Cross-Scotland Kayak Adventure Part 3.

The rain that had begun as we arrived at our car park camp site the previous night continued into the grey halflight of the following morning. ‘Rain always sounds worse inside a tent’ I told myself as I lay awake, mentally preparing myself to unzip the door flap and start day 3. When I finally did, I was greeted by ‘fast wiper-setting’ rain. Bang went another theory.

We were back to the world in greyscale. Clouds were being blown down the loch at half the height of the mountains either side. You felt like you should stoop to keep your head out of them.
Wet wetsuits were the order of the day once more. The benefit of paddling in a wet suit is that once the rain has made its way past the ‘waterproof’ cag (cag being the trendy, kayaker’s name for a cagoule), the water will be held against your skin. It will then warm up and provide some insulation. This works OK while you keep moving and keep that layer of water warm.

We stuck close to the south-eastern shore and the busy A82. We were close enough to see the drivers passing by with their ‘rat race frowns’, oblivious to us and the presence of anything outside of their limited field of attention. On the water, and despite the rain, we were seeing otters, cerlew, dozens of noisy oystercatchers and many other species that my limited ornithology doesn’t run to.

Before long we were alongside the extended line of hotels and guesthouses that form the outskirts of Fort William. Despite the place not being a favourite of either of us, the idea of a cooked breakfast and a new pair of sandals for Steve (we’d had to gaffer tape his to his foot each morning after they failed on day one) was lifting our spirits. We paddled right into the harbour and beached outside of the town’s leisure centre – quite why a town with Ben Nevis, Loch Linnhe and a thousand other natural sporting arena needs such a facility I’m not sure.

By now we were back at maximum wetness, and as we tramped across the hideous, dual carriageway bypass to Morrison’s, the wind began to chill us. Morrison’s that day had many attractions. The Large Big Scottish Breakfast (it really did have two adjectives), coffee that didn’t require my pruned fingers to operate a stove to enjoy, somewhere to sit that was heated, but best of all… they had HAND-DRYERS.

We took turns visiting the gents to hold open the front of our (own) rolled down wetsuits and blow the beautiful warm, dry air over our underwear. First the front, then the back.
Then the front…

Men came into the toilets from time to time but quickly turned and fled when they were greeted with the site of a half-dressed wildman, standing in a puddle, grinning as he heated his groin.
My update on the (excellent) TrackMyTour app I was using to allow people to follow our progress catches the mood…

Morrison's Cafe
Several hours later, and after a squelch into Fort Bill for sandals, we were back at the boats. Since we’d left them, the tide had gone out and we faced a 200m drag through the sand, seaweed and broken glass to get to the water.
The tide going out had changed the next challenge we had to face too. The River Lochy flows out into the top end of Loch Linnhe. When the tide is in, the large areas of mud and sand banks are covered and the water is spread across a large area. With the tide out, the river if funnelled into fast-moving, narrow channels, separated by gravel banks. Out in the centre of the loch was ‘The Muncher’ as Steve christened it, an area of waves, currents and eddies that it was obvious that if you paddled (or were dragged) into, there would be very little chance of escape.
After half an hour of wandering backwards and forwards, dragging boats and trying to convince ourselves of the safety of each option, we decided we would head upriver a little and ferry-glide across. This involves pointing the boat up-river and paddling into the current, while at the same time moving sidewards across the river.
Time and tide wait for no man. It was time to go. Steve started 50m up-river from me and as I watched his progress, got caught in a whirlpool caused by the fast -flowing river re-joining having been channelled around a shingle bank. He flipped over as the flow caught him and he was dragged downstream. Again, he was out of his boat in no-time, testament to the training he had received with the coaches at PaddlePlus, but he was still moving quickly downstream and inexorably towards The Muncher.
I got to a bank in the middle of the flow and got out of my boat. It is important in these situations that rather than get myself into the same situation by rushing after him, to observe and if necessary, call for help. I wouldn’t be able to do that if I was getting Munched too.
150m downstream, the water became shallow enough that Steve could get purchase on the on the bottom and stop his movement Muncherwards. Disoriented, he began to drag his boat back out into the flow and deeper water. I paddled out and guided him to another small island of stones. The tide by now was coming back in rapidly and it was obvious that this island would beck underwater again in 5 or 10 minutes.
We pumped out the boat, allowed our nerves to settle a bit before paddling out once more.
We had just 1km to go to get to the safety of the Corpach lock that separates the sea loch from the start of the Caledonian canal and calm water. The relief when we made it was immense.
Scottish Coast To Coast Paddle
We were cold and wet. Our confidence had taken another beating and for a moment we were questioning our sanity and the reasons we were doing this.
On the last occasion that we had been at such a low, we met the lady who guided us to the warmth and hospitality of the farmhouse. This time, our salvation came in the form of a gang of British Waterways employees who were gathered in the lock-keeper’s office. They had been gathered for their annual medical checks, coming from their various workplaces all along the canal. While their dental hygiene was pretty shocking, the joking and banter, an incident with superglue, as well as the coffee they produced for us was priceless. The professionalism of these guys, who while laughing and joking were still delivering the important safety information we’d need in the next 60 miles or so was fantastic. And the lift they gave to us and our boats to the top lock was ‘above and beyond’.
Someone seemed to be watching over us on this trip…

