This month’s edition of Canoe Kayak UK magazine includes their annual sea kayaking supplement. Some of my photos feature in the article on sea birds, and there is also an interview with…um, me. Their people talked to my people, and made this happen.
This month’s edition of Canoe Kayak UK magazine includes their annual sea kayaking supplement. Some of my photos feature in the article on sea birds, and there is also an interview with…um, me. Their people talked to my people, and made this happen.
Below is an article of mine published in ‘Canoe Kayak UK’ magazine a few months ago. Hope it’s of interest…
It’s autumn 2007, and I’ve just completed 49 separate chapters of a guidebook to the fantastic sea kayaking in South West England, totalling about 70000 words. This was a long job, yet I’m still not finished. The final chapter left to write is the chapter on Land’s End in Cornwall. I’ve kept on putting it off, always finding excuses. The problem is, finding words to do it justice. Eventually, I grab a couple of bottles of Doom Bar (splendid Cornish beer) from the fridge and sit in front of my computer. I prod the keyboard with one hand and swig with the other. I bash out ‘Chapter 27: Land’s End’ in a couple of frantic hours, and then sit back and make a few victorious air punches. Having skimmed over what I’ve written, I ponder for a few moments and then add a final few words;
‘the best sea paddle in the South West’.
Anyway…what I thought I might do in this here article, is try to justify that statement. To attempt this, I’m just going to throw a random and disjointed assortment of information, anecdotes and tall tales your way.
The clue is in the name, but for those who don’t know, Land’s End is the extreme west point of England, where Cornwall runs out. West of here, there are only the tiny Isles of Scilly (45 kilometres) and then the next landmass is Canada (3500 kilometres). Incidentally, the proper name for Land’s End is Pedn an Wlas. I have no idea how to pronounce that, but neither does anyone else; unfortunately there are no native Cornish speakers left.
Most folk think of Land’s End as the specific spot where lycra-clad cyclists get photographed beneath a whimsical ‘mileage to faraway places’ sign, before embarking on a masochism-fest pedal to John O’Groats in Scotland. They might not know that the cyclists have to cough up significant monies just to stand beneath that sign, and that it’s the focal point of a rather tacky and utterly mis-sited children’s theme park. Thankfully, this crappy dump goes unnoticed by those paddling below and thankfully, is the only blight on the much larger and utterly magnificent Land’s End peninsula.
The Land’s End peninsula points west between St Ives on the north coast, and Mount’s Bay on the south coast. Whilst every part of this peninsula merits at least an A+, the very best paddling of all is found within the few kilometres north and south of Land’s End itself. A paddle between Sennen Cove and Porthgwarra offers something approaching Sea Kayaking Nirvana. Smooth granite cliffs, jagged islets, beckoning tunnels, foaming reefs, translucent surf, sandy beaches, intimidating tide races, abundant wildlife and even a rusting shipwreck await exploration.
My first sighting of Land’s End was in 1997, when MC Hammer was cool, and Princess Di was alive (for another fortnight, anyway). I’d bought a sea kayak on a whim and paddled from Bournemouth, wearing a t-shirt and using a holed nylon spraydeck. When I eventually I reached Cornwall I was still alive, but still totally clueless. I wasn’t sure where I was finally headed, but liked the sound of Land’s End. Be careful what you pray for. Early one morning I launched and paddled past Penzance. I soon spotted an offshore buoy which I now know marks the Runnel Stone. This is where the cliffs turn north a few kilometres south of Land’s End, to directly face the open ocean. It’s also where two seas collide; the English Channel and the Celtic Sea. My day became a lot more interesting. My memory of the next hour is of gripping the paddle in tight-sphinctered terror as I battled through swells; where had these epic waves appeared from? The blindingly obvious answer is, ‘the Atlantic Ocean’…but don’t laugh; you had to be there (with my 1997 level of innocence and ignorance) to grasp why this was all a bit of a jolt.
The thing which sets the cliffs of Land’s End apart is the geology. Whether or not you usually get excited about granite, prepare to be astonished. This peculiar rock weathers into distinctive ill-fitting angular blocks, like Brobdingnagian cubes of plasticine squeezed crudely together. Only, lots more attractive than that sounds. What’s that, you want to know why it does this? Apologies, I haven’t a clue; ask an actual geologist (I did look on the internet, but there were too many long words). Anyway, the upshot of all this for paddlers, is some truly unique formations to explore and play. Perhaps the most distinctive are the two remarkable stacks located just south of Land’s End; The Armed Knight is a delicate serrated ridge which improbably defies the full force of the Atlantic, whilst Enys Dodnan is a monolithic island pierced by an awe-inspiring natural archway.
