Archive for the ‘Outdoors’ Category

Blazing Paddles

Monday, April 6th, 2015

Last week I finally took the plunge and bought an Advanced Elements Convertible, the two-seater version of the inflatable kayak I’ve been using for the past 18 months. Amazingly, while 15 feet long fully deployed, it still fits into the back of a two-seater Smart car complete with paddles and all the rest of the kit. Apart from the obvious advantages for more sociable paddling trips, having an extra pair of hands can come in handy for occasions where I want to take photographs or shoot video. When you’re on moving water, the moment you stop paddling to take a picture, you’ve lost control of the kayak. At times that can be nothing more than a minor irritation, at others, potentially more dangerous.

My first trip out with long-time paddling companion Amy Woodyatt was one of my favourites, starting from Catfield Staithe. The half mile or so along Catfield Dyke was enough to get the feel for paddling a much bigger craft – if anything, I would say the extra length and weight makes for improved tracking on the single seater.

Then we emerged onto Hickling Broad. With virtually no wind, the broad was calm, and we did the mile or so of open water to the other side in good time. Just after crossing the navigation channel, we stopped for a chat with a couple of guys on sit-on-top kayaks who were heading out of Hickling towards Horsey Mere. It was tempting to follow them, but we stuck with our original plan.

The unexpected treat of the day came as we pulled up to the bird observation tower – we heard the distinct booming call of the male Bittern, one of the UK’s rarest birds. It sounds just like someone blowing across the neck of a large bottle, but deep and penetrating. My previous encounters have only been the odd single call, whereas this was at times almost continuous. But they are very elusive – I’ve still yet to see one!

Fleece memory

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015

Recently I sorted out a large pile of old clothes for a friend, who was collecting them for the homeless in Norwich. Actually, it was a good opportunity for me to slim down my vast collection of fleece tops, baselayer tops and long johns, and loopstitch socks.

I shall be interested to see whether I spot this Berghaus fleece jacket on the streets at some point in the future, as it has a bit of “history.” Along with similar Polartec fleece trousers, I wore it in March 1990 in the north of Sweden, doing a feature for a Sunday colour supplement about the filming of the Channel 4 TV programme “Conquer the Arctic”. It also happened to be the only occasion I’ve come close to crashing in a helicopter.

I spent a week in the northern village of Abisko, where they used helicopters to transport film crews and journalists about to the different shooting locations, filming international competitors doing everything from downhill and cross-country skiing to ice climbing and skidoo racing. I’d hung around at the end of a day which saw the competitors ice climbing, finishing up in a spectacular ice cave behind a frozen waterfall. They were going to spend the night there, and after I’d watched a TV crew getting shots of them settling in, I took the last helicopter out. It was dark by now, and the pilot had to fly up one valley, cross a pass and down another valley towards Abisko. Apart from the lack of light, it was complicated by the fact that the cloudbase had come right down, so that as we flew up the valley, a searchlight picking out the rocky mountainside not so far below (and beside), the cloud was getting thicker.

The visibility reduced to the point where the pilot had to turn back, with an alternative two hour drive back to base becoming a possibility. But before that, he decided to try his luck flying up another valley. The mist got thicker and thicker, the rocks on the mountainside seemed to get closer and closer, and then suddenly we were above the cloud – looking across a sea of it. If the pilot was concerned, he didn’t show it, but here we were in pre-GPS days, flying above a cloud containing lots of lumpy rocky bits! It was a short-lived moment, because in the distance we saw a hole in the cloud, and the lights of Abisko shining through. And so we made it back safely, and before the bar closed!

With me on the trip was a young journalist from the FT, Rebecca Stephens. Just over three years later, she became the first British woman to climb Everest!

Broads National Park

Saturday, January 24th, 2015

When I first published my Kindle book “The Broads: A unique National Park” in 2013, it came under fire from certain quarters. “You can’t describe the Broads as a National Park,” they said, “because it isn’t one. And if you got that wrong, what else have you got wrong?”

The truth is, I didn’t get it wrong – but my detractors are guilty of a huge slice of pedantry. The legislation which covers the protection and management of the Broads is different from the other National Parks, because uniquely, the Broads is predominantly wetland, with navigation interests. And so the Broads has always been described as “enjoying the same protection as a National Park”, or being “a member of the National Park family.”

But foreign tourists don’t see the distinction. If they’re looking to visit somewhere with scenic landscapes, the National Park tag becomes an important deciding factor. And for an area where a large chunk of the local economy is dependent on tourism, trying to explain that “it’s really rather special, but isn’t a National Park per se” has always seemed to me to be rather akin to shooting oneself in the foot.

Fortunately the Broads Authority has recognised the problem, and this week voted to adopt “the brand”. So from now on, it’s the Broads National Park. Better late than never.