After the challenge of the next flight of locks at the fantastically named Neptune’s Staircase, 6 miles of steady paddling, on the perfectly flat, non-tidal canal, in improving weather further lifted our spirits.

Our target for the night was Gairlochy. The BW guys had told us of a shower and tumble dryer there as well as space to camp. We arrived just as darkness was falling and the rain stopping. It was our promised land. The shower heavenly. The lift (ho ho) that having dry underpants brings cannot be underestimated.

Read about day 4 here.

Cross-Scotland Kayak Adventure

This is the ‘index page’ for all the links to our fundraising trip across Scotland by kayak.You may have followed our tour using via the TrackMyTour updates as we went.

Either way, I hope you’ll enjoy the story here:
Scottish Coast To Coast Paddle

Scottish Coast To Coast Paddle

Cross-Scotland Kayak Adventure Part 1.

Phew. Well, where to start.

I’ll just tell it like it was and hope it works out…

So last week, Steve and I kayaked across Scotland to raise a few quid for LOROS. Rather than the fairly standard Fort William to Inverness, Great Glen route, Steve decided that we were to add on about half again with a paddle through the sea loch, Loch Linnhie from Oban first.

After virtually no preparation on my part, we travelled up and as usual, how far away Scotland is took me by surprise. Carlisle was halfway. On the way we passed the northern shores of Loch Awe and already the seeds were sown for the next adventure…

Oban was pretty enough, but the on/off rain finally made its mind up as we browsed the Oban Sea Kayak shop, and the streets soon flooded. Our accommodation was the Corran House Bunkhouse. When we mentioned our trip and the fact that we were doing it for charity, the landlady insisted that the room would be reduced and the (huge) breakfast would be free.

Scottish Coast To Coast Paddle
After a final night of preparation in Markie Dan’s, a solid night’s sleep and that breakfast set us up nicely. Beforehand though, we had decided that we could still catch the tide after watching Scotland play Argentina in the rugby world cup. The loss, after being 12-6 up with 8 minutes to go could have been an omen. As could the wind and rain that was back as we set off from the beach right outside the hostel.
The fully loaded boats felt pretty stable in the calm conditions of Oban’s natural harbour, sheltered by Kerrera, but as we passed out into the Lynn of Lorn, the swell began to combine with the wind and spring tide to make conditions more challenging.
After 5km or so, we pulled in to the beach next to the Marine Science Centre on the southern side of Ardmucknish Bay. A headland gave us a decent viewpoint to assess conditions in the bay and the crossing we were about to make from here around the headland of Fionn Ard.
Scottish Coast To Coast Paddle
The picture I took shows what we saw. Some small waves, wind and rain. We were fresh, it would be fine…
Halfway across this 3.5km crossing, the wind, tide, flow out from Loch Etive and torrential rain all conspired to create a swell of 5 feet or so with waves whipped up by the wind crossing the swell and breaking over the top of my kayak. 
It was terrifying, exhilarating and great fun, all at the same time.. My heart pounded in my chest. There was no chance to rest, retrace our route or short-cut this experience. We were committed and only effort would get us out of it.
Steve was quicker through the water, his sea kayak much more suited to the environment. I did my best to keep up, but quite often, because of the size of the waves and the disorienting effect of the boat being thrown about on the waves, I lost track of where he was and the point of the coast we were aiming for. Steve sensibly took the decision that we needed to get ashore as soon as we could and so rather than rounding the headland and possibly exposing us to even worse conditions, he headed for the bay of Camas Nathais.
The wind and rain continued to batter us as we staggered out of our boats and onto the beach. Everything was shades of grey. Stuck in my head was the Withnail and I quote about going ‘on holiday by mistake’.