It’s late evening and the sun is an amorphous mass of molten metal as it merges into the Atlantic, punctuated only by the lonely offshore lighthouses of Wolf Rock and Longships. With their jointed buttresses and pinnacles, the cliffs around Land’s End resemble soaring fortresses with castellated spires. The granite around and above us is set ablaze by the golden light, with quartz, feldspar and mica sparkling brilliantly.
Incidentally, if you think that I’m laying the adjectives on a bit thickly in this article…then I’m guessing that you haven’t paddled here yet.
“Is it just me, or are we paddling against the tide? I thought you were supposed to be checking this stuff beforehand?”
Atlantic swells hitting Land’s End get an unimpeded run-up, all the way from Brazil. A clue to just how big the waves get here can be found in the yellow lichen which marks the splash zone on the cliffs. Suffice to say, it’s a very long way above sea level indeed. Perhaps consider checking the weather and swell forecast before venturing forth on this serious trip?
Some things are harder to predict. Beardy nautical types use the boringly-reliable Admiralty Pilot books to predict tide flow times. These hefty tomes are a nerd’s dream, crammed with numbers and other data. Yet, amazingly, where Land’s End is concerned they simply give up. Their description is one short sentence long, and uses the word ‘probably’ twice, alongside the phrase ‘subject to considerable variation’. Hard as it may be to believe in this information-rich age, you’ll just have to take a punt on the tides and hope that your guesstimate is right. Pretty well everyone who paddles around Land’s End inadvertently finds themselves battling upstream at some point. The key to tackling this uncertainty is to expect and accept it; Land’s End is no place for control freaks!
We’re only five minutes’ paddle out of Sennen Cove, when Heather shouts, “Basking shark!” She gives a running commentary as we draw nearer. “It’s a small one…two metres long, to judge by the fins”. Soon, we too spot the unmistakable dorsal fin, followed closely by the tail fin, swishing the surface in sinuous curves as the shark hoovers up plankton just beneath the surface. We stop paddling, but the shark now approaches us. “Two metres” proves to be a comic misjudgement of scale; the shark is half as long again as our kayaks, and emphasises its awesome length and mass by repeatedly swimming beneath and brushing against their unnervingly fragile hulls. No one moves. Or breathes.
According to the testimony of the Chief Officer of the MV RMS Mulheim, he was alone on the bridge on 22nd March 2003 when he accidentally caught his trouser leg on his chair, tripped and knocked himself out. He claims that when he recovered consciousness, all 4000 tonnes of ship and cargo were seconds away from making intimate contact with Land’s End. You couldn’t make any of this stuff up…probably. The Marine Accident Investigation discovered that the ship’s officers had plotted no course or chart positions for the ship’s voyage.
This shipwreck resides in Castle Zawn, just north of Land’s End. Despite a decade of battering by Atlantic swells, enough of the Mulheim is still intact to dwarf approaching paddlers. This isn’t an ideal place to land, on account of the bouldery beach and copious amounts of scrap metal thereabouts. In any case, paddling up close to (or even boarding) this rusting hulk is definitely in ‘Don’t try this at home’ territory. But all that said, it has been done…
I paddle gingerly into the high-sided cave known as Zawn Pyg, unsure what to expect inside. Thankfully, the water within turns out to be completely calm. I pass through to the far end, where this tunnel opens out to the sky again, at a perfect natural swimming pool. I turn around and paddle back. I encourage Claire, “It’s fine, go check it out!” No sooner has she entered the tunnel, than a sneaky rolling swell trundles beneath my kayak. It steepens and builds as it reaches the tunnel mouth, then explodes into a morass of foaming white which seemingly fills the entire cave. Oops.
There is no sign of Claire, and the dreadful realisation dawns on me that I should probably do something to help. The problem is, I have absolutely no idea what. Eventually and unexpectedly, she emerges from the zawn…inexplicably unflustered, unharmed and with an intact kayak. I have no idea how she survived the oceanic maelstrom which I’d just witnessed, but mutter something about having been just that very moment about to paddle in and ‘rescue’ her…
Paddlers who get excited about deep dark tunnels will be in their element (but should probably Google ‘Freud’). The granite geology of Land’s End means that there are numerous vertically–sided passageways like Zawn Pyg to explore. Land’s End itself is pierced by a passage, notable for the strong tide flow passing through. Further south, a truly epic tunnel (go search for it!) leads into the cliff for over a hundred metres before veering sharp right in darkness and stretching for another hundred…before re-emerging into daylight. Note however, that these caves will often be occupied by the local seal population. Be especially carefully around pupping time, between late August and September.
