Helford and Frenchman's Creek circular walk

Helford and Frenchman's Creek

A circular walk through the wooded valleys of the Helford River including the most famous - Frenchman's Creek - which is still as pristine as when it inspired Daphne Du Maurier's novel

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The walk begins at Helford and after passing through the village follows the valley from Penarvon to a tiny chapel before descending to Frenchman's Creek. The route follows a path along the length of the creek and to Withan Quay on the other side before reaching Kestle Barton. The final stretch is along the valley through Under Wood.


  • The short woodland loop at Pengwedhen includes a section of narrow path cut into a fairly steep bank.

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Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 103
  • Distance: 3.7 miles/6 km
  • Steepness grade: Moderate
  • Recommended footwear: walking boots

OS maps for this walk

OS Explorer 103 OS Explorer 103 (laminated version)

Click or tap on map for more info (blue=laminated)


  • Historic creekside village of Helford
  • Tiny chapel of St Francis at Pengwedhen
  • Views over Frenchman's Creek
  • Mature broadleaf woodland with bluebells and wild garlic in spring

Pubs on or near the route

  • The Shipwrights Arms

Adjoining walks


  1. From the car park, make your way to the café and go through the pedestrian gates to reach a lane. Turn right and follow the lane downhill to a footbridge.

    Due to the natural harbours offered by the Helford creeks, the village of Helford was once quite an important port for trade with France. Goods imported included brandy, tobacco and lace and those landed legitimately were required to pay duty as the Old Custom House.

  2. Cross the bridge and turn right on the other side. Follow the lane, passing the pub, until you reach a corner with a footpath sign and sign to the ferry.

    In September 1840, Customs Officers seized nearly 130 kegs of French brandy at Coverack and impounded these in the Customs House in Helford. However, the smugglers had customers that they were keen not to disappoint and therefore one night a large band of men broke the locks off the doors and raided the Customs House, seizing the majority of contraband, apart from 3 kegs which were left behind in recompense for the damage caused.

  3. At the footpath sign, turn left up the concrete track and follow this uphill past the cottages to reach a footpath sign on the right.

    The origins of the Helford River Ferry are described eloquently by its operators:

    The ferry connecting the North and South banks of the Helford River has been running continuously since the Middle Ages. Then, it was a vital link for the communities providing transportation for local produce to the markets in Falmouth. The cart and driver travelled on the ferry and the horse swam along behind!

    The Ferryboat Inn at Helford Passage dates from the 16th Century, providing shelter and refreshment for travellers waiting for the ferry.

  4. Turn right at the footpath sign and follow the path until it eventually emerges onto a small beach.

    During late winter or early spring, if you encounter a patch of plants with white bell-shaped flowers, smelling strongly of onions, and with long, narrow leaves then they are likely to be three-cornered leeks. Once you're familiar with their narrow, ridged leaves, you'll be able to spot these emerging from late October onwards.

    The plants get their name due to their triangular flower stems. As the name also suggests, they are members of the onion family and have a small bulb. In fact, in New Zealand they are known as "onion weed". They are also known as "snowbell" due to their white bluebell-like flowers.

    Oysters have been harvested from the Helford River since Roman times.

    Native oysters rarely produce pearls (Pearl Oysters live in warmer seas) although all molluscs theoretically can and most would be tiny. The commercial value from native oysters comes from eating them and it takes around 4-5 years for an oyster to reach full size.

  5. Turn left and cross the top of the beach to a track. Turn right onto the small path marked "Pengwedhen Woodland Walk" and follow this past one (private) flight of steps on the left to a second marked "footpath" just before the gates for Penguin and Pengwedhen.

    The moon's gravity pulls the water in the oceans towards it causing peaks in the ocean both directly under the moon but also on the opposite side of the Earth so sigh tides occur every 12-13 hours when the moon is either directly overhead or is on the opposite side. There are therefore just over 6 hours between low and high tide.

  6. Turn left at the footpath sign and follow the path up the steps to emerge beside some buildings.

    Daffodils were originally called asphodels (lumped together with the other plants that are now called asphodels). A pronunciation variation was "affodell". No-one is quite sure how the initial "d" was added - perhaps "the asphodel" by someone with a cold ("d affodel").

  7. Turn right and walk past the buildings and a short way up the track to reach a parking area where the track bends sharply to the left.
  8. Continue ahead through the parking area to a kissing gate on the far side marked "Pengwedhen Woodland Walk" and go through this. Take the right-hand path and follow it to a junction of paths at the bottom of a couple of steps, with the path to the right leading down to a small chapel.

