I was kicking my heels around the house today, as I was meant to be paddling Devon’s rivers, making the best of the outrageously unseasonal rainfall we’re experiencing. However, a series of flashing lights and bleeping noises from the dashboard had quickly put paid to that plan, before I was even out of Purbeck. Tomorrow will involve a (presumably costly) trip to the garage.
All was not lost…the awful weather has arrived alongside an easterly gale. Once the rain and wind had eased a bit this afternoon, I loaded up my surfboard and coaxed the ailing automobile a few miles to Swanage Beach. Swanage rarely has surf, as it faces east up the English Channel, away from the prevailing Atlantic swell. Today however, it was working well enough at least to test my laughable surfing skills…repeatedly wiping out and swallowing half of the beach was a pleasantly humbling experience. I’m still snorting up sand right now. I was also bemused to find that I was sharing the line-up with a fair proportion of Year 10. Once I’d ordered them all home to do their homework, I had the waves to myself…
Exactly as advertised on the tin. Porth Clais, Pembrokeshire.
No idea who this fellow is, but when I spotted him in Pembrokeshire last week, I envied him.
A friend recovers from a long mountain bike ride from the highest point of Exmoor (Dunkery Beacon) down to sea level at Porlock Weir in Somerset. Rest he might, as this was his stag weekend and he just has a few frantic weeks left to prepare for his wedding. I’d planned the ride, and promised everyone that it was ‘downhill’. Indeed it was downhill, except for the bits that weren’t. There was a certain amount of mutinous whingeing amongst the team, but I tackled dissent by constantly riding ahead out of earshot of complaints, and by maintaining secure possession of the only map.
One stunning feature of Exmoor National Park is the way that – despite consisting of high moorland – the sea is always there, a long way below. We’ve paddled the awesome coast many times, peering up at some of Britain’s highest cliffs. Riding atop them was a new and memorable experience, and I will certainly be back for more soon.
Saunton in North Devon catches all swell from the west, and last Sunday was no exception; onshore winds made conditions rather mushy, however. We could only linger in the surf shops of nearby Braunton so long however, and eventually we all headed to Saunton Beach to paddle, surf, swim or drink coffee as suited. Some surfed sea kayaks, some surfed playboats. I myself dug out my surfboard, attempted to ignore the chilly waters and tried to recall how to stand up…
A friend standing atop a lime kiln at Porth Clais, Pembrokeshire, last week. The lime kiln depicted below is at Mouth Mill in North Devon.
Lime kilns are a common sight around our shores, recognisable as stone or brick built structures with a round interior and an open top. Most are nineteenth century constructions, although some on Cornwall’s Helford River date from 1580. They can be found everywhere from sheltered ports (e.g. Solva in Pembrokeshire and Beadnell in Northumberland), to inaccessible spots such as Heddon’s Mouth in North Devon, simply a rocky beach below 200m cliffs. The reason for their ubiquity was that lime products (lime mortar for building, and quicklime for acid soils) were needed everywhere, and that it was easiest to produce them ‘on site’.
Raw materials (limestone or chalk, plus coal for fuel) were dumped at the strand-line and carried to the kilns by packhorse. The limestone was shovelled into the top hole, and ‘draw holes’ at the base were used to control the temperature. One burning could produce quicklime sufficient for 5 acres.
These two folk are Michal and Natalie Madera, a Czech couple who live in London and are currently attempting to paddle around the UK. They paddled out of London two weeks ago, and they’ve since been battling April weather and chilly seas along the English Channel. They’ve been hereabouts on the Isle of Purbeck this weekend, and it’s been a pleasure to catch up with them and hear about their adventures.
They are raising money for a great cause; please take time to go read about their trip, follow their progress, and consider supporting their fundraising…
We made a visit to the ghost village of Tyneham today, camera in hand. I took piccies in black and white, as everything was of course black and white in the olden days. These photos mostly show the most significant surviving buildings, namely the school house and church.
I’ve posted in the past about this eerie place…
Tyneham village is a short walk inland from Worbarrow Bay in Dorset. In 1943, it was decided to use it for D-Day training exercises. The Army requisitioned the village and surrounding valley from the Bond family who owned the estate. Residents were given one month in which to gather their belongings (which, as they were tenants, usually amounted to little) before eviction. The Bonds were promised that the land would be returned to them after the war.
