Guide to the Helford River

Places to Go

Guide to the Helford River

Home to ancient oak woodlands that slope over hidden creeks and gentle waters, the Helford River boasts a tranquillity unlike any other in Cornwall.

Nestled between the drama of the Lizard Peninsula and the balmy charms of Falmouth Bay, the area enjoys its own microclimate, with sub-tropical gardens, secret coves, and sheltered waterways creating an almost otherworldly feel - it’s easy to see why author Daphne du Maurier took inspiration from The Helford.

A map of the Helford River, with villages and beaches marked

From serene river walks to days spent on (or in) the shimmering water, the Helford River is chock-full of fun activities to enjoy. Spend your days exploring each oak-curtained cove before settling into a waterside pub for a soul-warming meal with a view.

Ready to uncover the secrets of this dappled corner of Cornwall? Here’s our complete guide to the Helford River, from birdwatching to beaches to beachfront inns. 


Find out more

About the Helford River



Things to do


Pubs and places to eat

About the Helford River

Starting at the historic port of Gweek, the Helford River reaches just over 30 miles in length, with the Lizard Peninsula on one side and Falmouth on the other. Seven creeks feed into The Helford, which are best explored at high tide and include Frenchman’s Creek, Mawgan Creek, Ponsontuel Creek, Port Navas Creek, Gillan Creek, Polpenwith Creek, and Polwheveral Creek. Frenchman’s Creek might be the most famous through its ties to Daphne du Maurier’s book of the same name, but each one promises its own beauty and charm and is well worth a visit.



A bird's eye view of the Helford River, with cottages in the trees and woodlands skirting the shorelines

Part of the South Coast Western National Landscape (formerly known as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), it will come as little surprise that the Helford River is known for its unspoilt beauty. Woodlands older than the footpaths they surround cling to the banks, casting the creeks and waterways in dappled light. Bluebells carpet the ground in spring, giving the woods a violet sheen, while autumn sees the trees swap verdant coats for ones of rich umber and golden yellow. 

With a handful of idyllic villages and hamlets dotted around the river, it’s wonderfully easy to feel like you’ve stepped into the past, with the ancient woods and peaceful shores promising a world away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.



A herd of cows grazing in a field above the Helford River

With muddy havens appearing at low tide and the ancient woodlands providing the perfect cover for critters, the Helford River is a paradise for wildlife watchers. The entire area is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, meaning many species come here to breed, while lots of birds call the river home throughout the year.

On the feathered front, the likes of grey herons, oystercatchers, kingfishers, curlews, shags, cormorants, redshank, and turnstones live around the river’s edges, and can often be seen wading and diving in the waters, while buzzards are a common sight hovering overhead. In the winter, The Helford receives quite a few ornithological guests such as eider ducks, little egrets, great northern divers, Slavonian grebes, and black-throated divers to name but a few.

In the water, common and grey seals sometimes venture up the river, while dolphins can sometimes be seen frolicking in the waters, including common, bottlenose, and risso dolphins. Back on land, deer live amongst the trees, and can even be spotted enjoying a swim across the river on rare occasions!


Home to hidden coves and pebbled nooks, there are many pretty beaches to explore along the Helford River.


Grebe Beach

Looking across the sand and pebble beach at Grebe on the Helford River, with the water and trees in the background

A short stroll from the village of Durgan, Grebe Beach is popular with wild swimmers throughout the year, with calm and clear waters promising the perfect place to refresh and rewild. Although there is a National Trust car park up the hill, this beach is lesser-known, making it the perfect spot to sit and soak up the idylls. Dog-friendly and boasting some rockpools at low tide, it’s a popular beach for families.


Durgan Beach

Holiday cottages near Glendurgan Garden with the beach below

Neighbouring Grebe Beach and sitting at the base of the valley that houses the beautiful Glendurgan Gardens, Durgan Beach is a small but pretty, dog-friendly beach made up of sand and shingle, with pebbles thrown in for good measure. A slipway at the top of the beach means it has long been popular with boat and watersport enthusiasts, as it’s a great place to enter the water with your craft.


Helford Passage Beach

Lots of boats in the water and people on the beach at Helford Passage in Cornwall

The Helford Passage Beach is best known for two things: the welcoming 300-year-old inn that sits above the beach and the ferry crossing that bridges the gap between Helford Passage and Helford village in the summer months. Popular with swimmers and boaters, always enter the water with care here as there are many types of beachgoer enjoying the emerald waters. Enjoy a drink in the Ferry Boat Inn or simply lie back in the sand and watch the boats pootle past.


