The second largest town in Cornwall, Falmouth is best known for its natural harbour, which at 34 m is the deepest in Europe and the third deepest in the world. This bustling, diverse modern town on the mouth of the river Fal is renowned for shipbuilding, yachting, sailing events and a university that gives it a strong art and design element.
The Fal Estuary has been of great strategic importance for centuries. Also known as Carrick Roads, the navigable Fal river system with its many tributaries leads deep inland and is a natural gateway to the Cornish hinterland. In the Middle Ages it was controlled by Truro, which at the time was an important port.
Falmouth started out as a harbour near Penryn. The Celtic name for the place where the Falmouth harbour developed was Peny-cwm-cuic meaning “head of the creek”. The anglicised version of the Celtic name is Pennycomequick.
The Falmouth harbour developed steadily. It protected the Fal river estuary, received a constant influx of merchandise and war booty and oversaw the shipping of Cornish granite, tin and other minerals to the world. Throughout the Middle Ages, however, the Falmouth harbour was controlled by Truro.
The town of Falmouth was eventually founded by Sir John Killigan in 1613. Less than thirty years later, the Civil War broke out and upset the balance of power in the Fal river estuary. Truro, a staunch royalist outpost until the very last, was defeated by the Parliamentarians in 1646. Pendennis Castle outside Falmouth surrendered to the Parliamentarian army and soon afterwards, Falmouth was given its own charter and full control of its harbour. After a great deal of negotiation, the control of the river was divided between Truro and Falmouth in 1709.
Nothing stood in the way of Falmouth’s growth anymore. Due to its proximity to the English Channel, two Royal Navy Squadrons were permanently stationed at the harbour and ensured its safety. The town and its harbour oversaw the influx of gold from the Americas, Spain and the Indies throughout the 17th century and controlled the trade on the river in the 18th and 19th century. Falmouth’s growth was given an additional boost with the arrival of the railway in 1863, which accelerated the transport of goods from and into the harbour that controlled the Fal Estuary.
The wide mouth of the Fal Estuary was vulnerable to attacks from the sea not only by pirates and raiders, but also from the hostile navies of France and Spain. To protect the Fal River estuary from the French navy, in 1540 King Henry VIII built Pendennis Castle. Together with its counterpart St Mawes Castle on the other side of the river’s mouth, it was a formidable sentinel of the estuary. With the guns of the two fortresses aimed at the river between them, no ship could slip through unscathed. Today, it is managed by English Heritage and is well worth a visit. Pendennis Castle and its displays tell the military story of the estuary and disclose the realities of a soldier’s everyday life all those centuries ago. Moreover, its stunning location affords breath-taking views of Falmouth, the estuary and the English Channel.
National Maritime Museum Cornwall
As befits a town with such long and rich maritime history, Falmouth is home to National Maritime Museum Cornwall. Opened in 2003 and suitably located on Discovery Quay, the museum and its collections over five floors cover everything from Cornwall’s maritime past to the maritime issues of the present day. It is very much family oriented and is run as a charity, which means that all proceeds from entrance fees and sales are invested back into the museum. It does not receive any grants from the government and relies heavily on volunteers.
Falmouth Art Gallery
Another fascinating collection is that of Falmouth Art Gallery in the Municipal Buildings on The Moor. It consists of over 20,000 works ranging from the Pre-Raphaelites and English Impressionists to contemporary graphic prints, photography and children’s illustration archive. The gallery also has the largest collection of automata in a contemporary museum, which is regularly refreshed with new commissions. Its vibrant programme of exhibitions means that the works on display are constantly changing. Visitors are therefore not be able to see the entire art collection, but on request you might be shown into the art stores for a peak of more treasures if there is staff available to show you around. Open Monday to Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm. Free entry.
Queen Mary Gardens
A different kind of treasure can be found a mere two-minute walk from the seafront and ten minutes on foot from the town centre. Queen Mary Gardens are a welcome retreat from the bustle and hustle of the town. Founded in 1912 to mark the coronation of Queen Mary (the consort of King George V), the park is laid in an informal style and surrounded by Monterey pines. It is a lush subtropical paradise, renowned for subtropical plant species such as Gunnera, Proteas, Agapanthus and Echium, which thrive in the mild Cornish climate. The entry is free and dogs on leads are welcome. And once you’ve suitably recharged and refreshed your senses, you might be ready for some fun on the beach!
