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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.