Only Chumps Choose Chesil

 …..because surely no one with any hint of sanity would paddle a kayak along a more or less straight beach for 18.5 miles, and then back again.

Dawn at West Bay

Mmmmm OK but I have been eyeing up new bits of coast to explore and I’ve always been fascinated by Chesil beach and its legendary geographical credentials. The only real down side was the certainty of it being an appallingly long featureless slog but can a ten hour plus kayak trip be less tedious than ten hours plus trainspotting at Reading General or ten hours sitting absolutely motionless in a home-made bird hide? (why did that wren choose to sunbathe ON my telephoto lens about two inches from my nose instead of somewhere a bit further away where I could catch it on film?). These were past-times of yesteryear,of course, but a handy way of raising one’s threshold of boredom.

However today was an April day to die for..even better than my Exmoor trip. Sunny, hot and more importantly absolutely still. Such a nice day in fact that even paddling round and round the garden pond would be a pleasure (might confuse the tadpoles before giddiness set in).

This big trip was a job for my Paddleyak Swift, at only 23 inches wide quite nippy…. essentially a sea kayak with a sit-on-top cockpit. South African designed and made so bound to be good.

Overtaken by Bridport gig

 I always build myself up into a bit of a frenzy before departure but once again my carefully made plans were derailed by a parking meter, this time because it refused to accept my £2 coins. I sped to the nearest newsagent for change (good excuse for a couple of creme eggs) and sped back, scattering all my belongings which I had laid out on the roof round the back streets of West Bay. I fortunately relocated sunglasses and suncream….essential today or I would be mistaken for a pork scratching come sundown.

On the water at last just after dawn, and I passed a line of impressive sandstone cliffs with their cackling fulmars before having a brief chat with a couple of guys on Evo racing skis at Burton Bradstock. As Chesil beach built up to a more organised bank of pebbles the cliffs made way to very pleasant sloping green fields, and at every road access more and more fishermen, and their shelters, dotted the beach.

Looking back to Burton Bradstock

 At first I couldn’t work out what the repeated sharp ‘sooomp’ noise was, until I saw a fisherman’s weight impact the water a few yards away despite me being what I thought was WAY beyond casting distance. I headed even further out and was a bit surprised when a flight of swans alighted on the sea nearby…must have been looking for Abbotsbury which is a couple of miles further on.

seagoing swans

 At Abbotsbury the fields backed away from the beach to make space for the sheltered water of the Fleet so for the next eleven miles it was just me and the increasingly tall bank of shingle, high enough for me not to be able to see anything behind it.

Farewell to greenery

 Just for a hoot I planned to stop for lunch half way along this extraordinary place. I kept thinking I was paddling along Namibia’s skeleton coast. OK I havn’t actually been there but I’m sure it’s similar. The tuneless piping of migratory Whimbrel was the only sound to break up the woosh of small waves. I like Whimbrel.

Whimbrel. NOT a Curlew

 After an hour and a half of paddling with no view of anything beyond the shingle I hauled up on the beach for lunch. I nearly made a Horlicks of it as it was so steep. Wouldn’t fancy it in anything more than a tiny swell like today.  I couldn’t quite believe that I could see noone or nothing in either direction apart from the very gradual sweep of the shingle bank.Fantastic. OK , I could just about make out the bulk of Portland Bill through the haze.

View to the west......a few billion pebbles

 

View to the east.....a few billion more

 I peeped over the top of the bank and was thrown into a completely different visual world of a buzzing Weymouth. Nope, I think I prefer the nothingness of the desolate side so ducked back down again.

Back on the water the fishermen gradually phased in again and I homed in on Chesil Cove in the armpit of Portland Bill, which marks the end of Chesil bank. I thought I was about to encounter some ghastly sea creature as great glooping bubbles appeared from the depths and broke the surface in front of me, but it was the local diving club lurking unseen beneath.

Chesil Cove at Fortuneswell

Yikes….over 18 miles on the GPS. So that means over 18 miles back again I guess. And when I turned around my speed read out was over 1mph less even though the tide should have been assisting. Must have been a huge back eddy round the end of Portland Bill I suppose.

It was a monotonous drag back along the featureless expanse although I do sort of like this kind of thing. Think I’ve made that clear by now.

About turn and more of the same......a lot,lot,lot more

 I hauled out for another break on a bit of the shingle bank so steep it seemed to defy all scientific principles. Ask your average person on the street whether this pile of stones should remain standing or collapse into the sea , they would select the second option. That is if you manage to extricate them from their MP3, and then maintain their concentration as they grapple with incoming text messages on their mobile, and generally wallow in a world of electrical trivial drivvle. Do they ever look up? Would they recognise a Whimbrel? Or be able to hear one piping (even though it is a bit tuneless)?……unplug before it’s too late. Or maybe not, otherwise they might all want to go kayaking to places like this and I would no longer be able to sit on this bank and enjoy seeing  absolutely nothing.

I cricked my neck when I cranked it round to see the owner of a repeated grating chatter. A Little tern was chasing after a chum. Hardly ever see these nowadays but I was very pleased (later) to discover a few pairs breed on Chesil on the Fleet side. Good luck to them…they nest on the beach and so are terribly sensitive to disturbance by  people and dogs.

Apart from the terns there were just a few loafing gulls around:

Let's loaf

 I hit a bit of a mental wall when I thought I was back at the green hills but calculated I still had an hour’s worth of bare beach to look at. I tried paddling further offshore but every time I did my speed dropped, inexplicably. Some weird currents. At last I approached the fishermen at West Bexington again and for the first time EVER I witnessed one of them catch something…a couple of mackerel I think.