Polgwidden Cove

Looking across the water at the pretty Polgwidden Cove at the base of Trebah Gardens on the Helford River

Nestled at the foot of Trebah Gardens, Polgwidden Cove is a privately owned beach that’s open to the public all year round, although it can only be accessed through the gardens. Boasting a rich history (it was used to launch boats to Omaha Beach during WWII) and a seasonal café, it’s a lovely spot to sit and take in the tranquil surrounds.


Porth Sawsen Beach

Looking across the sand and pebble beach at Porth Sawsen on the Helford River

Known to locals by many names (including Porth Saxon and the Cow Beach), Porth Sawsen enjoys an idyllic atmosphere throughout the year. Accessed by foot from Mawnan Smith, this is a lovely area for a sunny stroll, with the beach promising a refreshing dip at the end (take care during changing tides though, as there can be currents further out).


Porthallack Beach

Looking across the rolling fields alongside the Helford River, with Porthallack Beach nestled in one of the dips

Around a mile’s walk from Mawnan Smith, and only accessible from the South West Coast Path (or the water if you have a kayak or something similar), Porthallack Beach remains a peaceful spot year-round. The pretty location and passing boats make the small shingle stretch the perfect spot for a picnic, and the flat pebbles make it great for skimming stones.


Gillan Harbour Beach

A pretty cove with cottages in the trees behind and boats in the water at Gillan Harbour Beach on the Helford River

Perched on the idyllic banks of Gillan Creek, Gillan Harbour Beach (also known as Gillan Cove) is a charming little beach, with a slipway making it great for launching off.


Flushing Cove

An aerial view of Gillan Creek with the small beach at Flushing Cove on the banks

Not to be confused with the village near Falmouth, Flushing Cove is a wonderfully secluded cove that promises far-reaching views across the ocean and a dappled woodland at its back. There is no parking or facilities here, giving you a wonderful world-away feel as you sprawl across the sand and shingle and watch the maritime world go by.


Bosahan Cove

A boat bobbing in turquoise waters at Bosahan Cove on the Helford River

A true hidden gem in every way, Bosahan Cove is one of those spots that requires a bit of a walk to reach, but it’s well worth the effort. It’s a 3-mile return walk from Helford village or you can visit the sub-tropical gardens of Bosahan, with the winsome cove promising an enchanting final destination. Curtained by woodland on either side and overlooking the sapphire waters of The Helford, Bosahan Cove was made for mindful moments and peaceful picnics. 


Although trees outnumber residents by a dramatic lead, the Helford River still enjoys pockets of civilisation, with the pretty villages and hamlets offering a peaceful destination during your day out.



A grass-lined creek with boats and a house in the background at Gweek on the Helford River

Although seals might feel like an unlikely resident in a place that means ‘forest village’, Gweek is perhaps most well-known for its Seal Sanctuary, which rehabilitates and releases rescued seals from around Cornwall. The village itself has long been an integral part of the Helford Estuary, with its history dating back to Roman times. The port was used by miners in the transportation of materials and goods, and ships were a common sight for many centuries. 


Port Navas

The pretty quay at Port Navas, with cottages above the water and kayaks ready to go

Another ancient settlement to bear a curious name (it’s thought to mean ‘cove of the sheep’), Port Navas is as picturesque as they come, with its beautiful stone quays creating a postcard-perfect picture. Well known for its oyster beds, you can enjoy a Port Navas oyster in many top restaurants across the country, including Michelin star favourites.



Pretty white, thatched cottages in Helford village in Cornwall

If it’s a slower pace of life you seek, then look no further than Helford village. From the beloved thatched pub that sits on the banks of the river to the passenger ferry that shuttles people across the gently flowing waters, everything is done dreckly here. Enjoy a bite to eat in the oh-so-cosy Shipwrights Arms or head out on the water with a ferry ride or boat trip up to Frenchman’s Creek to discover a world straight from the pages of Daphne du Maurier’s novel (only with fewer pirates).


Helford Passage

An aerial view of the pretty waterside village of Helford Passage on the Helford River

Across the water, the Helford Passage is a popular place for watersport enthusiasts, as the beach offers a jetty and the perfect place to board your vessel. You can catch the 100-year-old ferry and visit Helford village, or you can take a boat tour or hire a kayak from Helford River Boats – all wonderful ways to enjoy the waterways around the Helford.



Looking across the water at the pretty village of Durgan with a little shingle beach below

Testament to the fact that the best things come in small packages, Durgan is a teeny tiny fishing village that packs a winsome punch. Owned by the National Trust, it feels like you’re stepping back in time when visiting Durgan, with quaint stone cottages sporting flower baskets and waterside views. Perched above its own beach and below one of the best sub-tropical gardens in Cornwall, this peaceful corner makes for a lovely day out.


