ACCIDENTAL ALPS

(This article, or something pretty close to it, first appeared in the March 2104 issue of Canoe and Kayak UK)

Having let quite a few people know we were heading for Scotland, some sort of explanation seemed only reasonable on our return. I decided to blame Susannah, suggesting she must have been holding the road atlas upside down.

We have an old wooden box that we refer to rather grandly as our library. At 7.30 on the morning of our departure, along with Haswell-Smith’s essential guide to Scottish islands, this box was stuffed with OS maps covering almost everywhere from the Galloway hills to the northernmost tip of Lewis. The fact that two Snowdonia sheets, and all four 1:25,000 maps of the Lakes, were also crammed in, hints that we are not unaware of our tendency to change tack, sometimes on the very the slightest pretext. Even by our usual standards, this was quite a change though,

Perhaps it was a certain breath of wind across the cheek, a murmur in the orbit of the planets, or maybe some slight alteration in the song of the swallows overhead (well something must account for it). Whatever the explanation, by about a quarter past eight a very cheap ferry ticket had been bought online, and our boxed map collection now covered bumpy spots around Argentiere and Zermatt. By 8.30 we were off.

And had the roads of crossing southern Britain been kinder, we might have enjoyed another pre-ferry pootle around Dover harbour. As it was, both the M3 and M25 were operating in ‘Have you remembered to purchase a ticket?’ mode, and we swung off the little roundabout at the end of the seafront and into the equally busy terminal with only a very few minutes to spare. It was a shame. The sun was out, and the water stretched out invitingly between breakwater and shingle beach was almost mirror smooth.

It stretched out pretty invitingly the next day too, only this time between Thun and Spiez. The weather was a little less settled mind you, and the gale that swept the length of Thunsee meant any attempt to avail myself of the joys of Alpine paddling was short, strenuous and achieved very little in the way of distance along the yacht-speckled shore.

Overnight the wind dropped though, and at about three in the morning, perhaps woken by a moon rising over the lake, we looked out over soft inky black water, stretched out smooth towards a thin line of lights twinkling on the far shore. A single beacon marked the top of Morgenberghorn, where moonlight lit the stubborn remains of the previous winter’s snow.

Early morning, and the view across Thunsee to Morgenberghorn.

Sympathetic readers might wonder what Susannah thought of the suggestion that a fine photo opportunity had suddenly presented itself, of being dragged from the warmth of a three-season sleeping bag to plod down to a murky three in the morning shoreline with my tripod. All I can say is that this early photographically-induced rise wasn’t actually my idea.

It was quite a paddle though, and by the time dawn arrived (or had nearly arrived), and photos had been taken, we’d certainly built up a good appetite. Muesli and tea were enjoyed on a lake-edge bench as the sun lit up the peaks ahead – washing it first with the palest of pinks, then carmine, before turning to orange and finally gold.

It isn’t that far from Thunsee to Brienzersee to the east, and the short drive is worth it. Beautiful as it is, Thunsee is pretty busy, ringed by almost continuous towns, villages and main roads. Brienzersee still has its fair share of development, but the settlements are all much smaller, and while the highways are also there, they’re far less hectic, and somehow manage to hide away from the lake itself, particularly along the south shore. In fact, viewed from anywhere along the northern edge, there’s very little to see on the far bank but cliffs, forest and overhanging mountains. Like Thunsee, this lake is also filled with some quite extraordinarily beautiful water. When all lies still, it looks as if someone has poured molten jade into the rift between the opposing mountain ridges. Drifting over this vast glacial pool feels slightly surreal.

Loading our canoe before setting out around Brienzersee.

And drifting over it was our plan for the day (although hardly a very old plan it has to be admitted). Would the weather represent an improvement on the day before?

Oh yes.

Admittedly, mist still clung to the slopes above Brienz, as we set out away from our van, swirling lazily about the peaks beyond, but it soon began to break, allowing tentative shafts of sun to search out the lake far below.

Heading towards Brienz.

As I babysat our canoe on the stone steps of the pretty Brienz waterfront, and Susannah set off to hunt down some food in one of the stores in town, a fleeting and rather pathetic attempt at a shower did force me to shelter briefly beneath a plane tree. Raindrops peppered the flat expanse of mysterious dark grey-green water… and then that was it. As we cut the corner of the lake, heading straight for the quite imposing cliff over on the south side, the sun burst out, the water leapt in an instant from sombre green to luminous turquoise, and the temperature started to rise.

Anyone who has driven in Switzerland will have seen the numerous construction projects that line the roads. And it’s a little known fact (much contested, and just possibly not really a fact at all) that all these various bridge building, tunnel digging and road widening schemes that intersperse any route through the mountains, are actually all the result of weekend hobby projects – DIY ventures for wealthy and engineering obsessed Swiss bankers and industrialists. Exhausted by the strain of office life, these CEOs and Directors abandon their immaculate charcoal grey suits at the end of each week and head for the hills in their hundreds. Each Saturday morning, after clamping a pristine hard-hat on their heads (with their name printed in black Helvetica 18 at the front), these industrialists, senior managers and entrepreneurs climb into a shiny new 25-tonne swing-shovel or yellow grader, fire up those big diesel engines, and start to build.

All rot of course, but amidst this complete fiction lurks the fact that the Swiss long ago realised they could turn a franc or two by easing the trials and tribulations of their tourists. Understandably keen to experience the mountains for themselves, many early visitors to Switzerland were rather less enthusiastic about the very real hardship and danger commonly associated with actually doing it. So while the well-heeled 19th-century Swiss, recognising a few engineering solutions, might not have actually rolled any sleeves up themselves, those with an eye to increasing an already healthy bank balance soon turned for assistance to their engineers and architects. The extremely important matter of transporting the affluent, and their wallets, in amongst the beauty of the mountains, in as much comfort as possible, was soon under way.

They’ve been at it for ages now of course. And while not every attempt has been altogether successful, at least from an aesthetic perspective, the funicular railway built in 1879 to carry guests from the ornate Giessbach-See landing stage to the hotel set high on the cliffs overlooking the Brienzersee, certainly is.

Warmed by the sun, we tied up at the imposing stone quay and popped up the well-worn steps to admire the results. We found lots of impressive wrought iron, cogs and varnished wood. Then, after adopting what we hoped were suitably Victorian tourist saunters, we set off in search of the impressive Giessbach Falls that thunder down the mountainside to meet the lake in a haze of rainbow-infused mist. A wonder of nature and the mark of man, separated by only a few yards of lakeshore, and, dare I say it, coexisting pretty successfully.

The view from the footbridge over the Giessbach Falls.

Which seems to characterise Brienzersee, and its continuing valiant attempt to balance the quite extraordinary natural beauty of the area with the inevitable pressures from the influx of all those people (including Susannah and me) wanting to experience it all.

And it does work, illustrated by the fact that we only had to paddle on a short distance along the shore before almost all sign of man’s influence dissolved. Yes, we could still see the villages on the far shore, perhaps 3km off, we could even hear the train over there every now and again, but our bank was a startlingly beautiful concoction of bare lichen-encrusted rock and thick forest. Sunlight dappled the occasional open glade and songbirds flitted in amongst the branches, hard at work on their Alpine fanfare.

Passing the island of Schneckeninsel.

Rounding scenic wooded headlands we did come across the odd settlement of course, but these were small and pretty villages, with sleek, highly polished yachts and dinghies resting at their sunny moorings before them. A couple more hotels also dotted the shore, but these so characterised the architecture of a now rather ancient Swiss tourism tradition, that they didn’t seem to jar. Even the little laburnum-bedecked island of Schneckeninsel, with its wrought iron railings, seemed to work. Man and nature in harmony again.

Our lunch spot on Brienzersee, close to the western end.

