Living near to Falmouth, I am used to thinking of the River Fal in terms of its end as it joins the sea amid the activity and hustle of the world’s third largest natural harbour. Large ships anchored out in the bay, people teeming round the docks, either hard at work or visiting to enjoy the spectacle, pleasure boats, industry, and so on, are what come to mind.
But that’s not where I am now. I’m up on Goss Moor, several miles to the north-east, standing by the side of one of the many springs that make up the headwaters of the Fal. From half way across the Moor, the Fal is already a recognisable busy stream, both on the ground and from a map, but here, further to the east, the river has not yet formed, and the many small springs and trickles are making their way westward before joining together to wend their way south to Falmouth Harbour.
My day at Goss didn’t begin with the Fal. I parked in the car park at the southwest corner, close to St Dennis, and set off on the Goss Moor Multi-Use Trail eastward. Goss Moor, Cornwall’s largest lowland wetland, is one of three National Nature Reserves in Cornwall – the others are Golitha Falls and The Lizard – and Goss and Golitha tend to suffer by comparison with the more renowned Lizard reserve. I haven’t yet been to Golitha, but I can vouch for Goss Moor definitely being worth a visit. The multi-use trail is a good seven miles long, a full route round the moor, mainly off-road, partly on-road, making easy access for walking, cycling and horse riding, and a good running circuit as well, given the number of runners I passed (or who passed me!). It’s also relatively easy to leave the trail and make your way across the moor to investigate further off the beaten track.
As I set off on my walk, I was aware of many sounds – birdsong, the distant hum of traffic, cows mooing and sheep bleating, the St Dennis church bells (this was a Sunday morning), water somewhere trickling. But beneath it all, the continuous motif linking all these other notes, was the crackling hum of the pylons that are strung out across the moor, originating from the Indian Queens Power Plant to the west. Unexpectedly, this didn’t distract me from appreciating my walk, instead adding an edge to the bleak beauty of the place. People sometimes talk of pylons as ‘marching’ across the landscape, but these seemed rather to be rooted firmly in the heathlands at their feet, part of and not an intrusion on the scene. And why shouldn’t they be? – these particular ones have been here since the 1960s, and pylons have been a feature of the Moor since the early twentieth century. It is indeed amazing that a landscape that has been so heavily influenced by humans through the centuries – tin and clay mining, gravel extraction in the 1970s, the building of the modern A30, the railway and the power plant – should feel at the same time so peaceful and isolated.
I left the pylons behind, anyway, as I detoured from the main trail to take a path bending to the north, to find the Fal. This is perhaps not the most productive time to visit Goss Moor: it is known, amongst other things, for its Marsh Fritillary butterflies, the delicate flowers of Yellow Centaury, Lesser Butterfly and Heath Spotted orchids, all of which won’t appear until later in the year. I might have been able to spot the lovely little fern, Pillwort, or the rare Marsh Clubmoss, but I didn’t.
I did however find the Fal. Walking eastward, in the opposite direction to its flow, one of the most striking features is the reddish colour of the sediments in parts of the stream bed. As far as I can work out this is due to iron-rich minerals resulting from the geological and industrial processes in the area (any readers who have better information – please leave a comment as I would love to know more!). Goss Moor is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and the site description tells us that its soils have been heavily disturbed and influenced by mining, with these and the more recent gravel extraction creating open water pools.
I also noticed something I’ve seen before, but never in such abundance. The oily-looking film on the surface of still water pools isn’t in fact a small-scale oil slick, but a film created by Leptothrix discophora, a bacterium that uses iron for maintaining its life functions, much as we use oxygen, so it obviously thrives in the iron-rich environments here. You can tell it is not oil by poking it with a stick: oil will swirl around and not break up, whereas the Leptothrix discophora film breaks up into little platelets, a bit like cracking a thin film of ice. You can see this in the photograph below.
After finding the Fal and pottering along the boardwalk on the ‘Marsh Fritillary Trail’, I rejoined the main track and did the full circuit of the Moor. I wasn’t quite so enamoured with the northern section for a ‘nature’ walk: I suspect that’s more because I love investigating the heathlands and smaller tracks, and because the proximity to the main A30 trunk road in the northwestern parts of the trail was a little off-putting – there is a great view from the bridge over the A30, though.
There was plenty of interest, however. The leg running along the northern edge uses the old A30 – famous for its traffic jams in the past, but now a peaceful track with an interesting bench or two! Watch out as well for the milestone, dating from 1769 and resited to south of the bridge over the new A30. In its original location it told you that you had 10 miles further to go before Bodmin – it would have seemed much further then than in these fast-speed days.
As I came closer to my starting point, through a more wooded area, there were many signs of Spring to cheer the scene on a cold and grey day – snowdrops, primroses, catkins hanging over the path, the fresh green leaves of soon-to-be foxgloves – all promises of a richer and more colourful sight to come.
I think, though, my favourite part of the walk was in the eastern section, alongside small pools and springs that are destined to become part of the River Fal but which, for now, have no names or separate identity. I wondered what vagaries of geology and time determined that these would become the Fal, flowing to the south coast and the busy shipping lanes of the open sea.
It’s good sometimes to remember that things have a beginning, and that while returning there cannot turn back time or alter a previous course, it can nonetheless refresh the mind with future possibilities, future directions.