It’s five in the morning, and two of us are paddling in pre-dawn light through the tide races at Longships, surrounded by hundreds of swirling birds. “Wow, just look at them!” I shout, “Puffins! Guillemots! Gannets! Fulmars! Petrels! Razorbills! Incredible!” My friend looks back at me, bemused and possibly pityingly. “Seagulls. I see seagulls.”
The Longships are a 500 metre long chain of rocks, located a couple of kilometres directly offshore from Land’s End. This reef has often been compared to a passing ship, as the 43 metre high Longships Lighthouse gives the impression of a tall mast.
Land’s End is an exposed place to paddle in the first place; paddling that little bit further out to Longships increases this commitment significantly. You’ll need to ferry glide carefully through several successive tide races, each seemingly larger and steeper than the last…but it’s absolutely worth paying the rope out this far. On arrival, you’ll be checked out by the locals, the grey seals. These fellows laze on rocks, or float idly in the eddy pools whilst food floats past on the tide races…a natural sushi bar. On our last visit, we experimented with snorkels to roll over and watch the seals in the glassy-clear water. What we actually saw was a lot of seaweed, but our efforts clearly kept the residents amused.
Having written a guidebook about this stuff, I occasionally delude myself that I ‘know’ Land’s End. On this day however, I’m lucky enough to be paddling with a local, and it’s him giving me the tour. We’re in Nanjizal Bay. The word ‘grand’ barely seems adequate to describe Nanjizal, but that’s what I’m going with, as it’s now past midnight. To my south is the tunnel of Zawn Pyg, whilst the cliffs to my north are known as Diamond Horse Cove, because their quartz veins resemble diamonds. All of this stuff, I know. What I didn’t know until shown today, was that the sand spit in the centre of this granite amphitheatre forms clean peeling waves at certain states of the tide, waves which allow long rides before petering out safely into deep water; pretty convenient if you fancy surfing a fragile sea kayak. I retrieve my helmet from the back deck, wait for my turn behind Mike, and accelerate down a glassy and transparent wave face…
This article focuses on the Land’s End peninsula between Sennen Cove and Portgwarra, the part which includes Land’s End proper. The entire peninsula offers outstanding sea kayaking, however. The paddle along the south coast from Penzance to Porthgwarra takes in some stunningly attractive fishing villages, with the sandy bay of Porthcurno being a highlight. North of Land’s End, the paddle to St Ives past Cape Cornwall is a long and committing trip along surprisingly wild coasts. The granite gives way to dark and foreboding basalt, and the cliffs are topped with ghostly ruins of tin mines.
South West Sea Kayaking by Mark Rainsley – planning details and information, available from www.pesdapress.com.
West Cornwall & Land’s End Peninsula Guidebook (from ‘Friendly Guides’) by Neil Reid – great little guidebook, including excellent maps.
www.landsendweather.info – live weather reports and webcam showing sea conditions.
www.southwestseakayaking.co.uk – more photos and information, from the author.
Just found this magazine article in an old folder. It dates from 2005 and was published in the now defunct ‘Playboating’ magazine. It describes an unpleasant incident whilst exploratory river running in Bolivia. The rest of the expedition was much more successful and enjoyable, thankfully.
(first published in ‘Playboating’ Magazine)
Seven of us in a gorge on a difficult and exotic river. Clear water, big boulders, steep. We are experienced, skilled, sharp, focused. Loving it.
We stop above a horizon-line. Inspection reveals two routes, separated by a midstream rock. River left plunges off a three metre waterfall into a walled-in stopper, which can’t be protected. Nearer to us on river right, a powerful current piles against a rock and forms a sticky stopper. I make my choice quickly; the river right channel. My creek boat powers through cleanly and I break out on the river left bank, twenty metres downstream. I look back and see Andy appear on the lip of the river left waterfall; he has opted for the necky line. But he’s in the wrong place, above the worst towback. He grinds to a halt on the shallow lip, and can’t boof. He slides off completely vertically. He vanishes.
