A Guide to the Helford

A Guide to the Helford

Thatched cottages, ancient trees and emerald creeks set the scene for the Helford, a gorgeous river valley set between Falmouth Bay and the eastern fringes of The Lizard Peninsula. Derived from the Cornish word “heyl” for “estuary”, this beautiful valley resides within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and is centred around a picture-perfect village seated on its south banks. Wonderfully nostalgic and timelessly captivating, its Swallows and Amazons-esque scenery invites for halcyon days of adventure and relaxation, proposing a real-life fairytale far removed from the everyday.

If you are looking forward to discovering all that the Helford has to offer, you can expect a dreamy agenda of spellbinding exploration and luxuriation. From strolls along cockled shores to picnics under tangled trees to sun-kissed drinks on the decks of riverside pubs, there’s something for you.

The Helford

A view from Helford village overlooking Helford Passage

A magical world plucked from the pages of a novel, the Helford offers another side to Cornwall. Within its river valley, idyllic scenes lifted from canvas depict mirror-topped riverways, secret royal quays, sheltered beaches, and mossy branches that bow towards the water’s surface. Decorated in subtropical vegetation and woven with a network of waterways and tributaries, it evokes almost Amazonian scenes intertwined with quintessential English loveliness, all overlooked by tiny, fishermen’s huts and thatched cottages that gather along the riverbanks.

At the centre of this picture-perfect scene, the Helford village itself sits in peaceful tranquillity above the water, home to a seasonal passenger ferry and café, a car park, pub, village shop and sailing club. Nearby, collections of picturesque villages and hamlets rest above the Helford River’s fifty miles of shoreline including Durgan, St Anthony-in-Meneage and Gillan. Meanwhile, seven creeks (Ponsontuel, Mawgan, Polpenwith, Polwheveral, Frenchman's, Port Navas and Gillan) and countless inlets splinter off from the river, providing an abundant natural playground for exploration.

A year-round haven, the summer here nurtures a distinctly exotic feel, whilst in winter, the quiet waterways and cosy pubs lend a wonderful sense of romantic isolation. Indeed, whilst soaking up the peaceful landscapes and sun-soaked shores of the river, it’s hard to imagine that the Helford was once one of the most important, and busiest, waterways in Britain. Once alive with Iron Age and Romano-British industry, Medieval pirates, and nineteenth century fishermen and smugglers, its fascinating chapters, though distant, all add a sense of romanticism as you explore.

Helford Passenger Ferry

Overlooking Helford Passage beach with its ferry landing, boats and cute array of shops and eateries

Reported to be the oldest ferry crossing in Britain, the Helford Passenger Ferry has an incredibly deep-rooted past. Thought to have been mentioned by King Canute and cited within the Domesday Book, there has been a ferry service across the river for at least one thousand years - though some people, due to Iron Age activity, believe it could be older still. It was even used in the Cornish Rebellion in 1497.

Today, the ferry continues to serve its original purpose and carries voyagers from the ‘mainland’ to Helford village, cutting the eighteen-mile inland journey down to a relaxing one-mile water crossing. A favourite with walkers, cyclists and daytrippers, it is based on the Helford Passage side of the river and operates seasonally, running from Helford point pontoon to the beach in front of the Ferry Boat Inn.

Smugglers and Daphne Du Maurier

The palm-lined village of Helford

The Helford River and its sheltered surrounds were once ripe with trade, used as an important port and crossing place from at least the Medieval times. That said, over the centuries, Helford and nearby Gweek were eventually eclipsed as shipping and trading ports by Falmouth and Penryn, and it was upon this slow demise that more elicit activities began to take over.

Quiet, sheltered and full of hidden creeks and coves, pirates and smugglers took over and it was these notorious seafarers and dealers that inspired Daphne du Maurier. Captivated by the enigmatic atmosphere and fascinating history of Helford, the famous authoress penned her historical novel, Frenchman’s Creek, so named after the real-life creek of the same name, and wove a story of forbidden romance between the Lady Dona St. Columb and the French pirate, Jean-Benoit Aubéry.

Places to Eat and Drink

The Shipwright Arms

The white-washed facade of the Shipwright Arms pub in the Helford

Presiding above the silky waters of the Helford River, The Shipwright Arms enjoys a beautiful aspect overlooking the Helford Passage and the rivermouth. A popular hub adored by all, from families to local fishermen to visiting yachties, it extends a warm welcome to everyone. Take a seat outside on the palm-lined, tiered terrace or inside under the painted beams of the restaurant and choose from a selection of light bites and meals. Throughout the summer, live music Sundays add an extra sense of occasion.

