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The Helford River Hotel Meudon

20th September 2021

Q&A with ‘Five Million Tides’ Author and Historian Christian Boulton

Whether or not you have been lucky enough to spend some time in or around Cornwall’s beautiful Helford River, we guarantee you will learn something from reading the fascinating book ‘Five Million Tides’ written by local expert Christian Boulton. Christian leaves no stone unturned in his beautifully written story of this iconic and idyllic stretch of water, revealing its national significance and rich, complex, and sometimes dark history. If you are familiar with the Helford and its numerous pretty inlets, banks and riverside dwellings then you will certainly find this book impossible to put down, and worthy of more than one read. We are very lucky to have Christian as one of the team at Hotel Meudon, and we asked him if he would mind taking some time from his busy schedule to answer a few questions about the book, and himself, and thankfully he agreed.

Q. Christian, thank you so much for taking the time to answer a few questions for us. Your book is skilfully written with a wonderful flow, evoking the sights and sounds of this gorgeous stretch of water, yet it is packed full of fascinating facts (I had to read many sections twice to confirm what I thought I had just read!). How long had you been researching the history of the Helford prior to starting on the book? Has this been a lifelong obsession of yours?

A. I’m genuinely thrilled to know that you enjoyed it. In all honesty, to learn that a reader found the book entertaining is the best possible reward for all the hours spent developing repetitive strain injury in front of a keyboard — no one writes a ‘local history’ tome for financial betterment, that’s for sure!

Answering the question as to how long it took to research isn’t easy to answer, but only because I was doing exactly that for over thirty years without realising it. If I ever picked up a dusty old volume in a second hand bookshop I’d be sure to check the index for relevant mentions of the river. It wasn’t that I envisioned writing Five Million Tides, rather more that I profoundly loved the place and wanted to learn everything I could about it.
In all these years it has never disappointed, and nor have I grown remotely tired of it. I never will.

Q. Your knowledge of the Helford River appears to be encyclopaedic. How much time do you spend on the water these days, and do you still feel as though you are learning new secrets about the area and its history?

A. Much as that is a very generous description I have to admit that there are a great many other people who could write a compelling book about the Helford River. It is just that on one especially rainy day I thought I would make a start and see how it progressed. To begin with it was a case of ‘how hard can this really be?’, and then you soon realise that whatever you already knew was nothing compared to the truth. I would spend an entire evening disappearing down factual rabbit holes, desperately trying to make sense of snippets of information in long-forgotten journals. Admittedly, if I set about writing it now there would be plenty more things I would add, not least some of the wonderful finds recently made by the Meneage Archaeology Group: the huge fragment of bright orange Roman Samian Ware pottery would be one, without doubt.

Besides which, I simply could not have penned it without the remarkable efforts of preceding others. Take the historian Charles Henderson, for example: a man who left a remarkable legacy of documents and observations despite tragically passing away at a young age so soon after getting married in 1933. He’s buried in the sublime Cimitero Acattolico in Rome and, should anyone ever visit, you’ll find a pebble from the Helford’s shores under his modest headstone. Without him and a few additional antiquaries it would have been nothing more than a hefty pamphlet.
But, yes, I’m on or around the river as often as time, tide, weather, and commitments allow. And my children are ‘in’ it so often that I think they will go rusty before long.

Q. The river and its waterside settlements appear to be unspoiled and to have changed little in appearance in a long time. In your book however, you highlight the differences between the fortunes and lifestyle of residents of the surrounding villages of the early times and the present day. What was life like back in the early 20th century, for example, for the average person living and working on the Helford?

A. I go some way towards illustrating this in the final chapter, ‘Ebb’, with specific reference to the tiny hamlet of Durgan where a lamp would be left shining through the Reading Room windows until the last of the fishermen had returned from the open sea. The ocean was a place which sustained the community, but all-too-often called in the debt and plunged it in into mourning. Sure, the day-to-day routine was otherwise exhausting, repetitive, and frequently dangerous, but better that than a crowded city tenement, I suppose.

These were people who depended wholly upon one another, and that must have fostered a deep sense of belonging which I don’t think we can fully appreciate even just a hundred years or so later. Everyone played their part, not least the wives of the fishermen who would daily load the catch upon the backs of donkeys and walk to Falmouth. Indeed, one of its most celebrated residents was a fellow named George Retallack — despite being blind from birth he was a vital part of its social and economic fabric, delivering milk and undertaking every other task demanded of his acute sense of touch and sound.

This might have an air of Under Milk Wood about it, but there’s no denying that all the river’s settlements would have been close-knit places whose collective security depended upon harvests from the sea and the scythe. It’s just a shame that Durgan’s old inn, The Two Cutters, no longer stands — I can almost smell the pipe smoke and overhear snippets of conversations about passing ships, incoming storms, and the latest tittle-tattle about the village up the road.

Q. There is good reason that this region, and the Helford River in particular, attracts such numbers of admiring visitors every year. Do you find that you have a burning interest in rivers and waterways in general, or is it just the Helford that has captured your heart?

