In 1897, work began on dredging massive amounts of sand and gravel from Start Bay in south Devon. The material was for the construction of Plymouth docks. Within a few years, locals living and fishing along the beach complained that the beach was receding and that the fishing industry was suffering. Eventually, these complaints were listened to and the dredging was discontinued.
On 26th January 1917, an easterly gale blew along the English Channel. This combined with spring tides to create a storm surge. The beach was overtopped by the rising water and in the village of Hallsands, water began to flood into houses. The village’s 128 residents were evacuated. By dawn, four of Hallsands’ 30 houses were destroyed. Some locals returned the next day to retrieve what they could of their belongings.
The following night saw another storm surge, and the village was completely destroyed. Only one of Hallsands’ houses was still standing.
We set off from Swanage in a pea soup fog, following the cliffs to keep our bearings. The sea was calm and smooth. As we rounded St Alban’s Head, the fog cleared and we set up camp for the night.
The next morning, we woke up ready for the last few miles of paddling to Kimmeridge. However, the wind was really howling and there was five miles of surf breaking on the reefs between us and the cars. We weighed up the conditions carefully. We knew that we could probably break out to the back of the waves, surf the wind-driven swell downwind for an hour, work our way back in through the surf and reach the cars.
It was a nice plan. But we walked home instead.
The secrets of the hoarie deep, a dark
Illimitable Ocean without bound,
Without dimension, where length, breadth, and highth,
And time and place are lost.
Milton, Paradise Lost.
I spent most of today writing up the Kingsbridge Estuary. This is a tidal ria like the nearby River Dart, except that it has no major river feeding it. It has arms spreading in all directions, but the main channel runs from Kingsbridge to its mouth at Salcombe.
Much of the estuary dries at low tide, so plan your paddle to avoid this. UN tests have conclusively proved that South Devon estuarine silt is the most noxious substance known to science.
On a wet and stormy night a few days back, I stayed up late and tapped out a few thousand words for the book. It was good to get some work done, but I also discovered that typing is a surprisingly awkward and uncomfortable thing to do in a tent. My back still feels sore and stiff.
A few days before that, I observed a workshop on expedition paddling gear, led by über-sea kayaker Olly Sanders. The workshop was interesting, useful and entertaining. However, I openly laughed at poor Olly when he said that he always carried one of these on his expeditions.
He was right. I was wrong.
The Dart is well known as a white water river. I’ve paddled it hundreds of times! However, below Totnes the river becomes one of South Devon’s many rias. Last week, Heather and I enjoyed a paddle for the ten miles of the tidal Dart down to the sea. Very nice it was, too.
This is the paddle steamer Kingswear Castle, which ferried tourists between Totnes and Dartmouth in the early twentieth century. After being used as a hospital ship, it was burned and abandoned to avoid the risk of contagion. The engines were transferred to the new Kingswear Castle which is still in service today.
Dartmouth is the home of the Britannia Royal Naval College, where the Royal Navy’s officers are trained. In 1992 I tried to earn a place here. I went through the three day long officer selection process (AIB) and somehow actually passed. However, on the following day I failed the medical for Bridge Officer on account of my slightly dodgy eyesight. So, I can’t tell you what the College is like inside…
Burgh Island is located a little way offshore from the estuary of the River Avon on Devon’s coast. The island is connected to the mainland by sand at low tide. The only buildings are a pub and a rather swish hotel, famed for its Art Deco architecture. Agatha Christie stayed here and also used it as the location for one of her Hercule Poirot murder mysteries.
Burgh Island is privately owned. Unauthorised landing and exploring is forbidden. All this may change within the year, however.
Morte Point is a headland in north Devon, just north of the surf beach at Woolacombe. The name means … well, how good is your French? The Point has a strong tide race and often sees wild weather, kicking up the surrounding reefs. In local lore it is, “the place God made last and the Devil will take first”.
None of this was known to me in August 1999, as I loaded up my sea kayak on Woolacombe Beach. I had a two week solo trip in mind, so shoved in everything possible, including two crates of Lucozade cans. Bags ended up strapped to the decks and crammed between my legs. After two hours of packing, the tide had gone out so I loaded the boat onto my trolley. The axle bent.
As I launched, I noticed that the weather had seriously deterioriated since the morning. Sizeable surf was rolling in, and I fought hard to get out back, various items vanishing from my deck in the process. I also noticed that the ancient nylon spraydeck I was using had a large hole in it. I had no pump, but no opportunity to use one anyway; just then a fierce squall came out of nowhere and attempted to smear me across the reefs off the Point. My boat was so low in the water that I struggled to have any control over direction. It was of course also sinking, as waves broke over the spraydeck. I was so scared that I vomited.
In due course I staggered ashore on the beach at Rockham Bay, the first landing past the Point. I put my tent up on the cliffs and refused to leave this spot for several days, even after the weather cleared.
A man who is not afraid of the sea will soon be drowned, he said, for he will be going out on a day he shouldn’t. But we do be afraid of the sea, and we do only be drownded now and again.
John Millington Synge
The crossing from Land’s End (the south west tip of Britain) to the Isles of Scilly is nearly 30 miles, heading straight out into the open Atlantic. You cross strong tides at the start, and then two busy shipping lanes. If you are going to attempt this, then choose really solid companions.
On this day I was joined by Kevin Francis, who a week previously had never been in a sea kayak (or indeed any kayak longer than 2.3 metres), and had never paddled more than a few miles in a straight line before. What could go wrong?
The RMS Mulheim currently resides between Sennen Cove and Land’s End, being progressively disintegrated by successive Atlantic gales. It ran aground beneath the granite cliffs on 22nd March 2003, rudely curtailing its voyage to carry waste to a toxic landfill site in Germany. The Mulheim was sailing under a ‘flag of convenience’ and the competency of the crew and adequacy of their safety procedures has been called into question. The chief officer was alone on watch. Somehow he knocked himself out after his trousers got caught on a lever attached to his seat. By the time the crew discovered what had happened, the Mulheim was just about to run aground and it was too late to avert disaster.
No lives were lost, but this obviously wasn’t the best thing that ever happened to the coast of Cornwall. The level of hazard that the cargo posed to the environment has been hotly debated.
In any case … it looks great.
Did sea define the land or land the sea?
Each drew new meaning from the waves’ collision.
Sea broke on land to full identity.