Enjoying Dartmoor’s River Erme, this morning. I haven’t paddled this classic whitewater run all winter, as I’ve been focussing on paddling lesser known and obscure sections as research for the upcoming guidebook. It was great to be reminded just how good a paddle it is, and why it’s a classic. With the guidebook in mind, we also explored the following stretch down to the sea, which turned out to be a surprisingly decent easy grade whitewater trip.
Sunshine didn’t diminish our enjoyment of the Erme…we also squeezed in a quick blast down the (also classic) upper River Dart, afterwards.
I’ve been doing a lot of work over half-term week for the second edition of the Pesda Press guidebook ‘English White Water’. I researched and wrote the South West section a decade ago, it’s been interesting to seek out, explore and write up many new sections of river over this last winter.
My favourite river remains unchanged, however. The Dart has truly given me the best of times and the worst of times, but I will never stop paddling it and enjoying it. I was sorting through my photos of the Dart a few days ago…here are a few favourites which I picked out. Some because they show the character and beauty of the river, some because they remind me of good times with good friends.
A waterfall in north Wales, somewhere in the Berwyn Mountains. We spent New Year with friends; paddling steep ditches, walking and getting soaked by constant rain. All good.
In other news…
…my New Year’s Resolution is to try and clock up two thousand and thirteen miles by human-powered means in 2013; in my case, that will mean hill running, mountain biking, kayaking and swimming. First challenge to get me motivated is a double-ultramarathon I’ve entered in one months’ time…oops, guess I’d better actually leave the house and do some running, seeing as I haven’t done any at all since last autumn.
…research and writing for the new edition of the guidebook English White Water continues; I’ve been motivated to seek out and discover a few new whitewater runs in Devon; great to know that there is still new whitewater waiting to be explored.
…the new edition of Canoe Kayak UK magazine (published on Jan 6th?) includes an article and photos by myself about the awesome Land’s End peninsula. Hope it’s of interest.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from Heather, Ellen and myself to all of our friends, acquaintances, readers and followers. What an incredible year it has been.
Below, somewhere in Neolithic Dorset, and the west coast of magical Lundy Island.
Ten years ago, I researched and wrote the South West section of the guidebook ‘English White Water’. I recently learned that a second edition is in the offing. I have dug out the old guides I wrote to see what needs updating, and I’ve also pored over maps of Devon, Cornwall and Somerset in search of possible whitewater I might have missed first time around. So, this winter I have an excuse to indulge one of my favourite passions; exploring tiddly tree-infested ditches by kayak.
On Saturday evening I set out for Somerset and North Devon, with a few likely ditches in mind; I was hoping to utilise the heavy rainfall to catch some rarely paddleable sections. I only got half way before being stopped by flooding, and spent the night sleeping in a parking lot in the back of the car. By early morning, the floods had subsided enough to allow me to get to Exmoor, with a few detours. There was a slight problem in that I had no friends to play with (they were all busy doing not-young-any-more stuff like being married, doing DIY, raising children and in one case, actually giving birth) but I was happy enough to paddle alone. Paddling solo had its rewards; for instance, along one wild section of river I was followed closely by a herd of deer for several miles. Walking the shuttles was a bit more tedious.
In the afternoon, I hopped onto the well-known and classic East Lyn River for a quick blast downstream. Halfway down, I was lucky enough to run into the guys in the images here, who let me join them…this made the difficult final gorge less scary than it might have been, I was grateful for their company.
This post does pretty much what it says on the tin. The ruins are remains of administrative buildings for the long defunct Lundy Granite Company, the distant horizon is North Devon and the high moorland of Exmoor.
Why am I not out paddling today, given the gorgeous autumn weather? Because my gorgeous girl (shown below, camping on Lundy) isn’t feeling too well, so nobody in this house slept much last night…
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.
* 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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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…
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.
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.
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.
The photo above shows Start Point Lighthouse in South Devon. It was taken yesterday, about 48 miles into a 50 mile Adventure Race.
It wasn’t a boring day. A few friends and I took part in this great event, which started outside Princetown Prison, high on Dartmoor. We warmed up with a 2 mile run up to 1800 feet (with a great view of the sea, miles away…) and then hopped onto mountain bikes for a 25 mile ride across the moor and down to the River Dart estuary. We hopped into sea kayaks and a 9 mile paddle later, reached Dartmouth. All that was left was a somewhat murderous 14 mile coast path run to the finish near Start Point. The total climb through the event was somewhere over 6000 feet.
I certainly didn’t participate competitively – for evidence, I’d offer the leisurely ten minute toilet visit at one changeover, the time spent trying to help a guy fix his bike chain, and the interminable period when I got lost offroute on the bike section – so was chuffed and amazed to learn that I’d placed 12th overall. Surely not bad for a middle-aged lifelong slacker.
Anyway, the main thing is that – somewhat improbably – it was fantastic fun.
Lundy Island’s Old Light was built atop the island in 1819, but proved very ineffective as Lundy’s high summit plateau was regularly obscured by cloud and fog. In 1861, a fog signal battery was built halfway down the western cliffs; the idea was that cannons would be fired intermittently to warn shipping of Lundy’s proximity. Various methods of alterting shipping were trialled with varying success, including firing actual cannon balls (what could go wrong?), firing gun cotton, discharging explosives, ringing bells and blowing whistles. However, by the late nineteenth century it was agreed that new lighthouses were needed; these were built low down the cliffs at both the north and south end of Lundy.
Today, the site is well preserved; you can visit the remains which include the ammunition store (built with thick walls and thin roof, to release explosions upwards), the gun platform, and the houses of the keepers. With the Atlantic below and around, at the bottom of a very long steep set of steps, it’s quite a location.
Full size Lundy panorama here.
The 21 mile paddle to Lundy Island is not as bad as it sounds…strong tidal flows help you along your way. It certainly shouldn’t be underestimated however; there is an awful lot of empty open water around you if anything goes wrong, and there is also a credible chance of totally missing Lundy if you misjudge your ferry glide angle.
I was quite keen to try a crossing which would arrive by night, having done it in daylight many times. We kitted up and loaded up our boats on the shore at Lee Bay in North Devon…however, as high tide was reached just before sunset (our planned departure time) there was a slight problem; ocean swell was smacking into (and often reaching over) the sea wall we were supposed to be launching below. We made some abortive attempts to launch a kayak, but realised that the only practical option was to wait an hour or so for the tide to drop. Trouble is, that would mean darkness from the start of our paddle, removing any safe ‘early abort’ option. After discussion, we realised that it wasn’t going to happen. We lugged the boats back up the launch ramp and slept in our cars, launching early the next morning instead.
Despite no wind, the paddle across was rough enough in the first half to make all of us sick or nauseous at some point…but then it completely calmed, allowing us to relax and enjoy the Manx shearwaters endlessly circling us at water level.
When the time came for the paddle back, the weather wasn’t great at all. We achieved the crossing using Plan #B.