The Camel Estuary is one of the most beautiful in the UK, situated in the centre of the most popular part of the North coast of Cornwall. The River Camel (Dowr Kammel in Cornish, meaning crooked river) rises as a stream on the northern edge of Bodmin Moor and flows somewhat counter-intuitively southwards through the town of Camelford to which it gives its name, until, joined by the De Lank, it becomes more river-like at Trecarne and wends its way onwards to Wadebridge.
The highest tidal point, and hence the top of the estuary, is at Egloshayle, but it is at the Bridge on Wool in Wadebridge that our journey really begins. Begun in 1468 and completed in 1485, the bridge is said to have been named thus because it was built on wool sacks, but investigation appears to show this to be untrue and the origin of the name is now lost to us.
The extraordinary character of the estuary is clear from the photographs. Seen from the air, the Camel is a whirlwind shape of sinuous blue, writhing through the coastline, bleached white sand at either side. From water level, one sees only a collection of beautiful villages, interconnected by dunes, rolling hills, and the occasional attractive bridge, harbour wall or other structure. Once leaving the conurbation of Wadebridge (itself a pretty town), the Camel is defined by rolling hills and dunes connecting us to Padstow on the west bank, Rock on the east, and then Polzeath at the very mouth, where the Camel flows into the Atlantic, or more accurately the Celtic Sea, between Stepper Point and Pentire Point, the entire river having covered only about 30 miles. The waters are tidal upstream to Egloshayle and are popular for sailing, birdwatching and fishing. Though camel/dromedary symbolism is found throughout the area, the name Camel comes from the Cornish language, meaning ‘the crooked one’ – presumably in reference to its winding course.
The Camel Estuary is part of the Cornwall AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty). It is a geological ria, meaning a deep valley which has been flooded by post glacial water levels. From a small river above Wadebridge, it swells rapidly in the tidal section beyond the town. At low tide the mud and sand banks are replete with birds, and the otter, one of our rarest mammals, lives in the banks. The area is also a sea bass conservation zone, and many rare plants live alongside the sorrel, samphire and sea beet. Outside the AONB, which ends at the Town Bar, lies the Doom Bar, more spectacular beaches, and finally the two imposing islands of Gulland and Newland, which lie in the open sea framed by the twin headlands.
First and foremost the Camel Estuary is a mecca for watersports enthusiasts. Rock Sailing Club is renowned the world over. There is a sailing (and powerboat) school at Rock and several surf schools operate on Polzeath beach. You could even try your hand at wind/kite-surfing from Daymer Bay. There is waterskiing in the sheltered area further up the river, or just swim at many of the safe and sandy beaches. The Doom Bar, which gives its name to the UK’s best-selling ale from local brewers Sharp’s, guards the wide entrance to the estuary and is steeped in local folklore. In the past it was a danger to shipping, but it now plays a big part in keeping the Camel Estuary sheltered and calm.
Wadebridge is very easily reached by road via the A39 which links effortlessly to all the arterial trunk roads running the length of Cornwall and connecting the county to the M5 motorway. From there it is a pleasant drive up either side of the estuary. There is no longer a railway serving Padstow, the nearest stop being Bodmin Parkway which is on a main line to London, but a regular bus service does operate between the station and Wadebridge/Rock/Padstow.
There are many, many beaches in the Camel Estuary, and several more a short drive away. On the Padstow side, St. George’s, Harbour Cove (Tregirls), Hawker’s Cove with the old lifeboat station, and Iron Cove. Or, a short drive away are the surfing beaches of Harlyn, Trevone, and Treyarnon. On the Rock side it is continuous sand from Porthilly (just south of the slate Sailing Club building and slipway) all the way out to Daymer Bay and the Doom Bar – a distance of some two miles.
Dog Friendly Beaches
There are many beaches in and around the Camel where our furry friends are welcome. Some are open to four legged fun all the year round, like:
- Hawker’s Cove
- Harbour Cove (Tregirls)
- Rock side, from Porthilly all the way to Daymer Bay
St George’s Cove and Trevone are welcoming to our canine pals only from October to the beginning of Easter. A seasonal dog ban also applies on Polzeath beach, but if you park in the cliff car park on the south side there are great walks along the cliffs to Daymer.
The largest town directly associated with the Camel Estuary is Wadebridge. Its days as a port came to an end partly because of silting in the estuary, but mainly, like so many industries, the coming of the railway in 1899. The Bridge On Wool is an outstanding feature, named for its unusual construction, and with a pub of the same name standing at one end. Whilst Wadebridge’s position gives easy access to the glorious beaches of the estuary, it has much of its own to recommend it. Several supermarkets are a useful asset to the nearby villages, as well as a cinema, a lovely pedestrianised shopping area, and pubs and restaurants abound. There’s a nice public park with tennis, bowls and the like at the Camel river’s grassy edge, and a sports centre with indoor swimming pool and bike hire to cycle the Camel Trail.