I fired up the stove, believing that things wouldn’t seem quite as grim with warm coffee and some homemade flapjack inside us. Unfortunately, they were. We were soaked to the skin (possibly beyond that if that’s possible). As the realisation of what we were up against dawned on us, we weighed up our options. We could sit where we were and get colder and hope that things improved, we could paddle back out into the tempest and around the headland, or we could drag the boats across the headland – about 800m of knee deep seaweed and stone track.
I am delighted to say that Steve and I share an outlook that in situations like this, it is better to DO something – anything to try and improve the situation. So off we went, manhandling our fully laden boats across the hill that separated us from some (hopefully) calmer water and getting back out on the water.
Scottish Coast To Coast Paddle

The effort seemed to be worthwhile and although we had lost a lot of time, we were able to put back in in the shelter of Eilean Raibhach and continue along the coastline.
Before long, the weather and waves were back and we were forced ashore again on Rubha Clach Tholl. We had just crossed the mouth of Loch Creran and paddled straight through the tidal race there. This means that the tide is flowing out of the Loch and through some form of underwater restriction, causing waves to ‘stand’ on the surface, meaning that even though I was paddling full-speed forwards, when I looked across to the shore, I could see I was travelling backwards. After expending far more effort than was sensible, I made my way around the race and to the headland.
We really did have a lot to learn. Loughborough canal really was nothing like this…

Scottish Coast To Coast Paddle
By now, the ludicrousness of what we were doing was hitting home and the giggling fits began. My colleagues 500 miles away were just coming to the end of their working day in their air-conditioned offices and were going to walk a few yards to their cars before driving home to eat a balanced meal and putting the TV on.
I was peeing on my feet because the wind and rain made even the simple things a challenge. Still, at least there were no midges.
But we needed to get on. We were already hours behind the schedule we had set ourselves. Castle Stalker was just along the coast and that promised to be a highlight. 
The weather improved as the light began to fail and we needed somewhere to camp. The main A82 road ran along the south-east edge of the Sound and so we headed for the island to try to camp away from it. The whole island appeared to be a marsh. Bits that weren’t marsh were streams. It was hopeless. We headed back across the sound towards the road and an area of what looked to be flat grass. It wasn’t. We were stuck. 
Just then, a lady walking her dog appeared. She may or may not have been real. 
Steve asked if she might have an idea where we could camp. She suggested that we ask at the farmhouse. When we did, the gentleman that owned the place saw the state we were in and invited us in. Not only that, but he offered us each a bed for the night, a shower and somewhere to dry wet kit!
We shared our basic pasta meal with him and opened our bottle of 14 year old Oban single malt to toast the kindness of strangers. After our free breakfast and now this, it felt like the people of the Highlands knew what their environment could throw at us and so needed to help.
Scottish Coast To Coast Paddle

I slept in a room that appeared to have been the owner’s son’s. It also appeared that the room had not been touched since that son, a fine young horseman by the look of his rosettes, had left home 20+ years before.
In the seconds between laying down and falling asleep, I had the feeling that I was still on the water. Like being drunk, but rather than spinning, the world was bobbing up and down on the waves.

Day one was over. We were miles short of our campsite, but we were safe and dry for what felt like the first time since we’d left Oban.

Read about day 2 here.

people get crushed like biscuit crumbs…

paddle to the pub   paddle to the pub
paddle to the pub

steve and i left straight from work for a paddle on the river soar. it was the first time i’ve been on the water for what feels like months – it’s been all about cycling recently.
as usual, we called in at the riverside pub for a quick one before paddling home into the sunset.
i can’t tell you how relaxing these trips are, especially straight from work.
thanks steve.

