THE HISTORY OF THE HELFORD PASSAGE FERRY – A JOURNEY OF A 1000 YEARS
The Helford River is the most southerly river in Britain, a place of breath-taking natural beauty beloved by Cornish hikers, novelists and painters who come to marvel at Helford’s timeless charm. It is one of the few places in England where ancient oak woodland meets the sea, where oysters once harvested by the Romans thrive and where there has been a ferry crossing for at least 1000 years.
A Very Ancient Institution
No one knows how old the Helford Passage Ferry is. Although it has been said that King Canute mentioned the rights for a ferry boat on the Helford River in 1023 and that the Domesday Book of 1086 also refers to a safe crossing at Helford, as the Cornish historian Charles Henderson concludes the ferry is likely a “very ancient institution” which may have already been in existence for hundreds of years before this.
Perhaps the people that built the Iron Age hillfort on Dennis Head used the Helford crossing. Perhaps the Romans thought to have occupied the wooded banks of the Helford River in the 4th century made use of this watery commute too.
Without doubt, the Helford ferry service that still plies these Cornish waters today has been around for a very long time and 1000 years may in fact be a conservative estimate.
What’s in a Name?
While it seems that the ferry has always departed from Passage Cove on the north bank, it is thought that early in its history, its destination across the river was the hamlet of Treath, a little east of the present landing at Helford. Indeed, ‘treath’ is an old Cornish word for ferry.
The word Helford is thought to be a combination of the Cornish word for tidal inlet, Heyl and the English word for a crossing point or road, fordh. A rather romantic 19th century translation has it meaning “the way over the salt river” and another as “the Salt Road”.
Interestingly however, the historian W. G. Collingwood writing in 1908 puts forward a fascinating theory for a Viking connection. He suggests that the river was once known as ‘Helfjordr’, possibly harking back to a time during the 9th century when those infamous Northman may have built a settlement on its banks.
Crossing the Salt Road
The crossing point at Passage Cove has always been the gateway into the Lizard and the only logical route for Cornisah hikers or travellers heading south at a time when roads were badly maintained and often dangerous. Even today the ferry ride still saves a winding road journey of at least 14 miles.
Though only carrying foot passengers today, the ferry would have once transported produce and livestock on its way to market. In 19th century the ferry was a large flat bottomed boat able to convey carts, carriages and herds of cattle across the Helford water. A man called Mr. Richards ran a horse-drawn bus from Manaccan to Falmouth and the whole kit and caboodle would be loaded on to the Helford ferry. The horses were tethered to the back of the boat and made to swim along behind. Apparently animals that made the crossing regularly became very used to this routine.