Lunch on a warm and sunlit shingle beach was very enjoyable (bread, cheese, cured sausage and chocolate – well, what else?). Even dodging the pleasure cruisers and their quite impressive wakes was fun, especially during our dash across the mouth of the River Aar that connects Brienzersee with Thunsee to the west. By mid afternoon, after an extremely enjoyable day, on and off the water, we were back at our van.

Brienzersee in all its May-morning glory.

An upland, and very uplifting, interlude then followed, during which we managed to put our feet on some late season snow. Not far from Brienzersee, on the slopes above Grindelwald, we ate more bread, sausage and cheese amidst swathes of wild crocuses, marvelling at some of the most stunning mountain scenery to be seen anywhere in Europe. We also had the chance to witness yet more extraordinary examples of that Swiss engineering ingenuity, applied once again in putting visitors up close to the mountains, right up close. More cogs, rails and gleaming carriages, this time employed to propel those with deep pockets and little inclination or capacity for invigorating toil within a Toblerone’s throw of one of the world’s most thrilling and awe-inspiring cliff faces.

Our upland interlude, and a rather famous north face.

While Brienzersee and even the Grindelwald valley had been balmy and sun-kissed, Lake Gruyere to the west certainly wasn’t. Low cloud, a sharp straight-off-the-snowfield breeze, and lingering lake-edge mist soon chilled the bones during our exploratory paddle. This all provided another reminder, if it was needed, of the speed at which the weather can change in the mountains. That speed though meant that by the time we arrived on the shore of Lake Geneva (or Lac Leman) the sun was out again.

Lac Leman (well, I first fell into it on the French side) has provided me with some treasured memories. Not least because, way back when Bjorn Borg was just easing into his winning stride at Wimbedon, it was here that I first paddled a proper canoe. Fashioned in heavily oxidised aluminium (I’ve since realised it was a Grumman) that clanky, rather battered and unloved craft had seen better days, but it was a canoe. Well over thirty years later I was back. Something to ponder on.

Back on Lac Leman (Lake Geneva), for the first time on over thirty years.

With old memories still fresh in my thoughts, we set out along the shore, this time on the Swiss side, watched by Nestlé employees from their huge steel and glass office, and overlooked by vineyards – and I didn’t fall in.

A move along the Swiss coast allowed us to slip the canoe into the water next at the town of Rolle. Here, with swallows, swifts and martins flying low around us, and eagles high above, we paddled out from close to the castle to visit the Île de la Harpe.

In true Swiss style this quite sizeable and impressive island, covered in mature trees, isn’t natural at all, but was built by the wealthy merchants of the town (over a string of summer weekends no doubt). Impressive storms can sweep down out of the mountain to batter his great expanse of water with some fury. I can still recall a rather alarming 1970s version, experienced, mid-lake, aboard a very small catamaran. Realising that the fortunes of their harbor might benefit from a little protection, these eminent ressortisants and bürgers, decided, as you do, that a new island would probably sort out the problem. Constructed in 1837, it was named after the political leader, former Rolle inhabitant and once tutor to the Tsar of Russia, Frédéric-César de La Harpe. A rather impressive obelisk now stands within this artificial island as his memorial.

Rolle Caste, with the artificial île de La Harpe out in the bay.

Before heading back into France, and the start of meandering return to the ferry, our unexpected Alpine visit ended with a short stroll through town… and the discovery of some fancy Swiss puddings. A little later, lounging on an ornate wrought-iron bench in the warmth of a late alpine afternoon, we enjoyed these chocolaty concoctions while overlooking the yachts dancing amidst the sunlit waves on the lake beyond. Yes there were castles, lakes, mountains and eagles, but this certainly wasn’t Scotland.

HEGART’S CANOE

Wood and canvas canoes are hardly common on this side of the Atlantic. I’ve only ever paddled in company with another on a couple of occasions. So the chance to meet someone who actually builds them seemed too good to miss. Driving south through Sweden, I puzzled briefly over the correct phone code, then sent a text. A reply arrived almost immediately, and a rendezvous was soon arranged at the edge of a lake somewhere to the south of Linkoping.

Josef Hegart hasn’t been building canoes for long. I believe he only founded his business in 2011. Nor has he built that many yet, the demand just isn’t there. He certainly seems to know what he’s doing though.

Josef arriving with his Prospector.

As soon as I saw him wending his way between the trees, his Prospector on his shoulders, the lines looked right. Many canoes with this well-known name are made these days. Few look like a Prospector to me. Josef’s does though; fine at the stem and stern, expanding quickly like a well fed trout to offer a full bilge, a generous beam and confident sheer. Add to that a slight tumblehome, lots of rocker and a healthily arched hull profile, and there you have it. Just as the Chestnut Canoe Company would have built it, except that in this case it isn’t.

Two wood and canvas canoes.

White cedar, such as Chestnut and many other Canadian and US canoe builders used for much of their construction, just doesn’t grow in Sweden. Josef says he could import it of course, but that cuts right against the grain of his approach to life – keeping things local and sustainable. So while there may be the expected ash gunwales and seats, from trees felled in the woods nearby, the ribs of Josef’s canoe are also bent from ash, the planks cut from spruce.

Josef and his Prospector.

‘Are they easy to work with?’ I ask.

‘No,’ admits Josef with a smile. ‘But it works, and I’m sure they’re both stronger than cedar.’

I must have looked a little sceptical, and Josef went on demonstrate that he not only knows about wooden canoe building, but using them too. A few years back, he and a group of friends spent ten weeks up in the far north-west of Canada, each paddling a cedar and canvas canoe. This was pretty wild stuff too, and they’d managed to break quite a few ribs and planks paddling numerous rapids. Paddle the same sort of water in one of his canoes, Josef claims, and you’ll hardly break any.

Heading out across Lake Drögen.

‘Well, perhaps one or two,’ he admits, grinning again.

But enough of that, how does Josef’s canoe paddle? Well, just like a Prospector should.

Trying out Josef’s canoe on our return.

We’d set out across Lake Drögen as the sun began to head for the pine-lined horizon, Josef in his Prospector, Susannah and myself paddling our Stewart River Pal. After Fika, or tea and chocolate biscuits from Josef’s canvas bag, consumed on a small granite island about a mile off, we swapped boats.

A lot of solo paddling fun to be had with this canoe.

Unloaded, and with that generously arched hull profile, Josef’s canoe has relatively little initial stability. That’s just as it should be with a canoe bearing this illustrious title. All that will change completely I’m sure once a full load of camping gear and provisions is added, transforming this canoe into a nimble cargo carrier, just itching for a rough river expedition. Paddled solo, and tipped over on its side, everything firms up nicely, allowing for a whole lake full of spin-on-a-sixpence fun.

Oh, and Josef’s paddles are pretty impressive too.

Chatting about canoes.

 

WING MIRROR SPIDER

Research undertaken over the last twenty or thirty years has begun to reveal the importance of a rich gut microflora. Put simply, the greater the variety of beneficial bacteria in our digestive systems the better, offering such benefits as enhanced resistance to infection, improved digestion, better defences against allergies, even, some scientists argue, a greater tendency to emotional stability and happiness. The key to all this internal help is said to be to enjoy as varied a natural diet as possible, the range of different unprocessed foods not only providing the correct nutrition for that diverse community of helpful microbes, but adding new ones too. I reckon our wing-mirror spider must therefore be pretty healthy and well-balanced.

Ever since I bought our first VW Transporter, we’ve had a wing-mirror spider. Perhaps it came ready fitted as a non-optional extra. You don’t see her, or perhaps it’s him, that often, as this small arachnid evidently lives in the spacious gap behind the mirror itself, in amongst the electrics that adjust its angle. We do see the web though, woven afresh across the space in front of the reflective glass each morning. The rare sightings of the weaver herself take place only when a fly or beetle happens to stray too close.

