This weekend we attempted to ride the Ridgeway, and totally failed.
I’d passed by this 90-mile long National Trail the weekend before, and noted that the ground was tinder dry: ideal for mountain biking. Unfortunately a lot can change in a week, and indeed there was rain on most days since. Even so, a few of us set out on Saturday to knock off c60 miles, with the remainder planned for Sunday.
The going was slow as there was plenty of mud, and after three hours, one of the two ‘Andy’s I was riding with dropped out. The remaining Andy (above) and myself resolved to put this thing behind us, so we put our heads down and upped the pace. Well, that was the plan, anyway. The rain began to come down in sheets, and a blasting crosswind sucked any warmth out of us. The already muddy trail turned into a swamp. After two more hours and in near-hypothermia, we looked at the map and realised we were actually going slower than before! Shortly after, at the exact same time I sank up to my axles in mud and Andy got a puncture; we made the unanimous decision to quit this nonsense. Twenty minutes later we were off the hill and drying off and warming up in a pub. We then spent several hours retrieving and shuttling the cars through flooding Oxfordshire roads. I guess we should have checked the weather forecast…
Today…we didn’t ride, we did tea shops.
The following article originally appeared in Canoe Kayak UK magazine…
East is East
Sea kayaking in the East Anglian flatlands
I’ve been lucky enough to paddle rivers and coastlines all over Britain, and indeed all over the world. Yet I’d never sat in a kayak in Britain, east of London. In fact I’d never even been there, if you don’t include taking the M20 to Dover, en route to Alps trips. Why not? Well…it’s obvious, isn’t it? The east of Britain is flat. Flat, flat, flat. Flat does of course mean; no whitewater, no interesting coastlines, and people who marry their cousins. Look at any map, or indeed your guidebook bookshelf…all of Britain’s ‘good bits’ for paddlers are blatantly located north, south and west. Thus, I had no plans to head east, any time soon. I smugly prided myself on never having visited the eastern flatlands.
The problem with firmly ingrained prejudices such as these, is that (just occasionally) they can of course be totally wrong, meaning that your ignorance is causing you to miss out on something special. Plus, it’s somewhat ludicrous to pompously regard yourself as a voyaging explorer type, on a mission to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before…and yet be unwilling to give East Anglia a try. Perhaps it was time for a rethink. I was fairly sure about the lack of whitewater; simple geography dictates this. I did however decide to keep an open mind about the coastlines (and indeed the cousins thing). The final push came when Franco from Pesda Press asked for volunteers to help with a proposed new sea kayaking guidebook to South East England and the Channel Islands. I put my hand up and agreed to challenge my preconceptions by going where no man has gone before…to investigate the shores of Norfolk and Suffolk. Okay, I realised that these places aren’t necessarily a barren alien wilderness, and that paddlers already lived and paddled there…but the point was, that if the sea kayaking was any good, then they were keeping it very quiet.
Several extended trips later, I’m delighted to admit that my prejudices about the quality of the sea kayaking in East Anglia were totally wrong, and I should also concede that I never met anyone who had married their cousin (and would admit to it). My friends and I were delighted to find that there are plenty of enjoyable sea kayaking adventures to had, and there are in fact some quite remarkable and beautiful coastal environments to explore, the like of which you will not see elsewhere in Britain.
Anyway, introduced hereafter are some of our findings.
The Wash is a 600 square kilometre estuary, which hadn’t previously scored high on our paddling wish lists. We soon happily reconsidered this. These shifting sand flats are home to about 3000 common seals, which are in turn vastly outnumbered by the wading birds, of which there are about a third of a million. At high tide (i.e. when you’d want to be paddling), these waders are squeezed together at the fringes of the Wash. Regardless of whether or not bird watching is your thing, seeing and hearing tens of thousands of feathery things pecking or flying at once makes for an unforgettable spectacle.
Of course, the Wash deserves respect. Legend has it that wild horses have been outrun by the incoming tide, and the converse scenario could rapidly strand you a long way from solid ground…
Norfolk’s Barrier Coast
The North Norfolk Heritage Coast is something very special. Visiting Norfolk’s quiet north shore allowed us to explore Europe’s finest example of a ‘barrier coast’, a landform more commonly encountered in places like Australia. Startlingly wide beaches, backed by high dunes, front an extensive inner band of salt marshes and creeks. A highlight is Scolt Head Island, an uninhabited six kilometre long barrier island. Natural England calls this landscape, ‘a last true wilderness in lowland Britain’. Everything is on a BIG scale, and the biggest feature of all is the Norfolk sky. We felt very small indeed.
The towns and villages along this coast are located some kilometres inland, connected to the actual coast by winding creeks and inlets. The pretty harbour of Wells-Next-The-Sea is for instance nowhere near the sea! An exception is the resort of Hunstanton at the western end of this coast, instantly recognisable by its two-tone cliffs. However, the sea retreats a long way from ‘Sunny Hunny’ at low tide. Paddling trips require a bit of forethought and head-scratching about how and when is best to launch and land, given these factors. Good luck with that, but trust us…this coast is worth the hassle.