There are some fantastic beaches in and around Falmouth. Here are a few that are easily accessible from the town.
Right in front of the Queen Mary Gardens and only ten minutes on foot from the town centre, Gyllyngvase Beach is a strip of golden sand popular with families. It has all the amenities nearby: toilets, restaurants and cafés, flat access and a carpark. It is one of only seven beaches in the entire Cornwall that have a Blue Flag in recognition that it is safe and clean. There is a RNLI lifeguard cover between May and October and the sand is raked every evening during the main season. There is a seasonal ban on dogs.
The South West Coast Path connects Gyllyngvase with Swanpool Beach and Nature Reserve. This sandy cove is a fun, safe beach for all swimmers. It has several amenities, such as a large carpark, 18-hole crazy golf course, a beach café, a bouncer for children and kayak hire. The nearby nature reserve is perfect for a leisurely stroll. Note, although dogs on leads are welcome in the nature reserve, there is a seasonal ban for dogs on the beach itself
Castle Beach offers stunning views over the Falmouth Bay, Pendennis Castle and St Anthony’s Head. It consists mostly of shingle at high tide and there are plenty of interesting rock pools at low tide. Parking is on the main road and access is sloping, but flat. There is a seasonal ban on dogs on the beach.
Cruises and Activities
There are endless options available for enjoying the Fal River and the Carrick Roads. While the whole area is very popular with water sports enthusiasts, there are also great cruises available for those that want to sit back and enjoy the river.
The sea and rivers off Cornish beaches are, thankfully, rich with wildlife and there are many conservation and preservation initiatives in place to protect and boost the natural environment. If you wish to find out and see more, AK Wildlife Cruises Falmouth offers wildlife-spotting boat trips in the Fal estuary, Falmouth Bay and further off the shore. These are unique opportunities to see numerous sea birds, dolphins, porpoises, minke whales and even humpback whales. Some of the boat trips even have a marine life officer on board to provide additional explanation. Any sightings of cetaceans are shared with Cornwall Wildlife Trust and Sea Life Foundation and the data is used to protect the animals in Cornish waters. The boat trips run from early spring to late autumn. Well behaved dogs on leads are welcome on most trips.
If wildlife spotting is not your cup of tea and you prefer a leisurely sightseeing cruise in the estuary and further up the river, take your pick from the Fal River Ferries cruises and angling trips that depart several times a day from Prince of Wales Pier. In addition to regular ferries connecting Falmouth with Flushing, St Mawes, Trelissick, Malpas and Truro, you can take a ferry from St Mawes to Place, explore Helford River and Helford Passage, hop on St Mawes water taxi or even opt for a luxury boat charter. Well behaved dogs on leads are welcome on most boats. If you are a keen sailor, you can hire a boat from Falmouth Boat Hire from April and October and set out exploring the Carrick Roads on your own.
A major attraction for keen sailors, both local and visiting alike, Falmouth Week evolved from a single, local sailing regatta dating back to at least 1837. Now a major sailing competition in the South West, it consists of seven days of ﬂeet racing for yachts and dayboats in the expansive waters of Falmouth Bay and the Carrick Roads. Sailing competitions coincide with many daytime and evening events in the town, ranging from family friendly activities on The Moor to exciting evening entertainment in Events Square. Falmouth Week typically takes place in August.
In June, Falmouth Classics Regatta welcomes classic boats from many parts of the country, the continent and the local area. Boats launched before the Second World War (some even dating back to the late 19th century) take pride of place alongside more modern versions of classic designs. The highlight is the Parade of Sail and Power, during which the participating boats sail from the inner harbour into Carrick Roads. This magnificent spectacle is best enjoyed from Pendennis Castle, Pendennis Point, Castle Drive and Trefusis Point.
Falmouth Classics coincides with another popular event: Falmouth International Sea Shanty Festival. One of the largest free nautical music and song festivals in the world, it brings together over 65 groups from all over the UK and from abroad at over tweny venues throughout the town.
Eating out in Falmouth
Falmouth is also renowned for its restaurants, pubs and cafés that offer all manner of culinary delights. It’s impossible to cover them all, so here are three propositions.
