The South-east of England is very different to the South-west. People really do use personal trainers for a bit of fisticuffs in the park beside the river. I thought that only happened on the telly.
On an exceptionally warm and sunny day in early May Becky and I paddled the Tonbridge ‘circuit’ of the River Medway in Kent, setting off from the slipway at the edge of the swimming pool car park, and then paddled downstream as far as East Lock. I was going to go further and catch the train back to Tonbridge but it was such a pleasant day I didn’t fancy being cooped up with a load of sweaty people so we paddled back. More time under the lovely sun.
The wildlife was all about the birds, and birdsong. Additions to the Dawn Chorus list from my previous post were Whitethroat, Linnet, Turtle Dove (heard crooning but not seen), and the legendary song of the Nightingale (which we also didn’t see). I know it was some distance away and the notes were muffled by the density of the bush in which it lurked, but I personally think the Nightingale is hard-pushed as the nation’s number one songster by the Blackbird.
The tops of the bushes were surrounded by a blurr of those strange black flies with dangling legs that you always get at this time of year….St.Mark’s Flies. One was being squared up for a snack by this Whitethroat which was wanting to regain a bit of weight after burning off a load of blubber during its recent migration from Africa.
From a photographic perspective it was a bit of a pity that the river was still brown from the recent heavy rain, although the extraordinary yellowness of a field of rape did something to brighten things up.
The river is very kayak-friendly with all the locks having a ‘canoe pass’ which is a little water chute that prevents the need for a portage. Unfortunately for us all but one were closed due to high water levels, so we had to portage (which is always a bit of a drag).
By far the most entertaining bird encounter was a busy family of Grey Wagtails, with both parents struggling to satisfy the demands of their three recently fledged offspring that were loafing about amongst the waterside vegetation.
The mother brought in beakfuls of mayflies at an impressive rate and just about kept pace with the appetite of two youngsters, whereas the father seemed very inactive and struggled to feed the remaining fledgling. In fact he looked very fluffed-up and sick and I wouldn’t fancy his chances. Maybe this is not surprising given some of the plastic pollution in the river (although despite this picture the river was generally very clean).
The south-east of England is certainly a busy place….even the sky is congested:
But if you have a kayak and can find a little bit of water, you can escape the rush and enjoy your own little world of wildlife and wilderness.
At last, after nearly 20,000 miles on the paddling odometer, The Lone Kayaker has discovered the little red video button on his camera. Before now he has only pressed it by accident.
However in a supreme effort to extricate himself from the sort of era when voles ruled the planet, he is now video-enabled (love the jargon) so he can embed (there it is again) movies into his blog.
So now your favourite reading and viewing can be even more favouriter.
Here’s a handful of the older videos to get things started:
Common Dolphins off Fowey Aug 2016. A total and utter thrill, how could it ever be anything else?:
Otter on River Torridge 2016. A typically wet, ottery type day:
Slapton Porpoise 2017…..listen for the ‘piff ‘as it breathes. That is why they had the old name of ‘Puffing Pig’ in Newfoundland (they were called ‘Herring Hogs’ in England)
And finally, for the time-being, no apologies for a nod to the hundreds of hours I spent taking down train numbers on platform 4 of Reading station as a little lad. As the ancient Chinese proverb says “Once a trainspotter, always a trainspotter”. Actually it might not have been the Chinese, it might have been my friend Neil from the platform, but never mind.
Here’s the superb China Clay train at Fowey. Number 66 187,in case you want to put it in your little book. Just listen to those air brakes!
Note: these videos are taken with old cameras and of a dodgy quality……from now on they will be 4K quality. Not sure what that is but they are going to be pretty pin sharp!
I really like Porpoises, and have named both my inflatable kayaks after their Newfoundland name ‘Puffing Pig’. Their Old English name of ‘Herring Hog’ is equally as offbeat and excellent, and in my view only adds to their personality.
I feel they are very much a speciality of kayaking, because the complete silence as you paddle along makes the characteristic ‘puff’ of a porpoise easy to hear. On a calm day it carries far over the water and is usually the first hint a porpoise is around. They are so unobtrusive and small that they must be hugely overlooked by people like me (and other observers in ‘normal’ boats) , but even so are by far the most common cetacean around the southwest coast and the one I encounter most regularly during offshore jaunts.
