access to Bosahan beach requires travelling off the beaten track, as you make your way through over a mile of woodland on foot. Whilst doing so, birdsong choruses through the trees above and light filters through the canopies to dapple the ground with kaleidoscopic patterns. The most famous of Helford’s creeks sits on this side of the river too. Frenchman’s Creek, famously immortalised in Daphne Du Maurier’s twentieth-century novel and namesake, has captured the hearts of readers from around the world as well as the essence of romanticism and wilderness intrinsic to the Helford’s shoreline.
Activities and things to do on the Helford River
One of the most sheltered locations in Cornwall, the often glassy waters of the river prove almost irresistible any time of the year. Wading into the cool embrace of the ocean, you become immersed in the wonders of Mother Nature, whilst also experiencing the benefits of ecotherapy. Peering below the skin of the water, you are introduced to an underwater world teeming with life in the summer months. The fronds of kelp and seaweed are an aquatic forest to be explored all year round and can bring endless hours of fun and fascination.
Paddleboards and kayaks allow you to explore the many inlets and creeks inaccessible by foot. On rare occasions, you may be accompanied by dolphins and porpoises, their sleek backs breaching the surface of the water as their equally inquisitive and playful nature shines through. For guided tours, Koru Kayaking provides an exploration of the soft waters of the Helford and Frenchman’s creek, leaving from the pontoon at the Budock Vean Hotel.
Once a busy waterway for importing lace, tin, granite, tobacco and French rum, sailing runs through the veins of the Helford’s history. Exploring the river by boat allows you to connect to nature at a slow place, whilst being able to fully appreciate the unique and pleasing juxtaposition between ancient woodland and briny waters. Alternatively, the Helford ferry is a quick and easy way to get from one side of the river to the other and has been running for hundreds of years.
For those looking to soak up the ambience of the Helford without taking to the water, sitting upon its verdant banks is sure to spark intrigue. Taking a sketchbook to journal your findings is equally entertaining and meditative, or simply sitting and watching the comings and goings of a wide range of wildlife is guaranteed to imbue you with a sense of calm and peacefulness. The idyllic backdrop also provides inspiration for painting, drawing and writing and there is plenty to capture through a camera lens.
Not to be forgotten, a slow amble along the fifty-mile stretch of the Helford’s riverbanks is one of the most delightful (and easy) sections of the South West Coastal Path. As you make your way through the woodlands past pretty coves and silent quays, you are reminded of how good it feels to spend time outdoors amongst the wildlife and the elements. For more details on what to bring with you whilst navigating the coastal paths, please refer to our packing essentials guide.
Due to the Helford’s microclimate, there are a number of subtropical gardens located there, each with their own unique fusion of plants and garden styles. Trebah, the most well-known, is a 26-acre paradise, full of exotic plant species which can be enjoyed via the four miles of winding pathways. Magnolia, rhododendrons and camellias make for an explosion of colour in the early summer, whilst later in the season, the fan-like leaves of Giant Gunnera are an impressive sight. As you make your way towards the bottom of the gardens, you are greeted by a private beach, open to visitors only – the perfect stop-off point for sitting and relaxing whilst watching sailing boats and wading birds make their way slowly up and down the river.
Near Trebah, Glendurgan Gardens are something to savour too. Here, a dazzling selection of flowers bloom during the spring and summer months and trail their way down towards the sleepy hamlet and beach of Durgan. There’s also an impressive maze here, where you can wander through dense walls of greenery to your heart’s content.
On the opposite side of the river, Bosahan Gardens are embellished with plants from both hemispheres. Exotic palm groves provide a canopy of protection from the elements and a stream meanders through the centre, its trickle providing a soothing background noise and its moisture allowing ferns and other plants to flourish.
Further towards the mouth of the river from Bosahan, St Anthony in Meneage Church sits calmly on the banks of Gillan Creek at the water’s edge. A pleasant and aesthetically pleasing place to stop whilst walking the South West Coastal Path, St Anthony in Meneage also has stepping stones which can be used to access the other side of Gillan Creek at low tide – though take care, as they can be slippery!