Mawnan Smith

Pretty thatched cottages in Mawnan Smith along the Helford River

Overlooking the mouth of the Helford River, Mawnan Smith is a quaint village full of thatched cottages and a beautiful 15th-century church. Whether you want to park up and explore the coast path or spend some time wandering around the incredible Trebah and Glendurgan Gardens – both of which are nearby – Mawnan Smith is a great base when exploring the northern reaches of the river.



Pretty cottages in the village of Mawgan-in-Meneage along the Helford River

Nestled on the edge of the Lizard Peninsula and the Helford River, Mawgan (otherwise known as Mawgan-in-Meneage so as not to confuse people with the village on the north coast) is a pretty village with a 14th-century church and a collection of thatched cottages. A stone’s throw from Mawgan lies the fascinating Halliggye Fogou (more on this later) and Trelowarren House, a lovely 15th-century house that boasts a café, gallery, and craft centre.


St Anthony

An aerial view of the pretty waterside village of St-Anthony-in-Meneage along the Helford River

Perched on the mouth of the Helford River, St Anthony (which is again also known as St-Anthony-in-Meneage so as to distinguish it from the St Anthony on the Roseland Peninsula) is an exceptionally picturesque waterside hamlet. Bask in the sun-soaked idylls on the sheltered beach or hire a boat from Sailaway St. Anthony for a salt-kissed adventure up one of the many surrounding creeks.

Things to do

Home to two of the most impressive sub-tropical gardens in the South West and the creek that inspired Daphne du Maurier’s beloved book, the Helford River is full to the river banks of memorable things to see and do.


Cornish Seal Sanctuary

Three seals playing in a pool at the Cornish Seal Sanctuary near the Helford River in Cornwall

Perhaps the most famous of all the attractions around the Helford River, the Cornish Seal Sanctuary in Gweek is a wonderful day out for all. First and foremost a rehabilitation centre for rescued seals and seal pups, the Cornish Seal Sanctuary is also home to a collection of full-time residents too, including sea lions, otters, beavers, and penguins. Dog-friendly and with a café and picnic spots on site, this a firm favourite when it comes to family days out in Cornwall. Watch the animals being fed, get up close to the seals at one of the underwater viewing windows, and browse the gift shop for an adorable memento.


Halliggye Fogue

The ancient stone interior of Halliggye Fogue in Cornwall

Built in the Iron Age and one of Cornwall’s oldest fogues (Cornish for cave), little is known for certain when it comes to these curious underground formations. Built in the 4th or 5th century, taking a stroll into these almost tunnel-like structures is fascinating and offers you the chance to come up with your own theory as to their purpose. Ritual shines, storage chambers, or perhaps even a place of refuge? We might not know what it was for, but we know a torch is a must if you want to explore these stone halls for yourself. The Halliggye Fogue is free to enter and is open during daylight hours between April and September.


Boat Trips

Looking through the branches of a tree at a sailing boat on the Helford River

With seven creeks and 30 miles of river to uncover, one of the best ways to explore the Helford is by water. Embark on a magical adventure with Helford River Cruises, a 90-minute cruise that takes you along The Helford and up Frenchman’s Creek, or you can take the wheel and hire a motor or rowing boat from Helford River Boats. Pack a picnic filled with local goodies and find the perfect spot to drop anchor and enjoy a proper Cornish lunch out on the water. 



A red kayak on the pebble beach at Gillan Cove on the Helford River

Helford River Boats also offers kayak and SUP hire, so you can journey just around the river bend under your own steam. Nothing beats paddling up Frenchman’s Creek as you glide through emerald waters and past ancient trees hanging over the river. There are lots of places to launch your kayak along the Helford River, from the countless little coves to slipways at Helford, Helford Passage, Durgan, and Gillan. 

Whether you’re looking for your own secluded cove for a dreamy picnic spot or you’re on the lookout for the local wildlife, these activities are a great way to truly experience the Helford in all its tranquil beauty. The Helford is a popular place for swimming due to the sheltered aspect of many of the coves, just make sure to keep an eye out for watercrafts and boats when going deeper than hip-depth.