Blakeney Point is a spit containing 82.5 million cubic feet of shingle. It terminates in a succession of smaller finger-like spits, creating a natural sheltered harbour which is home to large colonies of common and grey seals. Launch around high tide from quays at Morston or Blakeney to paddle out and visit the seals, which you will find basking on the ends of the spit in huge numbers. Keep a respectful distance whilst watching and appreciating the seals; any close approach or sudden movement will probably disturb them into entering the water en masse. Also find time to land and visit the Old Lifeboat House, the unmistakeable blue corrugated building on the spit.
Whilst this is an idyllic spot, unfortunately we found that some things are very rotten in the state of Denmark. The seals are visited at extremely close quarters by numerous chugging diesel boats carrying thousands of tourists daily. The seals seem inured to this constant harassment, whilst the boat owners (lacking irony) claim that kayakers disturb the seals. We received some misinformed and unwelcome ‘advice’, expect the same. Consider paddling on a rare occasion when there are no tours underway. Above all, be careful not to disturb the peace of the Blakeney seals any more than is already happening.
The Switzerland of East Anglia
We enjoyed paddling the coast between the resorts of Sheringham and Mundesley. Seals are a constant companion hereabouts, and the shallow reef beneath means that surf is a regular feature. These shores were promoted by Victorians as, ‘The Switzerland of East Anglia’, a reference to the Cromer Ridge, East Anglia’s highest point (at a breath-sapping 92 metres). The Ridge meets the sea as over twenty kilometres of cliffs. You read that right; cliffs in the flatlands! Retreating several metres annually, these clay cliffs crumble and slip, forming mud slicks and tottering spires; the remains of walls and houses stick out from their tops. At least one WWII pillbox has travelled the full distance to the base of the cliffs, intact. At Happisburgh, the cliffs have yielded Britain’s earliest human traces, from 700,000 years ago.
The town of Cromer with its shapely pier is an attractive interlude. Cromer crab is allegedly the best in Britain; we sampled this in the seafront cafes, all in the name of guidebook research.
The 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.
Britain’s ‘Area 51’
Hidden in a remote corner of Suffolk is the sixteen kilometre shingle spit of Orford Ness, known locally as ‘The Island’. Paddlers can launch at Slaughden or Orford to paddle down the tidal River Ore which forms the western side of the spit, and then back north along the seaward side. Tide flows are strong and this is a long committing trip with few escape points. So, why make the effort? Orford Ness is an impressive geological and ecological feature; the spit has formed over the centuries into successive ridges of shingle, home to thousands of nesting gulls and terns (landing is best avoided). However, what struck us most about this obscure spot was the Cold War legacy; until recent times, Orford Ness was a hush-hush top-secret military site, Britain’s ‘Area 51’.
Enormous derelict concrete edifices rise from the shingle; these were the ‘Atomic Weapons Research Establishment’, which carried out such inadvisable activities as stress-testing atom bombs. The most iconic buildings are the ‘pagodas’ which have no side walls, in order to release explosive energy. The vast forest of masts is a similarly bizarre site; during the Cold War this was Cobra Mist, an experimental radar for detecting Soviet missiles. It cost about a gadzillion dollars, but never worked due to signal jamming from Russian trawlers in the North Sea. Cobra Mist has been associated with UFO sightings; conspiracy theorists claim that this is what it was really about…
There is perhaps no stranger landscape in the entire UK, and kayaks offer one of the best ways to view it.
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…
Czech couple Natalie and Michal Madera paddled up the Thames into central London on Tuesday, finishing their paddle around Britain. Their many adventures and challenges have been outlined in their blog, www.homeseahome.com. If you haven’t read this yet, you really should do so…it is an amazing view of Britain and British culture from two relative newcomers, and is frequently hilarious. There are no heroics and no machismo; they set out as normal paddlers who just decided to explore their adopted homeland.
It was a privilege to meet them as they came off the water on Tuesday, buzzing with excitement from their achievement. They were greeted by some friends and also numerous awed kids from Shadwell Basin Outdoor Centre.
One of the Maderas’ objectives has been to raise money for two charities of personal interest to them…please take a moment to read about them, and please consider supporting their great work…
This photo is a bit of a con. We were all walking/ staggering up the hill, until we spied a camera being pointed at us, seconds before. Obviously we started running, right away!
This was about 19 miles into a 34 mile trail race, and we were ascending Beachy Head, the summit of the tallest chalk cliffs in Britain. Sadly, Beachy Head is most famous/ infamous for something else entirely…at one point, I found myself running past small crosses and bunches of flowers arrayed along the cliff edge. Despite these sobering memorials it is a truly spectacular spot, with a classically striped red-and-white lighthouse at its base. I didn’t stop for pictures, but one competitor did; photo and report.