A. Oh, the Helford certainly captured my heart. It did the first time I set eyes on it as a child and pushed a boat out across the clear bottle-green shallows. Everything about it suits my mood, and evermore so as I get older. I don’t deny that the wild and rugged parts of Cornwall are astounding and lucky to have them on my doorstep, but I’m glad to call this gentler, more sheltered, part of it my home.

As for a possessing a burning interest in waterways? I think that’s all part of human nature; you would be hard pushed to find anyone who didn’t find either the flow of a cascading stream or the rhythm of ocean waves irresistible. But I think it is more my compulsion to generally seek out the elemental and the ancient above anything — put me on top of a rocky outcrop on Dartmoor, the Peak District, or Snowdonia and all is well. I know that the wind will be rushing across them, their form unchanged, long after every building constructed today has turned to dust. It’s the same as watching the tides wash in and out on the Helford. Strange as it sounds, I find that reassuring in an increasingly uncertain world.

Q. In the chapter ‘Dark Currents’ you write the observations of a John Tresahar, Lieutenant of Pendennis Castle from 1636, describing how a pirate ship was chased up the Helford where a musket battle took place until the frigate was captured. The thought of this taking place on this seemingly idyllic, peaceful stretch of water gives the reader goose bumps. Do you have a particular favourite historical incident or event that has taken place on or around the Helford that you are reminded of whenever you are enjoying the views?

A. There’s a tendency to overstate and romanticise tales of bootlegging and suchlike, but in the case of the Helford River it is demonstrably true. After all, this was a place given the nickname of ‘Stealford’ on account of the number of pirates which made it a home-from-home in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. And, yes, the local population directly or indirectly benefited from evading customs, but only because they were otherwise impoverished — a bit of contraband could be the difference between a bearable existence and an utterly miserable one, so who can blame them.

Personally, I often wonder where the All Saints was wrecked in the thirteenth century. All we know is that it was ransacked by locals for its cargo of fine wine, much to the desperation of its apoplectic captain. And whereabouts are the remains of the three Royal Navy ships Rinovia, Spencer, and Olive Branch? They supposedly foundered at the mouth of the river in 1754 but no one knows the exact site.

Then, of course, there’s whether the little beach of Porth Sawsen really was the site of a battle in AD 722 as ancient Welsh documents suggest. Perhaps it’s best if we never know for sure because I rather prefer an enigma.

However, above all I am ever aware that the Helford is not what it appears at first glance. Most people who take in the amazing view from near Mawnan Old Church think, quite rightly, ‘wow, what a beautiful sight’, but by writing Five Million Tides I wanted to show something else: that in prehistory this exquisite patch of water was once one of the most important places in the islands. This isn’t hyperbole. It is manifestly obvious from the abnormally large profusion of Iron Age settlements and fortifications. Even Meudon — a place close to my heart — is founded upon one. Why? Because the river possessed two of the most important commodities in the ancient world: alluvial tin in the streams to its north and gabbroic clay for pottery to the south. Three if you include gold.
The Helford abounded with traders when the Thames was a marshland backwater in comparison.

Q. What is your favourite section of the Helford River? What is it about that particular area that you find enchanting?

A. That really depends upon the season. If a warm, south-easterly breeze arrives in summer then drifting between Rosemullion Head and Nare Point with a gentle ocean swell passing beneath the keel is hard to surpass. Spring and autumn, on the other hand, tend to find me exploring the upper reaches by boat or on foot, if only because the ancient oak woodlands have a character all of their own and positively hum with nature. And while the unpredictability of winter tends to limit your horizons a little, I count my blessings that I can walk the dog around the coast path near my home at Mawnan. It is never, ever, a chore.

Beyond that, I’m curiously drawn to the church at St. Anthony-in-Meneage which is an utterly compelling and ancient religious site. Shut its robust door behind you with a click of the iron latch and the centuries slip away. You don’t have to be pious to understand.

Q. Finally Christian, as mentioned earlier, this delightful book is packed with fascinating facts on the history, geology and surroundings of the Helford and it must have taken a long time, and painstaking research to complete. With that in mind, are you still writing, or even planning on publishing further books?

A. I’m very much still writing, or at least as frequently as being a dad to two absurdly energetic children permits. My current work-in-progress is something completely different — fiction rather than fact — and about 135,000 words in with no end in sight. It certainly kept me occupied during the pandemic, but I shall endeavour to finish it before even thinking about potential publishers and entertaining the prospect of disappointment. If it is ultimately destined to sit on a shelf gathering dust, so be it.

That said, I can’t deny that I have rather relished the challenge of being the architect of a story, and especially when that same story has to be absolutely authentic and demands research. It is set in the very distant past during an important, and misrepresented, period in the story of the British Isles. The whole thing is another personal voyage of discovery rather like Five Million Tides, although some days I couldn’t write a shopping list never mind a novel.

Beyond that there’s another completely different story to explore and develop, and a couple of other ramblings in similar style to my book about the river. Enough to keep me occupied for a great many years, anyway.

Besides, I may yet have to add a few more remarkable facts about the Helford in a second edition. I’m always discovering and learning, and wouldn’t want it any other way.

Thanks again to Christian Boulton for giving us his time. His must-read book ‘Five Million Tides: A Biography of the Helford River’ is published by The History Press, and is available at all good book sellers.

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