How to organise a p***-up in a brewery!

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

I was contacted recently by AA Publishing, asking me if I could do an urgent update to one of the walks in their guide “50 walks in Suffolk”, a book which I’ve previously helped to update, along with the sister title for Norfolk. It seems that circumstances had changed with South Elmham Hall, the start point of the South Elmham walk, and they wanted a new start, along with a check that the rest of the route was still walkable.

South Elmham is a fascinating area with a history as an important religious centre in Anglo-Saxon times, hence the names of the parishes dedicated to various saints such as St James, St Michael and St Nicholas. I’d thought about choosing one of a couple of churches along the route as a possible car park / start point, but discounted it because neither looked as though they had much space.

Fortunately, the route also passes St Peter’s Hall, where St Peter’s Brewery turns out some of the finest ales in East Anglia, with bottled beer in distinctive oval-shaped bottles copied from an American design c1770 – as one of my travel-writing colleagues remarked “like old-fashioned health tonic bottles. They give the impression that their beer will actually do you good.” It’s more than just an impression, isn’t it? I also remember having a very lovely meal in the restaurant here when I updated the walk six years ago. The visitor shop is open seven days a week, so what could be a better base for a walk – somewhere with some very agreeable refreshments, and in the summer you can take a tour of the brewery as well?

Needless to say the brewery was delighted to be made the official start of an AA walk, and they look forward to welcoming new customers when the book is reprinted early next year.

Paddling the Suffolk / Essex border

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

Last week saw me on another paddling assignment for Anglia Afloat magazine, this time on the River Stour, which for much of its length forms the Suffolk / Essex border. I’d been wanting to go for a while, but was prevented by lack of available co-paddlers. The Stour has a number of portage points to provide paddlers with safe passage around locks and weirs, and while my inflatable kayak is very portable in its packed state, lifting it in and out of the water is about all I can manage when it’s operational. Now I have an ingenious canoe trolley called a C-Tug to enable me to walk my kayak around obstacles. With wheels, axle, support pads and straps all clipping together in under a minute, portages are now no longer a problem.

I set off from Rushbanks Farm camp site near Nayland, heading upstream towards Bures. Just over 300 years ago, the river was one of the first in the country to be “improved” in order to make it open to navigation as far upstream as Sudbury. At times I had barely enough clearance for my kayak, both in width and depth, making it hard to imagine that barges once frequented these waters.

But it was incredibly beautiful. Where the river opened out more, sometimes the plantlife in the water was so abundant it was like paddling across a meadow. The air was alive with translucent blue damselflies and larger dragonflies darting about from one plant to another. I negotiated the portage at Wormingford Mill, carrying on upstream as far as Bures Mill. At times, the water was so shallow I had to have several goes at finding the right point to continue, particularly as the water was running quicker over the gravelly bottom. Coming back was a lot easier – not exactly shooting the rapids, but the kayak does tend to cope with a really shallow draught more easily when it’s going with the current.

It was just a short 7.5 miles round trip taster, but it was enough to inspire me to make a few return visits to explore the river further.

The kit
Kayak: Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame
Personal Flotation Device: Palm Taupo
Accessories: Riber throw line (used with karabiner for mooring), dry bag, PFD

Sailing through history

Saturday, June 21st, 2014

I’ve had two sailing experiences in the last couple of months, very different from one another. The first was a return visit for me, on the historic sailing Broads trading wherry Albion. It was her first trip out this year, and the idea was to celebrate the launch of a new beer created in her honour. Called Jenny Morgan, after the figure on the wind vane at the top of Albion’s mast, a firkin of Green Jack Brewery‘s tasty new brew had pride of place on her foredeck as we sailed from her base on Womack Water to the Maltsters pub at Ranworth.

Here we were met by the Golden Star Morris dancers from Norwich, who ceremonially danced the beer from the quayside to the pub. I’d been told that the beer would actually need to settle for a couple of days before it could be served, and was therefore relieved to hear the pub had some already in place, so I did get to sample a couple of pints. And for every pint sold, a percentage of the profit goes to the Wherry Albion Trust to help keep the grand old lady of the Broads afloat.

Funnily enough, while hoisting Albion’s sail involved pretty hard work turning the handle on a winch, my next spot of sail-raising was rather less tiring. A day trip from Harwich saw me on the 47ft sailing yacht Viking Blue, where all I had to do was push a button and watch the sail go up the mast! The boat was operated by Ipswich-based Viking Mariners, and I was on a trip which included a night in The Pier Hotel, a lovely boutique hotel in old Harwich. The town has a long history both as military and commercial port, as well as the HQ of Trinity House, the organisation which looks after all the lighthouses and navigation buoys in British waters. All that nautical history is ingrained in the hotel, where I had a room with a fantastic view across the harbour, and the quirky Ha’penny Pier.

