Simon Mitchell as ‘Nature Boy’. Join him on one of his favourite journies through spectacular Cornish valley countryside in springtime. This is a walk (or bike ride) along the River Fowey between the ancient Cornish settlements of Lerryn, St.Winnow and Lostwithiel.
Set off from Lerryn
The tiny town of Lerryn behind me I set off following the Fowey river into the woods along an ancient pathway that runs parallel. One of the last ‘wildernesses’ in Cornwall, these woods stretch for several miles along the banks of the river and are known locally as ‘Ethy Woods’ and maintained mostly by the Forestry Commission. The river Fowey is tidal here with a bottom of thick and treacley mud that can be quite treacherous. If you don’t sink deep then the mud is likely to claim your boots anyway. The tide leaves and returns quickly as the river from Lerryn to Lostwithiel is flat bottomed, but the river is a haven for wildlife and there is still great environmental diversity in this ‘neck of the woods’.
Ethy Woods near Lerryn
The route runs through Ethy Woods opposite Lerryn Woods, 10 Acre Woods and Manely Woods. This area was made famous by Kenneth Graham’s ‘Tales from the Riverbank’ a story published in May 1907 including the always experimental Toad of Toad Hall, which some people presume is based on Ethy, a Manor house set some way back from the river.
Just here is an outcrop of ‘washing’ rocks that jut out into the river providing a great way to be out on the water without needing a boat (at high tide). It gives a view to the many birds and fish that inhabit this special environment. Families of swans are regular nomads on the river but you will also see egrets, buzzards, owls, herons, many ducks and gulls, Cormorants and the odd Shag. Fish you will spot include Mullet, Trout and Salmon.
Mill Wood near Lerryn
A bit further on the pathway bends right to accommodate a ‘pill’ where a stream joins the river. This deep cut in the land, eroded by the stream over millennia, rarely sees the sun in the winter months and is often cloaked in a blanket of mist. Its worth keeping an eye out for Earthnuts here in spring. The pathway runs through some ancient remains of what was once a boat house and over a tiny wooden bridge into Mill Wood, so called because of St. Winnow Mill which is a little further upstream at the top of the wooded valley.
Mendy Pill near Lerryn
There is a steep climb up the opposite side of the stream valley which emerges on the ancient pathway from Middle Wood, around Mendy Pil, into Great Wood and then West Wood towards St. Winnow. These woods are full of Celandine this early in the year and if you are lucky you will happen across a colony of Windflowers . The pathway is high above the river here, which is screened by trees.
Sometimes, when there is nobody else around, time folds in upon itself and you can feel the ancient roots and links that mankind has to this environment. In the summer the woods are full of the calls of children and visitors to the area, and the sound of engines on the river destroys the magic at high tide. Already, jetski riders are finding their way upriver to these places, shattering the gentle sounds of nature with their ill considered noise pollution.
Hanging rock near Lerryn
High above the pathway, screened by trees, a huge rock slab juts out into the valley. Its probably quite dangerous to climb onto it as it has no visible means of support but it accepts the sun’s heat and gives the excitement of vertigo, with a peeping Tom’s view down the path. You can tell this ‘hanging rock’ has been used for lovers’ trysts, probably for centuries. Initials carved into the Holly tree next to the slab go back some years and have ‘morphed’ as the tree has grown. This is a great place to lie back and contemplate – or take a friend !
Joining the Lostwithiel branch of the River Fowey
Just here the pathway takes a hairpin bend at St. Winnow Point and the route leaves the Lerryn branch of the River to follow the Lostwithiel branch. There are great views here, you can see downriver to Golant, across to Garibaldi’s boathouse, and upriver to St. Winnow. The river opens and flattens here into a stretch of water called ‘St. Winnow Pool’. On the opposite side there is a railway that takes truckloads of China Clay down to Fowey where they are collected by ships at the busy docks.
The route here passes through mature mixed woodland with steep drops down to the river. The first flush of spring is bringing out the spectacular green beech leaves and you can almost hear the sap humming as the woodland comes back to life after Winter’s rest.
There are some spectacular Beech trees around here. Fagus Sylvatica is a native deciduous tree in UK and in times of famine the ‘nuts’ – beech mast have been eaten although they are arduous to prepare. Beech mast coffee is worth a try and in used to be popular in France – where they eat everything ! The ripened nuts have also been used for making oil that has been used for cooking and lamps, salad oil and even butter. In Norway and Sweden the sawdust of beechwood used to be boiled in water, baked and then mixed with flower to form a woody bread. Sandwich anyone – or shall we just make shelves? (ref: Wild Food by Roger Phillips)
Solutions to a sustainable economy are in the woods near St.Winnow
The valley edges are too steep here for the Forestry Commission to farm and has allowed a natural habitat to form with ground litter contributing to a rich environment. Gnarled old wood and dead branches overhang the riverbanks and you can smell the salt rising from the mud flats at low tide mixing with the tang of decaying wood. At this point you are some distance from any roads and the splash of water, the calls of many birds, the gentle sounds of air moving through leaves fill your consciousness, a gentle reminder that you too are part of nature.
Life can sometimes be so complex that we lose touch with the ‘greater picture’. Contact with nature is the greatest gift to combat the dis-eases of modern society. It links us back to natural organic cycles.
These cycles give great clues about how to manage land, environment, society and even economy in a sustainable manner.
