Archive for the ‘Somerset’ Category
The picture above was taken from the highest point of Exmoor, Dunkery Beacon. It was freezing cold and a raw wind was ripping through, so apologies for the quality. The indistinct blur seen top right is Steep Holm Island, where we’d both been paddling just a few weeks before. My friend and I had just explored a fairly obscure river on Exmoor, and afterwards waded through the snow to the summit.
And that…was pretty much all of my activity for the past fortnight. I then went down with flu which wiped out all of my energy, leading to four days straight laid out on the couch and also missing the big race I’d been training for – expensive and irritating. I’m still coughing, a week later.
After exploring Steep Holm Island, we planned to cross the gap of several miles to Flat Holm Island. The tide wouldn’t be flowing our way for a couple of hours, and the sun had already gone down. Rather than wait and get cold in the dark, we set off against the tide…
The crossing was a long slog (and at one point we were getting nearer to the Welsh mainland than Flat Holm) but eventually we stumbled ashore in darkness at the landing beach on Flat Holm, and lugged our gear up the steps by headtorch. Somewhere in the dark crossing, we had crossed the border into Wales; Flat Holm is actually within the city limits of Cardiff.
Slight problem, we hadn’t actually told the rangers that we were coming…
The one above is a 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft gun from the Second World War. Until very recently, there was still (corroding) live ammunition racked up on the gun! There are many other larger guns atop the cliffs of Steep Holm, dating from the Victorian era. All were intended to defend approaches to the large ports of the upper Bristol Channel.
From the north, Steep Holm presents a daunting front of sheer and almost uniform limestone cliffs. We paddled past the vertical slabs of ‘Rudder Rock’ at the western tip of the island, and explored the more rugged southern side. The air was thick with noisy gulls, but this was only a fraction of the noise and clamour in the summer, when thousands of aggressive black-backed gulls are in residence.
Finally, we landed at the beach on the far eastern tip. This beach barely exists at high water springs, and is inconveniently located right in the midst of a strong tide race.
The concrete hut visible above Rudder Rock in a few of the pics is one of several Second World War lookouts and searchlight stations around the cliffs of Steep Holm. It’s accessed from above by some precarious seagull sh*t-smeared steps which (exploring the island on foot a few hours later) I was disinclined to descend…
Last Saturday…it had taken a fair bit of persuading and cajoling to get the group together, given the patchy forecast and lack of appeal of a winter camping trip. Indeed, the general assumption was that we were on for a fairly masochistic weekend. But as we assembled at Sand Bay in Somerset, the sun shone, the sea was calm and there were clear views across the Bristol Channel to the islands of Flat Holm and Steep Holm.
Overheating in dry suits and winter thermals, we ferried glided across the tide to the bulky outline of Steep Holm…
When I finally get around to constructing my Bond Villain hideaway from which to plot world domination, I won’t have to think too hard about where to site it.
Approaching Steep Holm Island, last weekend.
Just returned from the first paddle of the year…a trip to the Holm Islands, enjoying some fine weather and fine hospitality. More pics to follow…
Clevedon Pier, Somerset
Another History lesson, culled from some draft notes I wrote on seaside resorts. Yes, I need a life.
Pleasure piers are the most idiosyncratic feature of British seaside culture. Around 77 survive, although there were over 90 at their peak. Their development helped to feed the growing popularity of a resort, and was often actually the key factor in this.
Pleasure piers originated as what the name literally means; functional walkways allowing access to deeper water for loading and unloading vessels. The first was arguably that built in 1813 at Ryde on the Isle of Wight. Ryde is fronted by a kilometre of shallows, so boats from Portsmouth would unceremoniously dump visitors and their luggage on the sands, to be transported ashore by pack horses. The new pier built to shorten this trek was 527m long and 4m wide. It unexpectedly became a popular attraction in its own right, being extended to 681m and decorated in subsequent decades. From 1840, visitors were charged admission from landward via a tollhouse, and a ‘pavilion’ was added in 1842.
Sam Brown, an engineer who had built piers for coal loading, constructed Brighton Chain Pier in 1822, 106m long with a 24m wide platform at the end; steam ships for France would dock there, but the pier also boasted shops and amusements in booths along its length. This lead to a spate of pier building in the south-east, aimed at tourists from London. Thomas Telford played a part in designing 914m Herne Bay Pier in Kent, but this was soon dwarfed by Southend Pier which was 183m when opened in 1830, soon being extended to 457m and eventually a staggering 2100m. A railway was added to reach its end.
Pleasure piers really took off after the railways linked to (or created) resorts. Their popularity fuelled a pier-building craze from the 1860s, with 60 constructed up to 1900. 16 of the 22 built in the 1860s were originally plain and utilitarian, built to dock steamers. As the realisation dawned that people were willing to pay merely to ‘promenade’ upon them, these piers soon acquired decoration and entertainments. Piers became increasingly extravagant in design; Eugenius Birch’s Eastbourne Pier (1870) was fancifully adorned with Italianate kiosks, exotic towers and turrets. They were built wider and wider, ending in pavilions with concert halls, theatres and ballrooms suspended improbably above the waves. In Scotland, piers developed in close relation with the paddle steamer trade which transported Glaswegian workers down the Clyde to resorts like Helensburgh, where two piers were built to offload visitors. Piers in England and Wales still docked steamers but function had been almost completely replaced by frivolity. The craze for pier-building perhaps reached its illogical extreme on the Isle of Wight, back where it all started; a total of nine Wight resorts had piers (four survive today).
