Chapter 4 – North West England
“Like everything in nature the beauty of our coastline should be appreciated on two levels,
The spectacular panorama of bays and headlands and the intricate detail of a rock pool.”
Not the faintest zephyr of wind stirred the silky smooth surface of Red Wharf Bay when I awoke at 6am. The dropping tide had already revealed a hundred metres or more of sand and by the time I was ready to leave a further hundred metres or more separated me and my kayak from the ocean. Half and hour of lifting and shifting got me afloat and heading east to Great Ormes Head and Liverpool Bay.
Like a pond skater I slid across the glassy surface, only my wake disturbing the mirror finish. Just a few puffin sat off the low cliffs of the island that is named after them; perhaps they have been crowded out by their noisy neighbours as the island seemed to be overflowing with birds. I saw my first black guillemots, a species more commonly found ‘up north’. A colony of seals occupied the reef at the eastern tip of the island, apparently unperturbed as I glided silently past – or was it they were all fast asleep, their bodies curled up like smiles as they kept their head and feet out of the cold water and soaked up the warmth from the sun. Even the tide was still as if it too was having a lie-in. Looking west into the Menai Straits I was tempted for a moment to head in, and do another circuit of Anglesey it is such an interesting island. Reluctantly turning my back on it I headed out across ConwyBay. I could see the bank of sea fog reported by the Coastguard enveloping the north coast of Anglesey and I was keen to keep ahead of it if I could. The A55 Expressway follows the coast from Bangor to ColwynBay and the sound of traffic and a boy racer’s exhaust drifted across the water from the Welsh mainland. It was an alien sound invading my world where silence was the norm. Midway between PuffinIsland and Great Ormes Head I had little choice but to paddle through a huge raft of perhaps 500 or more common scoter sea duck. With no discernable command they took off as one and began circling me, a kaleidoscope of birds. I had stop watching them as they made me feel quite giddy as they around and around. Once I was clear they settled back down to continue whatever it was they were doing before they were rudely interrupted.
Great Ormes Head is a very impressive lump of sedimentary rock joined to the mainland by a tombolo upon which the fine Victorian town of Llandudno was built in the mid 19th century. The huge limestone slabs of the headland are stacked to a height of over 200m and every available ledge, nook and cranny is occupied by sea birds. Each species has its own neighbourhood, presumably based on their social status. Guillemots are clearly the low income earners as their terraced nests are always the most precarious, the most exposed and frankly the messiest with guano staining the cliff face a dirty white. Fulmars occupy a rather more select area, their neat little nests carefully placed on individual or semi detached plots. Most prestigious of all though are the cliff top residences owned by the blacked back gulls whose large nests are widely spaced amongst the manicured lawns and tussocks of thrift where they look arrogantly down on the minions below. I find sitting in my kayak beneath a bustling cliff community fascinating, their activity so purposeful, yet so random – much like sitting at the table of a streetside café people watching in a big city.
I paused briefly on a pebble beach on Little Ormes Head, invading the privacy of a family from Manchester. The couple and their two young, rather attractive daughters were clearly making the most of the good weather. Father was fascinated by what I was up to, asking lots of questions. Goodness knows what the girls thought of this strange man in his kayak, pitching up on their beach, but they were polite enough not to laugh. For me it had become a way of life, as normal as 9 to 5.
From Little Ormes Head I headed out a little to catch the flood tide towards Rhyl and Prestatyn. Conditions remained perfect although sea mist drifted in as I passed Rhyl obscuring the offshore wind turbines that were just about turning in the gentle onshore breeze. I hugged the shore past Prestatyn and up to Point of Ayr as the tide had turned and was now ebbing out of the Dee estuary down the Welsh Channel. I was into a landscape that was completely unfamiliar to me; sand banks and mud flats as far as the eye could see. I was coming to the end of my day on the water but where could I land that did not involve a two mile carry to get the kayak above the high water mark?
