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.