The Army simply reneged on their promise, and the land is still owned by the military today. The village was poorly maintained by the soldiers, and fell into ruin. Only the church and schoolhouse remained roofed. The Elizabethan manor house was completely destroyed, with stone features being carted off to decorate the houses of certain senior staff. A display inside the church insists that the village needed to be kept as a vital training ground for the Cold War, but others have suggested that Tyneham’s main appeal to the Army was as a unofficial private pheasant and deer shooting estate for officers.
Under pressure from high profile protests, in the 1970s the Army allowed public access to Tyneham and began the task of preserving what was left.
This gentleman is Martin Lee. I ran into him a few days ago, as he came off the water to meet his support crew. He’s one of various paddlers and groups attempting to paddle around the UK’s landmass in 2012. He’s been making impressive progress since leaving the Thames Estuary a couple of weeks back, clocking lots of mileage and enduring cold water, bad weather and nagging injuries.
Martin has already raised staggering sums of money for a charity of personal interest to him, the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society.
Learn more about Martin’s plans, follow his progress and donate to support his efforts here…
Good luck and safe paddling, Martin!
Paul ‘Cheese’ Robertson acquired his nickname through being a bit of a camera whore…always having a nice cheesy grin on display for photographers. He very much lived up to his name on Sunday morning, whilst paddling at the Bitches tidal rapid. The pictures that follow show him enjoying a dawn ‘expression session’…i.e. playing around for the sake of playing, trying out silly, random and probably inadvisable things.
Despite paddling a sea kayak in these images, Cheese is not normally a sea kayaker. He does however happen to be a two times Whitewater Freestyle World Champion. So he’s quite handy at this paddling thing…
Whilst paddling at the Bitches tidal rapid in Pembrokeshire in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday morning (hence, the rather grey and grainy images), I recalled that I wrote a magazine article about the place, around a decade ago. I dug it out and here it is, with a few tweaks to bring it up to date…the target audience was white water playboaters, but the Bitches is also a stunning playground for sea kayakers. My visit on Sunday was in a PH Delphin, towing a WW playboat; I used both on the rapid!
The far western tip of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park is among our nation’s most beautiful places. Half a mile out to sea across churning Ramsey Sound is the RSPB reserve of Ramsey Island. Lovely as this all is, it’s an unlikely place to find a world class playspot. But in 1991, a handful of international kayaking stars converged here for the first ever Kayak Rodeo World Championships. They paddled out across the Sound to the line of jagged volcanic rocks called The Bitches and Whelps. As the tide flooded in, the rocks slowly submerged and formed shapely waves and stoppers. This was why they’d travelled so far. This is the Bitches.
This article is intended to explain what is involved in enjoying a paddle to the Bitches tidal rapid safely and productively, so it is by necessity rather information-heavy. However, bear in mind that the Bitches is truly a qualitative rather than quantitative experience. In plain speak, the Bitches are far more than the sum of their parts. No dry listing of tide times, distances and directions can do justice to the sublimity of this place. Make the crossing out to the Bitches morning tide in dawn half-light and share the eddies with snoring seals. Watch the sun rise over the Pembrokeshire hills. This is as near as British paddling can get to offering a religious epiphany.
Head to South Wales. Somewhere after Swansea, the M4 peters out into the middle of a field. An endless succession of tediously slow roads follows, and after what feels like several weeks you reach St Davids. Follow signs through this cathedral town for St Justinian’s. A mile past town the land abruptly runs out and thats it, Wales has finished.
Although there are other options for a longer paddle to the Bitches, the most popular launch point is here, down the long flight of steps beside the Lifeboat Station at St Justinian’s. There is roadside parking, and also a paying car park. A few hundred metres up the road is a campsite overlooking the Sound. Does any campsite have a better view?
Now for the Science Bit, pay attention. The Bitches is a tidal rapid, formed by the startling power of the rising tide…yes, the sea moves about, at speeds of up to 10 mph. For playboaters and river paddlers, the crossing can be quite a culture shock and poses a very real hazard, one which has sadly claimed a playboater’s life. Ramsey Sound is not just a wider river and some understanding of what is going on is necessary. The currents are constantly shifting and the degree of exposure and commitment is considerable. Read up on tides. Check the forecasts and in particular look out for strong winds, swell or fog. Best of all, speak to other paddlers and try to hitch along with a veteran, if it is your first crossing.
There will always be some form of tidal rapids at the Bitches, but really you need tide heights in excess of 6 metres for the playspots to work. Heights over seven metres are something special! These biggest tides occur at ‘Springs’, found just after full moons and new moons. In case you didn’t know, tides repeat themselves every twelve hours and thirty minutes, so the energetic can enjoy a dawn visit and an evening visit on the same day.
