Given the topography of Mevagissey, sitting at the bottom of a steep valley beside the sea, it is not surprising that we should have a river but not many notice it, as for the most part it remains hidden, either underground or hidden behind buildings. The River Back skirts along the path leading towards Heligan and then alongside the park. It flows under the road by Willow Car Park. In the past the river ran through this marshy field, populated with willows. The river can then be seen again running behind Chapel Street; Chapel Street used to be referred to as Back Lit.
The meaning of “Lit” is unclear, “letch” is an old term for a stream flowing through boggy ground, so maybe it’s a historic corruption? It could mean “leat” but there was already a leat in Mevagissey, and it wasn’t here.
The river’s final appearance is through the grills on the road outside the leather shop where it finally flows into the harbour. There are clues to its historic open air path; the River Street Cafe in Market Square is one clue as is the fact that Market Square used to be known as Town Bridge. For most of the year, the river flows underground and unnoticed until we get heavy rains when it makes its presence felt. Sometimes this is a little flooding at the Willow Valley car park, its natural flood plain, sometimes during prolonged heavy rainfall, it turns the harbour waters an opaque orange-brown colour as it deposits the runoff from the fields above the village. Due to the river’s small size, the catchment only 4.9 km2 in area, and the river itself is only three km in length; it rarely contributes to severe flooding.
On old maps, we can see that the river was once split and that a leat was created to power a waterwheel located where the RNLI and surrounding shops sit. This wheel powered the village flour mill. The location of the mill pond where the leat was hived off looks to have been where the football pitch now sits. This mill was still running in 1906, but no photos remain, and today there is no trace of the leat or mill other than in place names such as Leatfield, River Street and Mill House.
Enjoy having a wander around and see if you can spot the clues to the past, and see where the river is today.