Merlin’s Cave is excellent for a multitude of reasons. It’s a catchy name, the whole place is wrapped up in a blurr of mediaeval mythology, and its an awesome place to paddle in a kayak. In fact paddling it in a kayak is definitely the way to appreciate this dramatic place because the approach from land is a bit over-commercialised. Or so I’ve been told, because every one of over thirty visits to this amazing place has been by sea.
Legend states that wannabee monarch baby Arthur was washed up on the sand at the entrance to the cave.* . He was discovered by the wizard Merlin who lurked within** and was nurtured to his place on the throne of the castle on top of the cliffs high above. Surrounded by Sir Lancelot et al.
*lucky it wasn’t high tide or he would have gone right through **hope he had a good set of chest waders
It’s all good stuff, and the knights and their entourage could not have chosen a more spectacular location for their castle. Tintagel island is great hulk of a rocky peninsular which is lashed by wind and battered by a booming swell for most of the year. It’s only on a handful of days during the summer that conditions are anything like suitable for a (relaxed) visit by sea kayak. For exploring the caves and tunnels the open sea swell has really got to be less than two feet….which isn’t very often.
Access by kayak isn’t that straightforward. It’s either a two mile paddle up from Trebarwith which is an exposed surf beach, or a four mile paddle down from the much more sheltered launch site of Boscastle Harbour. This has got to be the best route because it takes you past a couple of superb islands and the sandy beaches at Bossiney.
Merlin’s cave is even more remarkable because it passes through the neck of Tintagel island and for the kayaker bypasses almost a mile of the most savage rocky coastline imaginable around Tintagel island. Vertical black cliffs and a sea which is restless even when everywhere else is flat calm. It’s a hostile place and I’ve had a hairy moment or two here. This is the tip of Tintagel head:
The cave is in such a perfect place for sneaking between Tintagel Haven and West Cove, you can’t help thinking that a bit of wizardry was involved in its creation.
Approaching from the other direction (west) is not only magical from a scenery point of view, but also because the door of the cave seems to suddenly opens before you as you paddle towards blank cliff.
The tunnel is one hundred metres in length which, I’m pretty sure, makes it the longest in SW England. I’ve paddled the whole coast and don’t think I missed a better one.
It is only the realm of the kayaker from two or three hours either side of high tide when the sandy base of the cave is covered. During that time it is heaving with land-based tourists.
The perfect paddling day was in prospect: clear blue sky and hardly any wind, with a bonus of soaring temperatures and a small swell making the remote coast of Boscastle in North Cornwall irresistible.
As I was fiddling about by the water’s edge folding the kayak trolley away in the front hatch, I was hailed by a guy in an inflatable (with hefty outboard) asking if he could get a replacement aerial in the area. I pulled a bit of a long face because Boscastle is big on teashops and witchcraft museums, not chandlery stores. It turned out he was motoring right round the UK in his small craft, having set off from Southampton…..fab. Here he is, Alex Swarbrick.
Another inspirational character I have me on the water recently. On my last visit to Boscastle a few weeks ago.I passed someone who was attempting to SWIM round the UK.
Paddling out of Boscastle harbour always takes my breath away because you are thrust immediately into staggering coastal scenery. As was the case today you are unlikely to pass another craft or see anyone else apart from in the extreme distance on a clifftop.
I called in to the coastwatch tower on the radio to let them know my plans for the day and then, because the surface was about as flat as it gets at Boscastle, I headed straight out to sea. I must have passed tens of thousands of jellyfish, becoming even more concentrated along the tidal interfaces. Mostly Moon jellyfish with a couple of Compass and Purple jellyfish thrown in.
As I was looking down at the jellyfish I was startled by a large fish looming past ten feet beneath me; the first Sunfish I have ever spotted underwater!
I was confident I would see cetaceans because the sea was so smooth, and when I caught a glimpse of a flash of white as a Gannet twisted and dived a mile or two further out, I engaged top gear (economy, not sport…didn’t want to burn myself out too early in the day), and surged out towards them.
The mini feeding frenzy of a dozen or so Gannets had fizzled out when I at last arrived on the scene, and the birds were sitting about on the surface with a sort of ‘too late, mate’ look. One which I am getting used to.