It was from here that I set off with one or two other guests from the hotel on Viking Blue. It was one of those days where people could do as much or as little as they wanted, so apart from pushing the button to raise the sail, I did, along with my fellow guests, get to take a turn at the helm. It’s a fascinating area to sail – just across the water from Harwich is the huge container port of Felixstowe, at the confluence of the rivers Orwell and Stour. We cruised along the coast for a while before exploring the rivers. And while we didn’t quite make it as far as the impressive Orwell Bridge, we did pass historic Pin Mill, once the place where Thames sailing barges came to be repaired, and the subject of two of Arthur Ransome’s famous “Swallows and Amazons” books.

Yachting as an activity began in the Netherlands in the 17th century, so it’s logical that here would be the place where it first started in England. It was certainly much in evidence the day I was there – modern craft with brightly coloured spinnakers ballooning in front of them, and a variety of traditional wooden boats taking it rather more leisurely. As for me, not having been at sea in a small boat for quite some time, it was nice to note I still have good sea legs!

Anglia Afloat

Saturday, April 19th, 2014

The last few weeks have seen me pretty busy doing things for Anglia Afloat magazine, my new regular outlet. On the paddling front, it was taking my inflatable kayak away from the Broads for a trip on the River Cam in Cambridgeshire. Not the bit you might think, fighting my way past punts along The Backs in Cambridge (although that is on my hitlist for a future trip). Instead I paddled the lower reaches, starting from the Fish & Duck marina at Pope’s Corner, where the Cam flows into the Great Ouse and Old West.

The plan was to paddle around six miles upstream to Bottisham Lock and then come back. In the normal run of things, that would be quite an easy trip, but after a winter of horrific rainfall, the sluice-controlled flow of the river had been increased, so I was paddling upstream against a pretty stiff current. And as luck would have it, the wind was coming straight at me as well. The result was a pretty tough paddle, and every time I stopped for a breather I would be going backwards instantly. I didn’t quite make it as far as Bottisham Lock, but at least when I did turn back, I had very little to do other than occasional course corrections. It worked out as five miles of strenuous paddling upstream in 2.5 hours, and back again with virtually no paddling in just two!

More recently, I had an assignment to cover a visit by HRH The Princess Royal to the Herbert Woods boatyard in Potter Heigham. Herbert Woods was one of the pioneers of Broads boating holidays, and so the company marked the 60th anniversary of his death with a Heritage Day to which Princess Anne was invited. Two of Herbert Woods’ daughters attended, including one who’d flown in especially for the event from her home in New Zealand, and boat builder Dennis George was presented with a long service award for 50 years working for Herbert Woods.

For me, the nicest part of the Heritage Day was seeing the boats they had on display, from their very latest cruiser Sovereign Light, with bow and stern thrusters, and beautifully fitted out inside, to the oldest Herbert Woods cruiser still afloat – the 1927 built all wood Spark of Light, just oozing traditional charm.

Let your Yare be yeah…

Sunday, January 12th, 2014

My first paddle of 2014 turned out to be the kayak trip down the River Yare I’d been planning for over a month. Planning, because I wanted to be able to leave Norwich at or soon after high tide, which had to be at a point in the morning to enable me to do the 14.5 miles from Norwich to Cantley in daylight hours. Places to launch a kayak or canoe in Norwich are fairly limited, and some involve quite a long drop at anything other than high tide – besides, I wanted the water moving in my direction. And I wanted the wind coming more or less from the west, as I knew that too would be a factor on the lower stretch of the river. When those factors all came together, I was even given the added bonus of sunshine!

Paddling down the Wensum through Norwich city centre is always interesting. I enjoy seeing the familiar places from unfamiliar angles, and kayaks on the water here are scarce enough for you to catch people doing double-takes as they spot you floating by. And I think the Wensum’s various bridges, which date from the 14th to the 21st centuries, look so much better from the water.

I found quite a few sporty rowing types out on the Yare near Whitlingham. Everything from single-seater jobs all the way up to eights with a chap shouting words of encouragement from a following motor boat. I never could see the attraction of rowing, only ever getting to see where you’ve been. I like to see where I’m going!

My final bridge – the last road crossing of the Yare between Norwich and Great Yarmouth – was impressive. The Postwick (pronounced locally as “Pozick”) Viaduct carries the A47 southern bypass around Norwich. When you’re driving along it, you’re merely aware that you’re above the surrounding countryside. From the water, it’s quite an imposing sight, with the bridge spanning not just the river but the entire valley.