I wait a few seconds, expecting to see him backloop up and get a working. Nothing happens. Seconds more. I am out of my boat onto a rock. I now assume that Andy will pop up swimming, and begin unbuckling my waist throwline. Nothing happens. Nothing appears. Our mate is drowning.
Simon appears on a rock on the opposite bank, nearer to the spot where Andy vanished. By frantic pointing and shouting, I indicate that Andy is underwater. Due to the river right channel and central rock, Simon can’t see or get close to the spot. Only I have line of sight, and there is no way I can paddle up to it. I throw my rope, but its hopelessly out of range.
I attempt climbing along the cliffed opposite bank to the waterfall, but its not possible. Simon starts throwing his line over the centre rock; despite not being able to see where he is aiming, he lands it right on the mark first and every time. Nothing happens.
I stare harder at the point where Andy vanished, and I think I understand what has happened. There is a particularly violent boil just below the fall at this point, presumably formed by a large shallow rock. Andy will be under that rock. Time is running out. He’s a strong bloke, if anyone can fight his way out it’s him. But nothing happens.
By now, Simon has gathered everyone on the rock opposite. Every few seconds, throwlines are rhythmically landing on the spot where Andy vanished and are being drawn back in again. I’m the only person in a position to see the whole scene, but I’m unable to participate. I have never felt so useless in my long useless life.
I can tell that the rescue team are flagging slightly; presumably each one is privately pondering the futility of continuing what they are doing. My eyes meet Simon’s across the river. We both shake our heads imperceptibly; we have paddled together long enough to understand one another instantly.
Staring at the fall, I spot something new moving behind it; it is Andy’s kayak, getting dragged into the fall from behind and bobbing on end. I deduce that it has freed from whatever siphon it was trapped in, and that Andy’s body may still be in it. I point and shout what I can see. The answer comes back, “Can you see Andy?”; I shake my head. However, the rescue team seem revitalised, throwing their lines with renewed vigour to where I am pointing, right into the fall this time.
Its taken me a lifetime to think of it, but I am now tying my spare throwline to the original line. I fumble the knot and can’t focus; filling my mind, blotting out all rational thought, is the fact that I’ve just watched a mate drown.
One of the lines snags on something and goes taut. They all haul, and as if by magic, Andy’s boat slowly emerges. As it swings out downstream, it begins to roll upright. I am moving towards my boat, ready to paddle out and retrieve its contents. I am trying desperately to recall the CPR sequence; was it three or four breathes first? But the cockpit is empty. I literally see everyones shoulders slump.
I am climbing into my boat. I shout my intentions across to the others; I’m going to search for about a mile downstream for the body. But they shout back for me to hold on, to wait. They are newly animated and throwing lines more frenetically than ever. They know something.
Another rope goes taut. They haul, and a very familiar red helmet pops up on the end of it. Andy is alive, clinging to the rope and swimming vigorously. My eyes cannot believe what I am seeing. As he swings into the view of the others, they cheer loudly. As soon as he is safely at the bank, I turn away and burst into uncharacteristic tears. When finally I get a grip on myself, I can see I am not alone; others have their heads in their hands, shoulders racked. Our mate is alive.
The only person not particularly fazed was Andy himself. Unlike the rest of us, he never for a moment believed he had died! He misjudged his lead-in to the waterfall and was pushed offline. He buried deep into the drop, but instead of pinning under rocks as we assumed, he popped up alongside his boat in a tiny cave hidden behind the fall. For a while he was thrashed around in this room of doom. Eventually he spotted a log jammed in the airspace above his head, and recalled that he had a sling and krab in his BA pocket. Clipping himself to the log, he was stabilised and (apparently) quite comfortable. He tried to push his paddles through the fall to attract attention, but couldn’t reach. Instead, he pushed his boat into the fall repeatedly (which I saw) and in due course, ropes began to land within reach. After a few close misses he managed to grab one and clipped it onto his boat; he wanted to watch his boat and check that the route out was safe first. When the others hauled out the boat, they – realising that dead men don’t use krabs – knew Andy was alive.
In all honesty? We have no idea what the lessons to be learned from this incident are. Draw your own. We simply pray that in your entire boating lives, you never ever have to experience an eight minutes as unpleasant as this. But if you do, we pray that it ends as ours did. Thats all.
“I never thought I’d say it Andy, but I’m actually quite glad to see you”.
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.
The following article originally appeared in Canoe Kayak UK magazine…
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.