Gannet behaviour can also be a help if you are on the lookout for porpoises. All a wandering Gannet has to do is circle around just once, and more often than not there will be a porpoise fishing below. I know this may sound completely daft and exaggerated, but the last four times I have seen a hunting Gannet circle around while cruising in my kayak, there has been a Porpoise below (and presumably a few fish suitable for a Gannet snack).
Porpoises are very aloof and unlike most cetaceans are not inclined to come over to a kayak to investigate. They just carry on with going about their daily business. This makes porpoise photography quite challenging, and it is further complicated by their constant change of direction and only rare appearances of anything more than back and fin above the surface.
So up till now all my porpoise photos consist of a body and fin rolling at the surface. probably my best so far is this atmospheric-style arty-type shot.
So I was very pleased to be in the epicentre of a group of eight very busy and active porpoises in perfect calm conditions off Berry Head with the early morning April sun behind me. Absolutely excellent, all the more so because calm offshore conditions are so rare. And at last a photo of a porpoise’s head and eye (which actually looks a bit weird without a dolphin’s ‘beak’). Definitely my best porpoise image yet.
There were similar sort of conditions in Falmouth Bay a few days later, very flukey because the light winds were right in the centre of a low pressure system. I half expected to see dolphins (or possibly a whale) because viewing conditions were so good, but had to settle for half a dozen porpoises instead. Not too much of a hardship.
thelonekayaker I may be, but it’s always more fun with family and friends. Here’s a gallery of my fellow paddlers for the year. Most, like me, love every minute of it. Only one said “that’s the most frightening thing I have ever done!”
Chum of the year award must go to Mike Scheu who is used to the more predictable, and almost always sunny, weather conditions of his hometown of Flagstaff, Arizona. Yet he still claimed to enjoy the two or three hours we spent battling rain and winds on one mid September afternoon.
When no Homo Sapiens are available to join me for a paddle, I have to settle on this sort of thing for company…….
I had forgotten just how good the Purbeck coast of Dorset is for sea kayaking. It manages to squeeze in just about every type of scenery, from white-chalk cliffs to sludge-filled creeks, in a coastline ofnot much more than forty miles.
The clear placid water of Studland Bay was the venue for my first ever venture out onto the brine in a kayak many decades ago. One of those awful uncomfortable fibreglass craft that used to go round in circles no matter what you did with the paddles.
It was also here I landed my first ever kayak-caught fish, a mackerel, from the same meandering kayak, using a cotton reel and line with a single hook and silver-paper lure. Forty years ago probably.
This time I started off with a nice downwind paddle from Swanage to Shell Bay, with the superb white cliffs and stacks of Ballard Down and Old Harry as the major highlight. Chalk cliffs always look sensational when the sun is shining on them.
My entire body recoiled in a sort of primitive terror reflex as a Hercules roared over the clifftop above my head with absolutely no prior warning (although, I accept, I wouldn’t really have expected any), and then swung round over Studland Bay with its cargo door open. A heavy object attached to a parachute was thrown out (looked like a dishwasher on a pallet, but probably wasn’t) and was retrieved by a couple of very high speed splashy craft in a suitably professional manner.
There were a lot of Mediterranean Gulls feeding along the shore in Studland Bay, a species which was completely absent from this area (and the UK, I think), until recently.
I paddled over Studland Bay’s areas of eel grass which provide a home to a variety of seahorse, amazingly. I lifted my rudder so as not to mess it up because the tide was very low.
Possibly more remarkable still was the nudist sitting all alone on the sand on what wasn’t really a sort of day for sitting around on a beach, with or without any clothes.
I just managed to dodge in front of the Sandbanks ferry before it landed. Paddling around it would have meant battling into the stiff tidal flow coming out of Poole Harbour, which is avoidable by sneaking along the shore only a few feet out.
On Day two I circuited Brownsea island which sits in the middle of Poole Harbour. Usually a nice sheltered paddle but on this occasion there was a stiff NW wind and the very big Spring tides made for some fairly dramatic (drastic) ferry glides across the channels. There is plenty to look at but mainly relating to humans e.g. hundreds of moored yachts and the most expensive real estate in the world on Sandbanks peninsula. It might actually be the second most expensive after somewhere like Malibu, I can’t remember exactly.
The armed forces were using a Chinook to entertain the hoardes of dog-walkers along Studland beach this time. It was carrying around a speedboat which seemed more appropriate to the needs of frontline troops than the Hercules’ Hotpoint.
