Tuesday, 7 October 2008

canoeing to Chepstow (part 4)

From the archives... this is an account of a canoeing trip from Severn Beach to Chepstow that Richard and I did, ten years ago. Serialised, for ease of digestion.

Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4

A dark shape flitted across the water. "Porpoise!", I cried, pointing helpfully. Richard raised a quizzical eyebrow. I looked up. "All right, then, seagull's shadow. But it might have been a porpoise." The eyebrow remained quizzical. We paddled on in silence. Occasionally, as is the way of canoeing, the front end would spontaneously decide to swing off in an entirely different direction to that which we intended, and we, having no apparent say in the matter, would follow it. So we would pause, and review our progress, looking back at the rather dull suburban houses of New Passage, growing smaller with each gyration, and fail to make out either P or Sprout. And we would propound theories about why canoes do that, or at least, why this particular one does it. Richard opined that it was down to eddies. I took the engineering approach, maintaining that it was just one of those things.

We were getting along just fine.

"Proper Preparation and Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance," Richard intoned portentously, or, indeed, Portentously. Certainly, we had left little to chance.

Richard and P had been alarmed at Clive's reaction to our proposed voyage. Clive is very much the outdoors type; he has climbed just about every vertical inch of the Alps and the Himalayas, and probably the Andes too, as an afterthought; and, more pertinently, he has canoed about a bit, including an intrepid trip through the dank and rat-infested tunnels under the centre of Bristol, where the River Froome has got swallowed up by the city over the years. But Clive seemed rather to balk at the notion of crossing the Severn Estuary, when we mentioned it while we were round at his house, borrowing a replacement paddle. Richard got nervy at this reaction. He got on the phone to HM Coastguard Centre at Swansea, and was told austerely that "As long as you take the right precautions, I don't see why there should be any problem." This slightly Delphic utterance was, of course, a standard “cover your arse” sort of response; but Richard seemed slightly reassured.

I pored over OS maps, the Admiralty Tidal Stream Atlas, and the Bristol Channel Tide Table. Having things quantified and down in print on a page in front of me is vaguely comforting, even when they are incorrect or they say things like


The waters from the Severn Bridge to the River Avon can be rough and there is virtually no shelter. The tidal streams are very strong, reaching 8 knots on full flood and ebb and sea conditions can deteriorate sharply when the wind is against the tide.

I didn't let Richard see that bit; he would only have worried unnecessarily.

The weather forecast, at least, couldn't have been better- "Lundy, south westerly, two, occasional three, fair, good." So the wind and the tide would be in the same direction. And the tide was a neap. This confused Richard, who thought it only fitting that, at this season of the year, it should be a spring tide.*

And now here we were, bobbing around, several fathoms above the ooze where old shipwrecks lay swallowed up and forgotten, looking like a regular pair of cockleshell heroes rigged out in waterproofs and lifejackets, with smoke flares taped to our arms (so they wouldn't get lost in a capsize), a useful Tupperware item to bale out water, should it get in in any quantity, a map and compass and pencil in the unlikely event that I should have the opportunity to fix our position by triangulation (something of a waste of time in these circumstances, but fun to try), and boiled sweets and, in Richard's case, cigarettes. And, where a sailor of old would wear a gold earring to pay for a Christian burial wheresoever his corpse may be washed up, I, more practically and more optimistically, had a five pound note in my pocket to buy beer.

What the hell, I thought, and had another sweet. This was the placid part of the voyage, in limbo between the bustle of departure and the bother of a landing. Scarcely a ripple disturbed the water, save where a distant catspaw idly dabbed the surface, or where a back-current running alongshore over the nearby Mathern Oaze* swung out into the main stream. The little boat which we had seen the day before continued to ply its way to and fro, to and fro; then, losing interest as lunchtime drew nigh, it diverged on an urgent voluntary errand, and went chugging off in the direction of Avonmouth. To the south, the Avon and Somerset Constabulary's Twin Squirrel helicopter patrolled the complex of motorway junctions, looking for trouble. There'd be no shortage of people to spot our smoke flares in the unlikely event that we should come a cropper; nor of people to come to our aid. I quite fancied the idea of being winched aboard a helicopter and plied with black coffee laced with rum. On the other hand, I also quite liked it where I was; the spring was well advanced in the direction of summer, and the water, if not actually warm, was at least not of a temperature to knock the breath out of you and give you a life expectancy measured in minutes. We could always swim ashore, or just lie back and be carried to our journey's end.

Presently, and all too soon, we approached Beachley Point, crossing the area where the flood was making up its mind whether to swing left to Chepstow, or right to Gloucester. We took to the paddles, heading north for a while, in case it decided to take us with it up the Slime Road. The water eddied and whorled, and gobbets of sediment, of varying degrees of opacity, rose to the surface, in a manner reminiscent of those revolting lava lamps which enjoyed a vogue back in the wild days of the 1970s. Where yesterday all had been greyness, now every shade of brown seemed to be represented here, under the beneficient agency of the sun.

