East is East

The following article originally appeared in Canoe Kayak UK magazine…

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East is East

Sea kayaking in the East Anglian flatlands

I’ve been lucky enough to paddle rivers and coastlines all over Britain, and indeed all over the world. Yet I’d never sat in a kayak in Britain, east of London. In fact I’d never even been there, if you don’t include taking the M20 to Dover, en route to Alps trips. Why not? Well…it’s obvious, isn’t it? The east of Britain is flat. Flat, flat, flat. Flat does of course mean; no whitewater, no interesting coastlines, and people who marry their cousins. Look at any map, or indeed your guidebook bookshelf…all of Britain’s ‘good bits’ for paddlers are blatantly located north, south and west. Thus, I had no plans to head east, any time soon. I smugly prided myself on never having visited the eastern flatlands.

The problem with firmly ingrained prejudices such as these, is that (just occasionally) they can of course be totally wrong, meaning that your ignorance is causing you to miss out on something special. Plus, it’s somewhat ludicrous to pompously regard yourself as a voyaging explorer type, on a mission to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before…and yet be unwilling to give East Anglia a try. Perhaps it was time for a rethink. I was fairly sure about the lack of whitewater; simple geography dictates this. I did however decide to keep an open mind about the coastlines (and indeed the cousins thing). The final push came when Franco from Pesda Press asked for volunteers to help with a proposed new sea kayaking guidebook to South East England and the Channel Islands. I put my hand up and agreed to challenge my preconceptions by going where no man has gone before…to investigate the shores of Norfolk and Suffolk. Okay, I realised that these places aren’t necessarily a barren alien wilderness, and that paddlers already lived and paddled there…but the point was, that if the sea kayaking was any good, then they were keeping it very quiet.

Several extended trips later, I’m delighted to admit that my prejudices about the quality of the sea kayaking in East Anglia were totally wrong, and I should also concede that I never met anyone who had married their cousin (and would admit to it). My friends and I were delighted to find that there are plenty of enjoyable sea kayaking adventures to had, and there are in fact some quite remarkable and beautiful coastal environments to explore, the like of which you will not see elsewhere in Britain.

Anyway, introduced hereafter are some of our findings.

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The Wash

The Wash is a 600 square kilometre estuary, which hadn’t previously scored high on our paddling wish lists. We soon happily reconsidered this. These shifting sand flats are home to about 3000 common seals, which are in turn vastly outnumbered by the wading birds, of which there are about a third of a million. At high tide (i.e. when you’d want to be paddling), these waders are squeezed together at the fringes of the Wash. Regardless of whether or not bird watching is your thing, seeing and hearing tens of thousands of feathery things pecking or flying at once makes for an unforgettable spectacle.

Of course, the Wash deserves respect. Legend has it that wild horses have been outrun by the incoming tide, and the converse scenario could rapidly strand you a long way from solid ground…

Norfolk’s Barrier Coast

The North Norfolk Heritage Coast is something very special. Visiting Norfolk’s quiet north shore allowed us to explore Europe’s finest example of a ‘barrier coast’, a landform more commonly encountered in places like Australia. Startlingly wide beaches, backed by high dunes, front an extensive inner band of salt marshes and creeks. A highlight is Scolt Head Island, an uninhabited six kilometre long barrier island. Natural England calls this landscape, ‘a last true wilderness in lowland Britain’. Everything is on a BIG scale, and the biggest feature of all is the Norfolk sky. We felt very small indeed.

The towns and villages along this coast are located some kilometres inland, connected to the actual coast by winding creeks and inlets. The pretty harbour of Wells-Next-The-Sea is for instance nowhere near the sea! An exception is the resort of Hunstanton at the western end of this coast, instantly recognisable by its two-tone cliffs. However, the sea retreats a long way from ‘Sunny Hunny’ at low tide. Paddling trips require a bit of forethought and head-scratching about how and when is best to launch and land, given these factors. Good luck with that, but trust us…this coast is worth the hassle.

Blakeney Point

Blakeney Point is a spit containing 82.5 million cubic feet of shingle. It terminates in a succession of smaller finger-like spits, creating a natural sheltered harbour which is home to large colonies of common and grey seals. Launch around high tide from quays at Morston or Blakeney to paddle out and visit the seals, which you will find basking on the ends of the spit in huge numbers. Keep a respectful distance whilst watching and appreciating the seals; any close approach or sudden movement will probably disturb them into entering the water en masse. Also find time to land and visit the Old Lifeboat House, the unmistakeable blue corrugated building on the spit.

Whilst this is an idyllic spot, unfortunately we found that some things are very rotten in the state of Denmark. The seals are visited at extremely close quarters by numerous chugging diesel boats carrying thousands of tourists daily. The seals seem inured to this constant harassment, whilst the boat owners (lacking irony) claim that kayakers disturb the seals. We received some misinformed and unwelcome ‘advice’, expect the same. Consider paddling on a rare occasion when there are no tours underway. Above all, be careful not to disturb the peace of the Blakeney seals any more than is already happening.

The Switzerland of East Anglia

We enjoyed paddling the coast between the resorts of Sheringham and Mundesley. Seals are a constant companion hereabouts, and the shallow reef beneath means that surf is a regular feature. These shores were promoted by Victorians as, ‘The Switzerland of East Anglia’, a reference to the Cromer Ridge, East Anglia’s highest point (at a breath-sapping 92 metres). The Ridge meets the sea as over twenty kilometres of cliffs. You read that right; cliffs in the flatlands! Retreating several metres annually, these clay cliffs crumble and slip, forming mud slicks and tottering spires; the remains of walls and houses stick out from their tops. At least one WWII pillbox has travelled the full distance to the base of the cliffs, intact. At Happisburgh, the cliffs have yielded Britain’s earliest human traces, from 700,000 years ago.