I had spotted Hilbre Island on the map, its northern tip brushed the deep water channel that I hoped would allow me to get afloat in the morning. I landed and went searching for someone to ask for permission to camp as the island was clearly inhabited. Without wishing to compromise those in question, I am extremely grateful to have been allowed to stay. The island is a Local Nature Reserve and has a strict ‘No camping – no overnight stays’ policy. I explained what I was doing, where I had come from and that I was raising money for a conservation charity. Thankfully it worked and I was allowed to stay on this very special place as long as I did not light a fire and on the understanding that I left first thing in the morning. Hilbre Island is actually one of three formed by a sandstone ridge left after the last Ice Age. Cut off for five hours a day by the tide it has been inhabited for a very long time. There is evidence of burial chambers and sites of human cremation. Monks from Chester Abbey and their servants lived on the island for 400years until the reign of Henry VIII when the island was leased to local families and became a fishing depot. It had a telegraph station, its own lifeboat station (last used in 1939) and even a pub. The old lifeboat station still houses a Victorian clockwork tide gauge and large ships entering the port of Liverpool still have to check the height of the tide at Hilbre before crossing the Mersey Bar. It is a very peaceful place, the only sounds coming from a colony of Atlantic Grey Seals on West Hoyle Bank and the incessant hum from the conurbation of Liverpool and Birkenhead. It is reassuring to know that places like this still exist so close to the urban sprawl. A green wooden hut on the northern end of the island houses the Mersey Canoe Club and their precious Rob Roy canoes. Membership is hereditary and it is effectively a drinking club, the members rarely if ever taking to the water. I am told that the inside of the hut is like an Edwardian time capsule and I would dearly have loved to been allowed to look inside at a valuable, yet unrecorded piece of canoeing history.
0430hrs: it was just getting light with no wind and more importantly just a hundred metres to the water’s edge. I hurriedly snatched a bite of an NRG bar for breakfast as I worked quickly to pack the tent and carry kayak and kit to the sea’s edge which was fast receding across the glutinous mud. Careful not to cover everything in the black slime I winced as I scraped the laden kayak over cockles, mussels, winkles and barnacles all covered in a thin layer of sediment as I heaved it the last few feet into the murky dark water. Sea mist shrouded the shore giving an ethereal quality to the light from the rising sun, softening the hard outlines of the cityscape on my right.
The wind turbines stood idle on the wharf next to Liverpool docks as I threaded my way through the Great Burbo Bank and into the main shipping channel. Every thing was still and quiet. As I neared the port can on the far side of the channel I glanced over my shoulder and was shocked to see a large Sea Cat fast ferry that had appeared from nowhere. Without a sound it had slipped out of Liverpool dock and was accelerating up the channel towards me on its way to Dublin or Douglas, Isle of Man. I was out of its way which was just as well because I had not seen or heard it and it was in a headlong rush, approaching at incredible speed for such a large vessel in a relatively narrow channel and having only just left the dock. As it drew level with me I suddenly heard the roar of the turbines as they threw a spume of white water astern, driving the vessel towards the open sea at 20plus knots. The energy created by this awesome vessel was demonstrated by the size of its wake; four foot waves rolled under me and crashed onto the sandbanks. I have heard reports of people getting washed off rocks by the wake from these ferries and now I can see why. I surfed the wake as best I could but the ship was soon out of sight and I was on my own again; just me, my kayak, a few terns twittering on a sand bank and a motley collection of cormorants perched on the bones of a ship wreck, their wings hung out to dry. Taylors Bank went much further out to sea than I had anticipated and I kicked myself for not trusting the chart and planning my route more effectively. I found navigating along this featureless coast quite challenging and resolved to check the chart more thoroughly next time I had a big estuary to cross.
I kept pushing on, reluctant to stop for lunch knowing that the longer I delayed the more the tide would be against me as I neared my destination. Past the resort of Southport and I was into another ten mile crossing, this time of the Ribble estuary, another flat, barren expanse of sand. Slowly, very slowly the high metal structure of the roller coaster ride on Blackpool’s PleasureBeach came into view with the famous 183m tower beyond. Built in 1891 and modelled on the EiffelTower that graces the Parisian skyline, BlackpoolTower is half the size and half as beautiful but impressive all the same, constructed from 2,500t of steel and 93t of cast iron. I had seen a strobe light flashing intermittently for several miles and I was curious to see what it was since there was no navigational light marked on my map but for some reason I was finding the day hard. Conditions were pretty much perfect and as good as I could have wished for yet I was struggling. My body was fine, it was my head that was weak, lack of sleep perhaps? More likely it was the realisation that I had an awful long way to go. The adrenalin of the first couple of weeks had gone now and I was into what seemed to be a daily grind. I was frustrated by the fact that despite the flat conditions I seemed unable to make the kayak go any faster and I was beginning to understand that whilst 50mile days may be very achievable in an Inuk, in the C-Trek they were going to be long hard days. I was under no illusion: I had definitely chosen the right kayak – I would have been unable to carry the equipment and food that I needed in an Inuk and I would not have undertaken those big crossings alone had I not been in the C-Trek. It is just that every kayak has an optimum speed and it does not really matter if it is choppy or flat calm, that speed remains more or less the same and there was no getting away from it the C-Trek was just that bit slower than the Inuk I was used to. Rob Feloy, designer of both kayaks had warned me about this fact and I was beginning to appreciate what he meant. I was just three weeks into a 26 week expedition and I needed to find a balance between progress and spending so long in the kayak that it became unbearable. Physically I could paddle all day; mentally I was not so sure. People had remarked on how quickly I had made my way north. I knew I had been pushing myself hard but what I didn’t know was whether or not I could keep it up for six months. Of course I knew it would be my head that gave up first and was determined to remain positive and just keep plugging away.
