An enormous tide of immigrants is believed to be heading for the coast of Cornwall and Devon, right at this very moment. Some will undoubtedly land on our privileged shores to seek sanctuary. Debate rages as to whether they are refugees from disaster or simply travelling opportunists, but all agree that they simply cannot stay here. There is a £50 reward for catching any of these asylum seekers and sending them home.
However … it is impossible not to feel some sympathy for their plight, for they have been at sea for fifteen years.
In 1992, 30 000 of these fellows left China to seek a new life in the USA. However, they were washed overboard in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. This was to prove to be just the beginning of their ordeal. In the years since, they have drifted at the whim of ocean currents. They have travelled for over 17 000 miles across and around the oceans, including passing through the Arctic pack ice. Occasionally one of them makes it ashore, only to be caught and shipped back to their ‘owner’ in return for the bounty money. Soon they will begin to wash up on our shores, but for most of them, their voyage is far from over.
My usual philosophy on kayak camping is, “It is easier to beg forgiveness than to seek permission …” However, I’ve just been very organised and spoken on the telephone to a nice lady in Cardiff. Splendidly, she has permitted a few of us to stay on the island of Flat Holm sometime soon. Flat Holm is near to Steep Holm and we hope to visit both in one weekend. Flat Holm is in Wales, Steep Holm is in England.
All good. All that is needed now, is kind weather.
‘I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.’
Christopher Isherwood, The Berlin Stories
On Sunday, whilst paddling amongst the amazing sandstone stacks around Ladram Bay in South Devon, I randomly reached over my shoulder and took a photo of my friend Graham. He sent me some of his photos today, and it turns out that at the exact same time, he was photographing me, photographing him.
This means something.
Steep Holm is an island out in the Bristol Channel, located smack bang in the path of strong flows generated by Europe’s largest tidal range. It is home to nineteenth and twentieth century military remains and a very large colony of cormorants. It is a nature reserve. It is owned by the Kenneth Allsop Memorial Trust which exists, ‘To protect, preserve and enhance for the benefit of the public the landscape, antiquities, flora, fauna, natural beauty and scientific interest of the island of Steep Holm’.
I haven’t been there. I’m very much hoping to go, sometime soon.
These deep red sandstone cliffs stretch along the South Devon coast. The rock was created by layers of sand and grit being laid down successively on a desert surface. The wavy patterns in the rock reflect desert processes such as dune formation, water deposition and wind erosion.
All of this took time.
We didn’t much want to go paddling today, on account of the rain. Nor for that matter, did we much want to go to East Devon, on account of there being nothing much there that we wanted to see.
However, the needs of the book meant that we left the house at 7 am and travelled through torrential rain to meet our friend Graham in Sidmouth at 9 am. We shuttled vehicles in the rain and changed in the rain, then launched from Exmouth for the paddle back to Sidmouth. All the while, we joked about the miseries that we were subjecting ourselves to.
Here’s the funny thing … we had a great trip! The rain cleared away as soon as we started paddling. Much more surprisingly, the coast that we had been fairly unenthusiastic about, turned out to be full of interest and pretty impressive overall.
I’ll put some pictures up here of what we encountered in due course, but the point of this story is that working on this book can be really rather rewarding. It’s making us go to places and see things that we simply wouldn’t otherwise. It’s even making us get out of bed early on lousy days …
Today I’m writing up the coast of Lyme Bay from West Bay to Seaton, something I’ve had in note form for months, but not gotten around to completing. This is a lovely stretch of coast, with amazing geological and palaeontogical interest. However, whilst enjoying Lyme Bay, it is impossible to forget that a tragedy took place here, one that changed our sport forever.
‘The canoeing party set out from the Cobb in Lyme Regis at about 10 a.m. The party of 8 pupils and their teacher were accompanied by two instructors from the St Alban’s Centre. The intention of the trip was to cross to Charmouth and return to Lyme Regis by lunchtime. Almost as soon as the trip got underway, the teacher experienced difficulties, and whilst one instructor attended to him, the other instructor rafted the pupils together. The raft rapidly drifted away from the teacher and instructor, and lost sight of them. The pupils were wearing life jackets, the instructors bouyancy aids. No flares were carried, and the pupils did not have spray decks.