Our firm favourite, Pennycomequick is a quirky, award-winning pub on The Moor. This cosy, welcoming establishment strives to make every guest comfortable and prides itself on using fresh, local produce. As a result, its honest, tasty menu changes every month to make the most of seasonal ingredients. The food is paired with local ales, and ciders and a good range of decent wines. Pennycomequick is the well-deserved winner of Cornwall’s Best Sunday Roast 2019 award. Booking is recommended.
Next to Maritime Museum you will find that staple of the Cornish culinary scene: Rick Stein’s Fish. You can’t go wrong as far as freshness and quality of the sea food served is concerned. The menu is reasonably priced and there are special offers available at lunch time.
You can’t stay in Cornwall without treating yourself to a cream tea. So why not go somewhere a bit special? De Wynn’s is one of Falmouth’s original coffee shops, set in a historical, listed building. The family-business makes, bakes and produces most of its menu on the premises. De Wynn’s is a member of the Tea Guild of Great Britain and has won the Guild’s Award of excellence several times. Famous for its cream teas, De Wynn’s serves homemade scones complemented by Roddas clotted cream, local Boddingtons strawberry jam and Tregothnan tea (grown on the banks of the River Fal).
Where to Stay
Fal River Cottage is perched on the riverbank in the centre of Malpas, less than 100 yards from the Malpas harbour, where you can catch a ferry to Falmouth via Trelissick from April to October. It is an excellent base for exploring the Fal River Estuary, Roseland and the rest of Cornwall. A perfect retreat from the madding crowd, it benefits from spectacular views and guarantees the highly sought-after privacy for a relaxing break from a busy everyday life.
Destination postcode: TR11 3DF (Prince of Wales Pier, Falmouth)
Distance from Fal River Cottage: 13.7 miles via A39 or between 1h 15 min and 1h 45 min by ferry https://www.falriver.co.uk/ferries/enterprise-boats.
Nearby: Pendennis Castle https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/pendennis-castle/ (1.3 miles on foot on Bar Road from the town centre; 2.4 miles by car), Penryn https://www.cornwalls.co.uk/penryn (2.8 miles by car), Flushing https://www.cornwalls.co.uk/flushing (5 miles by car; by ferry from Prince of Wales Pier, every hour); St Mawes https://www.cornwalls.co.uk/st-mawes (by ferry from Prince of Wales Pier, every hour)
Refreshments: Pennycomequick Pub, The Moor, TR11 3PN (dog friendly) tel: 01326 311912 https://www.pennycomequick.co.uk/. Rick Steins Fish, Discovery Quay, TR11 3XA (no dogs), tel: 01841 532700 https://www.rickstein.com/eat-with-us/rick-steins-fish/. De Wynn’s (lunches and cream tea), 55 Church Street, TR11 3DS, tel. 01326 319259 https://www.falmouth.co.uk/eatanddrink/de-wynns/
Parking: Park&Float/Ride service at Ponsharden TR11 2SE. Visitors are transported to Falmouth by ferry (10 min) or by bus at low tide. Monday to Friday.
Ferries and boat trips: Falriver Cornwall https://www.falriver.co.uk/ferries
Wildlife watching: AK Wildlife Cruises tel. 01326 753 389 http://www.akwildlifecruises.co.uk/
Museums and galleries: National Maritime Museum Cornwall, Discovery Quay, TR11 3QY https://nmmc.co.uk/; Falmouth Art Gallery, The Moor, TR11 2RT http://www.falmouthartgallery.com/Gallery/Home.
Beaches: Gyllyngvase Beach TR11 4NA https://www.visitcornwall.com/beaches/lifeguards-seasonal/south-coast/falmouth/gyllyngvase-beach; Castle Beach TR11 4NZ https://www.visitcornwall.com/beaches/south-coast/falmouth/castle-beach; Swanpool Beach TR11 5BG https://www.visitcornwall.com/beaches/good-beach-guide/south-coast/falmouth/swanpool-beach
Public Gardens: Queen Mary Gardens TR11 4LX https://www.falmouth.co.uk/see-and-do/parks/queen-mary-gardens/
Events: Falmouth Week https://falmouthweek.co.uk/, typically in August.
Falmouth Classics Regatta https://www.falmouthclassics.org.uk/, typically in June.
Falmouth International Sea Shanty Festival https://www.falmouthseashanty.co.uk/, typically in June, coincides with Falmouth Classics Regatta.
Boat hire: Falmouth Boat Hire https://www.falmouthboathire.co.uk/, from April to October