    There are some nice spring flowers along the path from the kissing gate to the chapel including snowdrops.

    Snowdrops are one of the earliest plants to flower. They use energy stored in their bulbs to generate leaves and flowers during winter, whilst other plants without an energy reserve cannot compete. The downside to flowering so early is that pollinating insects are more scarce, so rather than relying exclusively on seeds, they also spread through bulb division.

    Green woodpeckers are the largest and most colourful of the woodpeckers native to Britain and have a distinctive laughing "yaffle" call. The two species of spotted woodpecker are smaller and usually noticed from the drumming sound they make on trees although they can sometimes be heard making a short "cheep" sound.

    All of the woodpeckers bore holes in trees in which they nest, but only the spotted woodpeckers drill into trees in search of food, spending most of their time perched on a tree.

    Conversely, green woodpeckers spend most of their time on the ground, hunting for ants. The ants nests are excavated using their strong beak, and then ants are caught on the barbed end of their long tongue. In fact, their tongue is so long that it needs to be curled around their skull to fit inside their head.

  9. The walk continues on the path to the left but first you may want to have a look at the chapel. Note that the path continuing past the chapel just leads to the water's edge. Once back on the main path, follow it on a loop through the woodland to eventually return to the kissing gate you passed through earlier.

    The tiny chapel was built in 1930 in memory of one of the owners of Pengwedhen and dedicated to St Francis. The animal symbolism in the church is because St Francis is the patron saint of ecology and animals. The stone for the chapel is thought to have come from a quarry higher up the headland. Delabole slate was used for the roof.

    At low tide, there is a small shingle beach at the end of the path that leads past the chapel.

  10. Pass between the gate and wood shed and walk back through the parking area to reach the lane. Turn right onto this and follow it away from the buildings. Continue to reach a junction with a track on the left.

    Yellow Archangel is a native plant and member of the dead nettle family (and it's also known as the Golden Dead Nettle). The flowers are pale yellow, hence the first part of the name. The second part of the name (including the angelic association) is because it looks quite like a nettle but doesn't sting.

    A garden variety of yellow archangel known as "aluminium plant" (due to silvery metallic areas on its leaves) has escaped into the wild where it is spreading rapidly. It has been deemed so invasive that it is illegal to plant in the wild.

  11. Continue ahead on the lane and follow it uphill to a T-junction, with a gravel track leading to the right.

    Cow parsley, also known by the more flattering name of Queen Anne's Lace, is a member of the carrot family. Over the last few decades, cow parsley has substantially increased on roadside verges: there is more than half as much again as there was 30 years ago. The reason is thought to be to an increase in soil fertility caused by a few different factors. In the more distant past, verges were grazed or the grass was cut and used for hay. Now when it is cut by mechanical devices, it is left to rot in place forming a "green manure". In the last few decades there has also been an increase in fertilising nitrogen compounds both from farm overspill and from car exhausts. Whilst this extra fertility is good news for cow parsley and also brambles and nettles, it is causing these species to out-compete many other wildflowers along hedgerows.

  12. Turn right at the junction, signposted for Frenchman's Creek, and follow the track to another junction just after it passes through a gap in the hedge.

    The curving hedges are the remnants of an Iron Age hillfort and the origin of the place name Kestle (i.e. castle).

    The purpose of enclosures within ramparts varied quite considerably. Some were built as forts to defend from marauding invaders such as the seafaring Scandinavians. Others were defences built around small villages either as a status symbol/deterrent or for the more practical purpose of preventing domestic crimes such as theft of property by occupants of neighbouring villages. There were even some which were probably just a confined space used to stop livestock escaping!

  13. At the junction, turn left and follow the track downhill to reach a path on the left indicated by a National Trust Frenchman's Creek sign.

    Frenchman's Creek was the inspiration and location for Daphne Du Maurier's romantic novel of the same name published in 1941. The opening two paragraphs describe the Helford estuary:

    When the east wind blows up Helford river the shining waters become troubled and disturbed and the little waves beat angrily upon the sandy shores. The short seas break above the bar at ebb-tide, and the waters fly inland to the mud-flats, their wings skimming the surface, and calling to one another as they go. Only the gulls remain, wheeling and crying above the foam, diving now and again in search of food, their gray feathers glistening with the salt spray.
    The long rollers of the Channel, travelling from beyond Lizard point, follow hard upon the steep seas at the river mouth, and mingling with the surge and wash of deep sea water comes the brown tide, swollen with the last rains and brackish from the mud, bearing upon its face dead twigs and straws, and strange forgotten things, leaves to early fallen, young birds, and the buds of flowers.
  14. Turn left at the Frenchman's Creek sign and follow the path until you eventually pass a flight of steps on your right and descend a flight of steps on the main path to reach a junction near the edge of the creek.