The web of the wing mirror spider, photographed in central Sweden.

She isn’t very big. Then again, I’m not surprised. Almost every journey wrecks her last construction project, and she must have to work very hard for her keep. At least her diet must be varied though, representing as it does Coleoptera, Lepidoptera, Mecoptera and other orders from insect populations as widely spaced as Croatia, Italy or Spain, and the Outer Hebrides and Arctic Scandinavia. Of course she can munch her way through juicy prey from across the intervening space too. What this means of course is that our wing-mirror spider, or should that be Araneus alaspeculum, consumes bugs on her bugs from all over the place. Her gut might be small, but it must surely contain an impressive microflora variety.

A rare sighting, on this occasion in France.

She can’t be the original WMS of course. We’ve changed Transporters, and our hard-pressed T4 has long since moved on to tender cares of a fresh driver/traveller. I’ve also no idea how long these little spiders live, and therefore how many generations may have travelled around with us over the years, but at least I can be pretty sure that each wing-mirror stowaway is likely to been a very happy and healthy little spider.

HEYLYOW – Cornish Estuaries

(This article, or something pretty close to it, was first published in the April 2014 issue of Canoe and Kayak UK)

 

Stood at the stern, water boiling close to each gunwale, the fisherman did look a little uneasy. I’m not surprised. His boat was fine I should add, but as all thirty or forty foot of it surged onwards towards Padstow, I doubt he expected to see a canoe surfing in on the same wave. Well the spot is called Doom Bar after all.

To be honest, the ride was growing little more interesting that I’d intended. Despite knowing the area well enough to predict what was happening, the sudden tide-born change from flat calm to bumpy surf fun, these waves were a touch larger than I’d expected. Nothing to worry about of course – assuming the slightly alarming bend in my paddle didn’t grow any worse that is.

As it shuddered in my grasp (I could swear I heard it creak) I tried to look nonchalant. Understandably concerned, this Cornish seaman raised an enquiring thumbs up. I grinned manically in reply. Well, this certainly wasn’t the moment to free a hand and wave back. Padstow Bay. Quite a place.

Watching pilot gigs racing in Padstow Bay.

Ok, so that’s probably the last adrenalin rush for this discussion, but then there’s much more to estuaries than wave riding thrills (fun though they are). Each of the rocky indentations scattered liberally around the coast of this fine county has something special to offer.

Padstow Bay.

From the craggy micro-harbour of Boscatle on the north coast to that mighty body of water spread out for boating fun beyond Falmouth to the south, we’re looking at variety. Cornwall may not have much in the way of canoeable rivers, but the various sandy, marshy, rocky or just plain big and wet points at which those often short watercourses meet the sea more than make up for it in range and diversity. I’ve written about the estuaries of Devon before, and the fun they offer the canoeist. Now I’ve moved next door – a little further west and a little more wild.

Jutting out confidently into the Atlantic, Cornwall bears many similarities to its neighbour – lots of granite, far fewer people than ‘up country’ and a stunning coast. While not split like Devon’s, the Cornish coast does share two distinct sides – a southern shoreline, occasionally palm-fringed, gazing out over the English Channel, and the other side, the rough side, facing the North Atlantic full on in a ‘come on, give me all you’ve got’ sort of way.

Like Devon, the estuaries on each coast are pretty different too. In general, the northern ones are small, as if stunted by those harsh conditions. And there aren’t that many either, just the tiny openings for the River Jordan at Boscastle and the Gannel flowing out over its sandy bed next to Newquay, the admittedly fairly large Camel estuary at Padstow, and then little Hayle (literally Heyl, the Cornish for estuary), way down the coast near St Ives. In contrast, as if blooming where they bask in the sun, the southern estuaries are big, sometimes very big.

In fact, The Fal estuary is said to be the third largest natural harbour in the world. Truth be told, it’s not actually an estuary, but then nor is the Fowey estuary or Helford River either. Like the Kingsbridge estuary just a little further east along the coast in Devon, these bodies of water, poised between sea and land, are technically rias, or vast drowned valleys. I’m not holding that against them of course, or throwing them out of this collection. Rivers still run in at these breaks in the coasts after all (so that’s an estuary in my book). Besides, my interest here isn’t so much in geographical accuracy, but in identifying good places to paddle. And these are good.

Looking out from Falmouth Harbour.

Much as I’d love to set my bow to the misty horizon when I launch onto the sea, I know that except on the calmest of days, and in the calmest of weeks, I’d best leave that sort of thing to the salt-encrusted sea kayaker. At the helm of a canoe, I’m after room to explore, but with a little more (ok, a lot more) protection from the elements. As countless past ship’s masters have learnt, battling their way, fingers crossed, up the sometimes not so friendly coastal approaches to Britain, these southern harbours provide a wonderful escape from wave and wind. Everything down here on the sunny Channel coast seems to be trying to help. While on the north side of the county a pretty hefty tide hammers in an out of those often restricted harbours and estuaries, carrying vast lumps of excited sea water at sometimes alarming speed, the tides to the south are civilised, gentle and slow. Peace reigns across these great natural harbours, and the Fal, Helford and Fowey estuaries are coastal canoeing havens (or is that heavens), even if they are sometimes a little hard to get onto.

A quiet corner of the Falmouth estuary.

And you do have to search around for the easiest access points for launching. Sometimes you need to be quite determined and resourceful. The problem with Cornish river mouths, and anywhere else on the English or Welsh coast for that matter, is that the prettier they get, the busier they grow, especially in summer. And these are very pretty stretches of coast.

Once locked into a road system designed long ago to serve just a few small carts on their way to tiny villages built for only a handful of fishing families, physical limits alone are going to make things interesting. Add lots of other visitors, some occasionally quite scary car park fees, and then throw in a few of those lovely height restriction bars (I know, my vehicle is over 2m high, so I must be bad to the core) and the approach to your paddle location of choice can sometimes be a little trying. Mind you, I’ve never known a time when half an hour on the water hasn’t washed all that frustration away.

Helford River in winter.

Don’t despair though, despite the apparent problems there’s nearly always somewhere to park your canoe-carrier and reach the water. In fact it’s not actually that difficult to wend your way right into town to launch from a number of waterside car parks. You’ll find these in Falmouth and Fowey, and in relative abundance in Looe. I must admit though, I still prefer to find a quiet estuarine corner, sometimes even a free one. Just one specific piece of advice here, if you care for the health of your bank balance and the state of your blood pressure – avoid Mylor.

Don’t underestimate the size of these estuaries either, particularly off Falmouth, where you really need to keep your eyes peeled. Especially in summer, spots such as Carrick Roads (a wet bit, despite the name) are as busy as any on land, with sailcraft and powerboats of almost all sizes ploughing merrily backwards and forwards. You certainly don’t choose to paddle here if you want solitude.

Back on the north coast, and despite an almost equally impressive parking fee and rather long portage (especially when the tide is out) I do enjoy a visit to Boscastle. It might be small, really quite small, but fun here is in definite inverse proportion to available space. This chink in the cliff armour of the coast is so pretty you might even enjoy a walk out along the cliff before launching. Just sit and marvel at the structure of this tiny jewel of a harbour/estuary. If someone had set out to design a refuge along this exposed cliff-hung section of coast, they could hardly have done better.

Venturing out to the mouth of Boscastle Harbour.

Potter out in your canoe on a good day, past the two stone breakwaters, and it’s clear that the angled entrance offers incredible protection from the worst the sea can conjure up. Head out carefully during even quite rough weather, and someone happy on moving water can marvel at the way the waves are slowed up and pacified, turned from wild white-capped hooligans at the harbour mouth, into lumpy fun just inside. Don’t push too far out though.