However by great good fortune I heard the puff of a number of porpoises nearby and was very pleased when a large scattered pod of about a dozen cruised past me. As usual they were aloof and not interested in me or my craft (unlike most offshore creatures) and went on their way. And as usual with porpoises, when I followed them at a respectful distance, they then pop up behind me exactly where I had been a few minutes ago. So I haul the kayak around and head off in the opposite direction, and they surface somewhere completely different. Part of the fun of wildlife observation from a kayak, although it might be called frustration. That is probably why nobody else (with any sense) does it.
I noticed that one porpoise had a unnatural looking pale patch on its side:
The porpoises moved off and I sauntered down the coast, with tidal assistance, towards the forboding headland of Tintagel island. This is usually a very nasty place and the scene of a bit of a bungle I made in terms of weather and swell planning a few years ago, when I could taste disaster. It is a prominent headland with vertical cliffs slabbing into the water, and they are pitch black to make them look even more fearful. As usual, headlands like this amplify wind, swell and tidal currents and even on a benign day conditions around the tip of the headland can be very hairy.
Fortunately today it was as threatening as the boating lake in Hyde Park (if there is one) and the hot sun and blue skies made everything as relaxed as it could be.
Another circling and plunging flock of gannets was a bit closer so I was hopeful I might get there before the ‘bus had left’ on this second occasion. Sport mode this time, forget about early burn out, I didn’t want those Gannets smirking at me again . As I sped towards the action I could see dark bodies splashing at the surface and when a couple of cetaceans breached completely I felt certain this was a pod of dolphins.
But I was just a minute too late, close enough to hear the last diving Gannet ‘thoomph’ into the water with an impressive splash. As I rolled up glistening with sweat and trying not to look flustered the Gannets were once again sat around silently just looking, and judging . Exactly the same individuals as before, I think.
And to my amazement it was the pod of porpoises that were leaping about splashing. One of the features of porpoises is that they just roll quietly at the surface and it is the hyperactive Common Dolphin that does all the splashing, but I suppose if they are on the hunt and have herded a shoal of fish to the surface they are entitled to get a bit fired up about the feast.
The whole lot of porpoises then paraded past, still with a sense of urgency. You can really hear the characteristic porpoise ‘puff’ clearly in this video.
By this time I was a couple of miles directly off Tintagel Head so turned towards land and paddled slowly in. I couldn’t believe my luck when the sharp fins of a pod of about eight Common Dolphins appeared directly in front of me. I sheared away to avoid startling them but piled on the power ( intelligent eco sport) in the hope that they might come over and bow ride. Unfortunately they didn’t and headed further offshore. I could hear them breathing and splashing long after they were lost to sight.
AS usual Tintagel island was crawling with loads of tourists that looked like ants (from long range) and I was glad I wasn’t on land. I called in to one of the sandy beaches at Bossiney for lunch, backed by water about as clear and as turquoise as it is possible to get in the UK.
Another sunfish was waving its fin about off Short island and I thought this would be my first chance to film one with the GoPro. But to my surprise it disappeared long before I got close. So I took a selfie instead.
Back at Boscastle Alex was just setting off for the stretch up the coast around Hartland Point to Ilfracombe, still minus his aerial. Good luck to him on the rest of his adventure.
I trolleyed back to the carpark past the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic.
I’ve been getting about a bit recently because the weather, which I constantly groan about, has been absolutely stunning. More or less sunny, as warm as you would want and often light winds.
The biggest limiting factor in the kayaking department is my ageing musculoskeletal system, despite some parts being replaced and others removed. When I aim it in the direction of a headland barely visible on the horizon I can almost hear the mutters of mutinous dissent from biceps to buttock (notice I left out brain..that jumped overboard long ago).
I coax it along with frequent stops for coffee and Viennese Whorls and for the time being it is still just about serviceable.
Having said that, I seem to have strained my elbow which I think was the result of chasing a cruise ship in Fowey very early yesterday morning.
This was the Prinsendam and I didn’t really need to get out of bed quite so early because when I paddled out of the mouth of the Fowey estuary it was only just visible on the horizon. I then waited around getting cold while it ever so slowly approached.
Although I’ve ventured out to sea a bit, it’s been hard work spotting cetaceans and I’ve only come across the odd porpoise. I had a decent view of this one off Teignmouth, though.