Day 3 was the best. Clear blue sky and fantastic visibility. Perfect for the classic paddle from Lulworth Cove to Durdle Door, one of the most photographed coastal features in the UK. You can’t really claim to be a sea kayaker until you have paddled through the Door.
I had a bit of a chat with the guide from Jurassic Tours who was leading a posse of sit-on-toppers through the arch of the ‘Door’.
I couldn’t resist paddling all the way along the Bay and then punching right through the buttress at the other end using the conveniently positioned doorway of Bat Hole. I then paddled back to Durdle Door along the line of four rocky islets with the excellent names of The Calf, The Cow, The Blind Cow and The Bull. I spent quite a long time trying to work out exactly what feature made the second cow blind, but eventually gave up none the wiser.
Becky and my sister Juliet had walked along the cast path from Lulworth taking a few photos, wisely turning back before the alarmingly named valley of Scratchy Bottom. I joined them on the cliff for a quick pic.
The water in Man O’ War cove was satisfactorily turquoise and would not have been out of place on a June day in the Maldives, let alone early October in England.
I paddled back to Lulworth Cove and had to dodge surprisingly large numbers of milling burger-eaters/ ice-cream slurpers while trolleying my kayak back up to the carpark.
The sea beyond Plymouth Sound is always busy with ships of the Royal Navy. During my kayak trips to the Eddystone Lighthouse eagle-eyed observers , or maybe the radar operators, no doubt spot me and wonder what on earth I am doing anything up to ten miles offshore. I often wonder myself.
Frigates have sped past at high speed but always at a respectful distance.
During my most recent jaunt out to the Eddystone reef, on a superb smooth-sea day, I watched a small navy cutter emerge from the sound many miles in front of me and head towards me, passing half a mile to my left. A gun on the front, ‘ BORDER FORCE’ written in large black letters on the hull and the name ‘VIGILANT’ beside a large painted Union Jack on the superstructure. I had plenty of time to study it carefully and could see people moving around in the bridge.
I felt a bit self-conscious as I just knew I was being scrutinised. Steady paddling and no picking of nose. And I didn’t stare, I looked straight ahead and peered out of the side of my eyes.
The bass throb of the engines started to fade as it went past, but then suddenly dropped to an idle. I cranked my neck around and although it doesn’t twist as far as it used to I could see the ship turn in a broad semicircle behind me. It then powered up again and started to draw level with me on the right-hand side.
I felt eyes all over me and then the engines again fell quiet. After a bit of a pause in the action a black RIB slowly emerged from the rear of the cutter, and then gripped the ‘bone in its teeth’ as it sped directly towards me. As it slowed and came alongside I stopped paddling and smiled an acknowledgement to the three officers, all wearing protective helmets.
They very politely asked me a few questions regarding what I was doing and took down a few details (in their notebooks, not on i-pads). They pointed out that they had to be very alert for immigrants, and that I was the first kayak they had ever stopped.
They then sped back to their mothership and went on their way towards the south.
This was actually the most exciting encounter during an otherwise fairly uneventful wildlife watching trip to the Eddystone, during which I saw only a couple of Storm Petrels, a handful of terns and a moderate number of Manx Shearwaters.
I can’t think of anything I enjoy more than paddling for dozens, hundreds or thousands of miles in complete silence, letting myself get completely absorbed into the surrounding watery world and fine tuning my ears so I can hear the nautical equivalent of a pin dropping. Such as the ‘puff’ of a distant porpoise on the open sea or the rattling song of a Lesser Whitethroat coming from deep within a riverside bush.
Or maybe I can. If you can do all of the above but accompanied by like-minded paddling chums, family members or (and) old friends then it’s a win/win situation all round. OK the silence thing goes out the window but you can have too much of that. And the chances of seeing ultra-spooky creatures like otters and foxes and deer decreases, but this is offset by the excitement emanating from your fellow paddlers.
Extra pairs of eyes increase the chance of wildlife encounters. I always forget that. For every sensational creature I have spotted when by myself, I must have missed two more of the same which were (sniggering) behind me or off to the side.
For example, Paul spotted a seal hauled out on the mud of the Fowey estuary way up near St. Winnow where I would never bother looking for a seal as it’s a long way from the sea. It would have lurched into the water before I had noticed it, but because eagle-eyed Paul spotted it early, I grabbed a pic which showed it was a Harbour Seal with its characteristic ‘friendly’ face and V-shaped nostrils.