Not far away from the estuarine environment is Bodmin, a larger conurbation and the former county town of Cornwall. It has a fascinating history and a number of popular attractions, like the famous jail, or the 15th century Church of St Petroc, which is the largest in Cornwall. Bodmin is also the gateway to Bodmin Moor, of course, with historical must-sees like the Jamaica Inn, Dozmary Pool and the highest mountain (hill) in Cornwall, Brown Willy.
Rock and Padstow face each other’s sandy beaches across the main expanse of the estuary. Padstow was once a thriving fishing village, but its income is now supplemented by the tourist industry, its shops and the many eateries and watering holes found there. Rock is favoured by some of Cornwall’s wealthiest visitors, and many of the most discreet, and also has a good selection of shops and restaurants as well as a couple of very well attended pubs.
The famous surfing town of Polzeath stands just inside the eastern headland (Pentire Head) and faces the open Atlantic, with the imposing rock islands of Newland and Gulland the only geographic objects to break the horizon between Pentire and Stepper Point on the other side.
Other Interests – Walking
The South West Coast Path, one of Britain’s longest and most famous walks, has some particularly spectacular Cornish sections. It turns along the Camel from Pentire Point to Rock, and heads back out again from Padstow to Stepper Point. The route traverses the estuary between Padstow and Rock by means of the Black Tor Ferry. This is a regular foot ferry to and from Padstow during daylight hours, a major source of tourist traffic to Rock. There is also a water taxi available for those staying out late.
Cycle the Camel Trail
The Camel trail really is a Cornish gem.
The next five and a half miles beside the broadening Camel to Padstow is the most beautiful train journey I know
wrote Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman in his book Betjeman’s Cornwall.
The railway that he travelled upon is now closed, but with the tracks removed it has become accessible to other forms of transport. The old disused line to Padstow has been resurfaced and provides a wide, fairly flat cycle path (equally suited to walking, and dog friendly) all the way back through Wadebridge to Bodmin and onwards to Wenfordbridge which is at St. Breward on Bodmin Moor. Bluebell meadows, bubbling brooks, spectacular bridges and old stations are features of the journey, which follows the Camel Estuary for spectacular marine views too. The total distance is about 30km (18.5 miles) but the towns en route make it equally possible to break up the adventure into thirds. Bike hire companies ply their trade at Wenfordbridge, Bodmin, Wadebridge and Padstow.
Camel Valley Vineyard
The exceptional weather of the region allows for a thing rarely enjoyed in the UK – a real working vineyard, and the maker of some award winning wines and bubbly into the bargain.
Situated on the sun-drenched slops of this idyllic valley, the vineyard has been making world class wines for over twenty years! Wine tastings and walks are available throughout the year, and it’s a highly recommended trip for any visitor to the area.
Marine Mammals, Fish… And Fishing
It’s common to see bass in the summer, and the occasional salmon. Basking sharks are often seen just outside the estuary in warm weather, and large groups of bottle-nose dolphins visit nearly every year. Mackerel fishing at the mouth of the estuary (easiest fish to catch, it’s literally child’s play) is a popular day trip for visitors, and the more serious angler can experiment with wreck fishing and hope to get one of Cornwall’s many flatfish like a megrim, or a pollock, monkfish or wrass. With up to 40 species of fish caught off the Cornish coast there is great choice available. Check out our five favourite Cornish fish here.
Cornish weather is generally better than anywhere else in the UK, but the microclimate of this large estuary is absolutely exceptional. It’s not uncommon to look up and see the outline of the river delineated in blue by the sky, so averse are the clouds to spoiling the Camel’s view of the sun. When bad weather does come in, the clouds tend to form over the high ground of Bodmin Moor, leaving the coast unsullied by rain. Most of the time it’s hard to believe you are in Britain. For more comprehensive information about the Cornish climate, do visit our dedicated weather page, here…
Eating and Drinking
Wadebridge has a wide range of pubs and small restaurants which cater to every taste and budget. The Bridge Bistro is excellent, as is Warne’s and the Raj Indian restaurant. Padstow is somewhat dominated by the Rick Stein empire, but there are also many other excellent eateries. Rock by contrast boasts the talents of the Michelin two-starred Nathan Outlaw, who commands the upstairs restaurant of the Mariner’s pub, as well as the food at St Enodoc Hotel. The Pityme Inn at Rock or the Fourways at St Minver are also good choices for a less celeb-spotting eat out. Polzeath has a number of good places all within walking distance of each other – the Oystercatcher pub is particularly lively. The Waterfront is a good choice for an evening meal or lunch, and there are several cafés right on the beach.
St Enodoc Church
This amazing little church has been there since the 12th century, but for much of the period before the 19th century it was regularly buried by blowing sand. It is said that a service had to be held every year, so the vicar and congregation gained access through a hole in the roof. Since 1864 it has been completely uncovered and the grounds stabilised.
Holiday Cottages on the Camel Estuary
There is a lovely selection of holiday cottages to rent in the Camel Valley area, from traditional cottages to barn conversions. As per their location, there are fisherman’s cottages, modern villa-style homes, and old granite cottages to suit every taste and inclination.