As the raft of kayaks drifted away form the coast, the wave height increased, and gradually, one by one, the kayaks were swamped until all nine individuals were in the water. Although the group had been due back for lunch at 12 noon, the emergency services were not asked to help until 15:30. The teacher and one instructor had remained in their kayaks, and were rescued by the inshore lifeboat at 17:31. The rest of the group were picked up by rescue helicopter between 17:40 and 18:40.’
Four teenagers died in this entirely foreseeable and preventable accident. As the Devon County Council report stated, this tragedy “quite simply, should not have happened.”
The most positive legacy of Lyme Bay was the creation of the Adventure Activities Licensing Authority, who regulate outdoor activity provision for young people. A less tangible outcome is that amongst uninformed parents and teachers, outdoor activity is sadly ‘tainted’ and often viewed with suspicion. As a result, young people now arguably have fewer opportunities and freedom to enjoy the outdoors.
When the World ends, no one in Weston-Super-Mare will notice.
I am a man upon the land,
A Selkie in the sea …
The Bristol Channel forms the northern rim of the area that I am researching for the book. It separates South West England from Wales. The Channel has been an important trade route at least since massive slabs were floated across from Wales to create Stonehenge. During the Industrial Revolution, ports along the Welsh side of the Channel prospered and grew due to their proximity to South Wales’ coalfields and iron works. At the same time, ships departed Bristol to sail down the Channel to participate in the notorious Triangular Trade. Despite all of this traffic, pilotage was never easy. Although the Channel is up to 45 kilometres wide, it has the second highest tidal range in the world (after Canada’s Bay of Fundy). This means that the tides flow at unusually high speeds, and that large areas of the Channel are left dry and exposed at low tide.
Nowadays, there is still plenty of commercial shipping using the Bristol Channel (enough at least, to keep sea kayakers wide awake) and the tides are no less dangerous. The gentleman pictured below only recently took up sea kayaking with his friends, but they have set themselves a major challenge which they plan to complete very soon …
All good things must come to an end, and so did our holiday. We paddled back from the island of St Agnes to Hugh Town on St Mary and trolleyed the kayaks onto the quay to await loading onto the Scillonian III. Due to mist and fog, no aircraft were leaving Scilly that day. This meant that everyone desperately wanted to get on the ferry, indeed you could have been forgiven for thinking that they were fighting for a space on one of Titanic’s lifeboats. With prebooked tickets, we smugly strolled past the mayhem, boarded and found seats (a feat in itself) for a journey which reminded us why the ferry is known as the Vomit Comet.
The Scilly chapters of the book are now written, and I have enough photographs to fill a shelf of books about Scilly. However, you know what? I might just find myself an excuse to go back there again, at some point in my summer holiday …
Those sick to the point of nausea of hearing about our splendid Isles of Scilly holiday, will be glad to know that it’s nearly over. Anyway …
No s++t, there we were, camping on the island of St Agnes with only the Western Rocks and Bishop Rock lighthouse between us and North America. It seemed rude not to venture just a little further west out into the ocean …
There was still a significant Atlantic groundswell left over from storms earlier in the week, but at low tide the Western Rocks act as a two kilometre wide breakwater. This gave us enough shelter to paddle out across open water to the ‘inside’ of the Western Rocks. They are uninhabited by humans, but far from empty.
The question now was, could we commit ourselves a couple of kilometres further out and reach Bishop Rock lighthouse? We gingerly paddled out through a gap in the reef and assessed our chances. Waves were noisily exploding over reefs in all directions, as far as the eye could see. If there was a clear passage through to Bishop Rock, we couldn’t see it.
As we both agreed to turn back, Heather breathed a very loud sigh of relief …
Back we paddled to St Agnes, having been privileged just to dip our toes and get a glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean.