This week is brought to you by Jonathon Walton
Jonathon is my Godfather
“Irish Sea, 7’s turning to 8’s” echoed a deceptively comforting tone through the radio static, not an ideal shipping forecast. I am now sitting at the very end of the Mull of Galloway, with combination of gales and fierce tidal rips the Mull is an intimidating beast and not one I will tackle until the wind subsides.
I feel a certain sense of deja vu, again I am stormbound and again I am sitting sipping tea in warmth and comfort, this time in the wonderfully eclectic and welcoming and friendly Mariners coffee house in Drummmore. The only coffee house I have ever seen with the winning combination of a pet lobster and a parrot.
I left you last in Dumfries, with high winds for several days Paul and I were forced to rest and recuperate until they subsided. This also gave us time to perform a proper test pack of the kayaks, to scamper around town to collect the last morsels of food and most importantly enjoy the warm hospitality of Pippa and Allistair Stark (My Aunt and Uncle).
On Tuesday night our window finally appeared and we decided to return that night to where we left off (Newbiebarns) with the aim of setting off at the turn of the tides. At 4am!
It took several hours to load the kayaks and haul them back onto the car for the journey down, all went smoothly until I dropped my boat hard onto the roof bar. . . CRACK!
I had chipped a 1 inch hole into the top deck effectively removing a sickeningly large patch of gel coat, thankfully the fibreglass remained in tact, we would quickly repair it at camp that night.
It was a very cold morning, the twilight barely lit the tent. It took a lot of self persuasion to tear myself from the relative warmth of my sleeping bag and into cold neoprene for a long days paddle ahead.
By 5.30am the sun had risen behind the clouds, dressed and packed I was a little warmer, especially after hauling the boats down to the waters edge. To my relief the recently applied patch had dried and held watertight. The tide was now flowing in our favour and only a light breeze pushed at our bow, the day was good to go.
A long 18km open passage lay between us and Southerness lighthouse. Travelling as a pair the exposure felt far less extreme but both Paul and I recognised this was the largest passage either of us had made into open sea. We were often reminded that despite being far from shore the mudflats of the Solway may just appear before us, I regularly clipped my paddle blade on the silty seabed below.
The final hour I found touch, the wind was against us at a beam reach and constantly drove my boat with weather helm. I found my right shoulder stiffening up as I tried to constantly correct my course, eventually I chose to tack to and fro in the wind for the last 1km before the shore.
Reaching the shoreline it was a huge relief to turn downwind and skirt around Southerness point itself. Beaching the kayaks out of the worst of the breeze, I turned from kayaker to escapologist contorting myself out of a boat crammed full of kit. Knees creaking, ankles groaning I hobbled to the foot of Southerness Lighthouse. Sheltering on the lee side whilst eating a much needed Banana I noticed I was quickly getting cold once more, it seems constantly being in wet clothes this would be something I would have to acclimatise to.
A quick wander into the quiet and peaceful town of Southerness later and we were on our way.
Setting forth to the west Paul and I once more paddled into the endless stretches of mud flats, we aimed for a channel marked in the map which would lead directly to the town of Kippford.
Paddling seemingly out to sea the sun appeared, the wind became gentle and blew directly astern, needless to say the distance seemed to just disappear into very pleasant paddling, this is what it was all about. Several kilometres out into the mudflats a bizarre feeling of remoteness swam into consciousness, I was just 10m from land but miles from the shore. Only Paul, I and the occasional bemused sea gull had ventured this far out into the endless plains of mud.
As the tide turned against us we hugged the mudflats as close as possible, the blades consistently scrapped and punted us along the channels banks in an effort to avoid the worst of the current. With striking similarity to our approach to Southerness earlier that morning, the last 30 minutes were tough paddling where I was constantly fighting to keep my craft pointing straight against the wind.
After what seemed an exhausting age, we reached cliffs for the first time this trip. The seemingly endless Solway mud flats were over. With steep gnarled rock towering above the kayak I felt at home, “just like the West Coast” I thought with a smile.
We beached in a small cove for a brief rest before the final few kilometres to Kippford, in just 15 minutes the tide had risen leaving us marooned amongst the cliffs. . . just as well we had boats.
