Simply Messing about in Boats

In the opening chapter of Kenneth Grahame’s book ‘The Wind in the Willows’ Ratty tells his friend Mole that there is “absolutely nothing, half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats” It’s still a popular pastime with many of you who visit Cornwall, and some of you may not know, but by ‘messing about’ at Fowey you are following in Kenneth Grahame’s footsteps (or should that be wake?)

It’s thought by some that he was inspired by trips out on the Fowey River when writing the book, especially upstream towards Golant and Lerryn, where the wild woods cover the hillsides dropping steeply to the river. He would come down to Fowey to visit his friend and fellow author Arthur Quiller-Couch (better known locally as Q) and the two of them would row upstream on the tide, floating back when it turned, or sail out into the bay in Q’s skiff.

Grahame even came to Fowey to get married, going onto St Ives for the honeymoon. His wife to be staying in the Fowey Hotel before the ceremony. It’s clear from letters and notes he wrote at the time that he loved the place, possibly even more than the idea of getting married! An interesting character, Grahame’s life and his relationships with both his wife and their child, can be read about in a new book ‘The Real Kenneth Grahame’ by Elizabeth Galvin, subtitled, the tragedy behind the Wind in the Willows.

In ‘The Wind in the Willows,’ which was partly based on letters the author sent to his son, Fowey is certainly the ‘little grey sea town’ that Sea Rat knows so well. Claims that the Fowey Hall Hotel, at the time owned by Q’s wife’s family, is the basis for Toad Hall, may be a little exaggerated, but the town Sea Rat describes as clinging to “one steep side of the harbour. There through dark doorways you look down flights of stone steps, overhung by great pink tufts of valerian and ending in a patch of sparkling blue water…….. and by the windows the great vessels glide, night and day, up to their moorings or forth to the open sea.” have to be of Fowey.

The great vessels might now have gone, though up-river from the town there are still China Clay docks where ships load up their cargo of ‘white gold’, and during the summer the occasional cruise ship pulls in for the day, dwarfing the sailing boats that sit in Pont Pill below the monument to Quiller-Couch. Today you can still view the river from little alleyways leading down to the water, and the valerian flourishes on the walls around the town. In fact, the general layout of the town has changed little since Grahame’s time, but nowadays its shops are more geared up for the tourists, many of whom come in search of another writer, Daphne Du Maurier.

Du Maurier never met Grahame as far as is known but she was a friend of Q. Her novel Jamaica Inn being inspired by a journey across Bodmin Moor by herself and Q’s daughter. She also finished Q’s last novel, ‘Castle Dor’, a reworking of the Tristan and Iseult story based at the earthwork just outside Fowey of the same name. Q’s own novels, including ‘The Astonishing History of Troy Town’ are worth a read if you like Victorian whimsey and wish to be transported back to Fowey in the 1800s.

All three writers were inspired in some way by time spent in Fowey, by days spent on the water or just watching the world go by. And there’s nothing to stop you doing the same, the Visit Cornwall website has all the information you need, places to stay, things to do, even details of how to go about ‘messing about in boats’.

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