The town of Cromer with its shapely pier is an attractive interlude. Cromer crab is allegedly the best in Britain; we sampled this in the seafront cafes, all in the name of guidebook research.

The Broads

The Norfolk Broads consist of about 200 kilometres of waterways, linking shallow lakes known as ‘broads’. These are actually flooded pits from medieval peat digging. Looming overhead, windmills recall a time when the surrounding fens were drained by natural power. This didn’t strike us as obvious sea kayaking territory, until we realised that the vast majority of this network is tidal. Rivers like the reed-lined Waveney and the more wooded Bure provide swift trips seaward whilst the tide is falling, with the broads along their length offering idyllic interludes. Real care needs to be taken, as the water flows remarkably fast and getting out can be surprisingly awkward; landing facilities are clearly designed for much bigger craft. The Broads are of course a popular holiday destination; boat hire companies rent all manner of powered and unpowered craft to all manner of folk; all human life was there, but it wasn’t hard to find peace and solitude. We enjoyed paddling right down to the open sea at Great Yarmouth, where Britain’s oldest working rollercoaster scared the bejesus out of me…

Lowestoft Ness

If you kiss enough frogs, sooner or later you’ll find some which don’t turn into Princesses (or Princes, whatever floats your boat). Some frogs are just frogs, no matter how much rouge you put on them. Lowestoft Ness in Suffolk is Britain’s easternmost point, which sounded on paper like something enticing and even romantic. The reality was somewhat different. The Ness is an enduring embarrassment to the folk of Lowestoft. Britain’s tallest wind turbine overshadows this headland, which is crowded with a sewage works, a gasworks, a waste tip and a fish processing plant. Marking the actual point is the grandly named ‘Euroscope’, a nondescript plaque in the ground. Even if you were still determined to investigate all of this by kayak, the shattered coastal defences (looking not unlike medieval torture implements) make landing here impractical. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

Britain’s ‘Area 51’

Hidden in a remote corner of Suffolk is the sixteen kilometre shingle spit of Orford Ness, known locally as ‘The Island’. Paddlers can launch at Slaughden or Orford to paddle down the tidal River Ore which forms the western side of the spit, and then back north along the seaward side. Tide flows are strong and this is a long committing trip with few escape points. So, why make the effort? Orford Ness is an impressive geological and ecological feature; the spit has formed over the centuries into successive ridges of shingle, home to thousands of nesting gulls and terns (landing is best avoided). However, what struck us most about this obscure spot was the Cold War legacy; until recent times, Orford Ness was a hush-hush top-secret military site, Britain’s ‘Area 51’.

Enormous derelict concrete edifices rise from the shingle; these were the ‘Atomic Weapons Research Establishment’, which carried out such inadvisable activities as stress-testing atom bombs. The most iconic buildings are the ‘pagodas’ which have no side walls, in order to release explosive energy. The vast forest of masts is a similarly bizarre site; during the Cold War this was Cobra Mist, an experimental radar for detecting Soviet missiles. It cost about a gadzillion dollars, but never worked due to signal jamming from Russian trawlers in the North Sea. Cobra Mist has been associated with UFO sightings; conspiracy theorists claim that this is what it was really about…

There is perhaps no stranger landscape in the entire UK, and kayaks offer one of the best ways to view it.

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If you haven’t already paddled at any of these locations, or if you share any of my former prejudices about East Anglia, then you are strongly recommended to consider a sea kayaking trip which begins by driving east. Go on…try it just once, on the off chance that you are missing something. As the old adage goes, “You should try everything once except incest and folk-dancing.”* Prejudices and preconceptions are a bad thing, and should always be challenged. I for one have really had my eyes opened. So much so in fact, that my next trip east might even be to…Essex. Well, maybe.

*It would be too cheap a shot, to use that quote as the basis for an East Anglia joke.

Mark Rainsley

Further info

SE England & Channel Islands, 50 great sea kayak voyages – this guidebook is being researched and written by a number of active paddlers, and will be published by Pesda Press in 2013. As the title implies, it will cover considerably more than just Norfolk and Suffolk.

Norfolk & Suffolk from Time Out Guides – the best general guidebook to the area we found, although it avoids clarifying whether the locals marry their cousins.

Tidal Havens of the Wash and Humber by Henry Irving – this booklet is the key to understanding the tides and inlets of North Norfolk.

East Coast Pilot by Colin Jarman and East Coast Rivers Cruising Companion by Janet Harber – between them, these two books offer plenty of well presented info about the coast, creeks and harbours in Suffolk and further south.

Complete Guide to the Broads by Bridget Lely, and Collins Norfolk Broads Waterways Guide –these will tell you all you need to paddle on the Broads, the latter book including excellent maps.

www.southwestseakayaking.co.uk – the author’s blog which (despite the title) includes many more notes and photos about East Anglia.

www.facebook.com/groups/308991639124522/ - local sea kayakers, proving that they do have the internet in East Anglia.

2 thoughts on “East is East

  1. Excellent read – thanks. The places you mention are all on my doorstep, but I don’t know them nearly as well as I might; you’ve whetted my appetite very nicely and I shall look closer..

    When does your book come out?

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