The Ferry Boat Inn

The sunny outside patio of The Ferry Boat Inn in Helford

Sitting on the Falmouth side of the Helford River and overlooking the landing for the Helford Passenger Ferry, The Ferry Boat Inn is a beloved spot. Dating back to the sixteenth century, this pub and restaurant is full of history and revolves around life on the river, providing an authentic and delectable introduction to the Helford. For a dreamy meal, peruse its menu and choose from home-made pub favourites alongside delicious daily specials. Or, if you’re looking for light refreshments, soak up the sunshine on the sun-kissed patio with your drink of choice.

Helford River Sailing Club

A view of Helford River Sailing Club from the water and pontoons

Helford River Sailing Club is a thriving sailing club set in a scenic position on the river in Helford village. Perfect for sailors and all those who love being in, on, and near the water, it unites all over a shared love for fair winds and fine food. Located next to the village’s main car park and with an additional private car park for club members, it has generous shore facilities and a members-only clubhouse with a bar and restaurant. Serving tasty food and a large selection of drinks, there’s no nicer place to soak up the atmosphere and watch boats bob alongside the pontoons.

Holy Mackerel Café

The sunny exterior of Holy Mackerel Cafe in Helford village, Cornwall

A seasonal café in Helford village, the family-run Holy Mackerel Café takes pride of place within a pebble’s skim of Helford’s top attractions. Usually open from Saturday to Wednesday throughout the summer season, this hidden gem is cherished by locals and well-known for serving some of the best cream teas on the Lizard. Located next door to the village car park and just a stroll from the Helford Sailing Club, you can simply park up and head over to indulge in their menus of sweet and savoury treats. Appetising regulars often include Cornish crab, mackerel and pickled cockles.

Port Navas Yacht Club

Pretty waterside views by Port Navas Yacht Club, Helford

Arrive by foot, car or boat and enjoy a hearty meal or refreshing beverage overlooking the water at Port Navas Yacht Club. Open since 1958, this bustling yacht club in the village of Port Navas is home to an intimate, characterful restaurant and bar with huge windows overlooking gently flowing river and tangled woodland beyond. For sunworshippers, a collection of tables resides outside, perfect for savouring quality tipples whilst watching life go by on the river. Enjoy à la carte menus alongside regularly updated specials for delightful waterside dining.

The Boatyard Café, Gweek

The Boatyard Cafe at sunset in Gweek

Nestled at the head of the Helford River is The Boatyard Café in Gweek, one of our favourite hidden cafés in Cornwall. Tucked within a working boatyard, this inviting venue is awash with activity and welcomes locals and visitors alike to enjoy the refuge and welcome of its sanctuary. For soul-warming replenishment, the café serves coffees, cakes, breakfasts and lunches on select days during the week and offers both indoor and outdoor seating. Comfy sofas and wooden chairs, large windows and paintings of local seascapes create an attractive setting, whilst the assortment of boats and the tidal river set a charming backdrop. Like with many of the Helford’s eateries, this café welcomes dogs on leads.


Porth Saxon Beach

Views overlooking the beautiful, leafy river banks of the Helford, Cornwall

Also known as Porth Sawsen or Cow beach, Porth Saxon is a beautiful, quiet beach at the foot of the Carwinion Valley. Surrounded by the North Helford countryside, it can be reached through National Trust woodland near Mawnan Smith or by boat from the river. Coated in a blanket of slate grey pebbles and sand, its gently sloping shores are overlooked by a boathouse and afford incredible views over the surrounding riverscapes. Best of all for canine friends, this beach is dog-friendly year-round.

Grebe Beach

A view of Grebe, a lovely sand and shingle beach along the Helford

Located between Porth Saxon and Durgan, Grebe beach is a wonderfully secluded beach backed by lush woodland and met by the tranquil shores of the Helford River. Mostly sandy with rocky pockets, this beach is popular with wild swimmers thanks to its sheltered aspect and gently sloping shore, though there is no lifeguard cover. To reach Grebe Beach, you can park in a National Trust car park at the top of the valley and walk half a mile from there.