The building of the pleasure piers has been compared to the creation of the rock lighthouses in terms of engineering challenge (but obviously not necessity!). Of course, piers were usually constructed on soft sand or mud and completely exposed to weather, waves and tide. Pointed cast iron piles were originally driven or screwed into the seabed; this was the favoured approach of the celebrated Eugenius Birch who built 14 piers, starting with Margate (1853-7). In building 1335 metre Southport pier in 1860, railway engineer James Brunlees pioneered the use of pressurised water jets to force metal piles ending in disk plates down into the sand.
Clevedon Pier in Somerset (built 1867-69) is generally acknowledged as the masterpiece of pier-building, in terms of both engineering and design. Now protected as a Grade 1 listed building, the pier juts out into the Bristol Channel’s fast flowing tide streams and 15m tidal range, supported gracefully atop eight elliptical spans of 30m. The key construction material was ‘Barlow’ rails from Brunel’s broad gauge South Wales Railway, supplying strength and reduced resistance.
The pleasure piers which survive today have done so against considerable odds; almost all have suffered major damage at some point from storms, boat collision or fire. Many were breached during World War II, lest they be used for enemy landings. Demolitions removed more in the post-war years, but in recent decades there have been many restoration projects such as that which rescued Clevedon. Weston-super-Mare Pier was gutted by fire in 2008, but redeveloped and reopened in 2011; clearly there is still public appetite for pleasure piers.
In 1870, Birnbeck Pier in Somerset opened an extra landing stage. In the first three months, 120,000 people paid 1p merely to walk along it. Why were piers so extraordinarily popular? Obviously they offered entertainments, but there was nothing upon them which could not be found along a resort’s promenade. Yet, they became the central focus of resorts, and often the highlight of a holiday. Whilst second-guessing the mindset of a Victorian or Edwardian holiday-maker is fraught with pitfalls, it seems likely that people walked upon the piers to ‘experience’ the sea, possibly even for the thrill of venturing across a liminal threshold into a ‘dangerous’ or unfamiliar environment, albeit in a safe and formalised manner. An 1834 commentator described Brighton’s new Chain Pier as an ‘agreeable walk’ where one could ‘enjoy the pure breezes, without the danger or difficulty of going out in an open boat’. Promenading along one for yourself is perhaps as authentic a way as any to assess the contemporary significance of pleasure piers; upon reaching the end, look back towards land and form your own judgement.
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.
My last adventure? No chance. But fatherhood has been encouraging me to make the best of any free time I have to get out and do ‘me’ things. I don’t think I’ll be going on any extended overseas whitewater kayaking expeditions for a while, but adventure can always be found if you look for it.
Rather conveniently, the weather has been outrageously wet over the last two months. I took advantage of biblical rain one day, to head to North Devon/ Somerset and explore a river valley that probably hasn’t seen a kayak previously. I was looking at a 3 km carry-in to the river; not such a big deal except that I kept getting blown over. Thankfully, after only a kilometre I found a flooded stream that I could launch on…this proved to be an amusing roller-coaster experience downhill, with the occasional sheep fence to duck or dodge. In due course I reached the main valley, and paddled down a surprisingly sizeable river, the Badgworthy Water. The whitewater wasn’t hard, but it was never dull and this is what whitewater paddling is all about for me…never knowing what is around the next corner. This rather stunning place is also known as the ‘Lorna Doone Valley’ after R.D. Blackmore’s novel which is set here.
In due course the river reached the road and became the East Lyn River, already well known as one of Britain’s finest whitewater trips. At these levels the whitewater was tending towards the challenging, and I hopped ashore and called it a day 2 km before the river flowed into the sea…soloing the final Grade 5 gorge wouldn’t have been the best idea, not for a new parent, at least! I went back this last weekend and paddled the lower sections down to the sea in more sensible levels (=photo of me paddling below, from Simon Knox).
In 2002-3 I spent a winter season researching and writing up the whitewater rivers of the South West for this guidebook. I’m frankly amazed that I missed this lovely little river, it gives me hope that there is more exploring to be done in this part of the world…
This weekend saw a quick dash across the powerful tides of the Bristol Channel to visit Flat Holm island. Flat Holm has the distinction of being the only part of Wales included in my guidebook South West Sea Kayaking. Flat Holm is actually part of Cardiff, officially.
The wardens of Flat Holm were as welcoming as ever, and the weather didn’t always feel like late October … although you might notice that I didn’t take any pics on the whilst out on the water making the crossings, make of that what you will!
This photo was taken underground in one of the numerous bunkers on the isle of Flat Holm. The lighthouse guides shipping negotiating the turbulent waters of the Bristol Channel.
In the middle of the picture is my good friend Dr Liz, who has just cornered the market in blogs devoted to explaining geology from the perspective of a kayak. Her blog is here, enjoy!