Day 1 Penarth to Aberthaw, 12 miles
Sue messaged: “Shall we meet at Sully Island to plan our attack?” Sounds good to me. Sue was going to be in the Gower for ten days spending some time with her Mum. She was free to paddle daytimes. Her dogs Scout and Izzie would be offering bank support. That meant there would be a big welcome at the end of each morning’s paddle.
Sully Island was our intended destination at the end of the Severn Estuary paddle. We’d stopped short at Penarth. Probably just in time: the tennis elbow I’d acquired on that trip was still troubling me but I was longing to get back on the water. Gently of course. In sensible stages.
Sue’s confidence and enthusiasm blew me away. “So we’ll meet at the pub at Sully, get over to Penarth slip to launch at high water at 19:00 hrs, paddle to Aberthaw, catch a few hours sleep and then launch again at 7:00 and get to Ogmore. We’ve got a plan!” A few hours sleep? What could go wrong. We’re on!
Penarth Slip had become a regular feature in my dreams complete with silent fisherman and can lobbing teens. The teens had departed but our fisherman was still there. Under the pier, past Penarth Rowing Club, past Barry Island. Sue had visited Barry Island in the eighties. This is how it looked in 1986. Thanks to the Severn Estuary flow, and with the wind at our backs, it was a very short paddle to Aberthaw. It was like being on a smooth conveyor belt. We were there to see the sunset giving the power station a romantic filmic glow. 12 miles in the bag. Good plan Sue. Great welcome Iz and Scout.
Aberthaw should have been a quiet, untroubled place for a sleep with only the rumble of the sea and the bass notes of the power station to run through our dreams. Aberthaw took its last delivery of Welsh coal in 2017 and now runs with a lower energy output on gas. It transpired that our carpark was the venue for non-stop night time activity which involved handbrake turns and much coming and going. I was glad Scout and Iz put up a good show of barking every time roving headlights raked our corner.
Day 2 Aberthaw to Porthcawl 17 miles
Paddling past Atlantic College at St Donats was always going to be a day for our dear, much loved Rose. Rose had been a student at the college. Rose was 18 when, last year, she took her own life after a long struggle with sadness and depression. She was beautiful, a talented musician, she had a talent for friendship. She had a five star gift for play, giggling and silliness. But sadness too. I am one of many, many people who think of her every day. So on this morning I picked a rose and some herbs for her and tucked them into my buoyancy aid. This was a chance to say sorry and good bye, yet again.
I left the rosemary, the ivy and the rose on the water for her in the bay below the college. The water wouldn’t take it. I tucked the flower back under my deck lines and paddled on. Iz and Scout’s joyous, unconditional welcome at the end of the day was just right.
As I paddle I am collecting for Mind. Thank you to every single person who has so generously donated. Mind does its best to fill some of that lonesome gap for so many people who are either struggling with mental illness or who are the loving friends and family of people with mental illness. Did Rose contact Mind? I think it is very likely that she did. So that day was for Rose.
Sea State: zero. Glassy calm. Wind: Beaufort nothing, the wind turbines showing zero action. But still a steady flow as the tide ebbs. So in no time at all I’m passing Port Talbot. I have promised to stop and text Sue. So good to sit and drink coffee at a beachside cafe and watch the world go by, the tide inexorably withdrawing from my boat.
Port Talbot is a busy place. According to Wikipedia the works are capable of producing nearly 5 million tonnes of steel slab per annum, making it the larger of the two major steel plants in the UK and one of the largest in Europe. But Tata Steel announced on 30 March 2016 it is to pull out of its UK operations, including Port Talbot because of “imports of Chinese steel, high energy costs and weak demand”. Plans to save the steelworks were put on hold when potential buyers indicated their intention to withdraw from the bidding process due to the UK voting in favour of withdrawing from the EU. The wellbeing of the area and the jobs of 4000 employees at the site are at stake. This May Tata said they would be keeping the plant open. Let’s hope it works out.
On this July day the beach is all golden sands and sunshine. Port Talbot looks like a thriving happy community. Pretty young mums carry trophy babies. Comfortably pretty ladies of a certain age (my age) carry tiny trophy dogs. Mobility scooters scoot the promenade.