A day when it might be a better idea to stay within the shelter of the Breakwater.

Not least because so much of the fun, at least at the right moment, can be found close in to the breakwaters anyway. At the right level of tide (pretty low) and in the right weather (pretty rough) the presence of a tunnel, cut deep beneath the protecting cliff, is betrayed by a something that has all the characteristics of some buried sea dragon. Paddle in close(ish) to the inner tunnel mouth, listen for the heavy thump of another wave way over on the other side of the promontory, and then wait for the impressive blast of spray. Then, as you rush to point stem or stern towards the cliff, a wave will swell and burst from the maw of this undercliff beast, before sweeping you away as it radiates out across the harbour mouth. It’s nothing extreme of course, but the surge is big enough for plenty of fun – until the tide lifts, the dragon calms, and the game drifts away.

Playing with the Boscastle Harbour dragon.

Just down the coast, and close to all the surfing fun at Newquay lies the Gannel. Unlike the mighty estuaries to the south, this is no easy boating proposition, at least not unless you have a canoe – and a tide timetable. This does at least mean that it’s quiet, possibly the quietest of these busy Cornish river mouth locations.

Timing your visit to the Gannel is all-important though, especially if you want to launch from upstream near the main road into town (the car park to the west of the river is expensive and height-barred to vans). Match your visit with the tide and a pretty big body of water is yours. Arrive at anytime other than highish water and you’ll find a lot of sand, some of it very soft, nasty and well worth avoiding. For a truly great day, fall downstream with the ebb in the morning, spend the day doing beachy things at the mouth, and then let the tide nudge you back to your waiting steel steed.

The Gannel estuary, at low tide.

The Camel estuary, and Padstow Bay where we started out, is big, varied and almost unbelievably pretty. Sometimes, even on a quiet day, it can be surprisingly wild out there, especially anywhere with Doom in the name. In the upper reaches though, around Wadebridge, it is all fairly marshy and quiet. The middle section, the estuary mouth, is easy-going, with plenty of places to pull in, rest and avoid the passenger ferry crossing unceasingly between Padstow and Rock. Not surprisingly, ‘The Bar’ marks something of a change from the seaside to… well, just the sea. In fact, beyond Doom Bar is definitely beyond the estuary. Watchful and experienced canoeists will love it out there – on a good calm day – but it is busy, filled with sometimes fast moving water and very fast moving boats.   Apparently, some canoeists even camp on the beaches out in the bay.

The whole experience can be pretty quick to empty your pockets too of course, particularly if you want to launch from anywhere near Padstow or Rock (there is even a launching fee!). I keep meaning to park in Wadebridge and use the tide to travel up and down from the bay, but haven’t yet got round to it.

Hayle is small, fairly hemmed in, and perhaps not the first port of call for the visiting canoeist. Looe on the south coast isn’t that big either, at least not compared to its neighbours, but this mouth to two watercourses (the West Looe River and, yes, you’ve guessed it…) is certainly very pretty. In good weather an expedition out to St George’s Island, just to the west of the harbour mouth, is well worth the minor effort.

A small bay, just beyond the mouth to the Fowey.

So that’s all of them, except for that great big lump of bustling water with Plymouth in its name, shared with Devon. On the basis that an estuary is defined by the tidal reach of the river, the nineteen miles that the flood pushes inland up the Tamar makes this estuary a very long one. Even this far from the sea, the tide is only halted artificially by a weir. A visit to the upper Tamar offers excellent canoeing (at least once you’ve negotiated the mud).

The Tamar estuary.

Further downstream, facing the urban sprawl of Devon’s largest city, Kingsmill Lake and the long winding mouth of the River Lynher offer some surprisingly impressive and unpredictably wild sections of water. However, unlike the deep waters of the rias to the west, where the state of the tide has relatively little influence on the opportunities available to the paddler, visits here really do benefit from the moon having pulled a little water in for you to use. I can’t count he number of times I’ve been in the area, busy on some strange scheme or another, canoe ready for deployment, but forced to stare out over shingle and mud. The area isn’t called Hallamore, or sea marsh for nothing.

Mind you, all that shingle and mud is covered in activity, or at least it’s covered in wading birds. That’s not surprising really. After all, canoeists aren’t the only form of crowd-averse wildlife attracted to these wonderful areas of intermixed land, sea and river. Perhaps because they’re often so big, even the busiest of these estuaries provides somewhere quiet for some species or another. The Tamar estuary for example is one of only three in Britain to provide a home for the shrimp Palaemon longirostis. Only one other estuary in the UK offers a spawning ground for the Allis Shad. In fact, so attractive are Cornish estuaries to wildlife that some species are still moving in. Recent Environment Agency surveys of estuarine fish populations have discovered Gilthead bream and Norwegian Topknots in the Fal and Camel for the first time.

I’d say those little fish have got it right. What better place to spend your days than a Cornish estuary?

 

BUSCHRAFT SHOW 2017

How time flies.

With a recent and rather wonderful canoe camping trip to the west coast of Scotland and various writing deadlines to meet in between, it’s only now I realise that well over a month has swept by since the 2017 Bushcraft Show closed its bustling gates. Looking back it’s all a bit of a whirl. A very good whirl though.

With our tipi pitched once again alongside the Show’s Beehive Farm lake, my Canoe Camping Clinic sign was up from dawn to dusk over the three days. This was just a very good ploy to meet some extremely interesting people, and I had the good fortune to chat about canoes, destinations, tactics and kit with a whole range of showgoers from seasoned paddling campers to those who had never set foot in a canoe before. Thank you to everyone who wandered into our camp to ask questions, or just say hello. And to those who came over to tell me they now owned a canoe and tent because of my articles and book – a very special thank you indeed. I don’t think an author could hope to hear anything more uplifting.

With willow wands gathered from as far afield as the Somerset Levels to the nearest tree, two more coracles were built and launched over the weekend. I can’t claim that everyone who took part in the courses returned dry to the banks this year, but that certainly didn’t seem to dull the fun. Besides, it was pretty warm on the Saturday, so I suspect those capsizes were intentional anyway.

Saturday’s coracle, out on the water.
Sewing on the waterproof cover during the Sunday build. The finished coracle from the first session sits off to the right.

I think it was Rich Harpham, spotting the two new woven craft, resplendent in their pale blue waterproof covers, who suggested a race. In the blink of an eye, two teams had formed for a lake-crossing relay. We stood at the bank, poised for the gun… or at least a healthy shout.

Pre-race refinements. Well, with all that raw power, you don’t need a slippery seat.

Preparing to take on the first leg for team A (I’m fairly certain we were team A), I have to admit I was pretty confident. After all, I was the only person out of the eight (actually make that nine) competitors who had even set foot in a coracle before. That confidence lasted right up until the moment we dipped a paddle.

Henry, from Frontier Bushcraft, taking on the second leg.
Lina and Maya race for the far bank.

Preceded by a simply stupendous bow wave, Jay Goss from Canoe Trail (and team B) was off, arriving at the far bank to swap places for the next leg before I’d even made it halfway across the lake. Try as they might, my fellow teammates never did manage to make up the deficit. Ah well, if only due to the other members, I like to think team A scored pretty favourably for style.

The other team may have finished, but Rich fights on to the end.

OUR TENTIPI SAFIR 7

I’ve no doubt there are campers out there who’ve spent many more nights in a Tentipi than us. Straight away I can think of a lady who enjoyed a whole winter pitched close to Ullswater in the English Lake District. She may still be there. But I do wonder whether many have pitched and struck one so often.

An island camp on Loch Morar, Scotland.