I landed on a quiet stretch of beach just short of Blackpool’s South Pier for a short break. Jet skiers raced noisily up and down the sea front, buckets and spades were out in force, but only a few souls were daft enough to go swimming in the cold, brown water. I wondered if there were people who thought that all the sea was this colour. Perhaps they have never seen the deep blue of the open ocean? I discovered that the ‘strobe light’ was not a navigational aid at all but a large rotating silver globe that was reflecting the sun with a piercingly bright light. It was brighter than any lighthouse I have seen but it only works when the sun is out. Paddling past the hedonistic delights of Blackpool I could not help but feel rather incongruous, even a little ridiculous with my sunburnt, unshaven, salt encrusted face, peeling nose and ears underneath a rather silly hat. I kept moving before someone recognised me. I needn’t have worried; everyone was far too interested in getting a tan and no-one seemed to notice as I slid by. Even those stood on the piers staring out to sea whilst eating their ice creams seemed to ignore my presence as I offered a friendly wave. “There’s now’t so queer as folk…”
High tide and an onshore sea breeze meant that the small chop reflected off the sea walls produced an uncomfortable ride for the last few miles to Fleetwood. By the time I reached Rossal Point the tide was ebbing out of MorecambeBay and I hugged the shore as I made my way into the narrow entrance to the River Wyre. I had arranged to meet Steve, the mechanic of the Fleetwood lifeboat, who had been looking after my box of food for me. He could not have been more helpful, allowing me to stay in the lifeboat station and giving me a key to come and go as I pleased. I should have used the evening to catch with my diary but to be honest with you I just wasn’t in the mood so I sorted my kit out, went for a walk into town, bought a KFC and went to bed.
Feeling much better after a shower and good sleep I was delighted to see it was another perfect start to the day with flat calm and warm sunshine. Steve, good to his word, arrived at 8am to give me a hand down the beach with my boat and kit. Thanking him for his assistance, I was underway by 8.30am to catch the last of the ebb out into MorecambeBay. The Stena Star ferry to Larne followed me out, a little more sedately than the Sea Cat yesterday.
I had been able to see WalneyIsland and Barrow-in-Furness the previous evening but this morning it was obscured by mist and before long I was out of sight of land. I saw nothing, not a bird, not a ship or any sign of life at all, just a brown scum on the water mixed with floating litter but eventually the lighthouse on the southern tip of Walney Island appeared through the haze but it still seemed to take forever to get there. The monotony of this shoreline was beginning to get to me and I yearned for some cliffs and crashing surf. It seemed to take an age to paddle the length of WalneyIsland and then you guessed it, another crossing of another estuary, this time the River Duddon. But it was the last one and as the mountains of Cumbria lifted into view so my spirits rose with them; this was more like it – wild country!