A little further on I encountered a chap paddling a sit-on-top kayak, so we stopped and chatted for a few minutes. He mentioned he’d launched from Postwick Wharf a little downstream, where boss of local canoe holiday operator TheCanoeMan Mark Wilkinson was fishing. Having recently interviewed Mark over the phone for my paddling feature in the January 2014 issue of Anglia Afloat magazine, this seemed rather a strange coincidence. So we too had a chat when I arrived there.

Brundall was more or less halfway. With two possible take-out points close to railway stops, this would be my escape route if I found it too hard going. But so far I was doing well.

The river widens out further downstream, and with less tree cover on the banks, the wind was a bit more difficult when it wasn’t directly behind me, and in any event it was putting a bit more of a chop on the water. My first sight of steam rising from the sugar refinery at Cantley came when I still had five miles to go. Talk about tantalising – there was even a moment as I got closer where it seemed I’d overshot, down to the twists and turns of the river, of course.

I was getting pretty tired by the time I pulled in to tie up at the Reedcutter Inn, next door to the sugar refinery at Cantley. Four and a half hours paddling time, and 15 minutes of stops, so I’d managed to average well over 3 mph down a very nearly deserted river. Appropriately enough, the beer I had here was called Endeavour!

The kit
Kayak: Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame
Personal Flotation Device: Palm Taupo
Satnav: Satmap Active 10 plus Broads 1:25,000 scale map
Accessories: Riber throw line (used with karabiner for mooring), dry bag, PFD

Amazon Kindle book: “The Broads – A unique National Park”. Everything you want to know about the history, wildlife and landscape of the Broads, along with a guide to places you can visit.

Four part harmony

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

I haven’t been out in my kayak for a few weeks, but with a day that saw heavy mist clear into beautiful sunshine, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get out on the water. More to the point, I wanted to try out a couple of extra items of kit – a large rucksack that takes my Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame inflatable kayak along with all the other equipment, and a paddle which breaks down into four sections so it too can be stowed in the rucksack.

The plan is at some point to try a few longer linear trips using public transport for the return journey. My first one is likely to be from Norwich down the Rivers Wensum and Yare to Cantley, around 15 miles of paddling. After a beer or two and meal at the Reedcutter Inn, it’s just a couple of minutes walk to the station for the return trip to Norwich.

Paddling on the Broads at this time of year is delightful. With virtually no other boats about anywhere, it was incredibly peaceful, and felt as though I was a lot further away from civilisation than I really was. When I took this photo of Barton Broad – the second largest of the Norfolk Broads – I had it all to myself! Then paddling along Limekiln Dyke back to Neatishead Staithe, I had the most amazing close encounter with a kingfisher.

Perched on the branch of an overhanging tree, it would launch itself into the water with a resounding plop, then reappear in the tree seconds later with a small fish in its bill. I watched it do this several times, and although it was quite difficult keeping station without making any noise, it was worth the trouble, as I was just 15 feet away from it. Quite a show!

The kit
Kayak: Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame
Personal Flotation Device: Palm Taupo
Satnav: Satmap Active 10 plus Broads 1:25,000 scale map
Accessories: Riber throw line (used with karabiner for mooring), dry bag, PFD

Amazon Kindle book: “The Broads – A unique National Park”. Everything you want to know about the history, wildlife and landscape of the Broads, along with a guide to places you can visit.

Broads update

Sunday, August 18th, 2013

Last week saw me out in my kayak once more, crossing Barton Broad and heading downstream along the River Ant, past How Hill and Ludham Bridge. The goal was St Benet’s Abbey, a rather confused structure which combines the ruined gatehouse of a once great monastery with the brick tower of a former windmill.

But while the Ant was relatively quiet, the short stretch of the River Bure was akin to riding a bicycle in the outside lane of the M25! If nothing else, it provided me with the means to test out a different aspect of my new kayak’s performance.

A lot of the passing motor cruisers were very likely breaking the speed limit, and certainly creating a lot of wash. One of them had a group of people sitting on a tiny afterdeck. They barely gave me a glance as the boat went by, but they all looked a little surprised as I nipped in behind the moment it passed so I could surf their wake! The Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame kayak handled it all beautifully (with a little help from me), and it was certainly more fun than hugging the bank and just letting the waves buffet me. Several more cruisers provided similar entertainment before I returned to the less frantic River Ant, where lack of wind meant that the gaggle of 1930s heritage sailing boats from Hunter’s Yard were all having to use their quant poles to provide some propulsion.

The kit
Kayak: Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame
Personal Flotation Device: Palm Taupo
Satnav: Satmap Active 10 plus Broads 1:25,000 scale map
Accessories: Riber throw line (used with karabiner for mooring), dry bag, PFD

And in other news, if not entirely unrelated, I’ve released a new book on Amazon Kindle: “The Broads – A unique National Park”. Everything you want to know about the history, wildlife and landscape of the Broads, along with a guide to places you can visit.