You need to launch beside the Lifeboat Station at three hours before High Water at Milford Sound. Add an hour during BST. Turn south (erm, left) and follow the coast up the Sound. After twenty minutes, you’ll reach the narrowest part, alongside the strongest flow. Keep heading along the cliffs, eddy hopping from time to time to keep moving upstream. You will actually pass upstream past the Bitches rocks, but dont be tempted to cross yet. Only when you finally reach the top of the Sound and the current lets you go no further, do you peel out and ferry glide for your life across to the Bitches! Ten minutes of frantic flailing will see you drop down past the rocks, but a large eddy collects paddlers and feeds them upstream. Now, it’s just a case of crossing the channels from rock to rock towards the island. Your main target is the largest rock, which makes a great landing spot for recovery and orientation. You made it!
There are numerous churning waves and stoppers, but only two spots offer stable playing, the Top Wave and the Bitches Hole. In accessing these playspots, you won’t fail to notice the surging eddylines which form whirlpools guaranteed to startle newcomers! We have seen swimmers being sucked under on the eddyline and re-surfacing half a minute later and over fifty metres downstream. It is highly recommended that paddlers playing on the Bitches have a solid roll, and keep a close eye on one another.
Unfortunately, a real hazard and a major pest is tourist-filled jet boats; these tend to turn up on the evening tides and scream up and down the rapids with scant regard to paddler safety. Don’t play chicken, they’re bigger than you.
The playspots work for several hours until the tide has filled up the Sound sufficiently to kill them off.
The Top Wave
This forms just past the highest rock, a narrow but sublime steep glassy face. To catch it from the eddy, you’ll need arms like tree trunks and a long boat. Normally, paddlers carry up across the tall rock (take good footwear, this is agonisingly serrated) and launch upstream of the wave. Take care! With even a small groundswell, this is difficult and dangerous. Ferry glide out and drop slowly into the trough formed by the wave. Sweet. Deep in the trough, all you see is clear water sliding down towards you, with seaweed waving on the ocean floor…really! The wave is smooth and glassy; front surf, carve, spin and blunt until your arms drop off.
Washing off the wave is a bit of a grind. Directly behind is a surging hole which deals out a brief beating every time. Recovering (and rolling?), head back to the eddy below the biggest rock. If you can’t face carrying your boat up yet again, there is good news; a second wave usefully forms a little way downstream, good for blunting.
The Bitches Hole
This stopper can be found several eddies nearer to the island, tucked under imposing cliffs. It is deep and friendly in calm conditions, even sea kayaks do pop-outs here! A central Vee makes getting out easy. The stopper can be a bit mardy in swelly conditions, though. A slight swell will see the stopper repeatedly shifting from stopper to surfable wave and back, quite good fun really. A bit more swell will see the hole repeatedly changing from gnarly big deep hole to gnarly big shallow hole and back, not much fun at all!
You need to save energy for the crossing home, because there is an unfortunate catch. The route is (obviously) to ferry glide back across the Sound, during which you will drop downstream until you are level with, or below St Justinian’s. However, barring your route is a (usually submerged) pyramidal spire known as Horse Rock. This is recognisable as a wave train and violent swirling eddylines. Strong paddlers who haven’t left it too late in the tide will be able to ferry glide a safe distance above this. However, if you find yourself drifting towards Horse Rock, try to hold back and drop past it on the outside. You can then cross below and eddy hop back up the coast to St Justinian. If your group can’t make it, dont panic; you can follow the tide for another mile or two and land on Whitesands Bay. Paddlers often pass right through the centre of the currents at Horse Rock without incident, but it’s best to play safe; a swim here in the deep circulating currents could be disastrous.
If you’ve paddled on the morning tide, you’ll probably arrive back in St Davids before the shops are open and before partners and friends are out of bed. Your priority now, is to catch up on your sleep enough to be ready for the evening tide…but will you be able to resist cramming in a surf session at Whitesands Bay as well?
www.easytide.co.uk - look up Milford Haven tides.
www.tyf.com - local outdoor centre
www.bbc.co.uk/wales/southwest/sites/surfing/ – local surf/ swell report
www.canoewales.com - includes a guide and useful map
The recent fantastic weather fizzled out before the Easter weekend, sadly meaning grey skies and windy wet weather. However, it was great to meet up with good friends, and the St David’s peninsula is one of the most stunning places in Britain in any weather.
The photo shows a friend enjoying one of the powerful tide races which characterise Pembrokeshire paddling.
More to follow.