Caught by the River

Palm-Reading the Helford

16th April 2017

Illustration: John Richardson

Following Friday’s post on Jasper Troje Tuck​​​​​​​​​​’s photos of the Helford River, find below a topical extract from Peter Kirby‘s contribution to our book A Collection of Words on Water:

Take the kayak and paddle like a bastard. Kayaking is walking with your hands. Allegedly, it’s also the chosen sport of palmists, or ‘chiromancers’ as their business card states. So, true to the laws of destiny, I’ll make this up as I go along.

Take the plunge at Gweek glorious Gweek, gem of a village, bohemia of a boatyard. Here lie the bowels of the river Helford, where burst vessels seep into quays with sunken hips. Pampas grass graces the upper deck. Buddleia thrives in leftover lime from the kilns that once bore the brunt of man’s industrial toil. Down the central spit grow a dozen conifers, feeding on dregs of yesteryear’s guano (booby-shit baby-bio), which came from the South Seas to fertilise the fields. Above a slagheap of tarpaulin sits a lifebelt, all but an anchor, all but dead, nailed to a post where gallows strung up oyster terrorists many lives ago.

This given day, industry is rife. The 200 strong crew of Seacore set out to bore the ocean floor as they have done for 30 years. On land, the craftsmen of Working Sail recreate 19th century pilot cutters with a deep love of wood and techniques that would make a shark weep. Across the yard, waterproof paint cloys the air, a toxic trip for all within nose-shot. Swan, duck and gull, the avian masons, meet up to talk eco-justice. At the gates, a silver-foiled beast squats its eight black legs over an unloved BBQ.

Amidst all this exquisite debris are boats. Boats to live in, sail in, fish in, potter in. Boats whose names are born on hope: Halcyon, Clairvoyant and, I dare you not to smile, Puffit.

I baptise mine HMS Worval after her birthplace and launch her with the outgoing tide. From here, I shall guide her as the dragonfly did me. For now we are two boats. Time to stop pushing and start pulling. I tie the stick to the tail of the kayak-come-tug, climb in and let the hands meander to the tune of the river. We shall crisscross the waters, from creek-tip to creek-tip, to hear stories of folk who flank the foreshore and eavesdrop on songs sung by fish.

The weather is spiteful. 25mph of mizzle (drizzle + mist) pummels my enthusiasm.
However, the joy of a kayak is you can resist a rapid and the rip of the tide. Or else, freewheel the way of the wind. Choose the latter. Heave ho Geronimo.

Too many strokes later, I moor up at Tremayne Quay built for the arrival of Queen Victoria, but she never made it. Bitch blamed the weather. I’m not so sure. Camp here tonight, guilt free, knowing the Vyvyan family of Trelowarren gifted the land to the public via the National Trust in the early 1970s, bless them. Erect the tent in daylight on a lawn so thin it does for my pegs what Uri Geller did for spoons. Store wood for a fire after the reward of the pub, then on with the voyage.

To escape the wind, I swing into Frenchman’s Creek. At its mouth, I probe for bodies in a pleasure-boat wreck hoping to relive a scene from Jaws. It all goes eerily still.
Glide super slowly up the creek. Dust gathers on the surface, a film of phlegm that forms a landing bay for insects or possibly, very light aircraft. Pollock gulp flies. Eels bark. Bass gawp cockily; the Helford is a designated nursery, so although I can’t hook them, I can nigh on pat them. At low tide, trees perform handstands and locals talk of a secret fish-well from pre-refrigeration days. But now, sitting here, motionless, I listen to dank silence and the river confesses that it dictated ‘that novel’ to Madame Du Maurier.

As I paddle, questions surface. It’s as though the blade of the oar combs up ideas from the most fertile force alive, the sea. I stop to write these thoughts afloat. And just drift. Drifting, both mentally and physically, is a drug worth trying.


Read the chapter in full — plus many more musings on favourite rivers, from the likes of Roger Deakin, Jarvis Cocker, and Irvine Welsh — in A Collection of Words on Water, available here in our online bookshop.