Bigbury Blaze

Probably the best week of weather since March was first thought up had one more day to burn before the normal service, of cold grey skies, was to resume.

So I was going to make the best of it , and where better to go for a paddle than Bigbury bay in the south hams. I have now pieced together almost the entire SW coast from Lynmouth to Poole by kayak , just got Portland Bill left, and this gem of a coast which I had been saving up for just such a glorious day as this in order to do it justice. A twenty plus mile circuit on flat seas under the March sun. Mmmm.

Burgh Island
Burgh Island

The sea was as calm as I had hoped, in fact so smooth that it blurred into the horizon. Fantastic. I took a quick tour of  Burgh Island to stall for time so that the tide would be right for my trip up the Avon estuary to Aveton Gifford.

And it was as perfect as it could be. No wind,blue skies,crystal clear water, the peep of a kingfisher, primeval cackling of nestling herons and chorus of newly arrived chiffchaffs in the woods. And the howl of a chainsaw, unfortunately.

Shelduck pair
Shelduck pair

The solitude was interupted by a horde of dogwalkers on the tidal road at Aveton Gifford , and I was kept on my toes by a male swan who fluffed up and went all aggressive as I ventured too close to his mates nest.

Aveton Gifford Bridge
Aveton Gifford bridge

The world was waking up as I paddled back down to Bantham, and I watched scores of grey mullet dashing about in the clear shallow water below my hull.

water in Devon doesn't get much clearer than this

Some creatures were still trying to shake off early morning torpor. Perhaps they’d had a late night stealing fish and chips out of people’s hands…..

Herring gull pair

Just before the estuary opens out into the  sea there’s some quite quaint waterside residences , more like what you would expect on the river Thames, to have a nose at.

cosy Bantham grottage

 And so onwards past the unusually swell free Bantham bay towards Thurlestone. It was so still I could hear the ‘thwick’ of club on ball from the players on Thurlestone golf course which runs along the clifftop. They must have been having a superb day, but not as superb as me. 

Thurlestone rock

Thurlestone rock must surely have been put there by the great god of sea kayaking. I was sorely tempted to be the first paddler ever to pass without venturing through the tunnel, but couldn’t resist. I succumbed totally and paddled through it both ways. Twice.

Thurlestone Rock....the sunny side

I have visited this bit of the coast  a few times before, decades ago, but had forgotten how stunning it is. Beach after beach, many not easy to access down the cliff. And the excellent little fishing port of Hope Cove tucked in behind the shelter of Bolt Tail. No wonder it’s completely gridlocked in the summer…its almost too perfect to be real.

Paddleyak Swift...the ideal sea kayak

A few short fat sit-on-top kayaks were milling around in the cove. The short and the fat refer specifically to the kayak design, I should point out. Nothing short and fat about my sit-on-top kayak as I cruised past. My Paddleyak Swift is essentially a sea kayak with a Sit-on-top cockpit. Self draining scuppers so it’s impossible to swamp. Made in Cape town so ultra practical and in my view about as good a sea cruising kayak as you are going to get. It’s just so easy. You sit down onto it and go. No fussling about with spray decks. And if you did tip out you just climb back on and away you go. And if you want to stretch your legs and dangle them over the side, or do a bit of fishing, that’s fine.

Serious sea kayak buffs may want to know that it’s got a 23 inch beam which is a lot less than nearly all other standard SOTs, so it doesn’t hang about. In fact I like it more and more and it is my favourite winter and spring cruising kayak. And probably Spring and Summer too, I suppose.

The only thing I don’t use it for is serious fishing sessions where my Tarpon 160 has the edge in terms of fish clobber carrying capacity and comfort. But it’s a barge. And the Paddleyak is hard to beat in the looks department. The cowling over the front edge of the cockpit gives a Formula One impression.

Heavenly Hope Cove

I resisted the lure of the super-sheltered golden sand beach at Hope Cove harbour and stuck with my principle of lunching on the most remote beach in the most extreme location I can possibly find, and ideally accessible only by kayak. I seemed to remember there was just such a place round the corner from Bolt tail, but after paddling a mile beneath vast cliffs that would do justice to the wildest parts of Land’s End, I was about to turn back.

But there was a patch of sand beneath the biggest, most contorted cliff,which had just been exposed by the receding tide. That’ll do nicely.

Bolt beach

And about as desolate as it could be. Just sea and rock and a few quizzical shags in their smart green breeding plumage and daft topknots.