    Daphne Du Maurier was born in London in 1907 and began writing from an early age. Her parents were in the theatre, which helped her to launch her literary career. The family visited Cornwall for holidays and bought a second home at Bodinnick in 1926. In 1943 Daphne moved to Cornwall full-time where she spent the majority of her life.

  15. At the junction, turn left to cross over the footbridge then keep left to follow the path up the steps. Follow this to where it joins the (undermined) lower path then continue all the way up the creek to reach a fork in the path at the top of the creek.

    Grey mullet are related to the perch family (which includes bass) and are surprisingly unrelated to the "red mullet" (which is in fact a type of goatfish). Mullet caught in the open sea are excellent eating fish and can be used in similar dishes to bass. However, those living in muddy water (such as the harbour) generally taste of mud. This can apparently be diminished by soaking them in acidic, salty water but the flavour is still described as "earthy".

  16. At the fork, keep left to follow the path uphill until it emerges onto a track.

    Like its domesticated relatives, wild garlic grows from a bulb. To distinguish it from other wild plants from the onion/garlic family (such as the three-cornered leek), the species sometimes just called "wild garlic" (Allium ursinum) is often known by the name ramsons or broad-leaf garlic. The scientific name (meaning bear leek) is because the bulbs are thought to be a favourite food of brown bears on the European mainland.

    The inner bark of the tree carries sugars created by photosynthesis down from the leaves to feed the rest of the tree. The inner bark dies over time to produce the outer bark which protects the living part of the tree.

  17. Turn right onto the track and follow it into a turning area then follow the path from the back to reach a public footpath sign at a junction of paths.

    During winter, from November to March, winter heliotrope is visible along the edges of roads and paths as carpets of rounded heart-shaped leaves.

    The name of the plant is Greek for "sun direction" because the flowers turn to follow the winter sun.

  18. Turn right and follow the path down the steps and over the footbridge. Continue on the path and keep right up the steps to reach a waymark where a permissive path departs to the right.

    The small path to the left at the top of the steps leads to the ruins of a building and well. It is known to date from some time before 1880 but the exact age is unknown.

  19. At the waymark, turn right on the permissive path and follow this until it emerges beside another waymark in an area with a bench.

    During the autumn especially, fungi can often be seen in the woods here.

    Fungi are often most noticeable when fruiting, either as mushrooms or as moulds but their main part is a network made up of thin branching threads that can run through soil, leaf litter, wood and even living plant tissue.

    Although herons primarily eat fish, they will eat frogs, rodents, moles, ducklings and even baby rabbits! They are quite brave birds and will venture into gardens and parks to eat the ornamental fish. They have also been known to visit zoos to steal fish during penguin and seal feeding.

  20. At the bottom of the steps, turn left at the waymark and follow the path uphill to and around a bend towards a gate. As a stile comes into view, bear right to reach this.

    Tidal range is mainly determined by 15 fixed points around the world’s oceans, known as amphidromes, around which water rotates. The further a coastline is from the nearest amphidrome, the larger the tidal range. This is a fair way in the case of Cornwall so difference between low and high tide is around 7 metres on average. Consequently offshore rocks that are 20ft below the surface at high tide can lie just under the surface as the tide falls.

  21. Cross the stile and duck under the insulating section of the electric fence in the direction waymarked across the field (not along the fenced direction to the right as that ultimately leads the wrong way along the public footpath). Continue across the field to cross over the brow of the hill until a metal gate and stile to its right come into view. Head to the stile.

    There are a few different species of fungi known as puffballs. The genus name Lycoperdon is derived from latinised versions of the Greek words for "wolf fart". The largest species - the giant puffball - is edible and can grow to sizes ranging from a citrus fruit to a watermelon. The largest found was close to 4 feet across!

    To be edible they must be pure white (not yellowish or any other colour) all the way through and fairly spongy, like a loaf of bread. If it is very dense, look closely to see if there is an immature mushroom cap developing inside. If so, throw it away immediately as that is a poisonous type of button mushroom, not a puffball!

    The Ramblers Association and National Farmers Union suggest some "dos and don'ts" for walkers which we've collated with some info from the local Countryside Access Team.