I had been incredibly fortunate to cross LiverpoolBay in just three days. Had the weather not been so kind it could have been as W Wordsworth described it; ‘The lightning, the fierce wind, and trampling waves. Had I experienced the wind of the previous week it would have been awful but I had done it and now I was poised for the crossing to the Isle of Man. Steve had advised me that Ravenglass would be a better place to stop than St Bees. As well as being a pretty place it would give me a better angle, albeit a little longer crossing to the Isle of Man. I had been forming a cunning plan having reflected on what I had learnt so far during my journey. I could do with a few days in hand and Steve had advised me to avoid crossing the notorious North Channel of the Irish Sea if at all possible. I decided I would cross from the Isle of Man straight over to Northern Ireland missing out the Scottish Mull of Galloway and the Northern Irish coast south of Belfast and Larne. It would also mean missing the box of supplies I had waiting for me at the lifeboat station at Larne but discussing my new plan with Dave Nicoll he offered to see if he could get it brought south to Newcastle. The prospect of actually being ahead of schedule filled me with optimism and my mood was lifted still further by the prospect of seeing a friendly face at Ravenglass. Liz Cowell and I have been in the same team for an adventure race called the Hebridean Challenge for the last two years. ‘The Heb’ is a five day adventure relay race the length of the Outer Hebrides or Western Isles and is extremely competitive. Each team member is a specialist in a particular sport and I was the sea kayaker in our team and it was my job to paddle between the islands as well as do a little bit of cycling. Liz was the only female member of the five person team and whilst her forte is hill running she is also an excellent cyclist and a strong sea paddler herself. The success of a team is dependent upon you all working together making the most of each other’s strengths. Liz is quite shy and very unassuming but she is incredibly tough and very fit. When all the guys were tired and getting frustrated, Liz had the strength of character and clarity of thought to put us back on track. If I was choosing a team for any arduous event, Liz would be top of my list ahead of any man. It was great to see her and hear about her plans. She had given up work and was off sea kayaking in Greenland, then to Chile as a leader on Operation Raleigh.
The other news that cheered me up no end was that I would be seeing Linda much sooner than I’d thought. Paul Ralph from Marsport had promised to sponsor me with a pair of Lettmann wing paddles. The fact that they did not arrive in time for the start of the expedition was my fault as I did not ask him if he could help until the last minute. The paddles wouldl be with Linda soon and the plan was for her to fly over to Dublin to give them to me. It’s a great excuse for a night out in Dublin’s fair city and I couldn’t wait. It had only been a couple of weeks since I last saw her but I was already missing her awfully it just ‘aint the same over the phone.
I wrote my diary sat on a bench overlooking the peaceful inlet of Ravenglass. Three rivers merge to form a lagoon protected from the Irish Sea by sand spits on either side. The main road through the village ends at a storm gate that is closed on spring tides. It is like a village that time forgot with children playing in the street and doors left open. It even has a steam train that provides a regular service. I had an extra day to enjoy the place because when I rang the coastguard the following morning the forecast was not good. I was willing to go for it on the forecast he gave (NW 3-4, veering NE 5-6) but when he checked with his colleagues in Douglas (IOM) they reported 39knots and rough seas. He then checked with a ferry that was halfway across and they confirmed NW 5-6, so he saved me from a very unpleasant paddle. It is a 32nautical mile crossing – it would be my longest so far and without support so conditions would need to be good.
Having spent two nights at Ravenglass I thought I might be out-staying my welcome by camping another night on the beach. I left the entrance to the River Esk and made my way ten miles north to St Bees past the Sellafield complex, one of the most important nuclear processing plants in the world. The Irish Sea is the most radioactively polluted sea in the world and Sellafield has seen direct action from environmentalists such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace who have tried repeatedly to block the outfall pipe. Arriving on the beach at Braystones, the tiny seaside resort half a mile from St Bees, I left the kayak in the RNLI boathouse and I camped on an official campsite next to the beach. The Isle of Man was clearly visible on the horizon to the west – so near, yet so far!
Quite by chance I met Ron Bullen at St Bees lifeboat station. Ron was crowned ‘World Endurance Walking Champion’ in 1987 after completing a 7,047 mile walk around the coastline of Great Britain in 313 days at the age of 59. He raised a huge sum of money for the RNLI and proudly showed me his certificate from the Guinness Book of World Records. He recounted many humorous tales of his experiences. Now, at the age of 76 he was driving around the coast of Great Britain visiting every lifeboat station and hoping to raise even more money. He is one of life’s characters; a very single minded and determined fellow. Formerly a member of 3 Parachute Regiment he is justly proud of his achievements and a little bitter at the lack of recognition he has received. He lives in his 13 year old VW LT van palatial fitted out inside. He told me he has never drunk alcohol or smoked and sure enough he looks incredibly fit for his age. He kept saying what a privilege it was to meet me but the privilege was all mine.