The last kilometres to Kippford went quickly, the sun had appeared again and the thought of a Steak Pie for lunch at the local inn acted as more than enough motivation. I was however consumed with one thought for in Kippford Paul would leave, from then on out I would be alone.
Arrival, lunch and re-packing seemed to go past quickly in a daze. There was a little voice in my head which consistently whispered “this is is, your on your own.” I have before had pre-expedition nerves, I think it is a natural part of any big venture in life however never had I experienced them like this. I am sure it was due to the additional factor of the ocean, but for the first time I really appreciated quite how much risk there was alone on the sea, and that frightened me to the core.
With a last quick hug and “Take care Mate” from an equally nervous looking Paul, I squeezed myself back into my boat, turned the bow and left the harbour.
For the first 10 minutes I was sure I would break down, my hands were trembling and paddling had become twitchy and unconfident, I almost felt like weeping. As the warmth of the sun graced my bow, the water became a tranquil blue and serenely calm. It seemed even the weather wanted to help regain my confidence, and within 20 minutes the feeling had largely passed, within an hour I arrived smiling and at ease into White Port Bay.
The small sandy inlet can be described as nothing other than paradise, golden evening light glistened on the calm ripples of the sea which gently tumbled onto white shell sand, at the head of the bay sculpted grassy dunes promised a sheltered camp. After 45km I was more than ready to land and rest.
I hauling only the first Ikea bag filled with kit up to the head of the beach before unceremoniously dragging ‘Sula’ up the sand, it carved a deep unsightly trench from the waters edge to my camp in the process. Looking at the abrasion on the keel strip after just one beach I promised myself I wouldn’t be doing that again in the future.
It took little time to set camp and fashioning a washing line from spare rope and paddles I stripped from sodden base layers. White Port bay felt remote enough to walk around in the buff in the sun until I had dried out. I was only disturbed by an equally disturbed looking goat.
Drying Clothes and Unpacking
After a surprisingly tasty dinner of dried chili con carne I took a short stroll to the top of a nearby hill, I hoped to see what I was to expect tomorrow. The evening sun lit Kippford Beautifully behind me, ahead Hestan Island and a cliff faced peninsula promised exiting paddling in the morning.
Looking out to Hestan Island a pair of young lambs curiously played with their reflection in my camera lens with bounds of springy energy.
Waking to the smell of woodsmoke, the gentle chirps of a grasshopper warbler and drums of a nearby snipe the morning was soothingly calm. At 4am it was of course very cold but a beautiful orange glow was shimmering beyond mirror calm seas, the sun was coming.
Wincing, I squeezed and peeled on wet neoprene for the day ahead. It was a shiver inducing wake up call that would be the norm for the foreseeable future. Ritual shivering game of stuff kayak tetris later I set off on the water, it was 5.30am and a spectacular sunrise shone behind me.
Once on the water it took little time to warm up, I made quick progress across the bay to Hestan Island on the glassy water, I had a 2km/ph tide in my favour.
Passing steep cliffs hundreds of razorbills, kittiwakes and fulmars took flight. Drifting calmly between them it was a spectacular sight, only their calls broke the total silence of the morning. Everything was bathed in gold by the rising sun.
I aimed for a small un-named inlet about 10km from White Port bay. I was so immersed in the enjoyment of paddling I barely checked my position, two hours quickly passed and upon checking my progress I was surprised to discover I had travelled 3km further than my landing point. Instead I aimed for a small rocky inlet called Port Mary just a few kilometres further down the coast, it was the last landing point before the Kirkubright (pronounced Kir-Coo-Bree) firing range.
The bay was filled with large rounded boulders so I leapt into the water at knee depth to help protect Sula’s hull. My first rocky landing I was afraid of damaging the craft so early in the trip. Gently resting the nose on the shore I wandered up the bay to reset my map and finish my luxury ration of pancakes which were kindly donated by Lynn Munro.
Escaping Port Mary was easier said than done, it took 30 minutes of carefully sliding the boat over the rocks on a salvaged plastic palette for protection, crunching, grinding and swearing were in abundance.
