The deeply wooded banks of the upper reaches of the River Fal are a quiet, sparsely populated place. A place where the pace of life can seems as timeless as the stealthy creep of the tide over the mudflats. There are many hidden corners in this part of Cornwall, places where you can escape the crowds and find yourself in the company of ancient oaks and abundant birdlife. But despite initial appearances there is plenty of human history here too, just waiting to be discovered.
For thousands of years the silent waters of these tributaries have been used for fishing, trade, transport and laterly smuggling and the tree-covered banks have provided shelter, grazing and wood to coppice. Though hard to imagine today, in the past the tidal waters penetrated much further in land and large boats could navigate as far as Bissoe, Tregony and Tresillian. Many of the villages in the area sprang up because of their association with the River Fal, and churches, castles and manor houses where built close to its watery fingers.
Descending from Truro to the haven’s mouth by water you are overlooked by sundry gentleman’s commodious seats . . . but amongst all upon that side of the river, Talverne, for pleasant prospect, large scope and other housekeeping commodities, challengeth the pre-eminence.”Richard Carew, Survey of Cornwall, 1602
From the King Harry Ferry landing and narrow set of steps leads up to a footpath, known locally as the Ferryman’s Path. This little rabbit-run track skirts along beside the water, through the woodland to Tolverne Cottage. Also known as Smugglers Cottage, it was built for fishermen in the 17th century and this beautiful thatch building is undeniably a picture postcard spot.
*The cottage was once a tearoom but it is now a private home again, so please be respectful if you go to take a look.
Given the peaceful atmosphere it may surprise you to learn that this little cottage was another of the isolated assembly points found in and around the Fal for American troops before the D-Day landings, and that General Eisenhower actually stayed here. The wide concrete road leading to the cottage was laid to create better access to the water for the necessary equipment. But this wartime connection is not all the Tolverne Cottage is famous for.
“Tolverne Passage and Roundwood were famous for smuggling up to a century ago.”Western Morning News, 6th July 1926
In August 1960 the Daily Mirror newspaper published an article called ‘Up the Creek’ in which they interviewed the then owners about the history of the cottage. The article includes mention of the ghost of a witch said to haunt the cottage and ‘Tom Long’, supposedly a famed Cornish smuggler who was hanged near by for his crimes. Unfortunately I can find no details about this particular man, probably because his recorded surname – ‘Long’, was actually a nickname referring to his height perhaps. But there is another notorious character who does have links to Tolverne Manor.
In 1475 a man called ‘Bedrigan’, said to be a ‘notorious land and sea robber’ living near Truro at Newham Chase, was recorded as ‘pillaging Tolverne House’. So shocking were his exploits that they were apparently brought before the House in Parliament. Bedrigan is most likely a pseudonym for Sir Henry Bodrugan – who was it seems, much like the Killigrews around the same time, another example of the Cornish ‘well-to-do’ misbehaving!
” In 1473 Sir Henry Bodrugn, the last of his family to be Lord of the Manor of Restronguet, was charged in that he had forcibly entered James Trefusis’ house and ship the ‘Bride of Feock’ and had carried away various goods and chattels of the said James Trefusis.”U.M redwood, Trefusis Territory, 1987
Why King Harry?
Tolverne cottage stands very close to two ancient crossing points on the River Fal, one between Tolverne and Calenick and the othermore famously near Trelissick and called the King Harry. In fact, there has been a ferry crossing at King Harry Passage for at least 500 years. The short trip by boat enables the traveller to avoid the twenty-seven mile long journey round to Truro via the only bridge at Tresillian. It remains an essential connection for the people living on the Roseland to this day.
The ferry itself has changed immeasurably over the centuries from simple rowing boats to steam-powered floating platforms and now the iconic chain ferry we know today. My grandfather once told me about helping his brother to take a herd of sheep to Truro market from the Roseland in the 1930s. They walked the animals all the way, loaded the noisy bunch onto the King Harry ferry and floating them across the river. Unimaginable these days.
“One of only five chain ferries in England, the King Harry Ferry supports an average of 200 commuter trips, 150 local businesses and up to 650 vehicle crossings each day.”
But how did this crossing come by its regal name? There are rumours of King Henry VIII visiting the Roseland but perhaps the answer lies in the story of a ruined chapel hidden in the woods.
St Mary’s Chapel & Holy Well
“At Tolverne are some remains of the Mansion of the Arundells . . . Here was a Chapel of St George, licensed 1384. Another chapel was licensed on the Barton in honour of St Mary in the same year. This stood in a field immediately above King Harry’s Passage and slight remains yet exist.”Charles henderson, Cornish Church Guide, 1925
Tolverne Manor was the home of a branch of the Arundells from the 13th century, reputedly the time of the reign of Edward I (1272 – 1307), and it seems that a member of this ancient Cornish family decided to build not one but two chapels in their grounds in the 14th century. There was a Chapel of St George, licensed in 1384, and at first it seems that the second, which was likely built on the site of an ancient holy well, was dedicated to St Mary the Virgin. This then became ‘Our Lady and King Henry’ during the reign of Henry IV and then later just the Chapel of King Henry. From Henry we get Harry and therefore the name of the crossing so close to the site.
“The writer has discovered a reference to this chapel as of ‘Our Lady and King Henry’ at ‘Talverne’ in a Will of 1528, which gives the key to the meaning of the King Harry Passage. The proposals for the canonisation of Henry VI were then being agitated although the Reformation prevented further negotiations. The Arundells as Lancastrians, had suffered much loss under Edward IV and Tolverne had been beseiged 1474 by the Yorkists.”Charles Henderson, 1925
Charles Henderson noted in the 1920s that very little of the chapel or the holy well could be seen and of course the same is true today, just some dressed pieces of granite in a boggy area where the spring for the holy well still rises. But to me that hardly matters.
It is the age old story, places of such antiquity just get me interested and excited imagining what once was. After all, I grew up a short distance from the King Harry Ferry and discovering the roots of its name fascinates me and I hope it does you too.
Like so many places in Cornwall the passage of time has meant so many interesting episodes have occurred on this bend in the river. The comings and goings of countless ships and their crews with each tide, passing travellers and the innumerable little events in Cornish history. This article hopefully gives a small snap shot into the ever-changing picture of this part of the river.
Important Notes on Visiting the chapel
Back in March 2021 I wrote to the Tregothnan Estate, who I believe now own the woodland around the King Harry, Tolverne Cottage and the chapel. I requested clarification from them as to access along the Ferryman’s Path to the cottage and through the woods to the chapel and holy well but I have not received a response. So, in all honesty I cannot be sure if the paths are unrecorded rights of way or permissive paths or not. Please bear this in mind, and due to this I am also not suggesting that you try and visit. – There is a ‘right of way’ down the road as far as Tolverne Cottage however. Perhaps the best way to view the area is on one of the Enterprise boats that run between Falmouth and Truro, this is one of my favourite river journeys and you will pass the King Harry and the Smugglers Cottage too.
If you fancy seeing the cottage and this beautiful creek from the water I can also recommend Petra River Cruises who are based in St Mawes and can arrange a guided trip for you.