Its really very simple. In modern terms every ‘output’ in nature creates a new ‘input’. New life thrives on decay, the energy always recycles. Our modern investment processes are based on exploiting the capital assets of the earth and using them as income. Its short term products become polluting waste.
In our society we waste people, products, energy, resources. As a result the very fabric is starting to crumble and the earth is full of toxins.
There is another way – just let the woods show you.
The pathway emerges onto fields over a stile. Here the route skims a couple of fields before meeting St. Winnow.
St. Winnow Pool
At this stage I often stop for a break and walk up the hill a bit for a view over St. Winnow Pool. I call this my ‘harmonica tree’ as I sometimes sit here and play to the river. It particularly likes the ‘Skye Boat Song’ and I sometimes wonder if anyone hears the lilting sounds of this ancient Scottish ballad floating across the water. This is the place to be to watch the tide and the changes in light as the pool fills and empties.
St. Winnow nestles at the head of the pool just within view. It has more boats than houses and is one of the quietest places to be. The Domesday record of 1086 records St. Winnow as ‘Sanwinuec’ held by Godfrey from the Bishop (of Exeter) with ‘two slaves, five villagers, 30 sheep, six smallholders and land for six ploughs, pasture half a league long and wide with the same area for woodland’.
It hasn’t changed much since then !
The pathway emerges from fields onto the shore of St. Winnow Pool where it skirts around to the church.
Local early religious sites of the 5th – 9th centuries often continued in use through the middle ages. According to the Church Guide, St. Winnoc left his name here, in Wales (Llanwynogg) and in Brittany (Plouhinec) where he founded a monastery. He died in 717AD.
The early church founded here and made of wood was replaced by this later Norman church. In the 15th century the south wall was demolished and the church was widened to include another aisle with pillars and arches. The tower is dated about the same time and the roof restored in about 1870.
With thanks to (Lostwithiel Town Council Walks Guide)
Fine Celtic Crosses at St. Winnow
More recently the church is being lovingly restored by local people. The churchyard has some fine Celtic crosses and is well worth looking around, as is the church. Please remember to leave some money in the contributions box as maintaining a remote rural church such as this is a really expensive business !
Inside are some fabulous rood screens, hand carved by Violet Pinwell in 1907.
I wonder if she ever met Kenneth Graham here as he was allegedly here writing his ‘Tales of the River Bank’ around the same time?
Also carved by Violet Pinwell is a beautiful wooden statue of the Madonna and child. In this icon she is holding a Lily and this image was the first cover for my novel set in the Fowey River [which I have presently ‘unpublished for a re-write].
Angie’s Cafe at St. Winnow
Just by St. Winnow Farm Museum stands Angie’s Cafe.
I always stop here for a cup of tea when passing, and sometimes a Cornish cream tea also.
There is a circular walk between here andLerryn which crosses the fields back to Lerryn, making Angie’s the ideal half-way stopping point. You get a beautiful view over the peaceful church and river Fowey with your snack.
The road up from St. Winnow is quite steep. At the top it meets every ecologist’s dream road – a sign that says: ‘IMPRACTICABLE FOR CARS’. If it were a place I would go there. As a non driver and cyclist I hate the damn things! This lane is the most direct route between St. Winnow and Lostwithiel and must be about as ancient as the hills themselves. It drops down into another valley and has a great colony of extra large Dog Violets in the hedgerow.
Lane to Lostwithiel
At the bottom of the valley a stream runs across the lane, which swiftly turns into a dark tunnel through deep hedges on either side. When it rains the lane turns into a stream and natural erosion has deepened it into a tube through nature. There is a very strong presence of nature in this lane. Views out are closed down and nature wraps right around you. After a steep and rocky climb to the top it emerges onto a tarred lane to Polmenna Farm.
From here its Cornish country lanes back to Lostwithiel with an occasional view through gates and gaps in the hedgerow. The hedges are already teeming with wildflowers, with dozens of new lambs frolicking around in the fields. As this is essentially a private access road to Polmenna, cars are a rarity and its easy to just enjoy the sensation of moving.
From the hill you get occasional glimpses of Madderley Moor and Shirehall Moor, where the River Fowey bends back on itself in its ‘meander stage’. This salt marsh is often underwater at the highest tide but supports an important mixture of wildlife and a unique ecosystem that is increasingly valued by the residents of Lostwithiel.
The town of Lostwithiel comes into view and its a short, downhill mile back into town. Lostwithiel is first referred to in the Borough Charter of 1189AD and there are several interpretations of the name, from the modern ‘Lost within the hills’, to older Celtic interpretations. The first syllable ‘lost’ means ‘a tail’ in the sense of ‘end’. ‘Withiel’ the second part of the name is a compound of ‘gwyth’ meaning trees and ‘yel’ meaning ‘place abounding in’. Overall this reads something like ‘the tail end of the place abounding in trees’ – or ‘tail end of the woods’.
Once I got back into town I had to pause a moment as the level crossing barriers were down to allow the Penzance to Plymouth train through. Yes, this little known place where trees abound and nature walks right in to get you is on the main railway line from London to Penzance.
Simon Mitchell is an artist and writer. His particular interest is in an holistic approach to our relationships with nature, and its importance to our survival in the future. Please take a look at Simon’s photographs and artworks based around the Fowey River Valley by visiting his galleries.
Stock photography site at aplus1:http://www.aplus1.co.uk/galleries