    • Stop, look and listen on entering a field. Look out for any animals and watch how they are behaving, particularly bulls or cows with calves
    • Be prepared for farm animals to react to your presence, especially if you have a dog with you.
    • Try to avoid getting between cows and their calves.
    • Move quickly and quietly, and if possible walk around the herd.
    • Keep your dog close and under effective control on a lead around cows and sheep.
    • Remember to close gates behind you when walking through fields containing livestock.
    • If you and your dog feel threatened, work your way to the field boundary and quietly make your way to safety.
    • Report any dangerous incidents to the Cornwall Council Countryside Access Team - phone 0300 1234 202 for emergencies or for non-emergencies use the iWalk Cornwall app to report a footpath issue (via the menu next to the direction on the directions screen).


    • If you are threatened by cattle, don't hang onto your dog: let it go to allow the dog to run to safety.
    • Don't put yourself at risk. Find another way around the cattle and rejoin the footpath as soon as possible.
    • Don't panic or run. Most cattle will stop before they reach you. If they follow, just walk on quietly.
  22. Cross the stile and go down the steps to join a path leading into the valley. Follow this to reach the waymark you arrived at earlier then continue ahead to retrace your steps to the footbridge.

    Bracket fungi can be recognised by tough, woody shelf-like growths known as conks. Bracket fungi can live for a very long time and are often coloured with annual growth rings. Many begin on living trees and can eventually kill a branch or whole tree by damaging the heartwood and allowing rot to set in. They can continue to live on the dead wood afterwards.

  23. Cross the bridge and turn left at the top of the steps to return to the parking area then follow the track up the hill. Keep following the track until it eventually ends on a lane.

    Beech trees overhang the path to the parking area and scatter this with beechnuts in early autumn.

    Beechwood ageing is used in the production of Budweiser beer but beech is not the source of flavour. In fact beechwood has a fairly neutral flavour and in the brewing process it is pretreated with baking soda to remove even this. The relatively inert strips of wood are then added to the fermentation vessel where they increase the surface area available for yeast. It is the contact with yeast that produces the flavour in the beer, not the beech itself.

  24. Cross the lane to the track opposite marked with a footpath sign. Follow the track between the buildings to reach a gate at the end of the track into a field.

    The settlement of Kestle was first recorded in around 1300 as Kestel (Cornish for castle). A mansion here was owned from the 14th Century to the 17th Century by the Kestle family and is thought may have had an attached chapel. The present house dates from the 16th Century.

  25. Go through the gate and follow the left hedge to reach a pedestrian gate in the bottom corner beside a gap in the wall.

    Blackberries are high in vitamin C, K and antioxidants. The seeds, despite being a bit crunchy, contain omega-3 and -6 fatty acids and further enhance blackberries' "superfood" status.

    Bramble flowers produce a lot of nectar so they attract bees and butterflies which spread the pollen between plants. One study found the bramble flowers as the fifth highest nectar producers out of the 175 species studied. Brimstone and Speckled Wood butterflies are particularly fond of bramble flowers.

    The growth rhythm of brambles is so steady that it can be used in forensics to work out how long remains have been at a crime scene.

  26. Go through the gap beside the gate and follow the path over a footbridge to a waymark at a junction of paths.

    Bluebells are extremely poisonous, containing a number of biologically-active compounds and were used (probably with varying success) in mediaeval medicine. The sap was used as a glue for book-binding as its toxicity repelled insects. It was also used to attach the fletchings onto arrows.

    A mature tree can absorb tens of kilograms of carbon dioxide each year adding up to a tonne over a number of decades. However, burning one litre of petrol produces just over 2kg of carbon dioxide so it takes about half an acre of trees to absorb the average amount of carbon dioxide produced by one car in a year. When trees die and decompose, the majority of the carbon is gradually released back into the atmosphere depending on how fast the various bits of tree rot (the woody parts take longer).

  27. At the waymark, turn left and follow the path to pass a thatched cottage and emerge onto a concrete track.

    In most of the UK, thatch was the only roofing material available to the bulk of the population until Victorian times when slate became more widely available. At this point, thatch became regarded as a mark of poverty and therefore socially undesirable. In Cornwall, the transition from thatch to slate began earlier due to the local availability of roofing slate, particularly from Delabole.

    During the 20th Century, availability of good quality thatching straw declined after the introduction of the combine harvester and the release of short-stemmed wheat varieties. In 1964, heavy fines were introduced for growing an unregulated variety of wheat and all the traditional, tall-stemmed varieties that were used for thatching became illegal.

  28. Follow the track ahead to reach a lane. Continue ahead onto the lane and keep right to return to the car park.

    The northeastern area of The Lizard, around the Helford creeks has been known for at least 1000 years as the Meneage, pronounced "M'neeg". The name means "land of the monks" and it is thought that after the Romans departed, the area was a confederacy of small Celtic monasteries settled by missionaries from Brittany.

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