After camping in our Safir in twelve countries, with whole summers spent away, yet rarely spending more than a single night in one place, we have put our tipi up and taken it down quite a few times. Those campsites, nearly all of them wild, have been pretty varied too. From the Mediterranean coast to 70° North in Arctic Norway, from Spain to Croatia and from Finland to Wales, we’ve knocked pegs into soft dry sand, semi-bog, snow, permafrost tundra and glacial gravels. Just occasionally we’ve even encountered  soft turf. We’ve lived in our Tentipi in the still of a prolonged 30°C heatwave, in deep frost, and in winds nudging storm force 11. I think we have its measure.

On the banks of the Ounasjoki, Finland.

So when asked recently what I would do if our Safir were lost, my answer was immediate – save up and buy another. It’s as simple as that. While I might love our Terra Nova Quasar for those high altitude campsites reached on foot, and a tarp will do at lower levels, especially in good weather, if I was going to put anything other than our current Tentipi into our canoe, it would be an identical tent. Even down to the size.

The English seaside.

When Susannah and I first contemplated a Tentipi, we looked initially at one of the 5s. There are only two of us after all. But if you’re going to reap the full benefit of a canoe’s inherent tent lugging ability, why not aim for as much shelter space a possible.

So what about a 9? Well all I can say is had we envisaged camping predominantly on formal sites, with plenty of room guaranteed, then the 9 would have been great. As it is, I can think of repeated occasions, faced with trees, scrub, tumbled riverbanks and sloping lake shores, where it would have been impossible to pitch anything larger than our 7. It really has turned out to be the ideal size for us.

The Rio Ara, Spain.

Admittedly, the cost of purchasing a replacement would be rather alarming, and I’m very glad I bought ours while I had a well-paid job, but then, as with so many things, it’s all relative. I can say without hesitation that the conditions faced by our tent would have destroyed anything much cheaper long ago. And while I can think of a handful manufacturers whose tents would certainly have stayed the pace, these wouldn’t have been much cheaper anyway, and probably less than a third the size.

The French Pyrenees.

Chances are, they would have been trickier to use too. Tentipi claim you can pitch one of their expedition tents in three minutes. My verdict is that this is absolutely true… on perfect ground, and with everything laid out ready to go. Yet even on a shingle bank, in a stiff breeze, with a drop close on one side falling steep to a busy river, I can still pitch ours in less than five, on my own. Try doing that with almost any other shelter, let alone one of this scale.

Northern Sweden.

Some will find the separate groundsheet rather odd, but then I grew up with arrangements like this. And I like them too. With all that room, it’s good, especially in bad weather to have an area under cover where you can wander in with wet and muddy boots on. Firewood can be stored on bare ground too. In fact, all sorts of wet, dirty, spiky things you wouldn’t want on your groundsheet can still be stored inside, simply by folding an edge back.

The Lofotens, Norway.

One of those things is a stove. Many tents can take a wood-burner of course, but few with the ease of a Tentipi. Being designed from the start for just this eventuality certainly helps, not least the ability to ventilate the shelter properly while in use. In many ways, Susannah and I enjoy the dryness offered by a stove as much as the heat. The ability to escape the damp, and remove moisture from rain-drenched clothing, is invaluable in an area of the world as soggy as north-west Europe. But then that warmth can be pretty important too, especially when temperatures really drop. We’ve not yet used ours way up north in winter, but Scotland is often pretty chilly, and we’ve greeted four New Years under Tentipi canvas up there. Camped once in snow, and finding I had thermometer stored in a bag, I was surprised to discover it was minus 16°C outside, and a toasty 25°C within our stove-enhanced temporary home.

All cosy inside.

But back to that campsite, where I was asked that question about potential replacements. It was a Tentipi Camp, the third run by Lesley and Pete Carol of ProAdventure in Llangollen. Other than the odd show we attend, where I give talks or offer outdoor tuition, this is the only time our tipi has seen a formal campsite. It did look grand though, surrounded by unaccustomed neighbours. There must have been thirty or more Tentipis scattered along the banks of the Welsh Dee, from the Olivin 2 to lofty Safir 15s. It was here I realised how pale our tipi had become, bleached by Scottish drizzle and Swedish 24 hour summer sun.   Not that I could spot any other sign of its rather eventful life.

Our Safir, at the corner of the 3rd UK Tentipi Camp in Wales.

KITE CANOEING

Tradition hovers close around the graceful curves of a canoe, nestling amongst those defiantly popular canvas bags, or adding lustre to a cherry-wood paddle. But as the kite shot rippling into the air, and the old prospector swung hard to port before surging forward, spray lifting high at the bow, tradition ducked, and then ran for cover.

Steve and I had first considered harnessing the impressive pulling potential of his stunt kite a couple of summers ago. Although neither of us has tried a purpose-built sail, we’ve both played with the usual groundsheet or jacket models. We even have a game (read hard-fought competition) in the family in which we paddle to a distant beach, heading deliberately into the wind, before racing back, but using only beach-combed materials for mast and rigging. The kite struck us as a worthwhile experiment.

Our first attempt proved encouraging, a touch alarming, and very amusing. With a good strong breeze squeezed between the wondrous mountain flanks of Loch Hourn on the west coast of Scotland, we tried first, with impressive failure, to launch the stunt kite from a small rocky island. It has to be admitted the sides were a bit cliff-like. How Steve managed to land in the canoe as he arrived backwards, at speed, across the stupidly steep weed covered rocks I don’t know. Flat on his back behind the bow seat, feet and arms in the air, I struggled as much to control my laughter as I did to balance and steer the canoe. It was probably fortunate, with Steve still unable to get off his back and control the bucking kite at the same time, that it dived fast for the third or fourth time and hit the water. We’d moved about twenty metres.

Launching from a nearby, and flat, beach a quarter of an hour later was a much better plan, especially as Hayley, long-suffering daughter (and Steve’s partner) was now able to hold the fabric end of the setup until lift-off. We were away, and travelling far faster than I’d considered likely with a kite of this size. A healthy wave surged at the bow, and each fresh gust lifted Steve from his seat. I had my work cut out just keeping the canoe straight and level.

Loch Hourn, and our early experiments with a kite.

Perhaps half a mile down the loch, and aware that the more kite fun we had the longer the paddle all the way back against the wind to mission control, we were saved any decision when the kite took an even wilder dive than the last couple and hit the water.

At about the same time we were beginning to congratulate ourselves on the success of our inaugural flight, things changed quite quickly, and not really for the better. It was at this moment we discovered that as effectively as a kite can catch the wind and climb, it could also catch the water (the canoe was being pushed fast downwind) and dive! The next few moments were a little too interesting for comfort, with Steve fighting taught nylon lines, and me struggling to bring the bow up into the wind, my eyes caught by the broad wave bubbling close to the edge of the tilting gunwale. If my face looked as concerned as Steve’s, and I’m sure it did, we would have made amusing viewing for the those of a more sadistic turn of mind.

Flight number three was much more successful, helped no doubt by a diminishing breeze. The trick, as the kite ditched again, was to paddle hard in its direction, the bow/kiteman winding in line frantically. Even with these tactics, the end of each run was by far the least pleasant part of the whole experience. On the whole, a large stunt kite hitting the water in a stiff breeze can be likened to something else hitting the fan.

But we already had a cunning plan to counteract this problem – a floating kite, designed for use in kite-surfing.

Good news – the kite wouldn’t sink. Bad news (possibly) – the kite was huge. If Steve’s stunt version, with an area of about 2m², could pull as along at somewhere between 5 and 10 knots (very hard to tell) what could a 10 m² kite manage? Our next flight was going to be fun, and quick.

Something a little larger.

Or would have been, if the wind hadn’t dropped the next day, and then returned to blast down the loch at about gale force 7 the next, and the next.

So to Devon.