They often seem to disappear at this time of year when the water goes clear for a while before the plankton really gets going.
Fortunately there’s always the seabirds to keep me entertained. Out to sea are Razorbills, Guillemots and Manx Shearwaters:
And along the coast are some beautiful, but difficult to see, waders. Needless to say, a kayak is (in my predictable opinion)the best way to observe these little beauties.
And there are still one or two winter visitors hanging about, seemingly reluctant to head north. This Purple Sandpiper, in its breeding plumage, for example.
Oystercatchers, however, are not only not difficult to see, they are excessively loud, although I very much like their maniacal piping because sometimes, on a wet and windy winter’s day, it is sometimes the only nugget of wildlife around.
The gulls sitting on eggs are currently finding it very hot:
although probably not as hot as this parent will soon be, trying to keep its newly hatched offspring entertained and fed, and protected.
I’ve visited the fantastic North Cornwall coast with Becky, Jeremy and Jane:
And even found a rare flat calm day along the Hartland heritage coast north of Bude. I paddled with Paul who found some new beaches, accessible only by kayak, to clear of plastic. He was thrilled with this discarded fishing net, his first ‘load’ from one particular beach.
And finally one of the very best of Cornish bays at Porthcurno near land’s End:
Boscastle again. This time with Paul, Kevin and Dave.
Another sensational day. Each time I come the seals seem to get bigger, the cliffs taller, the islands craggier and the caves deeper, and my sandwiches staler.
Outside the harbour mouth we turned north for the three mile paddle up to the seal colony at Beeny. As I was the most responsible grown-up of the group, I called up the Boscastle Coastwatch on the radio to let them know our plans. It is just remotely possible that the reason I called up the Coastwatch was because I was the only one with a two-way radio, and absolutely nothing at all to do with me being the most responsible (or grown-up).
This is a really lively bit of coast and although careful planning of wind, tide and swell is the most important safety factor, it’s very reassuring to know that the Coastwatch volunteers, sitting in their little white tower on the headland, are there if you need them. If you end up swimming you are going to have to be rescued by boat (or chopper) because there really aren’t any accessible beaches….its just cliffs, and caves, and a load of water.
Today it was like a lake and nice and warm, and sort of sunny so it was about as relaxing and enjoyable as Boscastle could possibly be.
As we were embraced by the huge black cliffs of Beeny bay, the seals popped up around us. All shapes and sizes and colours, from very tame and inquisitive creamy-coloured youngsters, to a couple of enormous bull seals with big ‘Roman’ noses.
We made sure none were resting on the beaches before approaching closer. The reason they use these haul-outs is because there is no disturbance from humans (or dogs) and we didn’t want to mess it all up and frighten them. When they are in the water they are totally in command so apparently show very little fear.
This particularly applies to the biggest bull seal of the lot whose is presumably ‘king-pin ‘ of the whole colony. He is really vast and can only have achieved this size, or so we mused, by having three marine MacDonalds (plus mackerel Mcflurry) every day since we last saw him four months ago. And possibly before.
After he was rudely awaken from his mid-morning nap by Paul, he shadowed us as we toured around his domain. Actually he mostly shadowed Paul, probably because he was a bit miffed about being woken up.
There were plenty of his entourage to keep us entertained as we decided to head back south. Kevin prepared his rod and feathers to do a spot of fishing as we paddled a bit further offshore to take a ride on the ebbing tide.
We swept (were swept) back past Boscastle, around the really excellent and unbelievably craggy and eroded Short and Long islands (neither of which is particularly long, or short) and aimed for a leg-stretch at Bossiney.
We loafed about on a sandy beach which we had all to ourselves apart from the occasional swimmer who ventured round from Bossiney main beach as the tide went out. Inexplicably, as soon as they saw us, they swam back round the corner again and disappeared.
The return to Boscastle harbour wasn’t quite so easy as a bit of a northerly breeze had picked up which made it a bit lumpy in places especially where there was a tidal current such as inside the islands.
We couldn’t go as far into the big cave at Willapark as we would have liked because it was low tide, but it always makes a good pic:
The Boscastle seals will not be meeting any more kayakers for many weeks, probably a lot longer, as sea conditions have reverted to normal: wind and big waves. Maybe it won’t be calm enough until next year.