Durgan Beach

Durgan beach covered at high tide and overlooked by a clutch of pretty cottages

One of our favourite not-so-secret secret beaches in Cornwall, Durgan beach rests at the foot of the hamlet of Durgan along the coast path from Grebe. A winsome picture of timeless appeal, Durgan and its sand and shingle beach are encompassed by rich subtropical vegetation (tumbling down the same valley as Glendurgan Gardens) and leafy trees. With a strong fishing and boating heritage, Durgan still features a slipway that runs down the beach and hosts an annual regatta each August. Like Grebe, the dog-friendly Durgan can be accessed following a walk from the nearby National Trust car park.

Trebah Beach

The private beach of Trebah at the bottom of Trebah Gardens in Helford

Also on the Falmouth side of the Helford River, Trebah beach is renowned for its private location within the Trebah Garden estate. Also known as Polgwidden Cove, it can only be accessed through the gardens and as such provides a peaceful paradise in which to while away the hours. Boats and watercraft are not permitted, meaning that the beach’s waters, which turn turquoise in summer, are often perfect for paddling and bathing on balmy days. Adding even more incentive is the Boathouse café, serving drinks, snacks and ice cream from March to October.

Helford Passage Beach

A view of Helford Passage Beach at sunset

Helford Passage beach (or Bar or Gate beach) is a popular stretch of sand and shingle below the three hundred year old Ferry Boat Inn and next to the Helford Passenger Ferry’s north landing. Overlooked by the pub and local amenities, it is one of the river’s best-served beaches and is ideal for families and those not looking to venture too far off the beaten track. For days by the shore watching boats glide along the river, this beach is best enjoyed at low tide when the retreating waters reveal a large expanse of sand. There are seasonal dog restrictions on this beach, and as with all of the river’s beaches, no lifeguard cover.

Bosahan Cove

On the Lizard side of the Helford River, Bosahan Cove awaits in resplendent natural beauty at the foot of the Bosahan Estate. A real hidden gem, it can only be reached via a walk of a mile or so along the coast path; through the floral gardens of Bosahan Estate (when it’s open); or by boat. Quiet and oh-so peaceful, this secluded cove is fringed by trees and grass-covered banks and basks in glorious seclusion. There are no amenities nearby so snacks and supplies are a must, but this all adds to the sense of adventure and magical appeal.


Glendurgan Garden

An aerial view of Glendurgan Garden's famous cherry laurel maze

Glendurgan Garden is home to three garden valleys that tumble in manicured wilderness down to the hamlet of Durgan. One of the best gardens in Cornwall and perfect for autumn walks, the gardens are managed by the National Trust and promise a kaleidoscopic array of colourful leaves and blooms that transform with the seasons. As well as its floral displays, the garden is also famous for its ancient cherry laurel maze, a living puzzle that has been enchanting, challenging and entertaining visitors for nearly two centuries.

Trebah Garden

A picturesque bridge reflected in glassy water at Trebah Gardens

Not far from Glendurgan Garden, Trebah in Mawnan above the Helford River is decorated with twenty-six acres of subtropical garden. One of the Great Gardens of Cornwall and one of the county’s best dog-friendly gardens, it is open throughout the year and beckons with an ever-changing tapestry of nature’s artistry. Follow the four miles of pathways and drink in the sight of the incredible array of exotic and native plants growing in harmony. Magnolia, rhododendrons and camellias and gunnera are floral highlights, while Trebah beach adds an extra splash of awe.

Frenchman’s Creek

The inspiration behind Daphne Du Maurier’s novel of the same name, Frenchman’s Creek is a must-see whilst enjoying a luxury escape to the Helford. The backdrop for the fictional love affair between a regal English Lady and a roguish Breton pirate, it is a timelessly romantic place that begets real-life fairytales. And, if you think it looks familiar, you may also recognise the creek and its approaching trails from Kylie Minogue’s music video, Flower. To reach there, follow a three mile circular walk from Helford village.

Kestle Barton

Art installations at Kestle Barton, Helford

Kestle Barton is an ancient farmstead set above the leafy banks of Frenchman’s Creek on the Helford River. Open between April and October, it plays host to a tearoom, gallery, and wildflower gardens where visitors are invited to enjoy a slower pace of life for a while. Particularly appealing, it complements its seasonal exhibitions with a unique programme of events and interactive workshops. Head over to bask in the honey-scented tranquillity of its grounds and enjoy relaxed strolls, alfresco picnics and artistic inspiration.