There was a less than kind story doing the rounds in the 1920s about J-class yachts – those vast and extremely beautiful rich man’s racing toys. It was said that the skipper would place a lit candle on the boom in the evening. If it was still burning in the morning the air was too still to sail, if out it was too windy to race. Well, it felt a bit like that trying to find suitable weather that corresponded with the infrequent days when all team members were free to hit water (perhaps not the best phrase).

And then that day came – a surprisingly sunny Sunday in late November – with a strong northerly wind predicted to ease.

We’d decided that northerly was good. If we picked our usual spot on the Taw-Torridge estuary, this would push us upstream, away from the foaming surf lunacy of Bideford Bar at the river mouth. This sand dune flanked expanse of water would also give us a fair bit of space. We felt that space would be a good thing. We were right.

Grey Sand Hill at the northern end of Northam Burrows, with its expanse of undulating dunes has a slightly lunar feel. It’s also quite a long way from the car park to the water’s edge. We decided we needed a command module. NASA probably spent millions on any one of theirs. Our wheel-barrow was a bit cheaper, but possibly just as useful as Steve and I carried the canoe and Susannah set off with a teetering load of camera bags, tripod, lunch, paddles and pfds. The barrow even held a set of spare clothes… for Steve. I’d left mine behind. A search of the van produced a day-glo vest. Perhaps best not to fall in then.

Kite canoeing test team, and dune support vehicle.

Not prepared to be outdone, Steve had forgotten his climbing harness. Undaunted by this slight setback we stepped seamlessly into boy-scout mode, and soon had a new one knocked up from a climbing quick-draw and bit of old rope plucked from the beach.

It was just after putting the final touches to this masterpiece of kite-canoeing kit (enquiries from manufacturers welcome) that we noticed it was still quite windy. OK, it was still very windy, with a stiff breeze strong enough to lift the sand off the beach to flow in beautiful sinuous streams that whipped away across the yellow surface.

Almost ready, and it’s still quite windy.

Thankfully, one of the neat design features of kite-surfing kites is their ability to catch very little wind when held directly overhead. Without this vital characteristic, a launch would probably have been impossible. Mind you, these kites catch the wind pretty well at all points between lift-off and sitting calmly directly overhead, and Steve seemed to cover about 10 yards (they’re like age shrivelled metres) in one hop as the kite first took flight. The estuary suddenly looked a little grey, cold and uninviting. I pondered again on that bundle of spare clothing sat on the floordrobe at home.

No time for chilly contemplation though. The kite was up. Susannah waited, camera ready on the steep sand beach. I was poised at the waters edge, with one foot over the side to hold position, as Steve was edging carefully over the stones at the bottom of the sandbank. His eyes were fixed on the acres of red and white rip-stop nylon pulsating gently about three miles overhead.

With the kite aloft, Steve edges his way towards the waiting canoe.

With a paddle braced ready to steer, and a final sweeping glance to ensure that the estuary really was still empty, I watched Steve’s arrival with mixed feelings. Eyes still skyward, Steve, felt for the gunwale with his left leg, steadied himself, and lifted it carefully up and in. Then, with impressive poise, he stepped aboard gently, kneeling behind the bow seat. Very neat, if not very funny.

Steve, felt for the gunwale with his left leg, steadied himself, and lifted it carefully up and in.
Then, with impressive poise, he stepped aboard.

We started to creep forward. Hey, this was pretty calm.

Like a fool I suggested this to Steve.

We started to creep forward.

‘I’ll catch some wind.’ called Steve over his shoulder, easing back slightly with his left hand.

Calm evaporated.

Having owned a couple of fairly quick motorbikes over the years I like to think I’m used to acceleration. You expect it with two-wheeled Italian road sculptures of course. You expect it in sleek wafer-thin racing dinghies. You don’t tend to expect it in a canoe.

Calm evaporated.

Steve obviously wasn’t ready for sudden increase in velocity either, and has two slightly raw knees and a pair of bruised thighs to show for it. Shooting forward, his legs jammed, quite usefully as it turned out, under the seat.

In truth our first flight was exhilarating, but short, the kite collapsing in front of us after only about 200 very swiftly covered yards/metres (see, a little closer to modernity).

Our second flight was much longer, and even faster. We soon realised that a rapidly accelerating canoe, with little friction to slow it up, can catch up with the kite pretty easily. As soon as this happens the tension in the tether and control cords disappears, the wind falls out of the kite, and it drops in sad folds onto the water. The answer was either to keep the kite off to one side, or, if the breeze is directly astern, to keep it swinging from one side to the other. This results in blistering bursts of acceleration, accompanied by a cloud-seeking bow that lifts and pulls towards the kite amidst some impressive banks of spray. Hmm…this works.

Picking up speed .

We ran fast along the estuary edge, hoping that Susannah could keep track with the cameras, and heading, perhaps appropriately, towards the moored orange bulk of Appledore’s lifeboat. Our run ended near the southern edge of Skern Bay. It has to be admitted that we were quite pleased with the experiment. With what must have been a fairly rich blood/adrenalin ratio we didn’t even notice the long pull back into the wind for the next go.

Steve pulled out the stops on this one. Is there Guinness world canoe speed record? On landing at the end of this one I found my right arm soaked to the shoulder from the bow wave spray!

Full bore.

So there we have it – our experiment to date.

It needs to be stressed at this point that this isn’t intended as a how-to piece, not least because we don’t really know what we’re up to ourselves yet. But considering how much fun we’ve had so far, we didn’t feel that it was fair to keep the experiences to ourselves.

And we can offer a few suggestions to anyone considering giving it a go, not least the obvious fact that you’ll need plenty of space.

At this point I’d like to apologise to the angler whose line we encountered (wiped out) at the end of our last run.

We had seen him, stood at the northern point of the bay, and guessed correctly that he had a line in the water. We even managed to drop the kite at what we thought was a sensible distance before reaching him. But this is where I can pass on perhaps the most useful lesson learnt so far, first encountered with the stunt kite up in Scotland. The run doesn’t end when the kite touches down, or at least not if it comes down on the water. A floating kite may float, but it does…, well, float, which means that it retains all the ability to catches wind on the water that it did in the air. We were on the poor chap’s brightly coloured monofilament before he’d even started to reel in. We were almost on the navigation buoy in the middle of the estuary before we ‘d broken free, pulled the kite alongside the canoe, deflated it and pulled it aboard. An interesting few moments that had me be thinking quite a lot about spare clothing again. Kite flight space is good. Landing space can be just as useful.

Touchdown, watched by a couple of less than impressed fishermen.

So there we have it.

Is all this new? No, I’m aware that plenty of paddlers have given a kite a go, although usually with kayaks it seems.  As early as the 1930s, in his book ‘The Canoe Boys’, author Alastair Dunnet described the experiments made in the Firth of Forth by someone called John Marshall, who was tying a box kit to the bow of his Kayak. Is it worthwhile? Well it’s certainly fun. I’ll leave you to decide.

Will kite-canoeing take over from my paddling? Not a chance. My love of travelling very slowly in a canoe is too strong. And remember that tradition bit I mentioned at the beginning. I don’t want to frighten it off. It’s all just too pleasant, reassuring and dependable. I’m certainly not giving up on that.

So, will we be trying it again? Definitely. Another little piece of icing on the canoeing cake I think, and two good things make for double the fun in my book.

Still dry… more or less.

Our current aspiration… a controlled kite up landing. After that, making a decent turn at the end of a reach. Perhaps tacking into the wind might be possible

And then…?

Well we don’t expect the International Olympic Committee to adopt our new sport immediately. Their resistance to change is recognised, and I can imagine things might be a bit tight for this summer. But 2016? We’re not settling for less than gold!

 

(This article, or something pretty close to it, was first published in the May 2012 issue of the much missed Canoe and Kayak UK. As you may have noticed, Steve and I failed to represent GB in Rio. But there’s still 2020! Perhaps we ought to start training.)