The rain was lashing the fly sheet of my little tent and the wind, gusting to force 8 stubbornly refused to leave me alone. Was I paying the penalty for the extra rest day I took on Anglesey? Peter Bray said that he always let Mother Nature tell him when to take a rest day. I took one because my body and mind needed it and I wondered now if I had been caught out. Had I arrived here on the Cumbrian coast a day earlier I would have made the crossing to the Isle of Man and probably be in Northern Ireland by nowI knew there was no point beating myself up over it, I was stuck at St Bees and until the wind dropped I was going nowhere. I could not even continue north as between me and Scotland lay the Solway Firth, a difficult crossing in itself.
As the afternoon drew to a close the wind eased considerably, just to rub it in. It was far too late in the day to consider starting the crossing so I took a walk along the cliffs towards St Bees Head. I was blessed by a fabulous sunset, with subtle pinks and greys changing to fiery oranges and reds as the sun sank into the Irish Sea between the Isle of Man and the Mull of Galloway.
The Lakeland Fells behind me rolled gently down to the sea where even the ultimate symbol of man’s inability to exist on the planet without doing his best to destroy it – Sellafield a blot on an otherwise perfect English landscape.
I had visited Whitehaven that morning hoping to replace my waterproof camera which had leaked and died. I was unsuccessful but enjoyed my little outing, despite the bus driver’s best attempts to kill us all in a head-on collision as he careered at ridiculous speeds through the narrow lanes from the village to the town and back. The Georgian Port of Whitehaven was once the third largest port in the country trading throughout the world in such varied commodities as coal, rum and slaves. The nearby coal mines are some of the deepest in the world but are now closed and despite the best efforts of local, national and European investment, the level of unemployment remains high and is evidenced by the number of men and women of working age that I saw wandering the streets on a weekday. I sat on the re-developed harbourside to have my lunch chatting to a retired lady who was visiting for the day from Barrow-in-Furness. The bitterly cold north wind drove heavy showers across the Solway Firth which was covered in white horses and I was satisfied that there was no way I could have got across to the Isle of Man that day.
I purchased a book describing John Rae’s discovery of the fate of Sir John Franklin and his doomed 1845 expedition to navigate the North West Passage. The North West Passage, now there’s a challenge by kayak….
After all the waiting, the crossing from St Bees to the Isle of Man turned out to be the easiest of the big crossings so far. Ray, mechanic of the St Bees lifeboat and a real gentleman, met me at the lifeboat station at 6.30am so that I could get access to my kayak. A light north easterly breeze ruffled up a few wavelets as I headed out, the Isle of Man still visible but shrouded in cloud increasing its air of mystery. The prvious night its peaks had stood clear and proud, silhouetted by the setting sun. It had looked just like the treasure island of my childhood imagination and I was determined that I was going to be the first to land and discover its riches.
It was a fairly uneventful crossing really. The wind picked up a little but never got above a Force 4 and it was predominantly on my back and to my right. The waves it produced were nothing like the size I had encountered on previous crossings, but were sufficient to allow me to surf the odd one or two, aiding my progress west. After the lack of movement over the last three days it felt great to be underway again, and it felt even better to be offshore, alone again, just me and the ocean.
The lighthouse on Maughold Head was clearly visible for many miles and according to my GPS there was very little tide taking me off course. All I had to do was keep my arms turning, so I put my headphones on and listened to a bit of Radio 2. I don’t like listening to music all the time; it takes away my ability to think and I end up in a vegetative state where I am no longer thinking for myself and become engrossed with whatever is being broadcast. Radio 4 is my normal choice. I am a news addict and I love listening to the plays and, of course ‘The Archers’. Sometimes it takes a real effort of self will to turn the radio off and get back to listening to the wind and the waves and whatever nonsense is going on in my head.
The sun played a trick on me as I crossed. It started off on my back but before long it was on my left side. It felt like I was changing course and I had to keep checking my compass and the GPS to reassure myself that it was just the sun overtaking me. I passed south of the light buoy marking the shallow banks which told me I was about midway. Ray had told me they can reach the buoy in half an hour in the lifeboat (an Atlantic 21). It had taken me three hours! But I was happy, the island was slowly filling the horizon, I could even see the lighthouse on Point of Ayre, at the northern tip of the island. As I approached Maughold Head, I was disappointed to see houses on my treasure island.
I had identified a beach on the map which would be my first landfall and as I swung past the lighthouse and into the small bay I was pleasantly surprised by my first close up look at the Isle of Man. The water was gin clear and there seemed to be abundant marine life. How unfortunate it is that the first thing that I do when l land on a new island is urinate on it! Believe me, it is my way of showing how pleased I am to be there and should not be regarded as an insult. They say that owners take after their pets; well my dear Spaniel has a habit of peeing up everything in sight!