megawatt alley

today offered another snatched opportunity to paddle. i only had time for quick outing (my work/life balance needs a tweak) and so we stayed local.
i collected steve and the usual routine of loading boats onto cars and bags into boots was performed, albeit a little more smoothly than usual.
after leaving one car in the car park in the centre of shardlow (a place i’d never been to before), we headed for swarkestone. our route took us backwards and forwards across the trent a couple of times. it was a boiling, brown flow that had burst its banks in several places. although in this area of gravel pits and power station sluices, the river seems to be rarely contained and had many off-piste opportunities.
swarkestone to shardlow
we parked next to the church and carried down the 50m or so to the water. each and every person we saw in swarkestone looked at us like we were aliens. particularly nasty looking aliens at that. i’m not sure how they thought we were going to spoil their rural idyll (well, any more than the bloody great road that runs through their village). because of the welcome we had no second thoughts about ignoring the ‘private drive, private’ sign and making our way to the bank.
swarkestone causeway is a thirteenth century stone structure that crosses the trent and the floodplain next to it and is the longest stone bridge in britain. it is amazing to think that this thing has stood for so long. what is more amazing is that we still allow traffic to use it.
the bridge in picture above was built after that section was swept away in 1795. a huge flood washed trees and timber down the river until it built up such a weight as to demolish the bridge.
as we took to the water, the flow turned our boats sharp left and we were off. the weather was fantastic and the low winter sun caused us one or two problems spotting the boils, eddies and whirlpools that were being caused by so much water moving so quickly.
there were many swans along this first section and we were treated to a few close-up take-offs and landings. as usual, the camera was tucked safely (and dry-ly) away for most of them.
swarkestone to shardlow
we were heading generally east, towards the ratcliffe power station. it appeared to be spewing steam from all of its chimneys. something i’m not sure i’ve seen before.
swarkestone to shardlow
the most ‘interesting’ section of the route came at the priest house hotel at king’s mill near castle donnington. there used to be a weir here that has long since been washed away. it is usually a grade 1 rapid although the first standing wave today looked to be a couple of feet high. it’s the first time my new boat has had a proper soaking and i’ve realised how porous touring spraydecks can be.
as usual, both steve and i were quite worried by this thing as we approached, but wanted another go immediately after clearing it.
we passed the remains of castle donnington power station and then under the railway bridge. there was only a couple of feet of clearance under here – i’m glad there were no trains.
swarkestone to shardlow
we passed shardlow village on the left and then passed under cavendish bridge and into leicestershire. from here the trent is navigable. the marina was full of wintering boats but we were still being carried rapidly along until the river opened out at derwent mouth. here, the trent is joined by the river derwent and the trent and mersey canal. there is an awful lot of water about!
swarkestone to shardlow
between us an the car was a mile of dirty canal and one lock. that didn’t mean however that there wasn’t time to stop for coffee and biscuits. when i say biscuits, i am understating the facts. in truth, they were abernethy biscuits…
abernethy biscuits are made in edinburgh by simmers. they’re named after their scottish inventor dr john abernethy, who in turn was probably named after the scottish town. the town takes its name from the celtic word ‘aber’ , which doesn’t mean dodgy attired viking singing group, but ‘mouth of’, and ‘nethy’ which is the name of the river.
they are fantastic. like shortbread, but thinner and less sweet. worth a trip north especially!
refreshed, we finally had to put some effort in to paddling (until now, the flow of the river had carried us along at over 10kmh) but were soon back in the village and amongst the sunday lunchers squeezing into the two pubs next to the canal.
as has been the way in our recent trips, we were blessed with great weather during the paddle only for it to rain (or snow) on the way home.
swarkestone to shardlow
a grand trip anyway. the sort that makes me feel very smug on a monday morning when the people at work ask what i did over the weekend. 60 miles by bike and 10 by boat while most of them were still in bed.

if you want to see the exact route we took, take a look here: nokia sportstracker

kegworth to beeston

today was our first paddle of 2010 and it was one that stay in the memory for a while.
for one reason or another, it was quarter to two before we left steve’s house and headed for the river. dropping the car off at beeston was going to involve a 20-odd mile drive, unless we took the wrong motorway junction and had a detour around the nottingham ring road. in which case it would be much longer…
so it was after quarter past three before we got on the water, leaving us a whole 75 minutes of daylight to cover the 15km to beeston.
car park
the car told me it was -0.5 degrees as we left. what it didn’t tell me was that there was a strong northerly breeze blowing that was going to chill any exposed or wet skin. so we got our heads down and paddled fairly hard for the first mile or so to ratcliffe lock.
we realised that where the water was stationary in the locks, it was likely to be frozen, but due to our late start, we decided to persevere with canal rather than the meandering river.
my strategy for the ice was to approach it as fast as possible and paddle straight onto the top of it. then i could gracefully glide across the ice before easing back into the water like a seal from a glacier…
what actually happened was that every time the front of the boat got onto the edge of the ice it would begin to crack. we’d have to back off, get some speed up and repeat. the novelty began to wear off…
finally i did get onto the ice. the graceful glide was actually me grunting my way, inches at a time, propelled by my knuckles.
steve was having the same problems… only more so… i turned around and started breaking the ice from the opposite direction, hoping i could clear a path for him. eventually, he did manage to get onto the ice and celebrated by getting out his new, waterproof camera for the first time, only to find that the battery was flat!

silence fell.

