The Germans have a word which doesn’t quite translate into English: Waldeinsamkeit.
It roughly describes the feeling of being alone in the woods; forest solitude; of being engulfed by nature.
Frenchman’s Creek provides the perfect real life example of this definition; a stunning part of the Helford River made famous by the Daphne Du Maurier novel. The story may focus on smuggling but it’s hard to conjure up that dark world when wandering along the river bank today. Instead the area is quiet, except for the hum of the birds as they flit between the tree tops and the gentle sound of water lapping at the muddy banks.
Despite the sun shining, the air serves as a reminder of last week’s storms; suffused with petrichor and I taste salt every time the breeze blows across the estuary. The floor is already a thick carpet of ramsons, permeating the peaty breeze with their garlicky smell. Some plants already have their delicate white flowers peeking out through the large buds and on the sloped banks the thin green bluebell leaves are already well established. A silver birch shows tiny buds peeping through the crisp brown leaves that still cling to branches. Hazel catkins are plump and creamy button fungi peek out from thick clumps of bright green moss. Wild primroses cluster together in spaces where light sneaks through the tree canopies, delicate snowdrop flowers and the occasional bright yellow face of a daffodil bringing light to the dark green floor.
The still-bare limbs of the trees reveal the otherwise hidden woodland birds. Above my head, a group of long tailed tits chattered their familiar “prrrt-prrrt” to each other as they hopped from branch to branch. Most will be paired up already and will have been building their nests for several weeks, collecting features and cobwebs to weave a large next g in thick bramble. They are curious birds because they aren’t technically tits at all and are one of the few avian species who engage in coordinated parting; supporting other parents in the rearing of their chicks when their own don’t make it.
As I walk, flashes of pink and blue catch my eye as bullfinches and blue tits hunt for insects. Oak woodland is the ideal place for tits to nest and they have found the perfect spot right by the Helford. The woods surrounding the river are mostly made up of sessile oaks and those here have been labelled some of the best ancient oak woodland in the UK. In fact, sessile oak trees are sometimes nicknamed the Cornish oaks due to the sheer amount of them found in the county; with pedunculate oaks dominating in the rest of England. Oak trees are the most common tree species throughout Britain and played a huge part of daily life historically. The wood is strong, perfect for use in building andwas particularly favoured in the fabrication of boats; the irony of the small punts moored in the centre of the estuary, surrounded by the ancient fathers of those felled to make their bones not escaping me. Oak wood not used in construction would have produced slow burning firewood, the charcoal heralded as the best for swordsmithing. Oak galls were traditionally used to create ink due to the amount of iron sulphate they contain and the bark was the favourite choice to tan leather. Oak produces strong, hard-wearing leather that is worth the long process required to make it. The bark would be stripped from the trees during spring and summer then kept for several years to dry out. It was then ground into pieces around 2 – 3 inches long which are then soaked, the colour draining into cold water, a bit like making a cup of tea. Pelts are then soaked for around a year before they can be worked into clothing. Today this process is no longer used, except by J & FJ Baker in Devon; the only tannery to do so. It is sustainable, natural and beautiful.
The track I walk is overgrown, meaning fewer visitors opt to visit. I slip through the brake, hop over a fallen tree trunk and out onto the expanse of Withan Quay. The space, which first appears on records in the 1880s, is the perfect spot to take in the tranquility of the river. Evidence of the local otter population is scattered about my feet; the shells of muddy cockles cracked open and left open and empty in the midday sun.
On the bank, I spot some winter cress, also known locally as ‘cassabully’ from the Cornish kas beler, meaning ‘nasty cress’. I don’t know how this nickname came about; especially as the flavour is similar to the cress we are familiar with, except with a slight lemony tang to it. Its scientific name, Barbarea vulgaris, named after St Barbara, the patron saint of miners. Her plant was said to be able to heal the wounds of those she cared for, so the unpleasant attitude of the name surprises me. It is bright and pretty, resembling a rape plant. I rub a leaf and inhale, detecting mustard.
I decide to take a moment and sit on the edge of the estuary, bathed in the warm spring sunshine. I lean back against a stump, listening to the wader’s calls echo along the river and watching two swans glide silently into the distance.