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It was extraordinary. We were extraordinary. I keep wanting to say “Thank you thank you thank you Sue” but she says “Look, we were on an adventure.” She’s right, we were and it was great. (Thank you Sue!)
Let’s start in the middle under the second Severn Bridge. Look up, you’ve got time. It’s as if the belly of a mammoth sleek airliner was roaring low overhead, all silver plates and rivets. A moment ago trucks on the bridge looked like dinky toys. Did even a single driver look down and see us, twig slim, skimming below them? I look down and a whirlpool opens up tawny muscular chops in front of me. And I scream! I don’t want to be gobbled up by that thing. Sue laughs and says “Just keep paddling!” And I do.
We’d started at Sharpness Docks. There was no wind at all. This was the weather window we’d been waiting for and it didn’t look as if it would last for long. A day, maybe two. It wasn’t totally perfect. We’d’ve liked a more settled weather window, we’d’ve liked a third paddler: Amy, Brian, Rosie, Dave we thought of you. And we would have liked a bigger spring tide but it was workable. The plan was to ride the ebb flow from Sharpness to Clevedon on day one and on day two to take the same ride down to Flat Holm and then ferry glide a 4 kilometre hop over to Sully Island just south of Cardiff. Two glamorous days. It was a great plan. Our boats would follow the national boundary down the middle of the Estuary. I’d’ve loved a drone’s eye view.
Little fellas like kayaks aren’t allowed to use the lock gates. The docks were themselves empty of working boats and almost forlorn. There’s still a giant scrap metal business going on but few commercial boats. This whole area was enlivened and enriched by boats sending coal, lime, agricultural produce out and bringing timber in. The boat yards down the canal and right into Gloucester used the timber to build Severn Trows, boats ideally suited to the formidable estuary conditions. Whole communities made their livings from the navigation. The trows’ wide flat hulls would have a good chance of dealing with the awful hazard of grounding on the shifting mudflats and the high sides would help with the turbulence of the Shoots tiderace. They must have been a magnificent sight. The ports of Cardiff, Avonmouth and Barry are still busy but Sharpness is sleepy.
Our boats packed and ready and carried through the reeds there was nowt to do but sit and watch the water rise with impressive rapidity.
The first thing you notice once on the water is the sense of scale. It is one of the biggest estuaries in Europe. The waters of four major rivers the Severn, Wye, Usk and Avon funnel in to it. For a while paddling felt quite ordinary but then it started to move. The game is to keep in the channel. The channel is wide, wide enough for commercial boats but the penalty for missing it is serious. Mud. The water is so silt laden that you can’t see the mud banks coming up at you. The first thing you know is that a gob of sticky grey stuff is stuck on your paddle blade. The mud banks are truly vast. They have claimed many a vessel throughout history. The most common call out to SARA, the Search and Rescue Volunteers, is from boats left stranded on the mud by the incredible speed of the withdrawing tide. It feels like someone has pulled a very big bath plug out!
The Old Bridge isn’t that old. It’s a beautiful piece of engineering. It was opened by the Queen in 1966. She said it would herald prosperity for South Wales. Before then you had to drive via Gloucester or use the Aust Ferry which only took 16 cars and was so narrow you couldn’t get out of the car. The old ferry slip at Beachley is still there just in from the Hen and Chickens tiderace. It’s worth knowing about as opportunities to get on and off the water are so rare. Ray Goodwin’s account was in my mind when I was preparing for this trip “The turn (of the tide) was abrupt and we were hurtled down the channel. Although the wind was with the flow it was kicking up a messy sea rebounding off the submerged mud flats. We reached 12 mph at one point. The decision to pull out at Beachley was easy. The guys at the coastguard station were very friendly and soon had mugs of tea in our hands… I was glad to be off the water that day. An hour and a half in the kayaks and we were wrung out.” Ray is a better, more experienced paddler than most.
Sue and I had a different sort of day. We went pleasantly fast but nothing like 12mph. The Hen and Chickens race had not yet formed. Eddy lines were powerful, there was a little turbulence and some boils but only enough to entertain us. There was nothing we didn’t know from the Menai Straits. We passed under the old bridge feeling elated trying to think of the right words to describe the beauty of this otherworldly landscape.
The Shoots are still to come. This is where the channel narrows significantly between reefs after the “new” second bridge (built in 1996 to allow more traffic flow). It was essential for us to keep to the channel. I’ve never had so many laminated charts and OS maps on my deck. Sue had the same and more. And we used them. The green on the charts are those treacherous mud flats.
The Shoots, when we got to them were turbulent and chaotic. They were hard to read but more fun than frightening. Once through we turned to look back. I don’t really expect to be there again and I wanted to soak it up. I still can’t find the words for it. Huge. Monumental. Epic. Off planet. Secret. If I lived down South I would love to learn my way around this extraordinary, constantly changing, challenging place.