I had a brief passing banter with a handful of very sedentary kayak fishermen and at last West Bay appeared in the far distance. Incredibly I was now fizzing along at up to 5mph despite the fact the tide should have been coming in and so been against me. You could see the current swirling past the lobster pots. Weird again.

Nearly back at West Bay

 As I approached West Bay my senses were assaulted by the buzz of outboards and smell of boat fuel. The sea was still millpond flat as it had been all day so the waterskiers too were having a ball. A queue of boats were heading back to the slipway and a handful of Sandwich terns were diving for sandeels in amongst them.

West end of Chesil beach

 I rolled back into the harbour at 6.30 and ran the gauntlet of fishing rods being dangled from the the walls either side, and tried my best not to seem totally fatigued. A good samaritan gave me a hand to lift my leaden kayak onto the roof of the car as I stooped over it trying to summon up the strength for a bit of powerlifting.

Excellent day…glad I didn’t heed the advice of the bloke on the radio who said it might be wise to stay indoors due to the poor air quality.

 

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EXMOOR EPIC

At last….my day off coincided with a decent day, in fact possibly the most stunning early April day since Stig of the Dump, or whoever first thought of Aprils.

Having paddled every inch of the Cornish coastline, and most of it so often I know it better than the contents of my sock drawer, my gaze was drawn to North Devon. A pretty hefty swell on the west coast would hopefully not make it round the corner too much to mess things up.

I had to go with the tide so I set off from Combe Martin at 6.30. I had my usual run in with a ticket machine in the car park. Because I was so early it only registered the night rate but when I stuffed more dosh into it (with more and more venom) it suddenly decided I had put in the maximum amount allowable , but it expired at 1pm! That’s no chuffing good if you are looking forward to spending all day on the water. Clearly designed for cosy, dull bores who slob about and go to the pub at lunch time and don’t mind going to top up the ticket. Not that they would have to anyway because they don’t get out of bed early enough and so don’t have the problem of encountering the moronic machine in night mode.

Seething, I headed east up the coast past the mist capped Little Hangman hill and the vast bulk of its brooding neighbour, Great Hangman.

Sunrise over Exmoor

I was quite surprised at the cliffy nature of the coast and the slurping swell which bounced back of the vertical faces made for quite a bumpy ride initially and I was quite glad I was in my bomb-proof super stable Wilderness Tarpon 160.

Elwill Bay sports all sorts of huge buttresses and deep gulches and the first of several Razorbill colonies. There was a constant to-ing and fro-ing of birds from their impossibly narrow cliff ledges….great to see so many around. And huge rafts of them bobbing about on the water.

Razorbills heavily outnumbering Guillemots (the browner ones)
Just Razorbills this time

My intention was to get round Highveer point before the tide turned, and I just about managed this but my speed was seriously hampered by the increasing hordes of auks flying about.So of course I had to stop and gawp. More than a thousand I reckon and more razorbills than Guillemots….so the biggest colony I have yet come across in SW England-certainly beating Boscastle and probably the Isles of Scilly. There was even a small Kittiwake colony in amongst them.

After three hours paddling I was getting peckish and the ONLY sheltered landing was Lee Bay, so that’s where I demolished my five Weetabix. Just a quicky break because I needed to get to Lynmouth before the ebb tide started to bite. The swell dropped away and calm conditions made the rest of the day an absolute paddling dream.

Valley of the rocks

I just about got to Lynmouth and then was slingshot back by the tide. Yes OK I tried abit of fishing but it was only half-hearted as I was just using plain mackerel feathers but the cloudiness of the water really requires you have some smelly livebait type stuff. Yes so I didn’t catch and yes that’s a pretty pathetic excuse.

I whipped back past the Razorbills so fast a couple fell off their ledge in surprise. I suddenly realised why I was pushing on so quick- it was that stupid blooming carpark  ticket and my subconscious was shovelling coal into my engine room and opening up the throttle  to the max so I could be back in Combe Martin by 1 to get another blooming ticket.

I wafted into the sleepy harbour as a little family splashed in the shallows and a half-witted Springer tore across the beach to chase a sniggering seagull. More like high summer.

I thumped up the beach, slammed another load of coins in the machine and scowled at the carpark man in his High Vis jacket (ridiculous on such a high vis sunny day).And then thumped back down the beach and set off for Ilfracombe.

The character of the paddle was quite different to the morning.This bit was heavily indented and sported loads of idyllic secret beaches. I loafed around on one or two and had lunch.

Forget Mauritius, try Ilfracombe

I couldn’t resist yet another stop at the sandy beach just past Rillage point which echoed to the whinnying call of a peregrine who had also been loafing on the shore.

Yet another gob smacking beach

So all I had to do was get back to Combe Martin. The sea had turned into a sheet of glass so I paddled a mile or so offshore with the hopes of encountering one of the many porpoises that I have seen from the shore on previous occasions. I didn’t but it was unbelievably hot and unbelievably calm. Surely Conbe Martin and the Hangman hills have hardly ever looked like this:

After nine hours on the water and over 28 miles it was time to call it a day but not before one more ornithological adventure. A gang of Fulmars were milling about on the surface and ‘gobbling’ at each other in their guttural primeval way.

I do have a soft spot for Fulmars as they always come and have a snoop at you when you are in a kayak and zip silently past at enormous speed on stiffly held wings. They are of course more closely related to albatrosses than they are seagulls. Don’t be fooled by their gull like plumage.

Fulmar.....I like the eye shadow too

So I left them to their squabbling and beligerent body language.

Time to go home and apply some after sun to the top of my head.