Shag

The sea had glassed off even more for the return trip across Bigbury Bay, so I couldn’t resist heading directly towards Burgh Island for the three mile open-sea crossing. I like doing this sort of thing….always a chance of a dolphin encounter or something like that. But probably not a good idea if you are by yourself. But all I saw was a floating crisp packet (worcester sauce, I think).

I did encounter a few more kayakers and two pairs of paddleboarders doing the circuit of Burgh island. Sorry folks, I just can’t see the point of paddleboarding. It’s neither one thing nor the other, although what those things are that it isn’t I’m not entirely sure .

Paddleboarders (on the left)

After soaking up a final dose of sun on a secluded beach on the island I crossed back to Bigbury where frisbees flew, balls were booted and bare feet splashed…….March!

Incidentally, if you are new to sea kayaking (or kayak fishing), and want to know where’s the best place to go around Devon and Cornwall’s 1056 mile coastline(I know that’s how far it is because I’ve nerdily paddled it all), this has got to be it. It’s  got it all, packed into six miles of shoreline. A tidal island, sheltered creek, the best surf beach in South Devon, loads of sandy beaches, superquaint coves, offshore rocks, wild cliffs. And no doubt fish, although that’s not what I was here for today.

 

Peregrine

    •  Peregrine falcon

There are not many places you can go kayaking around Devon and Cornwall without being watched.But not by that horde of people on that beach. They’re far too interested in their latest text message or engrossed in who said what to who and when.It’s far too boring to look out to sea.

You are probably being watched by fish, possibly by the odd seal, and certainly by a crowd of oystercatchers or similar who are wondering when to take flight and make a lot of noise about it.

But only one bird really scrutinises you, because  being king of the skies it scrutinises everything in the minutest detail.The Peregrine Falcon. They know precisely what is going on the whole time and are in total control. Look at a cluster of birds around a cliff during a gale. Most will be  being thrown about like a sock in a tumble drier, but the peregrine manages to hang in the sky without a feather being ruffled.

And boy what eyesight. I’ll never forget standing on the promenade deck of the Brittany ferry at Plymouth early one summer morning before it set off for France. A peregrine was sat atop a big grain tower next to the ship. I watched it set off across Plymouth sound flying with serious intent. Through binoculars I strained my eyes as it got smaller and smaller and nearly disappeared from view. Then as a tiny dot it plunged and struck a pigeon and then laboured all the way back to the tower with its kill. And then the feathers floated down to carpet the outside deck of the ship as it prepared its breakfast. Needless to say no-one else noticed.

 A couple of autumns ago I was bobbing about at this rather pleasant location in north Devon attempting (and failing) to do a bit of kayak fishing, when I was practically bowled out of my seat by a pigeon that whipped past my right ear with only inches to spare going at a speed that would do justice to my Ford Galaxy in the outside lane of the M5.

I realised it was using me as a baffle to shake off a pursuer and I didn’t bother to turn round because I knew what was coming next. A split second later a peregrine scorched over the top of my head so close it would have parted my hair, if I had any. And it was going a lot faster than any Ford Galaxy has ever gone.

What you do not want to see if you are a meal-sized bird

 I willed the pigeon on as it sought the sanctuary of the cliff half a mile away. The peregrine was closing and gained a bit of height to add a bit of speed to its final stoop. It plunged and for a split second there was a ball of confusion as feathers flew. Then somehow the pigeon escaped and belted off as fast as its remaining feathers would carry it. Amazing.

I have come across the after effects of such a chase on a couple of occasions. Like this woodpigeon that had clearly been for an emergency swim and managed to climb out into a cave near Sidmouth the other day.

And this pigeon that was cowering in amongst the rocks of the shoreline nervously tilting its head sideways and looking out for another attack. It was so determined not to move I could have picked it up.

Not surprising when you see what happens to some of its less evasive chums. Main meal for peregrine and feathery snack for Great Black-backed gull. 

In my book peregrines have an intensity of gaze to match any top predator in the animal kingdom. You will find them on just about every precipitous cliff around the coast. Most of the time they are sitting, watching.

But occasionally they lose their cool. Paddle round the most exposed parts of the coast on a still day in August and you will hear the shrill squeal of a juvenile peregrine. It is a noise which is unbelievably far carrying and unbelievably annoying. Designed specifically to irritate parents and push them to the edge so they go and get them a meal to shut them up.

Adults can get so annoyed they will even kill their fellow falcons. In fact the only successful kill I have ever seen a peregrine make from the seat of a kayak is when one caught a kestrel and then dropped the carcase in mid air for its offspring to catch.

The kestrel would have every reason to feel a bit miffed because nine out of ten would consider themselves to be top of the food chain.

Peregrine...always watching
Peregrine.....always watching