For many visitors and local people alike the little lake known as Swanpool just outside of Falmouth is a favourite place for a stroll. For generations it has been a popular spot to bring the little ones to feed the ducks and to stretch your legs before heading to the beach.
However, this coastal lagoon has an interesting history that not many know about and it is an important nature reserve and a Site of Special Scientific Interest because hiding beneath the water is a rather surprising, if somewhat bizarre, little creature.
This little lake is well known as a haven for wildlife including ducks, swans, coots, herons, kingfishers and even the odd stray turtle.
FUN FACT: At one time, in around 1860 an extension or alternate branch line was proposed for Falmouth’s railway. The track would have branched off towards Budock church and then terminated beside the lake at Swanpool – “opening to the sea, the wooded grounds and gardens and villas of that town.”
The Cold Pool
Swanpool’s name in Cornish is Lynyeyn Pryskelow which means the ‘cold pool of the elm thicket’ and in the 19th century it really lived up to that name when for several years when it froze right over and became a skating rink.
During the winter of 1830 the pool developed a particularly thick layer of ice.
“The severity of the weather having again covered the Swan-pool near Falmouth with ice of sufficient strength to admit of skating upon it, during the last few days several gentlemen have resumed this amusement, many of them crossing from one side of the pool to the other on the ice, an opportunity of doing which has not occurred for many years. These feats of agility generally suited to a more northern climate draw together a number of spectators daily.”West Briton, 5th Feb 1830
In December 2022 the lake froze again though the ice was certainly not thick enough to skate on.
Though the nature reserve is these days surrounded by the ever expanding town of Falmouth, in the past Swanpool was by no means a stranger to industry and development.
There was a tanning yard here in the 1830s and Swanpool Mine, which once stood roughly where the carpark is now, was a lead mine. During the mid-19th century more than 600 tons of lead was mined here, along with a small amount of silver and gold, much of it coming from the dredging of the rich sediments in the pool itself. These sediments were deposited here by flows of melt water during successive ice ages.
“Vast amounts of valley gravels were shifted much of the material originating in the Carnmenellis granite masses . . . After these gravels had settled in the valley bottoms much of the sea was once more locked in ice with the accompanying fall in sea level. On the newly dry land plants and trees grew until the valleys were once more inundated as we can observe from the evidence of the submerged forests around the Cornish coast. Such peat covers the mineral bearing gravels at Loe Pool and Swanpool and is found again a Maenporth and much of the Fal Estuary.”Stella Maris Turk – West Briton, 26th September 1985
And beyond the mining Swanpool also saw its fair share of smuggling and violence.
Stand & Deliver!
It was early in the morning of Saturday 15th June 1833 when a coastguard spotted some smugglers unloading kegs onto Swanpool beach. He yelled at them to lay down their contraband, they refused and he fired his pistols to summon the help of other officers nearby.
When no backup arrived the smugglers saw their chance to escape and attacked the coastguard, took his pistol and cutlass and beat him severely. “His hat was cut through with a sword but his head escaped.” A search was made for the culprits but no trace of them was ever found.
A few years before this in 1813 there was another violent incident at the pool.
“Attempt at Robbery & Murder: At an early hour on Monday evening last two Gentlemen, one an officer in the Navy, the other a surgeon of one of the Packets, were walking near the Swan-pool, Falmouth, they were suddenly called upon to stop and immediately fired on by a villain from the hedge adjoining the road. On looking towards the spot from whence the shot was fired, they perceived two men, apparently sailors armed with blunderbusses. The second villain then presented his piece and providentially it flashed in the pan; when the Gentlemen taking advantage of the short distance from their assailants, ran off at full speed and succeeded in effecting their escape. The most diligent search has since been made after the atrocious ruffians but we are sorry to say that it has hitherto been ineffectual.”Royal Cornwall Gazette, 9th Nov 1813
The idea of blunderbusses being fired off in the peace of this corner of Cornwall seems extraordinary now!
But today it is the highly usual ecology that makes this places so special.
The Unusual Ecology
Swanpool covers roughly 14 acres and was once much deeper than it is today, sediment, some of it from mining has gradually made the lake shallower over the centuries. Another factor was a ‘new’ outlet tunnel that was built in 1824 which is said to have lowered the water level but also allowed sea water to enter more freely especially during spring tides. It is this outlet that helps to keep the water of the pool brackish created a unique ecological environment.
Swanpool is separated from the sea by a porous shingle bar which was formed thousands of years ago, probably during the last Ice Age. This bar, and the 19th century tunnel, means that the water in the lake is a mixture of saline and fresh, a combination of the saltwater seeping through the stones (and the modern culvert) and fresh water from rain and the stream that feeds the pool. It is these unusual levels of salinity that have attracted a very odd little animal.
The Trembling Sea Mat
Swanpool Nature Reserve is the only place in the British Isles, indeed one of the very few places in Northern Europe, where you can find Victorella Pavida – otherwise known as ‘the trembling sea mat’ or ‘moss animals’. They sound pretty endearing but sadly these common names paint a far more charming sounding picture than the reality.
Although these primitive creatures look more like a plant they are in fact a rare species of Bryozoan, an aquatic invertebrate.
Victorella Pavida are tiny, just 0.3mm to 1mm in length, and similar to coral, live in colonies; closely packed together they attach themselves to rocks, fallen pieces of wood or even stems of plants beneath the surface of the water, forming what looks like a soft, pale yellow coating. The colonies have the texture and appearance of velvet and they just love the prefect brackish conditions of Swanpool. Victorella Pavida feed themselves by taking nutrients from the water passing over their little waving crown of tentacles which are covered in tiny hairs.
FUN FACT: A study carried out in the 1980s of Swanpool’s unusual ecology also included comparisons with another similar pool called Oyster Pond in Massachusetts, bizarrely the nearest town to this pool is called Falmouth. Oyster Pond is also a brackish coastal pool separated from the open sea by a bar formed in the last ice age.
So I hope that my research has opened your eyes to the secrets of this beautiful little spot and perhaps the next time you pass Swanpool in your hurry to get to the beach you will take a moment to think of the weird and wonderful rare creature lurking beneath the surface of the water and also how different the scene might have looked 200 years ago when the mining was active or smugglers were fighting on the sand . . .