It was October, and my autumn paddling trip was approaching. As usual I was busy planning a trip north to the Highlands. For the last two years I had travelled to Glen Affric and enjoyed stunning conditions both for paddling and photography. This year though, my mind was filled with images I had seen of trips on the lochs of the Trossachs.
I found a campsite by the river so I could either start or finish a trip at the tent on a couple of days, routes that would fit with retrieving the car by push-bike, even a circular route on Lochs Achray, Venachar and Drunkie. The plans in place, I started to watch the weather forecast.
The long range forecast wasn’t bad, a bit mixed maybe, but nothing too extreme. All to the good, I thought as I booked the campsite. Then our capricious climate stuck its oar in…
Hurricane Ophelia, which was supposed to be spinning westward to enjoy a late season Caribbean break took a sharp right turn and headed remorselessly towards the UK. The five day forecast showed her, reduced in stature but still an intense area of low pressure, sitting right over my camping pitch for most of the week. Time to change plans!
So I was not going north this year. The forecast said ‘Go east!’, so it was off to Norfolk, not the Trossachs. I travelled the day Ophelia hit the UK. Radio reports of fatalities in Ireland, and trees down and houses damaged in the wake of the storm easily persuaded me I had made the right choice. But even heading determinedly away from all the action, the wind was high and the sky unlike any I have seen in the UK.
The air was as warm as June day, but a heavy overcast of iron-grey cloud filtered the light. A dull red sun cast an unpleasant orange illumination across the landscape. I arrived at Willowcroft Camping and Caravan site on the wings of the storm. The wind was rising and the cloud getting denser. Without delay I set up my tent and tarp, paying careful attention to guying everything down far more securely than I would do normally, but despite the threatening sky, nothing more happened.
Ophelia blew herself away into the North Atlantic, and I awoke the following morning to find everything as I left it last night. The wind was still quite strong, and forecast to remain so all week, but it was dry and bright.
The campsite is small, and set up mainly for caravans, though they didn’t begrudge me a caravan-sized pitch for my 2 man tent and a tarp to cook under. It is only a two minute walk to a public staithe the on River Thurne, easily trolleyed along a quiet road. The wind was forecast to start as a south-westerly, swinging more to the south east in the afternoon. So I decided to try to use this as a partial tail wind, paddling from Repps to Horsey Mere and back via the Meadow Dyke and Heigham Sound.
The wind certainly did its job on the outward leg. Rapid but leisurely progress soon saw me through the bridge at Potter Heigham. The tide was high – not much clearance there for motor cruisers, which meant I’d have much less disturbance on the water. A great crested grebe in its winter colours proceeded me through the arches.
The banks of the Thurne had been lined with small chalets up to the bridge, but these thinned out rapidly once past the bridge and the banks started to take on a less manicured appearance.
A boatyard on river left and a traditional-looking cottage on river right announced the approach of Candle Dyke, my turning towards Heigham Sound. A mix of sailing yachts and pleasure cruisers were moored stern-on to the bank, their masts catching the light.
The cottage has obviously been modernised, with a gleaming stovepipe protruding through the hatch, but has kept its character. Not a bad place for a waterside break…
The map shows Candle Dyke and Duck Broad opening out quite soon after leaving the Thurne, but the waterway continued enclosed by high reed banks until navigation posts marked the channel through Heigham Sounds. There was plenty of water room here, but that allowed the wind free play too. Fortunately it was still behind me, but I wasn’t looking forward to coming back against it.
Meadow Dyke came up quickly, and gave some shelter under its reeds, but there was still quite a tailwind blowing me along. The map showed a small channel leading to Stubb Drainage Mill. Intrigued by its partially obscured entrance, I nosed the canoe through the reeds to where the channel opened out a bit. Ramrod-straight, it led directly to the mill.
Enjoying some respite from the battering wind, I decided to paddle right to the end, where a small dinghy was moored and there was enough width to turn a 16’ canoe.
