Escape from Britain!

This article was originally published in Canoe Kayak UK magazine…

Escape from Britain!

Eight great offshore adventures

Everyone who has tried sea kayaking knows that it takes you to special places. Locations which unlucky uninitiated folk (‘Muggles’) can’t hope to reach or perhaps won’t even be aware of. As master of your own little craft, a brave new world of exploration awaits you if you simply poke the bow of your kayak away from the beach and paddle off. Our British coast is a particularly wonderful place to explore by paddle power, with several lifetimes’ worth of private and secret spots awaiting discovery. Perhaps the most alluring are those which lie just offshore, within plain view but beyond touch. British sea kayakers are simply blessed in this respect; a galaxy of reefs, rocks and islands sit offshore, awaiting your visit. Dipping briefly into pretension and cheap psychology (and why not?)…approaching such inaccessible places satisfies a primal urge to escape humdrum everyday life and head out to explore what’s over the horizon or around the corner, perhaps the same urge which drove humans to the Poles and the Moon. Yet, these places are right there on hand, waiting for you at this very moment; remember that nowhere in Britain is more than 90 minutes’ drive from the seashore, and escaping from Britain is a simple matter of making a few paddles strokes from that shore!

This article suggests some great offshore paddling trips, all accessed from the mainland coast of Britain. Each is reachable by kayak in a daytrip, although naturally some are more serious undertakings than others. Popular areas such as Anglesey and Scotland’s Hebridean Islands have been ignored as they are already well publicised. These offshore paddles are simply a selection of the author’s personal favourites. There isn’t quite enough information in this article to plan and complete each paddle, and this is entirely deliberate. Hopefully there is just enough information here to encourage you to head to a map, or the internet, and start formulating your own ‘escape plan’. There are of course many more similarly amazing offshore places to be discovered…don’t let this article deter you from seeking them out, but do share whatever you find with us!

Before venturing forth to escape Britain and leave our shores behind, you should ensure that you are appropriately experienced and equipped for offshore padding, and that you have taken proper consideration of the weather and tidal conditions on the day. But you already knew that, right? If you want to learn more about such things, the ‘sea kayaking’ chapter of the ‘BCU Handbook’ published by Pesda Press is as good a starting point as any. Another important consideration is the impact that your offshore escape will have on the local flora and fauna; seek up to date advice about nesting seasons, landing restrictions and suchlike.

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Star Ratings

* Accessible –locations reachable by a short paddle offshore, with relatively sheltered waters to cross. However, appropriate equipment should still be carried, and weather and tide will always need careful consideration. Plenty of opportunities to land.

** Challenging – Destinations achievable by intermediate sea kayakers who have planned and prepared carefully to handle exposed waters and tidal conditions. Limited opportunities to land and stretch legs.

*** Aspirational – Offshore adventures requiring good fitness due to the mileage involved, and precise planning to take account of tides, shipping and weather conditions. For experienced and confident sea kayakers only. Landing is difficult or impossible.

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Escape to…chalk sea stacks

Old Harry Rocks *

Location: Studland Bay, Dorset

Launch point: Knoll Beach, Studland Bay (SZ O34836)

Distance offshore/ from launch point: 100m/ 3km

Old Harry Rocks are easily reached from any of the car parks in sandy Studland Bay. Escape from the nudists and the anchored yachts and follow the dazzling white cliffs south around the bay until you reach this spectacular chain of chalk stacks. The walkers high above the nearby cliffs will peer down in envy at your ability to explore this inaccessible place. Caves and tunnels honeycomb the stacks, take time to check them all out. It is always possible to land, explore on foot and perhaps enjoy a picnic. Note that there is a tide race at the seaward end of the stacks; stay well clear unless you are confident in moving water. One more (occasional hazard) is the wake of Seacat ferries departing Poole; shortly after one has chugged past, a series of steep waves will surge into the stacks and this is not a good time to be inside the tunnels! Incidentally, the name ‘Old Harry’ is a euphemism for the Devil; Harry had a ‘wife’ close by, but this stack collapsed into the sea in 1896. Having come this far, you’ll probably be tempted to explore the equally impressive stacks located nearby beneath the cliffs stretching south of Old Harry.