I grabbed my food bag and climbed up the rocks to find a bed of the springiest grass. I laid back, soaking up the warmth of the sun, with a smile as wide as a Manx cat. I had made it to the Isle of Man. Another major hurdle completed, all I had to do now is get over to Ireland. After an all too brief stop for lunch I was back in my boat and heading south and west, the wind perfect for making miles. I’d hoped to get as far as Douglas by the end of the day but the wind was stronger as it squeezed up against the cliffs and it blew me down the coast at quite a speed. I reckon I must have been averaging well over six knots as I surfed past the tall cliffs and steep sided valleys that lead up to Snaefell, the highest point on the island at 617metres, cloud just tickling the its tops. It had turned into a glorious afternoon and I was feeling fantastic as the coastline slid by. My biggest regret on the journey was the lack of time I had to explore and the superficial impression I got of the places I passed as a result. I would dearly have loved to have stopped at Laxey; it looked a very attractive seaside town with everything in its place. I gazed with envy at the numerous houses, placed to maximise their view dotted along the coast. It seemed they only do houses in ‘XL’ on this island.
Very soon I was coming around the headland into DouglasBay. I had not known what to expect of Douglas, the island’s capital. I certainly wasn’t ready for the chic esplanade and very expensive looking houses and apartments that almost encircle the bay. By the look of it from where I was sat it is a thriving city, and the number of new buildings and ongoing construction suggested that things were ‘on the up’. I am told that it is becoming a financial centre much like Jersey in the Channel Islands and that the islanders themselves are gradually being priced out. I listened to a debate on Manx Radio about how the island should ‘brand’ itself. It is approaching ‘TT Fortnight’ as the island gears up for the TT Races. The island is perhaps best known around the world for the ‘TT’ and in the U.K. also as a tax haven. If the island is looking for an alternative way to promote itself it should look no further than its beautiful landscape and especially its coastline. Sometimes we take for granted what we see every day.
The tide was out so there was a lot of sand exposed on the long crescent beach. I headed for the harbour, to take a look at the lifeboat station. As I surfed in I received a call from a reporter from the Isle of Man newspaper. Unfortunately I couldn’t hear a word she was saying as the wind whistled in my ears. I asked her to ring back later. Douglas harbour is large and geared up for commercial shipping and the ferries that service the island. It had clouded over and the northerly wind was blowing straight into the entrance making it choppy and rather unfriendly inside the harbour.
I decided there wasn’t much point in hanging around so after taking a quick snapshot of the lifeboat I headed back out to continue my journey towards the southern tip of the island. I saw a bay on my map that promised to provide some shelter from the wind and set that as my goal for the day. It was just a couple of miles northeast of RonaldswayAirport, whose weather station features in the BBC Shipping Forecast. Sure enough I found a perfect cove, with a grassy shelf at the back of the beach ideal for pitching my tent on. Just me and a pair of Shellduck doing a strange head bobbing mating display, and some rather smelly seaweed but I soon got used to that. I went to sleep on a bed of wild garlic, surrounded by bluebells, the aroma masking the pong from the beach. It had been a very satisfying day and probably a record for mileage covered but I didn’t check because I don’t really care. People often asked me how far I had come. I had not been keeping a count, I was just pushing as hard as I could for as long as I could and that would just have to do.
I had ten messages on my mobile phone voicemail but because I was technically in a different country, the O2 network had been replaced by ‘Manx Pronto’. Although I could still make and receive calls and text messages and despite following the instructions given via a text, I could not for the life of me work out how to receive my voicemail. They would just have to wait until I reached Northern Ireland when I would be back in the U.K. I collected some water from a nearby cottage. The couple had heard about me on the radio. Fame at last! They were nice people and invited me back for a chat later on. I am ashamed to say I was too tired and by the time I had cooked dinner I just wanted to sleep. The lady in the house came down to see me instead, curious as to what my kayak looked like. I should have made more of an effort really and didn’t mean to be rude thanked her for her interest.