I asked a young RNLI lifeguard if she could explain currents in Swansea Bay. I remembered reading something about “an anti-clockwise flow starts 3 hours before HW at Mumbles, with the tide actually flowing for 9 hours”. I prefer not to paddle against the flow. “Oh no!” She happily assured me. “There are no currents in the sea. The tide goes in! The tide goes out! It goes out a very very long way sometimes but there aren’t any currents.” Ah. Good to know.
Where the River Neath flows into the sea there was a little tiderace. It was no more than I expected and could deal with. Not much later I realised that the white horses on the waves were increasing. “This” as a fisherman observed to me later, “was not what we expected.” I was trying to remember the kayaker’s saying that a “few” white horses indicate a wind force of maybe 2 to 3 on the Beaufort Scale, “many” it might be up to force 4, “often” it’s force something more. Was this few, many or often? The wind turbine’s fins were moving again and had turned in to face a South Westerly wind. Waves were kicking up in the shallow water. The wind was running against the flow of the water knocking the tops of the waves back into white spray. An easy day was turning into a something a little more challenging. It was satisfying and confidence building to know that I could easily do this and plenty more on my own. Finally the University Campus and Swansea Harbour were behind me and I was back in quieter water heading for excellent coffee shops, Sue and the hounds.
At Mumbles Pier three beautiful young men had just finished circumnavigating the Gower Peninsula in sharky whitewater racing kayaks. It had taken them a few hours and they would now run back to pick up their cars. One of them, William, offered me help and advice for my journey through Pembrokeshire. He has swum, kayaked and sailed every step of the way. For me Porthcawl to The Mumbles was enough for one day: 22 miles.
Day 4 Mumbles to Caswell Bay 4 miles
A short day on the water. Just 4 miles to set us up for some fun with the Shrewsbury pals. We took it slowly. Kittiwakes have a colony on nesting platforms on the Mumbles Pier. These elegant birds have filthy nesting habits. They have no time for housework! Some welcome coaching on breaking in and out of eddies between Mumbles Head and Middle Head and then a short hop to Caswell Bay. The sea and the rocks are changing. The sea was still tea coloured with Severn Estuary mud at St Donats. Finally on the Gower it is crispy clear. One of the thrills of sea paddling is that you get travel where the sea meets the rock. A friend, Ed Loffill has pointed me to a site where you can find out about these rocks. So now I know that in South Glamorgan the rocks were “mercia mudstone” formed 201 million years ago in the Triassic period. As we got closer to Porthcawl we saw more limestone, laid down 345 million years ago. The rocks between the Mumbles and Caswell are limestone, offering exciting water-weathered shapes. They promise fossils, caves and stacks to come. Our Shrewsbury friends have a long drive ahead of them but it’s going to be worth it.
Day 5 Caswell Bay to Porth Eynon 12 miles
Brian, Ali and Emma looked shattered when they arrived at Hillend campsite It’s a long drive from Shrewsbury. But it is an extraordinary place. Rhossili Downs slide down to a fabulous shifting dunescape. As the evening wore on the site was filling up with an eclectic band of the work weary who shared one happy ambition: to make this weekend memorable. I was so so excited to see them! So proud of them for coming the distance. But a little anxious: would it be, for them, worth the hassle?
As the coastline unfolded we realised that this day would be one box of delights. As sea kayakers we could nibble in and out of limestone gullies and caves. Secret places just for us and the sea birds. But it’s clear that this is a paradise for climbers and walkers, botanists and geologists as well.
Culver Hole is a giant sea cave with its entrance is sealed off by a wall that is 60 feet high and probably dates back to the 13th century. Apparently the internal wall face hasabout 30 tiers of rectangular nesting boxes which would have been home to hundreds of medieval pigeons. That’s as may be. We preferred to think of it as a smuggler’s den. After all Brandy Cove is not far away.
Next up, Three Cliffs Bay. Sue had asked me, a few days before, was it hard being a single parent family? Well yes, it’s not ideal…but no, so long as we had the wheels and the petrol to get to Three Cliffs Bay when the sun shone for days and city life became unbearable. It was where the city dust would be magicked away. It’s that sort of a place.
