The Helford River is fringed by beautiful ancient woodland. Dominated by oak trees, each of these woods has its own name and its own history. There is Bonallack, Bosahan, Calamansack, Carminowe, Merthen and Roskymmer, old Cornish names that dance on the tongue. Most remain untouched, home to rabbits, the odd deer and perhaps a clamour of rooks, but close to the Trelowarren Estate one area, known as Tremayne Great Wood and Tremayne Little Wood, hides an unexpectedly grand addition amongst the trees, constructed of finely appointed granite. This is Tremayne Quay.
The No Show Queen
Tremayne Quay is an idyllic spot which can only be reached by foot or by water, it makes a perfect place for a picnic. On the upper tidal reaches of the Helford River, it is about half way between Helford village and the end of the creek at Gweek. But of course, there is more to this quiet corner than meets the eye. There is an interesting tale behind why such a grand quay was constructed so far from ‘civilisation’.
The story goes that Sir Richard Vyvyan of Trelowarren had it built in 1847 in anticipation of a very special visitor. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had visited Cornwall on a few occasions, both in an official capacity and on private holidays, most famously in 1843 and again in 1846.
“HER MAJESTY’S VISITS. Majesty Queen Victoria seems determined to maintain her right to the Sovereignty the Ocean, a distinction which has been stoutly contested for and long maintained by the Naval Genius of England. Barely had the echoes died away which saluted her departure from the Devon coast than we are called upon to announce the re-appearance of the Royal Squadron on the coast of Cornwall . . . Her majesty was received by her Cornish subjects with that exuberance of enthusiasm so characteristic of the west of England and which the rarity of a royal visit tended much to enhance . . .”Exeter & Plymouth Gazette, 12th September 1846.
It appears that another visit was planned for 1847 (or perhaps 1848) and the Vyvyans of Trelowarren, one of Cornwall’s most ancient families, were going to welcome the royal couple into their home. Consequently they went to a great deal of trouble and expense building not only the beautiful dressed granite quay, complete with elegant steps so that queenly feet could easily disembark from the royal yacht without getting wet, but also a new driveway from the waterside to the house. There is no doubt that Sir Richard really planned on impressing his important guests as in addition to all this he is also said to have planted a huge number of extra trees in the woodland around the quay.
There is some suggestion, perhaps seeming from local gossip or from the inference of historians since, that Sir Richard may have been trying so hard because he had his heart set on marrying the queen’s niece, Princess Elise. The only problem there was that Elise was only seventeen while he was forty-seven . . . but whatever the case all Richard’s efforts were in vain, Queen Victoria never came. Bad weather apparently prevented her from entering the Helford and, one assumes, being so far up the river meant that the tidal window during which the quay could be reached was fairy short.
Some seventy years later the quay finally fulfilled its purpose however, when it was used by a rather infamous future king.
The Caddish King
In 1921 Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor, visited Trelowarren. Then the Prince of Wales and Duke of Cornwall was soon to become King Edward VIII, the shortest ever reigning monarch of the United Kingdom. Edward’s tour of Cornwall started on the Isles of Scilly from where he sailed to Falmouth and after a short visit to Pendennis Castle he was driven to Port Navas. There was a good deal of flag waving along the way. From Port Navas a galley “rowed by six fishermen”, employed at the local oyster house, took him across the river to Tremayne Quay. The Prince then had afternoon tea at Trelowarren with Sir Countenay and Lady Vyvyan. It was all very lovely, Sir Richard would have been thrilled, and the Prince was, his hosts said later, “charming”. The only ‘fly in the ointment’, so to speak, was that the Prince was in a hurry to get away because the infamous Mrs. Wallis Simpson was waiting for him on a yacht moored just offshore! Scandalous!
A few years later, in 1936, Edward was king for just 326 days before abdicating so that he could marry Wallis.
Away from the quay . . .
I can’t resist mentioning a feature very close to Tremayne Quay, on the hill above the trees an ‘ancient camp’ is marked on the Ordnance Survey maps. This enclosure was once thought to be the remains of a Roman camp and probably inspired the name ‘Vallum (or Vellan) Tremayne Creek’ for the little arm of the Helford beside the woodland. Vallum means rampart in Latin. It is however more likely to be the remains of an Iron Age enclosure, though nothing really remains of it these days.
There are some other strange banks and ditches in the Tremayne woods too. Known as a ‘woodbank’ these boundaries denoted territory and ownership. At one time wood was such a precious commodity that great earthworks were built to enclose and therefore claim areas of trees. The oaks here were once coppiced to provide charcoal and tannin for the leather trade.
As you might imagine the woodland and the river here is a real haven for wildlife including rare types of lichen, fungi and wildflowers, as well as kingfishers, heron, little egret, woodpeckers and many more. Just a short distance from Tremayne Quay is the beautiful boathouse, built around the same time, which according to the National Trust has been home to barn owls and greater horseshoe bats.
Cornwall has a long and complicated relationship with the British royal family. Most famously I suppose with the first born son of the monarch but most Cornish are also aware of the support we gave to Charles I during the English Civil War. But the connections that this little hidden place has to such important figures, scandalous or not, is surprising and again just goes to show that you never know what tales are lurking in the most unexpected of places.
Notes on Visiting
The Tremayne woods, boathouse and quay have been under the care of the National Trust since 1978 and certainly make a peaceful spot for a walk or for messing about on the river. The main path leading to the quay is along the old driveway built by Sir Richard, so it is fairly even ground. To find Tremayne Woods, from Mawgan Cross take the road towards St Martin, about 1 mile along, just past Gear, there is an un-signposted left turn into a single track road. Follow this as it wiggles down into the steep valley. At the lowest point you will find the entrance to the woods. There is limited parking here beside the road.