I’ve just signed up for the 2013 West Wales Sea Kayak Meet, organised by Mike Mayberry in his native Pembrokeshire. This is an informal get-together to paddle socially, with all proceeds going to related charities. I took part in last year’s event, and helped run a couple of the trips. I’m looking forward to this year’s trip, which is from 21st-23rd June. More info here, if you’re interested in joining us.
The following draft notes are a small part of a *much* larger essay I wrote a couple of years back, on interpreting the human impact on Britain’s coastal landscape. Hope it is of some interest…to someone? Feedback welcome, ideally of a non-sectarian hue…
Coastal depopulation and clearance
Vast areas of Britain’s coast and islands which are now sparsely populated or even regarded as ‘wild’ only became so as a consequence of planned ‘clearances’, carried out in the name of economic progress. Perversely enough, these thousands of depopulated or abandoned coastal settlements can be seen as ‘economic landscapes’. These are predominantly found around Scotland, but comparable landscapes can also be found on islands off the south-west of both Wales and England.
The Highland Clearances
The infamous ‘Highland Clearances’ took place in Scotland during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Tens of thousands* of people were moved from their homes, usually to facilitate planned ‘improvements’ by landlords. ‘Clearances’ took many forms, from a single family leaving home voluntarily due to economic hardship, to the forced clearing of entire regions of Scotland.
In 1826-7, the entire 450 residents of the island of Rhum were given notice by landlord Dr Lachlan Maclean and herded onto ships for Nova Scotia; in the words of one victim, “carried off in one mass, forever, from the sea-girt spot where they were born and bred”. When the MacDonells of Glengarry cleared the 400 residents of Knoydart in 1852-3, the sixteen households who refused the offered voyage to Canada were forcibly evicted and their houses burned. Many clearances were more gradual. Arthur Nicholson emptied the island of Fetlar in Shetland in stages from 1822-56. He had his tenants sub-divide the island with walls, successively replacing the residents of each parcel with sheep. During the ‘potato famine’ of 1846-7, Nicholson charitably supplied porridge in return for wall work.
*Estimates vary wildly.
Landscapes of the Clearances
Practically every cleared landscape has its own story of inhumanity and injustice. Whilst anger is a justifiable response to these events, dispassionately considering the wider context in which they occurred is helpful in grasping their significance and in understanding why so much of Scotland’s coast looks as it does today.
A walk or paddle along any sparsely inhabited shores around Western and Northern Scotland should provide insights into the past harshness of rural life on the coastal margins. Deep and wide parallel drainage ditches (‘runs’) and ridges (‘rigs’) will be seen on now-overgrown land; these were ‘lazybeds’. They were used to cultivate crops such as potatoes on infertile and damp soil, with seaweed dug into the rigs for fertiliser. The ruins of the ‘run-rig’ farmers’ homes will be close by, often in clustered communities known as ‘clachans’. These cottages consisted of rectangular low-lying stone walls, previously thatched but now open to the elements. They rarely featured more than one sub-divided room, and would usually have been shared with livestock, due to limited grazing land. In the Hebrides, you will see ‘blackhouses’ with earth-filled double walls and rounded corners, possibly derived from Viking longhouses.
These coastal communities give clues to both causes and effects of the Clearances. Sometimes, they existed because their inhabitants had been transplanted to the coast by landlords wishing to ‘improve’ their spacious inland estates through introducing more profitable forms of farming; sheep replacing families. These displaced tenants were often expected to pay their rents through the gruelling shore industry of kelp burning. At other times, the impoverished coastal communities were themselves seen as the problem, requiring ‘clearing’ elsewhere again. ‘Elsewhere’ could mean anywhere from more marginal land further along the coast, to across the Atlantic Ocean.
Causes of the Clearances
It is important to acknowledge that many tenants participated voluntarily in clearances, disillusioned by the hardships of subsistence farming and perhaps tempted by opportunities in the new cities.
A justification consistently given for carrying out clearances was that islands and coastal regions were over-populated and hence unable to sustain themselves. This was disingenuous, as the same landlords had artificially over-populated these areas to profit from kelp until demand collapsed post-1815. However, the population of these meagrely resourced regions continued to grow until the 1860s; the coastal fringes were over-populated, to a barely sustainable extent. The potato blight which caused famine in the mid-1840s increased hardships further.