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…
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 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.
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 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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
…and west is west, and never the twain shall meet’. Kipling.
This month’s issue of Canoe Kayak UK magazine includes a feature I wrote on sea kayaking in East Anglia. In the article I basically I try to summarise what we learned about the paddling possibilities of Norfolk and Suffolk through our research for Pesda Press’s upcoming ‘South East Sea Kayaking’ guidebook, whilst keeping the cousin-marrying jokes to a respectable minimum.
Hope it is of interest.
Above and below are some random images from our splendid research trips (i.e. holidays) out east…
This article was originally published in Canoe Kayak UK magazine…
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.
My photos and writing appear in two publications this month…
* I contributed photos to an article on identifying sea birds in Ocean Paddler magazine.
* I contributed an article and photos outlining eight great offshore paddles to Canoe Kayak UK magazine.
I hope these contributions are of interest…
Pictured below is St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall and Scolt Head Island in Norfolk…both feature in the CKUK article.
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.
Pretty well the only thing about Shetland that failed to impress us was their Tourist Office. Maybe it was just the particular staff we ran into at their Lerwick office, but they didn’t seem particularly informed or helpful regarding their home. For example, we had to practically beg on knees to view and then get a photocopy of their (very out of date) contact sheet on Camping Bods, and when we asked what events or entertainment were coming up, without irony they recommended that we head up the street to the newsagents and look in a newspaper…
The good news is that they clearly recognise good writing when they see it. They have made use of Heather’s article about Shetland in their latest promotional bulletin! We only heard about this when it was forwarded by a friend. The bulletin seems to link Heather’s article to Sea Kayak Shetland, a commercial coaching operation. We had no dealings with them and know little about them. However, the sea kayaking guidebook is written by someone from this company and is great, highly recommended if you are trying to decide whether to head north. I’ve just dug out the comments I earlier wrote about the Shetland section of this guidebook (it also covers Orkney) and here they are…
- We thought quite highly of the guidebook, it tended to give a pretty readable and recognisable flavour of each island/ region of Shetland. Info was clear and precise.
- Tidal info is a bit limited in some cases, instead the book tends to say ‘tides aren’t really an issue here’ and leave it at that. Truth is, tides really aren’t much of an issue around Shetland, not at least compared to the crazy stuff to be found in Orkney. The Admiralty pilot (and tidal atlas) have more tidal info if required.
- One thing I liked a lot was that although the book can’t cover everywhere in Shetland in 25 routes (there are 900+ miles of coast), what it does do is add a surprisingly large amount of supplementary notes alongside the formally listed routes, along the lines of, ‘If you also check out the coast south of here, you’ll find…’
- If there was a problem with the guidebook, it was one of modesty/ understatement! Time after time we completed some paddle mentioned in the guidebook and were surprised to be absolutely blown away by the quality/ scenery etc – the author doesn’t waste adjectives or hyperbole! I guess that the bar is set pretty high in Shetland, the local paddlers have seen it all before and what might amaze the rest of us is bog-standard to them…
The guidebook is probably more essential for Shetland and Orkney than any other region so far covered by Pesda – the Shetland pilot book printed by Imray is fairly useless for paddlers (just lists anchorages) and the respective Clyde Cruising Club pilots for the two archipelagos are only marginally more useful.
We’ve had two very full summers’ paddling out of our Pesda ‘Northern Isles’ guidebook – great value for £20. Yes, we would have paddled all of it anyway, but it’s entertained and informed us a great deal, made our lives a whole lot easier, and saved us from carrying a large amount of maritime-related paperwork around. Our thanks to the authors.
This is the cover of the 2011 edition of Paddle World magazine. Paddle World is published annually by the same French/ US team who produce Kayak Session. Just as Kayak Session is indisputably the highest quality white water magazine, Paddle World is the best of the various touring-specific paddling magazines available. As the cover above indicates, the focus is on what’s great and appealing about the sport. Inside you will find glossy reports from exotic places, with some amazing paddling lifestyle photography…but you’re unlikely to find yourself poring over text-heavy reports on the latest skeg positioning trends. Each to their own, of course!
However…this year they’ve lowered their guard slightly and allowed a grey and rainy UK location to sneak into their magazine; as you’ll notice from the contents listed on the cover, they’re running an article by myself on the incredible Shetland Isles. The 2011 issue will be on sale very shortly. Give Paddle World a try, it’s a glorious publication.