* Tidal range (the difference in height between high and low tides) is at its greatest at the full and new moon. Tides at these times are called "springs". And the tidal range is at its least at the time of half moons. Tides then are called "neaps". Because of all the extra water at spring tides, currents tend to be at their greatest then.

* Some local names for features in the landscape of the shores of the Bristol Channel:

Oaze: a mud-bank. The term is described by OED as obsolete.

Pill: a tidal creek

Rhine, or reen: "a large open ditch or drain" (OED)


The banks drew closer on either side. We shot under the motorway, and rounded the bend which cut off our backward view of the Severn and made us feel that we were now on a proper river. The banks remained estuarine, though; in the rank sedges and the pills, flotsam and jetsam (but chiefly flotsam) lay higgledy-piggledy; plastic drums, plastic bottles, plastic everything, bits of old tat, oil-stained, mud-stained, unloved and unlovely; or, dislodged by the rising waters, it bobbed along in search of a new home. A digger was at work banking up soil in the region of some rather nasty new bungalows, perhaps to keep the water at bay, perhaps to hide their faces for shame. They looked forlorn and exposed. Still, better to stick nasty bungalows there than somewhere nice, I supposed. An elderly couple stood by a For Sale sign. Perhaps they liked the view of the motorway.

Just behind where they stood, on a rise called Buttington Tump, a Danish host which had come across from Essex back in 894 had been encircled by the a force of King Alfred's levies and a contingent of Welsh . A stand-off evolved, as Alfred himself was busy in Devon with another host, and his thanes were reluctant to take the initiative; until they had run out of food and finished eating their horses, at which point they rolled up their sleeves and got stuck in. 'And,' as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle puts it, 'the Christians had the victory.'

There was much of this sort of thing going on in those times, with bunches of Danes wandering about, acting loutish and stealing whatever they could, in a manner rather akin to the more imaginative gutter press descriptions of New Age Travellers. What with the ratepayers enduring these antics and having to support Alfred's men as well, it was scarce any wonder that food and the lack of it was a constant preoccupation. In 915 the remnants of another host, finally beaten after ravaging their way up the Welsh bank of the Severn estuary, were trapped on the island of Steepholme, where some of them starved to death, and the remainder eventually escaped through Dyfed to Ireland. Presumably they had been waiting for a favourable wind. More peacably but perhaps rather alarmingly, the seas were also occasionally punctuated by boatloads of pilgrims such as those who, in 891, were washed up in Cornwall, having set off from Ireland without any means of propulsion 'because they wished for the love of God to be on pilgrimage, they cared not where'.

I certainly cared where, for my own part; the afternoon had now arrived, or, more pertinently and bearing in mind the five pound note in my pocket, the sun was over the yardarm; and the flood tide was beginning to fail. We passed wharves and jetties, where well-tended boats bobbed jauntily, and ill-tended boats, attaining a level of decrepitude unattainable by any other form of transport, sank uncomplainingly into oblivion. Close by an imposing cluster of industrial buildings, equally idle, sat a group of workmanlike boats; Resolute Lady, a tub of a thing with a mechanical digger lashed onto her front end, thus transforming her into a dredger; Hook Sand of Hull, a purpose-built dredger, with a large portable generator lashed onto the after deck, thus, presumably, transforming her into a dredger with an auxiliary power supply. Here, clearly, was an outfit with a talent for the ad hoc solution. A caterpillar digger on the quayside was paused from the work of unloading, while the driver welded something back onto it. Above and around him, oil seeped from leaky hydraulic seals on the digger arm and dribbled, disregarded, to the ground. It was heartening to see some evidence of industry in these otherwise neglected wharves.

We rounded the last bend, beneath a railway bridge which appeared to have been built upside-down, and sighted the rather charming iron bridge and, beyond and above it, the castle of Chepstow. On the town side of the river, elderly people, singly, in pairs, or with small dogs, promenaded by the bandstand, or supped tea and buns at the Wye Knot cafe. A pleasure boat, Toura D, fluttered a red dragon ensign, defying the slightly irregular Union flag which had been painted on the lower reaches of the cliff which rose on the English side of the river. The cliff rose sheer for a couple of hundred feet, to where villas peeped coyly from the wooded upper slopes. Less coyly, a gardener appeared at the top and hoiked a pile of garden rubbish over the edge, and followed it with a black plastic bag which disembowelled itself on the way down and garlanded a bush above the water.

"Bloody English," I said, taking the Welsh part in this case, on the grounds that I have lived among these people and do not understand them. But then, this was more an example of people's attitudes in general to waterways and their use as an oubliette. Up there in the castle, there still exists a rather dramatic privy, poised over the clifftop with a view of the water far below through the aperture. It looked rather fun, though I wouldn't like to use it when an easterly was blowing. And it was at least disposing of something the fish might gain something from.

Already the tide was ebbing. We disembarked gingerly on a pontoon, and scrambled up the bank. Alas, no welcoming committee. An elderly couple paused as we removed the more outlandish features of our canoeing garb. "Where've you come from?" the man asked. "Bristol," I replied, in a pathetic and not entirely honest attempt to sound impressive. It didn't work. They were entirely unimpressed.