The landowners’ perspective?
The bottom line for the landowning nobility was that ‘their’ lands were not economical; tenants’ rents were regularly in arrears and farming output limited, even more so in coastal regions. Owning an estate was practically an altruistic exercise, yet a sense of social obligation seemed outmoded at a time when Britain was embracing aggressive capitalism. Many of the Highland clan chiefs had become disconnected from their clans in the decades since the 1745 rising, preferring to live among Edinburgh or London society. Touring the Hebrides in 1773, Samuel Johnson noted that they were, “gradually degenerating from patriarchal rulers to rapacious landlords”. Ancestral lands became commodities with which to fund lavish lifestyles, to be sold off as convenience necessitated.
In the landowners’ defence, many tolerated loss-making tenants for years, before eventually being forced to sell, rather than evict. However, the incoming new owner would show less sentiment in wishing to turn a profit; hence for example the clearances on Rhum, described above. Many clearances were carried out with reforming zeal, in the sincere belief that ‘improvements’ would benefit all; ‘improvements’ had indeed doubled farming productivity in the Lowlands from 1750-1825. Not all landlords washed their hands of cleared tenants; even the much vilified Earl of Sutherland went to considerable trouble to create alternative employment, building new fishing harbours such as Helmsdale (1814) in Caithness.
Interpreting the Clearances
The Highland Clearances continue to be a highly emotive topic, their legacy of dispossession bitterly recalled overseas by descendants of exiles. The Clearances have even been interpreted by some nationalists as a deliberate ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Gaelic population and culture, somehow linked to English perfidy. Whilst the human consequences were certainly appalling and inexcusable, the reality was perhaps more mundane. The ruined cottages and overgrown lazybeds to be found all along the shores of Scotland’s west and north coast and islands are arguably best interpreted as economic landscapes. It might seem harsh to view the evictions of entire communities as just another facet of Britain’s transformation to capitalism, but this was largely what the Clearances represented; in the Industrial Revolution, there were both winners and losers.
The end of the Clearances
The Highland Clearances came to an end for a number of reasons. The desire to ‘improve’ estates waned, as few such efforts actually proved profitable. From the 1850s onwards, attempts to evict often encountered brave defiance such as that shown in the 1852 ‘Coigach Rising’, where tenants prevented the Sheriff’s boat from landing and burned the legal summons that he bore. The national media were increasingly sympathetic to such causes, and landowners risked public vilification if they embarked upon clearances. Such publicity also helped lead to legal reform; the 1886 Crofters Act granted security of tenure for tenants and created the Crofter’s Commission to arbitrate in disputes.
The retreat from extremities
Improved rights for Scottish crofters did not stem the ebbing tide of depopulation in coastal areas and islands. Through the twentieth century, numerous islands in particular saw abandonment. The reasons for this were partly economic, but also social; island life was decreasingly appealing in the modern age.
The archipelago at the southern extremity of the Western Isles was voluntarily evacuated; Berneray (1910), Pabbay and Sandray (1911), Mingulay (1912). Mingulay had suffered from a lack of quay or harbour, making it difficult for the population to land supplies or participate in modern fishing. The isles also experienced neglect by the authorities; e.g. Mingulay’s teacher left in 1910. The island of St Kilda was evacuated for comparable reasons; many young men had emigrated to the mainland, and the 1930 death of a young woman from appendicitis (there was no doctor) proved the final straw persuading the 36 remaining residents to request evacuation. Most of the Pembrokeshire islands in Wales were abandoned, being sold or donated as wildlife reserves; Ramsey Island’s last tenant farmer left in 1950. Depopulation is still occurring in many island areas, such as the North Isles of Orkney; e.g. North Ronaldsay has seen its population fall to around 60. However, improved communications and better recognition of the value of remote communities augers well for the future; for example, Orkney island flights are heavily subsidised.
I’m supposed to be running/ staggering along the Pembrokeshire Coast Path at this exact moment, trying to complete the last of three trail marathons in three days – the Pembrokeshire Coast Challenge. But actually I’m sat warm and rested at home, having never even started the event. Apologies if the post which follows reads like an extended excuse…
I spent the first part of the week up in Scotland with friends, paddling some great whitewater. The PCC was supposed to kick off at 6 am on the Friday, so on Thursday morning I loaded up my lamely underpowered car and headed south…passing through some stunning scenery, such as that above (Glencoe, taken on a quick pee stop). Anyway, it was a long, slooow and exhausting slog to Pembrokeshire, including a stint in a blizzard somewhere in mid-Wales. As I reached the coast and neared the end of my journey, I was looking forward to putting up the tent and catching a few hours of kip before the big run.