FISHERFOLK

Using the internet in search of something or other, I came across the reminiscences of an elderly chap in Australia. With his parents, he’d long ago emigrated to that land of warmth and sun, leaving behind a small coastal town on the slightly less clement north-east coast of England.

Amongst his recollections this first generation Aussie remembered the top end of the sweeping sandy bay in his former home town, inhabited by a collection of families who spoke what he described as a rough, almost Scandinavian dialect that few in the area found easy to understand. Not that this mattered much he said. The village children were told to avoid these fringe inhabitants, and that close-knit community seemed to want little to do with their neighbours, other than to sell them fish at least. I rather enjoyed this account. That collection of fishing families, the Dawsons, Robinsons, Storeys, and Armstrongs, most immediately the Armstrongs, are my family.

Newbiggin and her cobles, seen from ‘Fisher End’, sometime around 1900 I’d guess.

This tale from the other side of the globe didn’t surprise me much either. My Grandfather always claimed his own father knew the Danes and Norwegians who shared the North Sea much better than the ‘town’ and ‘mine-end’ inhabitants of Newbiggin-by-the-sea. Despite his gregarious and caring nature, I suspect he quite enjoyed this reputation as misfits.

Newbiggin-by-the-sea in the 1920s. The man in the cap at the bow of the boat on the left is my great grandfather, William Taylor Armstrong. My grandfather, William Osmond, sits amidships.

I have to admit I’m more than a little proud of these self-sufficient ancestors too. Who wouldn’t be impressed by men who took open boats out into the North Sea to make a living. Or the women who, summer and winter, would wade into the surf twice a day to haul those boats out and then haul them in again, heading home once done to hang their wool skirts over the fire to dry. The press were once quite impressed too. A 1941 issue of Illustrated magazine carried a patriotic and rousing cover showing these wives, mothers and daughters (with varying numbers of greats, my grandmothers, aunts and cousins) at work on the beach, suggesting these were the toughest women in Britain.

William Taylor Armstrong, my great grandfather, with his new boat.

I have to admit, once the faces are lost, I’ve never really been much for family history. Go back a few generations, and the lack of detail to go with those bare names can be quite frustrating. But I have followed the Armstrongs back.

The only photograph I’ve found of Hunter Armstong, fisherman – my great great grandfather.

For a number of reasons this isn’t actually that easy. For a start, as I’ve mentioned, these fishing families living at the north end of the bay really did keep to themselves. With only half a dozen surnames to work with, things can soon become quite tangled. And these fisherfolk weren’t noted for their exuberance and inventiveness in forenames either. If William or Sarah did for one generation, it would do for the next too.

I think I’ve managed to wend my way back reasonably successfully though, at least as far as the late 1600s. There you find Ralph Armstrong (yes, Ralph), born: Newbiggin. Occupation: Fisherman.

William Osmond Armstrong’s boat, quite a long way from Newbigggin, with his three grandsons.

So when I push a canoe into the sea, to set out in search of a cod or bass dinner, I’m very aware that in my own small and inconsequential way I’m continuing this tradition. It also might help to explain why, once I’m anywhere near water with a boat, particularly when I have some task to fulfil, I enjoy the whole experience so very much.

My fishing vessel, in warmer climes.

SPRING CAMPING ON DARTMOOR

It was all down to autocorrect. While letting family know we were heading for the coast with our canoe, Susannah’s phone managed to turn the word Cornwall into ordeal. Pausing for a moment to consider it was not only Easter holiday week, but the sun was out, we took this uncanny digital portent, packed a couple of large rucksacks, and headed up onto the moor.

After sharing the path for a while with a Ten Tors team setting out, fully laden, for an overnight training session, we were soon on our own, the sky a pale Swedish flag blue over the appropriate yellow of great swathes of dead winter grass.

Working through Black-a-tor Copse, along the edge of West Okement River.

Black-a-tor Copse is one of three high altitude oak woodlands on the moor, the best known probably being Wistman’s Wood near the top of the West Dart valley. I can’t help thinking of Lord of the Rings, whenever we wend our way between the contorted trunks, wobbling from boulder to boulder, the entire tree and granite scene smothered in luxuriant green lichen and moss. Twenty different bird species have been recorded nesting in this wood, including ring ouzels and redstart, so we stuck close to the low edge of the West Okement River as we passed.

The upper West Okement River valley, with Black-a-tor Copse on the left, and Lints Tor just visible up ahead.

It was never our intention to walk far before pitching camp – we’d started out late in the day, and our packs contained quite a bit of photographic kit. So when the shoulder and waist straps started to dig in, we dropped them by the side of a busy feeder stream and considered our options. We could stay where we were, head on for Fur Tor deep in the moor, or take an intermediate option and saunter up onto nearby Lints Tor.   The middle way it was.

Crossing that busy feeder stream.

Seen from the southern end of the High Willhays ridge, Lints Tor always manages to look like a Norman castle to me, a modest tower sat on its motte below, guarding the valley route into the central moor. It doesn’t look much less artificial up close, although only that small metamorphic keep still stands, most of the curtain walls having tumbled long before William and his land-hungry mercenaries turned up on our shores. We placed our little tipi on a patch of level grass amongst the resultant granite clitter, and soon had a kettle on the boil nearby.

Our campsite.

 

It’s a curious tor. At 496m it actually sits quite high by Dartmoor standards, a fair way above the more famous Hay Tor to the south for example. But with Fordsland Ledge, Dinger Tor, Great Kneeset and Kitty Tor, lifting yet higher on all sides, Lints Tor is a little like Haystacks in the Lake District, a great place to view the bigger beasts lounging nearby.

Lints Tor.

One of our aims, and a main reason for choosing this elevated spot over a valley campsite, was to photograph the sun rising beyond our tent next morning. Thick cloud and mist put paid to any of those plans, but didn’t interfere with an equally spectacular moonrise. As the heat of this fine April day vanished, to be replaced by a surprisingly chill northerly breeze, this satellite, almost full, soared into the air over the tor to join Mercury, Mars and an impressively bright Jupiter.

All ablaze.

 

TORRIDGE TIDES

Spending a few days one spring at the mouth of the River Ebro in Spain, I struggled slightly with this unfamiliar coastal setting. The thing is, nothing changed.

At the end of a fishing trip I’d leap from our Prospector to wade ashore through the warm foamy fringe of some gentle surf before hauling the canoe well clear of any advancing tide, and then there’d be no advance. There’d be no retreat either. Of course the up front bit of my brain knew all this. The Mediterranean doesn’t really have a tide it said. Yet as far the backroom section was concerned, we were at the sea edge. The taste of the spray told it that each time a wave smacked against the side of the canoe.

At the mouth of the Rio Ebro (or Ebre), with its almost non-existent tide.

So stopping for lunch on a sand bar exposed mid current in the sun, and despite the fact that each glance told me nothing had altered, my eyes would still continue to lift every few minutes to scan the water’s edge. Tide-related precaution has evidently become pretty ingrained. Considering our usual coastal paddling spot this should be no great surprise. It really is quite different at home on the north coast of Devon.

Not only does the Taw-Torridge estuary possess a tide, it really is quite an impressive one, with a range of nearly 8m at its spring maximum. A sandy ridge here can stand proud of the water one moment, and disappear completely only five or ten minutes later. It’s little wonder I couldn’t keep from scanning those stationary Catalan waves.

A tidal sand-bar island near the mouth of the Torridge.
Going…
Going…
Time to leave.