It was a windy old night and I expected to wake to find a sea of white horses. Instead it was eerily still and as the cove slowly filled with the incoming tide, small waves gently lapped the shore. I had a fairly short day planned; out around the Calf of Man, then up the west coast to Peel where I would be best placed for the crossing to Northern Ireland. I had been warned about the tidal streams around the Calf of Man – surely they would not be as bad as Bardsey? Again I had no detailed information but guessed that by catching the last of the flood down to Castletown and Port St Mary, I would then catch the ebb up the west coast. I had yet to get my head around the fact that in these parts (i.e. North of Liverpool Bay) the flood travels south and the ebb north as the tide pushes in and out of the Irish Sea through the North Channel, the complete opposite to what happens at home.
Sure enough I found a strong flow south and I was soon off Spanish Head and approaching the Calf of Man. The sea was as smooth as a bath of mercury under dark grey skies. As I crossed and looked into Calf Sound I saw a line of disturbed water that extended as far as I could see north and south. Initially I thought it was a tide race but it came towards me quickly and I realised it was wind. Within thirty seconds it went from no wind to a solid force 4 from the northwest, with an associated drop in temperature. The transformation in the day was dramatic and I suddenly had a fight on my hands just to get into the shelter of a tiny harbour on the Calf of Man. I stopped briefly to put on more clothing then shot the tidal rapid between the island and a stack which had been pierced by the elements to produce a fine natural arch. The tide was pouring through the gap and I had to dodge the rocks and seals that were asleep on them, passing by before they had a chance to notice. The Calf of Man has four lighthouses; three on the island and one that seems to be floating offshore but in fact is well and truly embedded on Chicken Rock which lies just below the surface at high water. Of the three on the island, the two fine looking stone lighthouses with green copper domes were built in 1818 by Robert Stevenson and became disused in 1875 because they were too high up on the island and were often shrouded by low cloud. They were replaced by the Chicken Rock lighthouse but another ‘new’ lighthouse, a squat white box, rather ugly in comparison with the other three was constructed in 1966-8 and sits between the two old lighthouses on the island. They all overlook the tide race which I was now about to enter. Wind against tide had produced a mass of breaking waves and I stayed on the inside edge, following the eddy line, trying to get a ride north but staying out of the worst of the heaving water. After my experience around Bardsey I was also keen to stay out of the large eddy that had formed in Calf Sound and stayed well offshore until I was clear of it.
The sky had cleared and it turned into a beautiful afternoon. I only had a short run up the west coast to Peel and I was in no rush as I had arranged to meet a photographer from the Isle of Man newspaper at 4pm at the lifeboat station. Several puffins welcomed me as I passed the craggy headland which protects Peel from a south westerly. PeelCastle straddles a rocky promontory overlooking the harbour and gives a medieval flavour to the own. A young seal was sunbathing on a marker buoy as I paddled into the harbour. It looked at me, decided I was not worth getting wet for and went back to sleep. A much larger bull seal was swimming about in the harbour itself. I do believe that often seals come into harbours just to see what is going on. I pulled my kayak up onto the lifeboat slip and the smell of food coming from the little harbour side takeaway proved too much and I bought a sausage and bacon bap. It was delicious! There was no sign of life at the lifeboat station so I went for a short walk to see if there was anywhere suitable for me to camp. No such luck – Peel is a busy seaside town and the sunshine had attracted lots of visitors including a large number of bikers on machines of various styles and generations from laid back Harley customs to Japanese head down racers. The owners of the latter strutted about in leathers at least a size too small with built in armour that made them look like ninja turtles. They reminded me of a couple of Traffic Policeman I know.
I had to wait a while for the photographer to show up and got a bit chilled in the process as my wet kit evaporated in the breeze. When he did show he seemed genuinely interested in what I was trying to do and took the trouble to get several shots both on and off the water. Unfortunately I would be long gone by the time they go to print. Having done my bit of modelling I paddled off to find a suitable beach for the night. I didn’t have to go far before I found the perfect one, about 500metres long, completely deserted, not overlooked by any houses and soft sand to land the kayak onto.
Once out of my wet kit I soon warmed up in glorious evening sunshine and began to feel like a castaway as I improvised with fish boxes and drift wood to make a table and chair in my makeshift kitchen.
I walked to the top of the cliff to obtain a signal so I could ring Linda. Peel Castle seemed somehow reassuring in its permanence in my nomadic lifestyle.
Linda had a cold and wasn’t feeling great. At least she was staying with her mum and dad so they could look after her. By the time the burning orange orb of the setting sun sank with a hiss into the Irish Sea far to the west I was fed ready for sleep and I set my alarm for 0530hrs for the Shipping Forecast.