But…then my phone went, and I received news that my little girl was unwell. I did an abrupt about-turn, and headed for Dorset, finally arriving home in the early hours. That totalled nearly 18 hours on the road, but the cuddle I received from her on arrival was a fair reward. The good news is that her illness proved to be nothing serious, and that she is now much better. Rather disappointing not to have had the opportunity to attempt the PCC (and the entry fee wasn’t cheap…), but that’s just the way things go, sometimes.
Grey, drizzly weather at the moment. So here is a reminder of last summer…drifting aimlessly along the Kimmeridge Ledges.
Busy half term holiday ahead. Off to paddle rivers in Scotland at the weekend, and then I’ll be relocating to the Pembrokeshire Coast for this, which I entered a few days ago on a late-night whim. Can I do it? I have no idea (and obviously, there is no time to train), but certainly, there are worse things to do than bimble on the incredible Pembrokeshire coast for a few days…
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.
We had planned to visit Skokholm, the island in the image above. However, the wind was quite strong and there was a rolling Atlantic swell which was kicking up the local tide races considerably…so we opted for a more conservative option, a paddle to the much nearer Skomer Island.
Skomer has a huge population of puffins, razorbills and guillemots. They all seemed to be out and about, soaking up the sun.
Cooking up lunch on Ramsey Island, having paddled there from the Bishops and Clerks rocks. Graham was cooking curry, which I’m not sure was the ideal stomach settler for the Bitches tidal rapid, which we visited next. Although the rapid was pretty mild compared to what it can be on Spring tides, there were some powerful eddy lines, which some of the group hadn’t experienced before. Ferry gliding across the entire Bitches rapid (it’s a series of linked rapids, about 500m wide) was successfully managed by the whole group, good stuff. We then broke out into the main flow of Ramsey Sound and rode the rolling waves all the way back to Whitesands Bay. The curry didn’t seem to help Graham’s stability on the surf landing, incidentally. But everyone was smiling, a great trip had been enjoyed by all.
I’d volunteered to lead a trip at Mike Mayberry’s West Wales Sea Kayak Meet, perhaps unwisely as I have no current coaching or leading qualifications! I intended on running a fairly conservative and sheltered trip, given that I didn’t know half of my group, let alone what I was doing myself. However, as we ferry-glided out through big rolling waves from St David’s Head (in the company of dolphins, porpoises and wheeling gannets), it immediately became clear that I had a pretty competent and – more importantly – self-reliant group. By self-reliant, I mean that they were clearly able to make sensible decisions for themselves, and not just act like sheep. Splendid! The plan had been to ride the tide down to Ramsey Island and pass inshore of it, but after a bit of on-the-hoof guesstimating in my head, I realised that we were ideally poised to take on a much more committing and interesting trip; a full tour of the offshore rocks known as the Bishops and Clerks, and a circuit of Ramsey Island.
The group were all game (and not at all worried by the fact that we were now heading off the edge of my carefully pre-folded map) so we ferried out further, and committed ourselves to the complex tidal rapids around the offshore rocks.
These images show our paddle around the Bishops and Clerks, and our return to Ramsey Island.
Carreg Samson is one of my favourite Neolithic monuments, overlooking a stunning swathe of the Pembrokeshire coast.
The Neolithic (‘New’ Stone Age) was the period of time when our hunter-gatherer ancestors gradually began to adopt agriculture and fixed settlements, beginning around 4000 BC.
Alongside the newly farmed lands were erected a dazzling range of monuments such as the earth mound at Carreg Samson, which has now eroded away with just the stone ‘framework’ remaining. How Neolithic folk raised Carreg Samson’s roof stone (weighing hundreds of tonnes) is anyone’s guess.
These monuments seem to have been largely been concerned with funeral rites and ancestor worship, but in truth, very little is firmly known. One characteristic feature however, is their regular association with the western side and Atlantic coasts of Britain.