When I saw the results a few days after the ultra-marathon, I was extremely surprised to find that I’d come 16th out of 62. Not bad for a novice/ occasional runner on the wrong side side of 40, I reckon!
I ran the ultra-marathon to raise funds for the Dartmoor Search and Rescue Team Ashburton, a charity of personal interest to me. If you wish to support them in their great work, please consider following this link; the fundraising will remain live for a few more days…
Anyway, the following morning I eased my sore limbs with a short swim in a chilly and swelly sea. Here’s a picture of my wife, discovering that the sea is wet and moves around when you are not looking…
Yesterday afternoon, I experienced what was undoubtedly one of the weirdest/ most surreal moments of my entire life. I approached the finish line of a trail marathon, after nearly five hours of hill running. Given that I’ve only ever run a single normal road marathon before in my life, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. Crowds cheered me on, shouting such positive things as, “Nearly there now!”. Ten metres before the finish line, I reached a little sign which read ‘Ultra’, directing me off to the left. I followed this, and it led me away from the finish line and the crowds. Within minutes, I was totally on my own. I still had eight miles left to run…
This ultra-marathon looked rather brutal on paper; 34 miles and 5500 feet of ascent, on a blazing hot day. Surprisingly however, it was an almost entirely positive and enjoyable experience. It’s worth noting this, given that my previous road marathon was an unremittingly miserable and painful grind. The event organisation and culture helped a great deal; Endurancelife’s races are impressively professional and have a lovely ‘we’re all in it together’ atmosphere amongst the competitors; I shared the hills with over 1000 other runners, taking on distances from ’10k’ (actually 13k!) to ‘Ultra’. The scenery was simply mindblowing, providing easy distraction from your legs. The course traversed the undulating white cliffs of the ‘Seven Sisters’ and the amazing Cuckmere estuary. Beachy Head is Britain’s tallest chalk cliff, a literally blinding sight in yesterday’s bright sunshine. Impressive as Beachy Head is, I admittedly enjoyed it slightly less when forced to ascend it for a second time, in the final mile of the ultra-marathon. I really must get back soon with a kayak and paddle/ photograph this coast, it is something special. On the few occasions when the scenery alone wasn’t enough to keep me going, I dwelled instead upon happy memories of a great friend. All good.
After six hours and 21 minutes, I crossed the line. I’m told this is a credible/ creditable finish time, but I’m just pleased to have done it and enjoyed it. Part of my reason for running this event was to raise funds for Dartmoor Search and Rescue Team Ashburton, a charity of personal interest to me. I’d be extremely grateful if you were to click on this link and consider donating…
In 1998, Norfolk man John Lorimer discovered a seven metre long oval of 55 oak posts in the tidal mud at Holme-next-the-Sea, encircling an inverted oak trunk. This Bronze Age ritual site had been uncovered beneath an eroding ancient peat layer.
Excavations began, before the site eroded away. The press showed an uncharacteristic interest in Prehistoric archaeology and (inaccurately) dubbed the site ‘Seahenge’. An international media circus descended on this National Nature Reserve, damaging the ecology and disrupting local activity. Some slightly unhinged New Age types also arrived and attempted to halt the excavation.
After the dust finally settled, studies of the oak remnants revealed that Seahenge was constructed on marshland behind sand dunes in 2049 BC, using exactly fifty axes. Seahenge is now displayed in Kings Lynn Museum. A second, larger monument was subsequently discovered close by, but kept secret! More ‘Seahenges’ from this ritual landscape will surface as the peat erodes, but if any are currently known of, be assured that no one local will tell you…
For more information, archaeologist Francis Pryor’s book is recommended…
Images of Great Yarmouth. Well, why not.
Seen on a quiet Norfolk beach.
Someone mailed me yesterday and asked me about the logistics of paddling to Red Sands Fort, out in the Thames Estuary.
To my shame, I can’t find the email and have no idea what I did with it. If you’re reading, any chance you could contact me again, please?
These photos are of the Roman fort of Gariannonum, built overlooking the tidal lake of Breydon Water in Norfolk. Built in the third century, it originally guarded a much more extensive estuary.
Gariannonum is one of the enormous ‘Saxon Shore Forts’. In cAD 395, an Imperial register ‘Notitia Dignitatum’ described the ‘Saxon Shore Forts’, under the command of the ‘Count of the Saxon Shore’. Remains of all eleven forts survive, located beside river mouths and natural harbours from Brancaster in Norfolk to Portchester in Hampshire. Strikingly similar to castles built 900 years later, they are among the largest and best preserved Roman constructions in Britain.
Their given title seems to suggest that they were built to guard against Saxon hordes from across the Channel, as the Roman Empire began to crumble. However, their construction actually predated any such attacks. Archaeologists have hotly debated what exactly their function was…