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Escape to…a Cornish castle

St Michael’s Mount *

Location: Mount’s Bay, South Cornwall

Launch point: Marazion (SW 515308)

Distance offshore/ from launch point: 800m/ 800m

With its church and castle reaching skywards atop a 90m conical rock, the island of St Michael’s Mount is the most recognisable landmark in Cornwall. The island has been a religious site since the fifth century, when local fishermen experienced a vision of St Michael (after too much beer?). Various fortifications have also sprung up, latterly a decorative Victorian castle. The island is actually accessible on foot from Marazion by a tidal causeway which is covered for two hours either side of high tide. Paddle around the island and explore the far side at your leisure, then time your landing in the harbour as the causeway is cut off. This will allow you to stretch your legs and enjoy the gardens and castle in relative peace and quiet without the presence of kayak-less tourists. The castle belongs to the National Trust (brace yourself for the entrance fee) and is filled with an eclectic mix of stately rooms and eccentric artefacts, including mummified cats and samurai armour.

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Escape to…Cardiff

Flat Holm Island**

Location: Severn Estuary, South Wales

Launch point: Swanbridge (ST 167674)

Distance offshore/ from launch point: 4.5km/ 6km

Cardiff might not sound like the likeliest destination for an offshore escape, but it just so happens that the city limits encompass a small offshore island, Flat Holm. The paddle to Flat Holm from outside the Captain’s Wife Pub at Swanbridge isn’t long, but crosses some very strong tidal flows; this is a trip requiring solid planning and settled weather. Flat Holm is recognised by its flat profile and tall lighthouse and is not to be confused with the steep-sided island further away, unsurprisingly named Steep Holm. A paddle around the island will reveal numerous concrete fortifications overlooking the tidal rapids; these relics date from the Victorian era. The landing beach on the north side of the isle gets quite small at high tide, so approach with care and carry your kayaks high above the tide line. The island’s residents include the wardens who greet you, and (less welcomingly) 4000 pairs of shrieking, aggressive black-backed gulls. Wear a brimmed hat as the gulls have a tendency of using you for dive-bombing target practice! It is possible to stay in the farmhouse on the island with prior arrangement (see www.flatholmisland.com); one surprising bonus of this is the great night-time view of Cardiff proper, across the water.

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Escape to…a rock lighthouse

South Bishop Rock ***

Location: St David’s Peninsula, Pembrokeshire, South West Wales

Launch point: Whitesands Bay (SM 733271)

Distance offshore/ from launch point: 6.5km/ 9.5km

South Bishop Rock, topped by its squat lighthouse, can be spied from St David’s Head, the most westerly point of the Welsh mainland. This sheer-sided rock is the most distant of the Bishops and Clerks, an isolated chain of rocky islets inhabited only by seals, puffins, razorbills and guillemots. The seas surrounding the rocks throng with porpoises, instantly recognisable by the way in which their dorsal fin distinctively ‘rolls’ along the sea’s surface. The tidal flows here on the outer rim of Pembrokeshire are severe; the famous ‘Bitches’ tidal rapid is nearby and there is plenty of rough water. This trip is only for those confident to use the flows to time their paddle precisely to both make it to the South Bishop (the next stop is probably Ireland!), and to return safely. It is only possible to land and drag kayaks ashore in the calmest of conditions. From the small landing platform, a precarious set of steps lead up through a gulley in the rock to the summit. If you are lucky enough to experience such conditions, you’ll get to sit below the lighthouse and enjoy one of the finest lunch spot views in Britain, and you’ll almost certainly have it to yourself…

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Escape to…a secret archipelago

The Islands of Fleet *

Location: Fleet Bay, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland

Launch point: Mossyards (NX 551519)

Distance offshore/ from launch point: 500m/ 2.5km

Hidden away in a quiet corner of south-west Scotland and barely glimpsed from the A75 are the three tiny Islands of Fleet; Murray’s Isles, Ardwall Isle and Barlocco Isle. The three low-lying isles are real gems in an area already blessed with lovely coastlines. They are located on the fringes of shallow Fleet Bay, the estuary of a river called the Water of Fleet. Approach the isles quietly and sensitively; the islands have significant populations of nesting seabirds whom you really don’t want to scare away from their eggs if you paddle too close. Seals will follow you to investigate as you paddle in and around the seaweed-strewn reefs which fringe each isle. This is a magical place for pottering about or simply drifting. Landing is possible in various places, but again be careful that your wandering won’t disturb the avian inhabitants. Time your paddle from the car park near the campsite at Mossyards around high tide. At low tide, the Fleet estuary dries out and it becomes possible to walk to and between some of the isles. Speaking hypothetically, if you were to launch late in the day from Mossyards, an hour or two before low tide…then you’d probably return to find that the launch beach was now a mile or two wide, and you’d probably end up having to head a mile or two further down the coast to land and have to walk back to the car in the dark. This is all hypothetical, however…