The only Harbour Seal I have ever seen in Cornwall, all the rest have been Grey Seals.
Paul certainly seems to have an affinity for seals:
Now the weather is a bit warmer I am very keen to ask along fellow adventurers to my favourite paddling haunts. Unless you are a bit weird like me (and a couple of hardcore friends) its potentially pretty miserable when it’s cold. But pick the right day, load the picnic up with cakes and buns, stop off for lots of cups of tea, and EVERYBODY has a great time. There’s some great locations for that well-earned break.
Kayaking seems to be a good way to enjoy guilt-free ad-lib chocolate consumption, on the assumption that you burn off the calories by paddling. I’m not sure whether you do, as I think that paddling at moderate speed uses up about the same amount of energy as a moderate walk, judging by how warm you get. But don’t worry about it too much.
Birds carry on doing what they are doing no matter how loud you are (within reason). While padding up the Fowey River at extreme low tide I was watching a Herring Gull flicking over the kelp looking for crabs. It found a really big one and flicked it into the air by grabbing it by a leg. There was then a prolonged stand-off between bird and crustacean, with the crab waving its pincers threateningly in the air and the gull dodging about like a Matador trying to nip at an exposed limb. On this occasion it was victory to the crab…..the gull flew off defeated and deflated.
And I never tire of watching the little families of Shelducks that are reared in the wooded upper reaches of the many sheltered inlets around the southwest. Its good to know they can find somewhere undisturbed to do so.
I tend to take the scenery for granted while straining my eyes for wildlife.
The upper Tamar Estuary is my favourite sheltered paddle. An excellent jaunt for experienced and novice paddlers alike. An easy five miles following the tidal river twisting and turning between steep banks clad in natural oakwood, past historic Morwellham Quay, beneath Morwell crags, and finishing beneath the weir which marks the tidal limit at Gunnislake. A good place to stop for a picnic, although I don’t think you’re supposed to.
The river water is lovely and clear up here, and Kingfishers and Dippers zip past. The only criticism of the water below Morwellham is that it is estuarine and muddy, so that photographs do not look quite so perfect.
My last trip up the Tamar was a few days ago, involving a real medley of Sit-on-top kayaks. I paddled my Gumotex Safari inflatable kayak, Becky was in my ageing Ocean Kayak Scupper Pro, Krysia darted along in my Cobra Expedition and Kevin was in his new Tarpon 100. Top entertainment.
Although the sheltered inlets provide the ultimate in kayaking relaxation therapy, it’s important to get out onto the open sea when conditions allow, not only to give you eyeballs a change of scenery , but to catch some fish! The mackerel are now here and kayaking has got to be the best way to hook one.
A venture from near Bude down the coast to Boscastle was not quite as easy as we had been anticipating because the swell was rather more lumpy than forecast.There was no chance of venturing into the caves but it was quite exhilarating paddling close to the rocks with the waves slurping in and out, and particularly exciting at the tip of the headland of Cambeak which amplified the size of the swell.
A recent trip to Mevagissey was rather less hairy because the sea there is exceptionally sheltered and frequently completely flat. It is east-facing so protected from the prevailing wind and swell. It’s always fun doing a circuit of the outer and inner harbour, and it’s always very pleasing to have the freedom and space that is provided by kayaking instead of barging your way through overcrowded narrow streets and queuing at the burger bar or ice cream shop, and generally loafing around like most of the visitors seem to do. I’m one of those people that starts weaving about to take evasive action when an oncoming pedestrian is twenty yards away, and still bumps into them. I’m thinking I don’t really ‘do’ crowds.
Oystercatchers nest all round the southwest coast and they are particularly noisy at this time of year when they have fluffy youngsters about. They peep an alarm call very loudly when you approach and will even fly out over your head in an effort to see you off. Always fun to see.
On this particular trip we saw a couple of Turnstones which were as usual very tame and looking quite smart in their summer plumage.
There is some great ‘rock-hopping’ to have and gaps to be explored between Mevagissey and Pentewan.
One of the most evocative sounds of the coast is the shrill and piercing call of a Peregrine Falcon which makes the hair on your neck stand up (but not as much as the hair on the neck of passing pigeons, if they hair instead of feathers). A pair were milling about in a steep sided cove and looked like they had just enjoyed lunch (pigeon probably). Always a thrill to see the world’s fastest creature.
When the company is good and the weather is warm everybody loves kayaking.