So they can remain undisturbed. Even though we did our best not to disturb them. The big bull can complete his morning nap, and the mackerel don’t have to worry about Kevin’s attempt to catch them on the end of a hook (spectacularly unsuccessful anyway). They will be much more concerned about becoming Mackerel Mcflurries.
At last! Yippee. The sea promised to be quiet enough on the north coast of Cornwall to allow terror-free exploration of the many caves of Boscastle. Hardly any wind and one foot of swell. Perfect. Days like this are rarer than an unpleasant McFlurry.
The Magnificent (motley) Six paddlers convened in the main car park of Boscastle and trolleyed down the High Street to the harbour. This is all part of the build up. It’s a lot easier, but less fun, to offload on the quayside and drive back to the carpark. And if you do that you don’t get to see the Museum of Witchcraft.
It was ultra low tide so we also had to trolley down the weed laden river which wasn’t quite so entertaining.
We were off! Beep, Mark, Luke, Paul, Kevin and yours truly. Slicing in complete silence (apart from the chit-chat) through crystal clear turquoise water under a cloudless blue sky.
Within minutes we had stopped to admire a couple of Barrel Jellyfish below us, ghostly-white and almost luminescent. Absolutely extraordinary creatures but I can never work out quite what they think they are doing or where they think they are going. The answer is probably along the lines of ‘not alot’ and ‘nowhere in particular’.
Before we reached Pentargon Strand we were lured into a gigantic cave, a good hundred yards long. I bravely followed Luke and Paul (who had decent torches) into the blackness. I wasn’t at all happy about the roar of waves trapped in a sucky bit which sounded like a dragon.
Incredibly there was a sandy beach at the end of the cave which needed a bit of exploring, but the best bit for me was getting back out into the sunshine.
We passed under an archway, paddled across Pentargon Bay, checked out several smaller caves, and then found a real whopper. Plus a few seals in there for company. We went in around the corner and then into total blackness. Luke went further into the narrowing gap but I was a bit wary in case that unexpected large wave came that squashed us against the ceiling. I paid the penalty for my pathetic overcaution when the only unexpected large wave of the entire day came when we were back out into the sunshine and broke on a reef just as I was crossing it. Typical. Fortunately my damp patch was rapidly forgotten when we saw a couple of Purple Sandpipers poking about on the rocks.
Round past Fire Beacon point there were seals spread around all over the Beeny Sisters rocks, providing some superb viewing in millpond-like conditions. Then more seals, like giant maggots, on the beaches at Beeny which we did our best not to disturb.
One particular adolescent seal was extremely curious and came very close as we shovelled in some food. I think it was my chocolate Hobnobs that drew its attention although it could have been Kevin’s eyecatching, and capacious, spray-skirt.
We cut directly back across the bay to the mouth of Boscastle harbour and couldn’t resist exploring the coast further south. There might not be another kayak-friendly day here for many months.
Despite loafing about off Short Island for a tea break we failed to spot any of its Puffins. A loop around the never-ceasing-to-amaze, eroded and craggy and precipitous Long Island brought us into Bossiney Bay. The sandy beaches were covered by the high tide so getting out for a leg stretch wasn’t easy.
We turned north for the two miles back to Boscastle and investigated every nook and cranny and gulch and, of course, every cave. Every time a black hole appeared in the cliff Luke wasted no time in darting in followed rapidly by Paul. And the caves just kept on coming. Just one huge long cave would be absolutely remarkable, but we must have ventured into a dozen in this six mile length of coast. Some just narrowed down to nothing but others opened out to great big chambers, one with quite an impressive stalagmite (ot was it ____tite?). I got completely wedged trying to turn my kayak around in the cold inky depths of one chasm. The only possible explanation was that my kayak was longer than anyone else’s, it couldn’t possibly have been anything to do with bungling incompetence.
Even the enormous ‘zawn’ just outside the harbour mouth at Boscastle was impressive today. It’s usually too lumpy to enter.
That was it. An easy exit straight onto the slipway thanks to the high tide, and a hike back up the High Street to the carpark.
Yet another TOP trip. Although I know why I am a kayaker and lover of wide open spaces, and not a caver.