Most will be familiar with the lift and fall of the tide, but it may come as a surprise, to discover just how much that seawater can move around. The rise of a tide isn’t called a flow for nothing. Out in open water, away from land, the effect of the moon and the sun often does little more than pull the sea up and down. As soon as that movement takes place close to land however, over shallower ground, and all that water has to go somewhere, pushing and shoving between islands, cascading over submerged rock shelves, or, in the case of estuaries, rushing backwards and forwards to fill and empty that river mouth. This can be eventful at almost any estuary. An eight-metre tidal range can push eventful towards something rather more adrenalin inducing.

It’s estimated that roughly 53 million cubic metres of water moves in and out of the Taw-Torridge estuary mouth during any one tide. No wonder then that just off Appledore, the fishing village near the mouth, these regular shifts of water can run at speeds of more than 5 knots (that’s getting on for 6mph).

The estuary at high tide, floating over its additional 53 million cubic metres of sea water, and hopefully a few additional fish.

There’s nothing unusual for a canoeist in that sort of current of course. Anywhere with a hefty drop of snow each year will experience far more dramatic flows each thaw. Some rivers are just plain steep, providing a swift stream on almost any day of the year, but not in two directions, across a body of water up to 500m wide. It certainly keeps you on your toes. Mind you, all this cyclical water movement has some distinct benefits too.

If you know which way the tide is moving, and there are tables and charts that tell you just that, even quite sizable distances can be covered with little if any effort. You just need to know when to drop your canoe into the stream. And those tables are impressive, providing absolute predictability. I need only flick open a booklet, or more often these days the correct website, and I can see exactly what’s going on. With its downloaded apps, even my phone will tell me.

Of course you do then need to know your body of water. And while compared to the local fishermen here, or the numerous pilot gig crews that launch regularly out at the mouth of these two rivers, my knowledge might still be a little basic, it’s good enough. I’ve been out on that water for long enough to know its ins and outs. You just need to pick your moment.

And on a recent Saturday morning, with various factors falling neatly into place, we did just that. First off, the weather forecast predicted sun. Far from essential I admit, but it does make a difference. Of greater importance was the projected wind speed for the day. Not exactly a lull, but not the canoe grabbing blast we experience so often on the north coast of Devon either. And then there was that tide, which my laptop (and the tidal clock on my bookshelf) told me would occur at just after ten that morning.

We strapped the canoe to the roof of the van and set off.

It shouldn’t take much to spot that the Taw-Torridge estuary serves the seabound end of two rivers. The names are said to derive from the Saxon words for smooth and rough. Our home river is the allegedly rugged Torridge, and although the tide can be felt over 11km from the sea, and I’ve almost stepped on flounder while fishing over 3km beyond that, it isn’t particularly easy to launch this far inland. We make do with a spot just in sight of the rather impressive medieval bridge at Bideford. As soon as we were on the water, our aim would be to drop down to the shared river mouth, enjoy lunch on the beach, and then let the flowing (rising) tide waft us back.

On many rivers this sort of trip can be as simple as dropping down with the ebb, before returning cheerily on the flow. But the energy of our local tidal streams require a little more thought. At some spots out there, it isn’t always unalloyed fun when everything really picks up speed. You can of course time your arrival at either end of the journey to coincide with that heady moment of stillness at slack high water, but you need the full length of a summer day to do this properly. Using less time, our favourite approach is to launch a little before low water, arriving at the seaward end of our journey just as the tide is turning. By the time we wish to set off back, the levels will be rising, but crucially, the period of very fast flow has passed, and we can be shoved back reasonably calmly.

But first the mud.

Almost anyone who paddles regularly around an estuary knows about this stuff. While the spot where a river finally bursts out to sea can often be wonderfully sandy, and that goes for our estuary, that’s rarely the case for the upper reaches. Move inland a little and you have soft gooey slime, and if you have a river that drops by quite a few metres… well, you can probably imagine.

But first the mud.

Our usual launching spot has concretes stops, more than two dozen of them. You’d think that might be enough, but at Torridge low water, this still leaves an impressive sludgy gap between the last treader and that water. If you should ever decide to give us a hand covering this stretch, our enthusiasm for wellies should begin to make a lot of sense.

Once afloat, the next matter to consider is water levels. The bottom end of the Torridge might be anywhere between four and eight metres deep at high water, but not now. How about twenty to thirty centimetres, and that’s the navigable channel? Little wonder we’re often the only vessel on this sometimes busy stretch of water as we make our way downstream.

Approaching Bideford’s Long Bridge. That’s the end of the paddle on the bottom.

You’ve got to stick to that channel too, which can also be easier said than done. The gap between the riverbanks might measure anything up to half a kilometre or more, but much of this is expanse is exposed riverbed, the remains of the stream left meandering and braided amidst the sand. Even where everything joins up to produce a proper body of water, a usable route, even for a vessel with as little draught as a canoe, might be only a few metres wide.

More land than water.

Then there’s the speed of that flow, which even at these heights, isn’t as forgiving as you might imagine. The sea may have retreated, but there’s plenty salt water left across this stretch, and the river is still running too. The wide sections, stretched between the sandbanks, may be pretty calm, but where they grow constrained, everything can start to move pretty swiftly. Much of the journey is a carefully judged compromise, finding enough depth along the inner side of a bend, while avoiding the current whisking brown with suspended sand around the buoys strung out along that outer edge. I don’t want to overplay this though. In the end, it’s all a lot of fun.

So first under the multi-arched bridge, Long Bridge, crossing the Torridge at Bideford, the oldest bits dating back to the 1300s. Then past the coasters and old tugs sat in the mud along the surprisingly high quay before gazing up at the modern version, a thin ribbon of concrete, carrying cars high above, constructed in 1987.

Past the old tug (with its canoe).

Although the estuary is fairly intensively used, with towns and villages along most of the two sides, there is a section below the new bridge where it all grows pleasingly wild. Fields, hills and coppices line the bank to the right, while low wooded cliffs are all that’s visible on the other side. Mouldering skeletal hulks of English oak lie beneath these cliffs, long dead ships semi-submerged beneath the mud.

Only ribs.

Then the vast grey metal bulk of Babcock’s covered shipyard appears around the bend, the last large-scale shipbuilding venture on the river. Both Bideford, and Appledore downstream ahead, were once noted for this work. Normally, I might not be too keen to see something like this alongside my river journey, but it seems fitting here at the edge of a town that only really exists because of this ancient, and now fragile industry.

As the light changes, reflected bright off the open sea ahead, we arrive at Appledore and Instow, facing each other across the low water ridges and bars just before the Taw joins our river. These old settlements still manage to look much as they did decades, even centuries ago, two modest collections of low white building overlooking the yellow sand. We have to concentrate here though, for the bed of the river must tip down towards its imminent union with its sister river, and the flow picks up quite a bit as it nips past.

Then it’s around Skern Point, a surprisingly stiff breeze suddenly at our stern, to sweep past the RNLI lifeboat, and ride the mounting waves as they join us for the dash across the bay to our landing point at the south-east tip of Grey Sand Hill. We’ll stop here, tucked into a silty corner, safe from being swept by wind and current on towards the surf breaking with the sound of distant thunder over Bideford Bar.

Hauling our canoe over the round blue-grey beach pebbles, then up onto the dunes, we tip her over at the top edge of a sand scar. Sheltering below, away from the wind, we brew tea and eat our lunch while watching the curlew and oystercatchers hard at work with their own meal out on the shrinking mud of Skern Bay.

Out of the breeze, and enjoying the sun, with the mouth of the Taw, Instow, a tiny corner of Appledore, and the RNLI lifeboat beyond.

A few hours in the sun and then that predictable and reliable tide can shove us back, first into to that breeze and some steep and impressive waves thrown up as a result, then back alongside Appledore quay as the colourful gigs are carried down the slipway. In no time at all, after choosing which medieval arch to shoot through, we’re back at those steps, this time with few to climb to reload our waiting van.

Back beneath Long Bridge.