The Cornish Seal Sanctuary

An adorable seal at The Cornish Seal Sanctuary

The Cornish Seal Sanctuary is a well-known attraction on the Lizard, located in Gweek near the start of the Helford River. Founded by Ken Jones, who rescued his first seal pup in St Agnes in 1958, the sanctuary was established to rescue, rehabilitate and release seals and seal pups from around the Cornish coast. One of the top family and dog- friendly attractions in Cornwall, the sanctuary also provides much-needed long-term care for seals who cannot be released back into the wild. Open throughout the year, it is a real Helford highlight and provides a fascinating glimpse into the underwater lives of our coast’s cutest residents.

Budock Vean

The alfresco hot tub at Budock Vean Spa

For those looking for a relaxing introduction to the Helford, Budock Vean’s spa days are hard to miss. Offering dreamy packages for days of pampering, Budock proposes a range of options to soothe mind, body and soul. Depending on what you’re looking for, you can opt for a leisurely morning or afternoon making the most of the spa pool, hot tub, facilities and one-off treatments. Or, for the full experience, you can book onto a full-day spa package, which includes a choice of treatments, a two course lunch, and a glass of bubbles.

Things to Do

Helford River Cruises

An aerial view of boats moored at Helford River Sailing Club's pontoons

For a unique experience in Cornwall, a Helford river cruise provides a wonderful way to explore the lesser-known sights of the river. Allowing you to settle back and relax as your captain takes the wheel, these peaceful river tours afford a whole new perspective on this emerald-hued corner of Cornwall. For an exclusive experience, arrange a private charter of one of Helford River Cruises’ boats and look forward to a ninety minute guided journey along open river and quiet creeks. For an extra special experience, you can also book a private Champagne charter, with fizz and nibbles provided.

The Chapel of St Francis Assisi

On the Lizard Peninsula side of the Helford River, the Chapel of Francis Assisi is one of the valley’s best-kept little secrets. Hidden amongst a thicket of tangled trees, this tiny chapel is made of Constantine granite and Delabole slate and was built nearly a hundred years ago in memory of a local man, Dr Leo O’Neill. Dedicated to the patron saint of animals and the environment, its magical setting and calming atmosphere make it a lovely place to visit during a Helford walk.

Koru Kayaking

A tranquil scene of kayakers paddling down the emerald waters of the Helford

Koru Kayaking is a family-friendly adventure outfit offering guided tours of Cornwall’s coast and riverways. Promising a perspective of the county far-removed from the ordinary, Koru’s experienced tour leaders take you on a mesmeric journey through Helford’s secret reaches. Launch with your guide from a private beach below Budock Vean and relish unforgettable moments in the river. As well as kayak adventures, two-hour stand up paddleboard tours are also available for a different way to uncover the Helford’s riverscapes. For a great picnic spot, stop off at Tremayne Quay. Grade II listed, this historic quay was originally built in 1847 for the anticipated arrival of Queen Victoria. Alas, the queen never showed up, but the quay has become a much-loved fixture of the river.

South West Coast Path

An aerial view of St Anthony in Meneage

The Helford River is traced by more than fifty miles of shoreline, making it a perfect destination for walks. Navigating the coastline, the South West Coast Path also passes through Helford and is bridged by the Helford Passenger Ferry. With two dedicated sections running from Falmouth to Helford on one side and Coverack to Helford on the other, there are plenty of opportunities for you to trace as much or as little of the coast path as you please. With often only snow-white egrets and enigmatic deer to keep you company on your strolls, this year-round haven promises unrivalled appeal.

Sailing on the Helford

An aerial view of Gillan and the Helford River with sailing boats on moorings

If you would like to take to the water by boat, there’s no finer place in Cornwall than the Helford. An ideal spot for sailing on the river by paddle, sail or motor, the Helford’s glassy waterways are perfect for learners and experienced sailors alike. For the children in your party, Helford River Sailing Club’s junior sailing lessons are a fantastic way to introduce youngsters to the water and show them the ropes. Meanwhile for adults, the club also provides regular sailing and racing opportunities, and The Children’s Sailing Trust also hosts sailing classes for adults.

Ready to uncover the beauty of the Helford? Take a look at our collection of luxury cottages.

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