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Escape to…a seabird city

Bass Rock **

Location: Firth of Forth, East Lothian, Scotland

Launch point: North Berwick (ST 168674)

Distance offshore/ from launch point: 2km/ 4.5km

The Bass is a hefty plug of volcanic rock, rising incongruously from the Firth of Forth. Its impressively soaring cliffs (and some cavernous tunnels) would draw kayakers anyway, but they are not what you’ll remember best. Anyone lucky enough to find good weather to paddle out beyond the reefs and waves of North Berwick to visit Bass Rock, will most distinctly remember the smell. Gannets are Britain’s largest seabird, and 150,000 of them make quite a stench. Gannets are always a breathtaking sight, but here at Bass Rock you are witnessing nothing less than a gannet city. These huge birds occupy every spare inch of space on the rock, and the noise and clamour of their constant activity has to be experienced to be believed. They almost blot out the skies above as they wheel in dense circles, trying to spot fish below. Spying prey, they plummet seaward en masse, folding back their wings to enter the water in sleek dart-shapes. Go see, be astonished.  Do stay alert, however…this is an exposed spot with tidal flows and large ships passing through to take into account.

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Escape to…a barrier island

Scolt Head Island *

Location: North Norfolk

Launch point: Brancaster Staithe (TF 793445) or Burnham Overy Staithe (TF 845444)

Distance offshore/ from launch point: 500m/ 2km

Scolt Head Island is the gem of the North Norfolk Heritage Coast, a vast and unspoiled expanse of sandy shore hidden from sight behind Norfolk’s rather upmarket resort towns (dubbed ‘Chelsea-on-Sea’). The paddle across to the island is a short one, only being practical around high tide. This is Britain’s finest example of a ‘barrier’ island, a landform more common in exotic locations such as Australia. A line of high sand dunes protects the expansive salt marshes behind from the sea’s full force. The island stretches six kilometres long, with little going on…you’ve just successfully escaped the holidaying crowds of north Norfolk using your kayak as a getaway vehicle! The solitude is however seriously disturbed by the tens of thousands of geese who roost in autumn and winter, and by the shrieking terns which nest at the western end (avoid landing here). A paddle right around the island is possible with careful timing to ensure that there is deep enough water in the maze of channels on the landward side. At the western tip of Scolt Head Island, look out for the shipwreck which becomes visible as the tide falls. This genuinely wild island is a National Nature Reserve, treat with respect and leave no trace of your visit.

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Escape to…rusting wartime ruins

Redsands Fort ***

Location: Thames Estuary, Kent

Launch point: Warden’s Point, Sheerness (TQ 980748)

Distance offshore/ from launch point: 9km/ 15 km

Who says that offshore adventures must always involve rocks or islands? This very different escape leads paddlers to some haunting manmade relics. The long paddle down the Thames Estuary to Redsands Fort is best planned to ride the ebb tide out from Sheerness, and the flood tide back. This remarkable Fort consists of seven interconnected rusty towers rearing on stilts above the water, one of several similar ‘Maunsell Forts’ (named after their designer) erected during WWII to shoot down German bombers approaching London up the Thames. The Guardian newspaper described them as “some of Britain’s most surreal and hauntingly beautiful architectural relics”. Paddlers who have visited them tend to be less articulate, muttering descriptions like “Something out of ‘War of the Worlds’” and “Those walking things from ‘Star Wars’”. All agree that visiting the forts is an indefinably special experience. Plan your route carefully and pay close attention to buoys…Redsands Fort is just south of the main shipping channel into London and straying into the path of a container ship would ruin your day. Landing at the forts isn’t really practical, so be prepared to spend a fair while out on the water.

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