Glendurgan Gardens

Looking down a hill of wildflowers at the cherry laurel maze in Glendurgan Gardens in Cornwall

Owned by the National Trust and boasting a plethora of incredible plant-lined pathways to explore, Glendurgan Gardens is a great day out in any season. From wildflower meadows and bluebells in spring to carefully curated displays of exotic specimens, the flora here is second to none and promises dramatic displays throughout the year. One of the most intriguing things here is the incredible cherry laurel maze, which winds around a little wooden hut and provides endless fun for families. Let the kids loose on the Giant’s Stride, a fabulous rotating rope swing, or cosy down in the café for a cup of coffee and a slab of cake.


Trebah Garden

The beautiful pond at Trebah Garden surrounded by sub-tropical plants

The second in this verdant power couple, Trebah Garden is a beautiful place to get back to nature as you step into Cornwall’s answer to the tropics. From the giant gunnera that appear in summer and turn the gardens into a prehistoric wonderland to the 100-year-old rhododendrons that bloom in spring, the gardens have always got something going on, whatever the time of year. Take a perch at Alice’s seat, a little thatched summerhouse that overlooks the gardens, visit the koi in the pond, and let the kids unwind at the adventure playgrounds at Tarzan’s Camp and Fort Stuart. At the foot of the sub-tropical valley, a pretty beach awaits, complete with a quaint shack selling ice creams in the summer months. 


Constantine Stores


A little further afield in Constantine, you’ll find one of Cornwall’s hidden gems. A family-run wine merchant, Constantine Stores is a treasure trove of all things sip-worthy, with an Alladin’s Cave of gins, rums, whiskies, and wines from around the world. The friendly staff are incredibly knowledgeable, so why not pop in for a spot-on recommendation or you can simply browse the many shelves for something that catches your eye.


From riverside strolls to woodland wanders, walks around the Helford River come in many forms and are the perfect way to explore this dappled wonderland.


Frenchman’s Creek circular

An aerial view of the famous Frenchman's Creek along the Helford River

Known far and wide as the inspiration for Daphne du Maurier’s incredible book of the same name, Frenchman’s Creek is the perfect destination for anyone looking for a romantic creekside ramble that ends in a pub (as all the best walks do). Starting and ending in Helford village, this 4-mile route is on the moderate side, with paths often requiring a sturdy pair of walking boots. If you visit in spring, the woods will be alive with the periwinkle hues of bluebells, while the creek ebbs and flows in idyllic peace. You’ll stumble across a tiny chapel and historic quay during the walk, before finishing off with a refreshing drink in The Shipwrights Arms, the perfect end to a creekside jaunt.


Helford Passage to Durgan

A person and their dog walking along the coast path along the Helford River between Grebe Beach and Porth Sawsen

A nice, 3-mile walk, this stretch takes in some of The Helford’s most beloved beaches, as well as the historic fishing village of Durgan. It’s a simple route from Helford Passage to Durgan, with a lane leading from Durgan to Grebe Beach, where children can skim stones and explore rockpools at low tide. Behind Grebe, a sprawling woodland provides an enchanting additional leg-stretch, or you can continue along the coast path to Porth Sawsen beach. To return, simply head back to Grebe and carry on up the valley path, taking a left when you reach the bus stop, to get back to Helford Passage.


Helford to Dennis Head

Someone walking their dog across the beach at Gillan Cove, with blue waters and boats in the background

Taking in much of Helford River as well as the charming sights along Gillan Creek, this 5-mile circular is the perfect way to experience many of The Helford’s beautiful terrains, from river to creek to woodland. You can enjoy this walk in either direction, either starting along the river, following pretty paths and passing many hidden coves as you go, or up through the woodland to Manaccan before following Gillan Creek to the sea. At Dennis Head, views across the mouth of the river and out towards the sea make for a lovely place to indulge in a picnic, while the many coves promise swimming opportunities aplenty.


Mawnan Smith and Maenporth Beach circular

A bird's eye view of Maenporth Beach near the Helford River

One of the longer routes around the Helford, this walk enjoys a mix of coast and countryside, with the sandy delights of Maenporth Beach promising sand and sea swims. As with many walks in Cornwall, the direction and starting point is up to you, whether you fancy starting at Maenporth Beach so you can walk with an ice cream in hand or in Mawnan Smith with the coast as your destination. This walk takes you past Glendurgan Gardens and plenty of pretty coves, giving you an endless choice of places to stop and soak up your stunning surrounds. There isn’t much in the way of steep bits, but sturdy footwear is recommended as the coast and country paths can be uneven underfoot.

Pubs and places to eat

Whether you’re after a pint after a day tootling about on the river or a full Sunday roast after a muddy winter’s walk, the pubs and cafés around the Helford River have you well and truly covered.