Eventually I was back on the sea, but no more than 150m offshore I noticed a small boat on the horizon, it had sharply veered course and now steamed straight for me.
Aware that I had just crossed into a firing range I prepared for a “Full Metal Jacket” style telling off by a testosterone pumped army major, I waited with baited breath as the boat reared up toward me.
Rafting alongside I noticed in bold red letters “KIRCUBRIGHT RANGE SERVICES” painted along the small navy blue craft. A balding man in sunglasses appeared “Here we go” I thought.
He smiled, I was knocked off guard. “Where you headed son?” he politely asked, I explained my journey and that to cross the range would be 2-3 hours paddle. He replied with “Not a good idea, they are bombing in 30 minutes”. I wouldn’t be able to cross until 4pm the next day. . .the chuckled and said..
“Do you want a lift?”
With Sula gently bobbing in the waves as she was towed astern I found myself enjoying an unexpected mug of boiling coffee and being regaled in tales of Kircubright’s History care of Gary the ships captain.
“They used to fire 500kg bombs here. . . that would shatter the windows of Ross Lighthouse three kilometers away… now they only fires up to 20kg”
Flattening a sheet of tracing paper covered in obscure colourful lines over an ordinance survey map Gary showed how each firing zone is calculated along with its danger area, “Three times the range” is the apparent safe margin. Enquiring about a series of orange dots on the map I was told these were Uranium testing sites used by SEPA and other agencies to measure the aftermath of the ranges historical use of uranium tipped missiles. “Virtually nothing there” I was told, although to my amusement Gary explained that they once left a box of uranium underwater to test for salt corrosion.
“There was a big storm. . . they lost the box.”
I can only imagine the frantic deployment of M.O.D divers in a panicked attempt to relocate it before it washed ashore, can you imagine the media frenzy? Thankfully it was found a fortnight later.
As we passed the bombing range Gary pointed out various buildings which were periodically obliterated in the name of “testing” which I am sure is mostly M.O.D terminology for “fun.” Pointing at a nearby lighthouse on Ross Island I was told this is where we would part.
Ross lighthouse has a macabre history, a sinister past lurks around its otherwise tranquil appearance. One stormy night (Unnecessary Artistic Licence) the lighthouse keeper was shot square in the head by his shotgun wielding assistant, passing the keepers mother on the shore the assistant simply said “Just headed for groceries” before fleeing inland. He was later captured and the rest is history.
Today the lighthouse is operated by a far more sedate couple, an 80 year old pair who can at the least be described as hardy pensioners. The wife takes a swim every morning in the sea, “You can tell when its really cold, because she wears wet suit top” Gary chuckled.
Parting ways, I landed ashore on the island and took a quick stroll to the top for a view. I was after all, well ahead of time.
Aside from numerous amphibious ex-miliarty trucks dotting the beach little evidence of any conflict could be found on the now very peaceful island, even a small community of deer have graced its shores.
Pressing onward I aimed for Fleet Bay, however made only 2km further along the coast of Wigtown bay before being caught in suddenly difficult seas. I later discovered that as the tides change the swell builds and clashes in every direction akin to the clapotis effect, it made extremely difficult paddling. Without hesistation I sought refude in the nearest inlet, Brighouse Bay.
Arriving ashore the day was far from over, 150m of open sand lay between where I sat in the surf and the top of the beach. A small crowd of young couples lazed ahead at the top of the bay but despite passing them three times heaving kit in 50m intervals no one offered to help.
After over an hour of moving kit up and down the bay I hauled the now empty kayak onto my shoulder. Stopping after 50m for a rest I noticed an old man and his dog approaching.
Cane in one hand and leash in the other Eddie from Yorkshire appeared beaming,
“Want elp with boat up t’ beach.”
It amused me that of all the fit and healthy couples it was 60 year old Eddie with a bad leg who was the only one to offer a hand. We travelled in 20m intervals, each time taking 5 minutes rest to chat.
“Once went in a canoe an t’ dog fell out. just sank looking up his eyes said ‘this isn’t right’!. . jumped in after him… wife said I was t’ mad one.”