Between April and September, Trelowarren Estate is open to the public. Another site of inspiration for Daphne du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek, these historic grounds include over a thousand acres of Cornish countryside and botanical gardens. The estate also includes a Victorian folly, the Lizard’s highest vantage point from which there are panoramic views of the ocean, and an Iron Age hill fort.
Image credit: New Yard Restaurant Instagram
On the Lizard side of the Helford, an ancient Cornish farmstead is waiting to be discovered. Kestle Barton is set in the fields high above Frenchman’s creek and between April and October its gallery and garden are open to visitors. Tall grass sweeps through the gardens, accompanied by herbaceous plants and meadows home to a smattering of flowers and the thrum of bees wings. It is a pleasant place for contemplation and picnicking and the gallery hosts several exhibitions per year, as well as events and workshops.
For those looking for something to do in the cooler months (September to March), the Sea Life Trust Seal Sanctuary provides the opportunity to get to know some of the local wildlife better. Located in Gweek, the charity rescues and rehabilitates grey seal pups from around the Cornish coastline, as well as other marine animals and birds. Cornwall has one of the largest grey seal populations in the world and once nurtured back to full health, pups are reintroduced to the wild. A trip to the Seal Sanctuary includes watching the rescue workers carry out their daily duties, learning the stories of rescued and orphaned pups, and viewing them dancing through the water via underground windows.
Pubs and places to eat on the Helford
Whilst the Helford is a pocket of seclusion, there are a number of pleasant eateries, pubs and cafés which can be found in the area.
In the pretty crossroads village of Mawnan Smith, Awna is a small independent coffee shop serving speciality coffee, plus a delectable selection of pastries, cakes and food. Across the square, the Red Lion Pub is a traditional thatch-roofed free house with a cosy atmosphere – a great place to enjoy a revitalising evening meal in the warmth of the fire in cooler seasons.
Further upriver, the Ferryboat Inn at Helford Passage is one of the most famous of the Helford river pubs. Located on the banks of the river, perched atop the beach, it is a spectacular stop-off point for those walking the coastal path or looking to enjoy a drink on a balmy summer’s evening. It has been standing for over 300 years and is an atmospheric vantage point from which to enjoy seasonal seafood, caught and foraged from Helford and its surrounds.
For those with a larger appetite, a small trip inland to Constantine takes you to Trengilly Wartha Inn. Often overlooked, this traditional country pub has a garden and pond and serves up excellent hearty meals using local ingredients, with generous portion sizes. Also in Constantine, Potager is a beautiful and relaxing haven from which to stop off for lunch or an afternoon tea. Once an abandoned plant nursery, it is now a project with social and environmental aims with all profits going back into the garden. The café is a converted greenhouse, serving vegetarian food and wholesome lunches as well as a selection of delicious homemade cakes.
For those with a penchant for fine dining, the Budock Vean is a genteel waterside hotel complete with alluring gardens and its own slipway. Known for its excellent service and quality produce, a meal or afternoon here includes an element of luxury on a tranquil bend of the Helford river.
On the opposite side of the river at Helford Village, the Shipwright Arms also offers freshly prepared locally sourced food in a stunning setting. Often frequented by those who have travelled across the river by boat, it is the perfect place for soaking up the waterfront and admiring the comings and goings of various watercraft.
Further towards The Lizard, New Yard Restaurant is nestled within the Trelowarren Estate. Supper evenings take place Wednesday through Saturday, with a new menu every evening. Much of the produce is foraged from the estate and in 2021 the restaurant was awarded a Green Michelin Star.
Image credit: New Yard Restaurant Instagram
Finally, for those wishing to wander further than the Helford and past Gillan Creek, Fat Apples is a family-owned café situated in St Keverne and has a lovely small lunch menu.
Hideaways close to the Helford
Little Jenny Wren | Helford | Sleeps 2 | Woodburner
Cuddle Cabin | Falmouth | Sleeps 2 | Dog friendly | Wood burner
Anella | Falmouth | Sleeps 2 | Hot tub | Dog friendly | Wood burner
Tresahor Lodge | Falmouth | Sleeps 4 | Dog friendly
Little Woon | Falmouth | Sleeps 2 | Dog friendly | Wood burner