The Shipwrights Arms, Helford

Outdoor tables overlooking the Helford River at The Shipwrights Arms in Helford

One of the most popular waterside pubs in Cornwall, The Shipwrights Arms has a long-standing tradition of making visitors feel welcome. Alongside the incredible views, which can be enjoyed from both the restaurant and the glorious pub garden, this family-friendly pub offers hearty pub grub and an array of refreshing drinks. From seafood fresh from the slipway outside to local pasties and Roskilly’s ice cream, Cornish fare is at the top of the menu here. Arrive by boat or on foot and settle in for a wonderfully relaxed meal overlooking The Helford.


Ferry Boat Inn, Helford Passage

The cosy interior of The Ferry Boat Inn in Helford Passage

Nestled on the northern banks of the Helford River, the Ferry Boat Inn enjoys a peaceful setting, with the river at its front and quiet woodlands sprawling behind. With 300 years of history behind it, this cosy inn is a favourite amongst visitors and locals alike. The menu is home to tasty classics, including fish and chips and burgers, with a ‘little sailors’ menu ensuring the kids are well and truly catered for. Enjoy your meal in the relaxed dining room or outside overlooking the water when the sun is shining. Make sure to check their website before visiting, as the Ferry Boat often hosts superb events, from local singers to Easter egg hunts!


Holy Mackerel Café, Helford

Looking past a bright blue fence at the converted Holy Mackerel Café, which used to be a chapel

A beautiful converted chapel overlooking the river, Holy Mackerel Café is a lovely dog-friendly spot for some light refreshments while exploring the Helford. The menu promises hand-prepared sandwiches on delicious multigrain bread (gluten-free available), with fillings including crab, smoked mackerel, and chicken korma. A range of coffees and teas are available too, making this welcoming café perfect for a relaxed afternoon by the water. They are open seasonally, so make sure to check their social media before heading out. 


The Boatyard Café, Gweek

The bright and airy interior at The Boatyard Café in Gweek

Relaxed, cosy, and wonderfully dog-friendly, The Boatyard Café in Gweek has everything you need for a midday refuel. Mondays to Saturdays serve up delicious lunches, from Cornish pasties from nearby Gear Farm to flatbreads and sandwiches, while Sundays promise incredible breakfasts so you can start your Helford exploring properly. The waterside location is lovely, and the atmosphere is as welcoming and friendly as they come, with a selection of toys for the little ones to play with.


Gear Farm, St Martin

A tray full of Cornish pasties from Gear Farm near the Helford River

This charming little spot might be on the outskirts of the Helford River, but it’s well worth a special visit for one of the best Cornish pasties in Cornwall – oh yes, we said it! Made using ingredients from their very own farm and nearby fields, these famous oggys have been filling tums for a very long time, placing them firmly in the hearts of locals. The pasties are so good here that they tend to sell out quickly, so we recommend calling ahead when the mood for a proper Cornish pasty strikes!


Flora, Mawgan

A delicious pastry from Flora bakery in Mawgan near the Helford River

Open Thursday to Sunday for breakfast, lunch, and takeaways, with incredible cakes and pasties on offer too, and Fridays and Saturdays for evening meals, Flora is a new favourite on the Helford River. Seasonal and making full use of the fabulous wood-fired oven, hearty food is the name of the game here, with breakfasts serving up fresh Danish pastries and homemade granola and lunches promising fresh garden salads and veg from their very own walled garden. In the evenings, you can sit down to a mouth-watering pizza as you enjoy a glass of wine amidst the beautiful courtyard setting. The Flora New Yard restaurant is open on Sundays for button-popping Sunday roasts, too.


Dreaming of a tranquil stay along the Helford River? Explore our beautiful holiday cottages, many of which boast glorious views across the river, and start planning your idyllic getaway.

More reading

Top ways to celebrate the Bank Holiday

Top ways to celebrate the Bank Holiday

From bluebell walks and cream teas to garden parties and picnics, here are some of our favourite ways to celebrate a bank holiday weekend.

Things to do 1 year ago Annie Cowen
Cottages with direct access to the beach

Cottages with direct access to the beach

From private coves to Blue Flag beaches, explore our cottages with direct access to the beach for a coastal stay unlike any other.

Property 9 months ago Annie Cowen
The Magic of Mount's Bay

The Magic of Mount's Bay

Not just for those with a Bus Pass... this journey is best taken on an open top bus!

Visitors' Book 4 years ago Maz C
Secret places in Cornwall

Secret places in Cornwall

Discover some of Cornwall’s off the beaten track treasures and unusual hidden places away from the crowds. Explore its lesser-known destinations with our guide to Secret Cornwall.

Places to Go 2 years ago Elizabeth Dale