I was tired, despite the lift it had been a long day. The advantage of starting at 4am was that it was only lunchtime, the sun was high in the sky and to my delight there was a water supply and even a bathroom just 50m from where I had set camp.
I spent most of the afternoon sprawled out in the sun. With a small wood fire to boil endless cups of tea I licked a Cornetto purchased from a nearby shop. As the sun faded I napped in the sand to the gentle tones of Radio 2.
I was only interrupted in the evening when Eddie returned for an evening stroll with his little dog.
* * *
Ritual 4am shiver hour over, I was back in my wet clothes and adrift in Brighouse Bay. It was with relief I discovered only 15m lay between the water and me, not the 150m as found at low tide. I had two optionsas to what I would paddle today. The first was to paddle all the way into Wigtown Bay and around, the other to set out into the open sea and directly across.
The wind was low and morning sun was out. Following a yacht I decided to venture out into the ocean. I couldn’t yet see the far side of the bay some 16km away in the haze, so set my bearing and started to paddle.
An hour later I was 6km offshore, the yacht, whose company had largely helped persuade me that venturing into open water was a good idea, had long since left. With a kick of adrenalin I suddenly became very very aware of just how small I was. I was adrift, alone and felt very vulnerable.
I could now just make out land. As I paddled the swell grew and wind started to pick up. I was somewhere between a deep focus and fear. As I paddled onward, the thought of capsizing here was disaster. Ten strokes forward, brace, twitch and lurch forward with a kick of adrenaline. It was like having a large stone in my stomach – I and only I could paddle out of this.
Slowly out of the haze I started to see buildings, then cars, people and windows. I was getting close. My arms hurt, back straining and mind racing. As hard as I paddled the land seemed to just stay there ever distant.
After what seemed an age I touched ground into Garlieston – never have I been so happy to sit cold on a beach. I thought I had been slow, but with the adrenalin of the open sea I had crossed 16km in just 2 hours and 40 minutes.
What I had gained in distance I also gained in confidence, the doubt that I held since leaving Paul had gone. With the crossing behind me I felt more at ease in the control of Sula in bigger seas.
Even hauling my boat 30m down the beach, to catch the waters edge against the tide seemed a pleasure after being sat down so long. I was now well ahead of distance and only two hours paddling lay between the Isle of Whithorn and myself.
Passing steep cliffs during the last hour of paddling I was again met with the horribly mixed seas of the turning tide. Strangely hugging the cliffs seemed to reduce the clapotis effect which became increasingly violent as I rounded Cairn Head. The final 15 minutes I hopped from eddy to eddy to reach the Isle of Whithorn against the tide.
Yet again an early start meant completing a day’s paddling by midday and again the sun shone high in the sky. I landed on a small slipway at the harbour and set about hauling my equipment to a nearby grassy car park to camp. I have discovered I can do so in three loads of two full Ikea bags plus one trip for the boat. I was watched by numerous onlookers who bombarded me with questions about what I was doing. No one offered to help carry anything yet again, but a mythical rumour of three pounds for a fish supper circulated conversation.
A quick shower at the local harbour office later, I knocked on the door of the harbour master now feeling like a fresh new man. Shaun McGuire the harbour master showed exceptional interest in my trip and produced weather charts, tidal advice and even offered a lift up to Burrow Head itself for a look. At mid-afternoon the tides would be flowing at full power and would give an idea of the worst possible scenario I might face.
As we bounced up a small country track to the headland Shaun pointed out that from Burrow Head it is possible to see Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland all in one spectacular vista.
Approaching a campsite which teetered at the edge of the coastal cliffs, my attention was directed toward a small unassuming bench covered in flowers.
“Down there, a WW1 fighter plane crashed. Many airmen survived and climbed the cliffs to shore, you can still see where they carved their name and regiment numbers while the awaited rescue”
The gully was little more than a narrow fissure, I didn’t fancy the down climb with blistered hands. At the base I watched more intently as the tides powered past the base of the cliff.
It was with great relief to see the tidal stream eddy between rocks in a smooth current, this was full flow and even then I thought to myself “I can paddle that!”