after this delay it really was getting dark and we still had a long way to go.
soon enough though, the soar met the trent and we turned right. avoiding trent lock for fear of it being frozen, we portaged to the right of the weir that the lock bypasses. we stopped for a coffee, a digestive and a pee. just then, we were lit up by headlights and flashing orange lights. as the truck drove towards us, we prepared our excuses… ‘we’re b.c.u. members. we can be here’, ‘we’ll tell them we’re lost, right…’.
as it happened, the three security guards from e-on (owners of ratcliffe power station) who had been scrambled after we had been spotted on the c.c.t.v. system were fine with us, if a little bemused that people would be paddling in the dark and sub-zero temperatures.
once back on the water, we had the flow of the trent behind us and 7km to go. the temperature continued to drop and both my spray deck and boat were now covered with an ever growing layer of ice.
we spooked a few herons, grebes and anglers as we paddled onwards through the darkness, but the sound of beeston weir growing ever closer.
by the time we arrived at the marina, the snow was falling again and it felt like we had an epic day behind us.
i sit at home now with glowing cheeks. the kind that can only be earned by a great day in the outdoors.
iced deck

more pictures here


i thought i’d try to document our paddle on the river trent and the nottingham beeston canal, just in case anyone was thinking of doing a similar trip.
the route we took is here:
after calling in at desperate measures to borrow an open boat for steve and his son mark, we headed to the city ground and parked right outside the nottingham kayak club’s clubhouse on trent side north (that’s the name of the street, even though it is south of the trent). we were there on a weekday in december and didn’t struggle to park. i guess it’ll be ok at any time of year apart from saturday afternoons in the football season.
trent and beeston paddle
from here it is a simple carry down steps to the trent. this is the ramp used by both the kayak club and the university rowing club so a perfect place to get onto the water.
the only downside is that it is only 100m before you’re out of the boat again. entrance to the nottingham beeston canal is almost straight opposite you through the lock. portage is to the right of the lock and accessed by a floating pontoon and ramp. getting across the river will give you a feel for how fast it is flowing.
once through this newly restored lock, you head straight for the centre of the city alongside london road, heading due north. this is a very old part of the city, but plenty to look at from the boat, including notts county fc and the railway station.
at the premier inn there is a 90 degree left turn under the main road and into the heart of the newly developed (and developing) part of town.
trent and beeston paddle
past the broadmarsh on the right before you arrive at castle wharf. here there are a couple of bars and places to eat although it may be a bit early in your trip for that. to the left is the magistrate’s court beyond what i assume is an ancient bridge.
trent and beeston paddle
there are some fantastic old buildings to see from the canal and the feeling of smugness as you glimpse the queues of traffic and people rushing about is great
trent and beeston paddle trent and beeston paddle
through the next lock, portaged to the left and you’re off out into the suburbs. the buildings thin out a little and greenery increases. past a huge marina on the left, under a handful of bridges (including the massive A52 by-pass) and you’re into countryside.
trent and beeston paddle
being a canal, the going remains as steady as you like and on our trip we saw one moving canal boat all day.
after a couple of hours (at our pace) or 10km, you’ll arrive at beeston lock. i’d suggest you get out on the left bank, just before the entrance to the private mooring. it is this way you’ll head when you set off along the river. the cafe is across the footbridge and along to the right of the lock.
for the previous half mile or so you will have heard the roar of the mighty weir. the weir is hydro-electric and when you stand close to it, you struggle to understand why the whole of nottingham can’t be powered by this huge movement of water. it is an impressive sight with radcliffe power station in the distance.
trent and beeston paddle
trent and beeston paddle
almost as impressive are the lunch menus at the boathouse cafe at the beeston marina. all the lunchtime meals are £2. yup, TWO ENGLISH POUNDS! so the three of us had sausages, eggs and chips, coffee and coke and spent £8 in total.
trent and beeston paddle
after the distractions of the cafe its down to business and the return leg along the river trent, back into town. there is a real easy get in at the bottom of the weir. as soon as the nose of your boat is out into the main flow though, the speeds increase dramatically. the river boils and eddies for a couple of hundred meters after the weir (at least it did when we were there in fairly high water conditions) before opening out and slowing down again. at this point, you get a good idea of what a major river the trent is.
trent and beeston paddle
while you know you’re close to a major city, the heron count goes up and the feelings of an epic journey fill you as the river carries you rapidly along.
trent and beeston paddle
the river bends lazily as you get closer to the city with familiar landmarks along the way. these include the victoria embankment and war memorial on the left, cricket ground on the right and eventually, the famous trent bridge.
trent and beeston paddle
you’ll need your wits about you along this section as there are plenty of very fast moving skulls, shells and eights, assuming i’ve got the names right. the last landmark is the city ground and you’re back where you started.
a little over 11 miles, a bit of excitement after the weir and a real variety of things to see from city centre canal to a genuinely big river on the way back.