Review: Five Million Tides, a biography of the Helford River by Christian Boulton

There are certain aspects of our Cornish landscape that are a comforting constant. The tireless sea, the iron-stone tors and the daily ebb and flow of the tidal rivers. Cliché or not, they are familiar, like old friends. This is not to say that any of these things are static, on the contrary, they are ever evolving. And their stories are begging to be told.

Five Million Tides

When Christian Boulton’s book Five Million Tides arrived in the post I weighed its satisfying heft in my hands. I flicked through and sniffed the pages (just me?). I scanned the index and thumbed through the glossy plates in the centre. Instantly I just knew I was going to enjoy this.

Cushioned from the world

Upstream to the west is a more secluded, sheltered round whose defining feature is the ancient woodland that cushions it from the outside world. There are few places on Earth where large tracts of oak trees run down to the sea, but here is one of them. They are the Helfords aegis. In places their limbs not only touch the water but are sometimes submerged by it, leaving seaweed draped over ends of twigs as the tide recedes. It is a haunting sight in the faint, watery light of early morning.

Five Million Tides is a homage to the beauty and diversity of a quiet Cornish river, the Helford, but this book is so much more than that.

Christian reveals this little-known river’s secrets in a way that has never been attempted before. He details in depth the Helford’s journey, geologically, historically, – each turn of the tide, each bend in the river, each dark current. The breadth of what at first might seem a simple story to tell is astonishing.

The river boasts some of the richest marine life found anywhere in the British Isles, as well as extensive ancient woodland and field systems that date back 1000 years. But it is the human interaction with the river that is most intriguing and exciting.

The story of the Helford River is a long and serpentine one. Five Million Tides takes us from the very beginnings, through the river’s geological evolution, to the time when the first human’s eyes gazing between the two wooded banks and the first toes were dipped in its cool, clear water. Since then, right up to the present day, the river and the people living within its catchment have been inextricably linked.

Five Million Tides

Where a book begins . . .

I asked Christian if he could pin point the moment that this book began for him. His answer just left me wanting to know more . . .

“The moment I discovered two flint arrowheads by chance – one Neolithic, one Bronze Age – was perhaps the catalyst. But it took a rainy Sunday afternoon while the children were doing their homework to galvanise me into actually commencing. Little did I realise the challenge which lay ahead!”

One of the things that surprised and delighted me while reading this book was the extent to which the reach, the influence, of the river creeps across the countryside that surrounds it. And far beyond in fact. It’s tributaries, and the tendrils of associated stories, create a complex, interlinking web. Five Million Tides brings all those kindred stories together.

I asked Christian about the mammoth task of putting this book, so bursting with detail, together.

“In all honesty, I had been researching the book for a couple of decades without even knowing it. [The Helford] is simply a place in which I feel at home in every sense, and I have always been fascinated by its surrounding landscape. However, transferring that background knowledge into something cogent and readable is an entirely different matter – one realises that there’s so much more to learn in the research and writing process.”

Five Million Tides

That insider knowledge and dedication has paid off. I thought I knew the Helford area pretty well but after reading this book I have to concede I feel I barely knew anything at all. It is tempting to see the Helford River as just the stage for the now notorious smuggling trade, immortalised by Daphne du Maurier. But in reality that was one of the peripheral episodes in the life of this busy river.

“At the outset I envisaged a book which was disproportionately skewed towards the post-medieval era; lots of material about the Helford’s darker side which tends to appeal to the uninitiated majority. I could also have dwelled more upon its associations with World War II, but there are already so many excellent works on that subject. Instead, I came to the conclusion that the river’s ancient history was by far the most important aspect and deserving of more attention – it is a beautiful and peaceful place today, but two thousand years ago it was a thriving trade hub. Relative to the rest of Britain, not just Cornwall, the Helford’s zenith was in the Iron Age and Roman periods.”

Five Million Tides opens up so many different facets of this area’s history through the meticulous exploration of the river and its many tributaries. Tiny outstretched fingers of water with their own stories to tell as they that rush to join the whole.

Tantalising threads

Around the river there are vestiges of numerous Iron Age rounds still to be seen and touched, the previous existence of a great many more are given away by tell-tale crop marks visible from above . . . Walking around them on they still winter’s day is to lose the sense passing time.

Perhaps what I loved most is that this book sits in that happy place between factual and narrative. Tantalizing threads are expertly woven together. Every clue is followed, every association explored. I rediscovered places such as Merther Uny, Scott’s Quay and Trelill though someone else’s eyes and found myself making copious notes of many other unexpected places that I must learn more about.

Although human beings had already lived by the Helford for thousands of years it was the Bronze Age that fashioned its landscape, the Iron Age that saw it populated, the Roman era that made it rich and the early Dark Ages that returned it to obscurity. The agents of change had come across the sea in every case, and so would the small number of souls who would ultimately establish a culture that would enjoy for a million tides more.

Five Million Tides

Wallow in Detail

To say that Five Million Tides is well researched would be wildly under playing it. I wallowed in the detail. The intricacies of prehistoric pottery production and export. Endangered weevils and rare lichen. And the mind-boggling journey of a smooth pebble from the bed of the Helford to Farnham in Surrey 10,000 years ago. I asked Christian whether there was one morsel, one treasured nugget, that had changed the way he looked at the river forever. He told me:

“Purely how very well populated the area must have been during prehistory. Early in the research process I came across the story of the Maen Pearn menhir which stood near Constantine. It must surely have been the largest to have stood in Cornwall, not unlike some of the behemoths still to be found in Brittany. Over twenty feet tall, it was cut into gateposts by the farmer in the 18th century, a fact which begs the question as to how many others have been lost over the past few hundred years. One old antiquary reckoned the Maen Pearn’s name meant the ‘Stone of Sorrow’, apt enough given its fate.”

A Labour of Love

This is a beautiful book that has clearly been an absolute labour of love, written by someone who knows the area intimately. It puts a well deserved spotlight on ‘a shy and enigmatic beauty’ that is often overlooked in favour of its larger more celebrated kin, the Fal, the Tamar or the Fowey.

Five Million Tides gives the lucky reader a greater understanding of the many environmental, elemental, climatic and industrial forces that have shaped this unique place. It is a celebratory treasure trove of extraordinary human stories and it also firmly places the Helford River in the centre of Cornwall’s ancient history.

You can purchase Five Million Tides HERE and from local book shops!

** My thanks to Christian for allowing me the opportunity to review this special book for him, but also for providing me with such beautiful images to accompany the text.

Further Reading:

Review – All Rivers Run Free by Natasha Carthew

The Ferry Boat to Helford Village & Frenchman’s Creek

Scott’s Quay, Constantine – a hidden history

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