Back in the Isle of Whithorn I was directed by Shaun to the harbour offices laundrette (a hint perhaps), I was more exited to see a kettle and a microwave rather than washing machines. I would return here later, but first a quick pint at the local bar.
I sat in the corner of the Steam Packet Inn to write my diary over a pint. To my left a group of obnoxious young kids, to my right a pleasant young family. I struck up conversation with the later and quickly found myself with a few pints lined up on the table. Graham Watson and daughter Georgia were here on holiday, his wife and other daughter had left for a post dinner walk. Graham was in his late 40’s and had served 16 years in the Navy, subsequent ocean based conversation quickly divulged into an evening of interesting conversation, I learnt from Graham that the Isle of Whithorn was where Christianity first graced the shores of Britain.
It was late into the night before I somewhat staggered back to the tent a little on the tipsy side, with high winds forecast the next day I took comfort in knowing tomorrow I was going no where far.
* * *
Sure enough I awoke to pounding rain and a violently shaking tent in the wind, I turned my head back into the cosy sanctuary of my sleeping bag and went back to sleep.
Eventually I decided I had to escape the tent, with a pack of tea bags I bolted to the harbor office to take advantage of a long shower and free use of a kettle. Today I would head inland to Wigtown where friend Carol-Anne Worked in a bookshop.
“Works in a bookshop, its a small town she won’t be hard to find” I though with naivety. Stepping out of the bus into the little town of Wigton I had to laugh, literally every other shop was a bookshop. I’m pretty sure a bookworm worthy of a home in “Dune” could survive in this town.
After four wrong shops I finally found Carol-Anne in “Scotland’s Largest Bookshop.” Stepping through the door the smell of parchment was overpowering, I had entered a magical world of books. Shelf upon shelf (I am told 1km of them) lined the walls, the staircase, the rafters, even the garden shed. Winding through each room a magical new reading realm appeared, some had trinkets of silver, others maps, roaring fires, a bicycle and a skeleton with a fiddle. I am in total belief that if I continued hunting I would find Mr Olivander himself to buy a wand.
A cup of tea and some muffins later I left Carol-Anne to close the most magical shop I believe I have ever entered and returned to Isle of Whithorn, at last the rain had stopped.
Just as I was about to collapse into the tent “Is that a sea canoe?” Turning around I realized the question had emanated from a nearby caravan. Invited inside Debbie the paramedic and her other half Duncan offered a cup of tea. Upon retelling once again what I was doing this was quickly upgraded to a beer. I was nice to be able to relax for another evening somewhere other than my now damp little green home.
Perhaps I had got used to home comforts but with the influence of a beer I hatched a plan. I would pack away most of my kit tonight, then sleep on the floor in the warm room of the launderette. The plan turned out to be a great idea.
* * *
Sneaking out in the morning I stepped out into an eerie scene, the town was filled with fog. Even the harbour just 50m away was shrouded from view. “Don’t you dare go out there in that!” thinking I was alone I had a small heart attack before recognising the deep Scottish accent to be Shaun the harbour master.
Packing my kayak I heeded the warning and for an hour waited over a cup of tea, I was anxious to be as close as I could to the slack tides. After an hour the visibility had scarcely improved to about 100m. I decided to go anyway and silently slipped away from the harbor into the fog.
Even at slack water the tides were racing, at 9km/ph just sitting still I steamed into the fog. The fog cast a muffled silence across the sea, sharp menacing cliffs reared out of the mist as I drifted past at speed. An otter appeared just meters before me looking as terrified at the intrusion before quietly slipping away into the mist.
I was making good progress, I felt I should be a quiet as possible not to disturb the quiet aura of the misty waters. That was until CRAAAaaaacckkk!! I was lurched sideways with a sickening jolt, the boat stopped dead. I braced hard managing to keep the kayak upright, immediately peering forward to a razor sharp rock just under the water, I had hit it dead on. I then looked desperately around for somewhere to land, did I put a hole in Sula?? I could see nothing but cliff face and fog, drifting I waited to hear and see ominous bubbles emanating from the forward bulk head. . .Silence.
Landing on a small rock jutting from the cliffs I inspected the bow, If I were to sink now I would be in serious trouble and very stuck on the cliff. To my enormous relief a large scrape in the keel strip was the only wound, nothing to worry about.