Returning along my wake to Meadow Dyke, I made good time to the entrance to Horsey Mere. At first glance this seemed devoid of boats and whipped by the steady force 4 that had been my companion and aid through my outward leg. As I entered the mere, I picked out a couple of fishermen in small boats tucked into the edge of the reedbeds for shelter.
I had decided my turning point would be Horsey Mere, and with the wind’s assistance I quickly crossed the kilometre or so to the moorings at the Mill.
It was only 11am. I realised I was well ahead of the weather, and that the forecast shift in wind direction wasn’t due until early afternoon. It was going to be a bit of a fight getting back, so I decided that some elevenses were in order.
Resting in shelter at the entrance to the entrance of the dyke, I broke out the tea flask and had a bite to eat before setting off. The contrast in just a few yards was startling. By the side of the canoe where I sat stationary just a foot or so from the bank, pond skaters and other aquatic micro-life skimmed across the surface. A boat length into the Mere, a sharp chop was wind-driven into the reeds.
Being so far ahead of schedule, I toyed with the idea of exploring the New Cut, but the prospect of a longer trip back into a headwind deterred me. It was time to put my head down and hit a rhythm to cross the expanse of open water in front of me. Initially I tried ducking along the edge of the reedbeds, but gave this up and changed tack to cut straight across to the west bank which I hoped would provide a bit more shelter. Looking back at my gps plot, I wasn’t going much slower than my downwind leg, but I was working much harder to get anywhere. And it didn’t get much easier in Meadow Dyke. The high reeds acted as a wind funnel in places, giving patches of shelter alternating with stretches of concentrated effort. But the wind had blown the clouds away, and the autumn sun helped keep the day quite mild. Pausing for rest I enjoyed the varying reflections on the ripples – clear blue sky and faded straw stalks alternating beneath my hull.
Reaching Heigham Sound, I was still making good time, so turned north towards Hickling Broad to find somewhere to stop for lunch. The moorings in the reed-lined channel of White Slea provided a pleasant spot, just before the main Broad opened out. There were only a handful of other boats around, and I had the mooring to myself. As I sat enjoying the wildness of the marsh, I was overflown by the first of several marsh harriers I saw that day, and to my great delight a flock of four common cranes passed by high over the Broad. Despite the name these as far from common in the UK, the resident population being around 80-100 birds after a sustained campaign to encourage their presence. This was a first for me. The photo is little more than a record shot, at maximum zoom and then cropped in harshly, but it was enough to confirm the ID.
A great crested grebe was hunting its prey across the channel while I ate, and came close enough to make a couple of images.
White horses chased across the water on the Broad, so I decided to explore the back channels behind the moorings. On the map I noticed a body of water called Rush Hill. Even for Norfolk it seemed a bit far-fetched to call a lake ‘Hill”.
I didn’t quite manage to find my way to it, but I did get to within a few yards of re-entering Hickling Broad itself. With a pole and a bit of grunt to get across a marginal stretch of indeterminate substance that was nearly water but not quite land I could probably have forced a passage, but lacking my pole and not fancying a wade through an unknown depth of glutinous mud, I retraced my route to more substantial waterways and back into the wind.
It had swung round to the south east by now, as forecast. While that would be to my advantage once back on the Thurne, it meant it was still a headwind for the next couple of kilometres. Pushing my way on, I made good progress, and was soon back at the junction with the river. Resting for a short while before making the right turn to take my along the final leg of my trip, I was framing a shot of the mill just upstream when a polite cough and a rattling tap on my hull surprised me. A very well-mannered swan was trying to attract my attention in the hope of a snack. Having been asked so nicely, I obliged, in return for a portrait!
The short autumn afternoon was drawing to a close, and with a few more kilometres to go, I struck out for Potter Heigham and the public staithe at Repps. Home before dark, shoulders aching pleasantly from 20km of paddling, I soon had the maps out to plan tomorrow’s trip.