We wanted to be there when there was still enough water to paddle under the famous arch. We were too late so I paddled as far as I could, lobbed my paddle through, inveigled an unsuspecting young man to help me carry my boat through and then back to the sea on the river. Part of the magic of this beach is that the river changes its course with every tide. And so onwards, taking our time to soak up the pleasures of the coast. Landing at Port Eynon meant a heck of a carry with our boats but what a day. It was worth it. And it was great to meet up with the dogs and Sue’s husband Jon, who had kindly volunteered to help us with the shuttle. The dogs were so tired after their walk with Jon that they could hardly raise a paw in greeting.
Day 6 Port Eynon to Rhossili 11 miles
“Look at that!” Ali said. “Worms Head. I can’t believe we’re going to do Worms Head. What will Bill say!” Bill would say he wished he were with us. I wished he was. And Amy. I wish she was here. The name “Worms Head” does not convey any of the grandeur and mystery of this place. The scrambled mile long line of cliffs at the end of the Gower is like a sleeping dragon stretched out into the sea. Perhaps the dragon might wake as you dare to round it. Indeed this is not a place to be in strong winds. But today is calm and blue and we are in good company. The word old English “wyrm” meant Dragon. The old German word “wurm” and Norse “ormr” likewise. So this is truly the Dragon’s Head. And so we paddle up it, round it and down into Rhossili Bay.
So on this Sunny Sunday we had limestone cliffs to play beneath. Caves to explore. Worms Head and even a little tiny bit of surf to see us home. And once again Jon and the dogs were here to help us at the finish. For Jon, Brian, Emma, Ali, Emma and Warren it was time for the long drive home. Thank you all for being there! For me and Sue it was time to drive both cars over to Saundersfoot. We left her car there and made it back to the Mumbles. Sleep! We’ve got a crossing to do in the morning.
Day 7 Rhossili to Caldey Island, Tenby and Saundersfoot 24 miles
Not everyone loves a crossing. I do. I love the feeling of exposure. Especially when the sea is milky and someone as competent as Sue is doing the navigating. “Ok” She said, with that slight edge in her voice which means it would be a good idea to listen up. “Ok so the flow is going thus, and we would like to just cross here but that’s not on. Because the firing range is active.” There are two ranges, Pendine and Pembrey. Quite soon we hear the crump and boom of detonations. How fast are you going, how far do you want to go, which direction and how fast is the flow taking us? So we will paddle for 2 hours on a Westerly bearing. We’ll stop every hour for a snack. When we reach the yellow buoy marking the edge of the range we can turn towards Caldey Island. My radio is on dual channel giving us both the coastguard and the firing range’s channel. As well as phoning the coastguard to let them know our plan Sue is using RYA Safe Trx on her smartphone. This is a free downloadable app that uses GPS to track our route through the day. The coastguard like it a lot. It means they and National Coastwatch will be able to track us. If there were an emergency they’d be able to locate us fast.
By the time we reach the yellow buoy we are well out to sea. We have flocks of Guillemots and then Manx Shearwater for company. These wonderful birds are the artists of flying and we have the pleasure of watching them close up. Thousands of Shearwater breed on Skomer. They’ve made a comeback on Lundy where the RSPB have succeeded in eradicating the rats that threatened these ground nesting birds. Like the Puffins the Shearwaters will migrate once their single chicks are fledged. And like the Puffins the Sheerwater adult birds leave their chicks to find their way alone. How do they do it?
As we make our way to Caldey Island and lunch Sue is still reminding me to head well east from our destination as the flow is strongly and visibly taking us west. Lucky I’m not a Shearwater. I don’t think I’d make it to the South Atlantic.
With an eddy against us it’s a slog back to Saundersfoot. I hardly notice it because it is such a thrill to have crossed over to Tenby. To have actually reached Pembrokeshire. It’s been a wonderful 7 days of paddling. 102 miles. And my “injured” elbow is doing just fine.
Thank you Sue. Thank you Jon, Ali, Brian, Emma, Warren, Iz, Scout, Dianne and everyone along the way. Thank you to the Coastguard who said they’d tracked us all the way. Thank you to the little Polish girl who sat in my boat on Saundersfoot beach and sang, with very precise diction “Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream…”
It’s time for home again. I want my man, my cats and my grandaughter.