*** Until I rounded Burrow head I then paddled a lot slower ***
After an hour and a half I arrived at St. Ninians cave. I had survived the tides and fogs of Burrow Head. It seemed that the relief was reflected in the weather, the mist begun to clear just as I landed ashore. Here I could check out the boat more throughly, and take a wander up to the cave itself.
“Just a hole in the rock” was how one local described St. Ninians, of course it is steeped in early Christian history akin to that of the Isle of Whithorn. Inside carvings both old and new riddled the walls, pennies and shillings dotted the walls with copper green where they had been wedged into various cracks. It served a great place to have a quick flask of tea.
As the fog had lifted a mirror calm day emerged, for the first time for the entire trip I was paddling in a T-Shirt. Passing Ivy covered cliffs I spotted a sea eagle soaring close by, its true they do look like a flying barn door.
I passed quickly along the coast in the glassy conditions, I fleeted a visit into Port William (a town sharing my name deserved a quick explore) before pressing onward along the eastern shore of Luce bay. I was aware that in two days bombing would be occurring and that I HAD to cross the firing range before then. At 2pm I arrived at the end of Luce Bay.
I had already done 58km, normally I would stop and rest. From where I had beached it was just 12km to the far side, still glassy calm I decided to bite the bullet and race for the other side.
Already tired from a long days paddle the crossing seemed to take forever, I managed to rig up my portable radio on the foredeck and for the last hour and a half enjoyed blaring radio 2 out into the calm waters much to the dismay of the local puffins. I decided to veer slightly south to land at Ardwell rather than Sandhead, this would cut a few kilometres from the next days paddle.
Almost exactly half way across and 6km from the shore (an hours paddle at a good pace) and enormous Boom echoed from horizon to horizon. Not expecting activity from the firing range I peered curiously toward the M.O.D base. Nothing.
Another Boom, this time from the south, well out at sea. A singular fork of brilliant white lightening struck the horizon, another Boom. If i’m honest i’d have preferred to hear bombing, painfully aware that I was the only dent on a glassy surface and holding a large pole I somewhat quickened my pace.
By the time I reached the shore I was relieved to have completed my second large open passage, especially lightening free. I aimed for a patch of grass with a caravan on it, after 70km I was exhausted.
The ritual 30 minutes empty and portage up the beach summoned the last of my energy, I paid little attention to the caravan at the top of the beach but focused more on hauling kit and avoiding oystercatcher nests dotted in the pebbles.
As I lowered the kayak at the top of the beach and turned over to my gear I was surprised and abashed to discover a steaming cup of tea had materialized amongst my unpacked chaos. Looking around I saw a couple waving from the caravan, they were familiar.
It was one of my camp neighbors from the Isle of Whithorn, Jane and Vic from London had seen me paddling twice during the day and realized I must be exhausted. Wandering over delighted to be sipping a scalding mug of tea, “You’ve come a bloody long way” cheered Vic. Jane pointed out that I had landed in a no camping zone clearly signposted from the road. With a mutual chuckle I quipped “Not from the sea.” I therefore decided it wasn’t my problem and duly set up the tent and lit a fire.
Phoning in to Paul the weather outlook was for increasing winds from the following afternoon, it would seem crossing Luce bay was a good call after all. In the morning I set out early at first light once more. The wind was a force 3-4 on my stern which pushed me quickly down the coast, I was racing the weather which was rapidly deteriorating. I only had to travel 20km today.
I landed at East Tarbert bay just in time, by the time I had pulled the kayak up the bay and set camp white horses had appeared. By the time I was changed spin drifts could be seen dancing on the horizon. To my surprise on this obscure little beach a familiar caravan was again parked, “Are they following me?” I wondered. Of course a morning spent chatting in a warm caravan sipping sugary tea was again much appreciated, thanks Jane and Vic.
I have made it to the Mull. It is glorious and sunny but alas the winds are gale force.
Watching the Maelstrom of wind and tide below the headlands steep cliff face I will wait until conditions improve, for now I guess i’ll have another cup of tea.