Lunch on Denny Island? Why not. We had been on the water only a few hours but the rare opportunity to stop was too good to miss.
In the short time we sat munching the sky to the South started to gather clouds. Not the white fluffy sort, the grey massy ominous sort coming our way. The sea lost it’s glassy surface as the wind got up. We were looking over to Clevedon where a warm welcome and hot showers awaited us. Peter Goff, the Clevedon Sailing Club commodore had offered us the hospitality of the club house and, perhaps more importantly, the years of experience of local waters of the assembled Club Committee. We were so looking forward to meeting them. But there was something hostile in the air. Sue checked the wind on her phone. The wind was coming sooner and stronger. It was already building and by tomorrow, or sooner, would be force 5/6 rising to force 7/8. We needed to get closer inshore right now. If we went to the English side, we would be unlikely to be able to cross back for some days. It was a sad decision but not a hard one. I was sad that I didn’t have Peter’s phone number in my mobile and couldn’t let him know. Would he pick up a message on the club’s email? I hoped so.
We had another two hours of diminishing assistance from the ebb flow. To use it we would need to stay in the centre of the estuary. Flat Holm, only 4 kilometres from Sully Island on the Welsh side seemed enticingly close but we needed to be less exposed to the wind. For some hours we had the edge of Welsh Grounds to our right. From the water it has the shape of an upturned Severn Trow, a curved top going steep sided down to the water, occasionally runelled and textured by mysterious channels. It’s not a human environment. We can’t go there. Extending for miles it is a wonderful habitat for birds. The mud is a smorgasbord of bird food. Sailing Directions dating from 1884 note that the grounds occupy ‘..fully two-thirds of the water of the head of the Bristol channel; on an average they dry out from about 3 1/4 miles, and are 12 miles in length. The southwest extremity, called the SW spit, is a sharp point, bold-to on both sides, extending from that portion of the sand named Welsh Hook..The highest part of the Welsh grounds, about midway between the Denny and SW spit, is near the southern edge, where it dries up to a height of 30 feet at low water springs” So that’s where we were and I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Things were going well enough though any euphoria had fizzled away. Had we been able to see what our world looked like I think it would have started to look like the picture below. From a kayak’s eye view all you could see was the edge of the Welsh Grounds.
As we turned in to Cardiff Bay we lost tidal assistance. Time for a bite to eat and some water. It wasn’t that far. We’d be on shore in time for me to dig out Peter Goff’s number and call him. We weren’t. All I will say is that it was hard. Flat Holm slipped further and further away. Were we swinging round it? What was happening? Well behind us was Newport where the Usk flows into the estuary. But now the tide had turned it was, of course, flowing back up the river. It was a malicious force sucking us with it. We went as close to the shore as we could to minimise the flow. Under my drysuit my merinos got soaked with sweat. When we stopped for a breather the wet merinos made me so cold I couldn’t think. I stood on a slime beach thinking: I need to put my hat and gloves on. They’re in that hatch. I need to open the hatch and put them on. But I couldn’t somehow remember to do it. Back on the water I was bewildered by a certainty that some of my fingers had gone missing. Probably I just can’t feel them cos they’re so cold, I decided. Take a look: ah…they’re still there. Grey but still there. A ruined causeway ran down into the water the skeleton of a Severn Trow hulked beside it. Haggard beauty. A sad and desolate place. We’ll stop for a breather when we get past it. Use a pylon on shore as a marker. If you’re not going backwards you’ll get there. Don’t look at the wind turbines. Blades that had been still were now turning. Their heads had faced us and now had their backs turned. The wind was nearly head on. Amy said it was force 5. I don’t know but for sure that night it was stronger, strong enough to rock the van.
Sue, heroically, put a tow on me. I’ve never had one before. It felt companionable, like a duckling on a string. But I didn’t stop paddling and I was keeping up well enough. I didn’t want to be a dead weight on her. I asked her to take it off. It was just acting as a cruel brake on her. The psychological lift of being close up had had a good effect. At last Cardiff barrage was alongside us. The Usk no longer pulled at us. And then we had real respite from the wind by the first cliffs we had passed all day. Penarth. Penarth I love you. The cute lights on the pier were twinkling unpleasantly to my mind, but there was a slip! The first since Beachley some 25 miles earlier. We landed in surf onto a steep concrete slope studiously ignored by a fisherman in full camo gear but closely watched by a bevy of beer can throwing teens. We were freezing. We were muddy. We were genius. It was such an adventure. The most extraordinary paddle I have ever done.
Thank you Sue.