Despite planning to go on summer holiday in Northumberland, through a combination of booking late and accommodation falling through we found ourselves staying in the valley of the Lynne, not far from the Scottish border in Cumbria. This isn’t an area I know well, having tended to drive through it on the way to destinations further north, but I was looking forward to exploring somewhere new.
As always in recent years, it was inconceivable to go away without also going paddling, so at least one boat had to come too. But where to paddle? With just the one car I needed options that would fit in with the rest of the family’s plans. The appeal of archery and zipwires drew my children to Whithaugh Park for half a day.
The nearest river was Liddel Water. All I could find on this was a description of a grade 4 play spot at Penton Bridge – not really what I fancied in an open boat with a dog on board. A bit more digging suggested that a stretch upstream, conveniently near the outdoor centre my kids were visiting for the day, might be doable. So, I arranged to be dropped off with boat, dog, stove and supplies for a day on the river. My choice of route was from Powisholm Bridge to Kershopefoot Bridge, a distance of about 9km. Google Earth suggested a small touring river with quite regular riffles and maybe a proper rapid or two, but nothing more than an easy grade 1-2. Being quite high upstream, it would need some water. And that was to be the rub – after the prolonged dry spell, river levels everywhere were low.
I was dropped off where the old bridge still crossed the river alongside the new road, giving a little lay-by to unload in. The plan was to pick me up at the other end in about 3 ½ hours – plenty of time to get the route done, I thought. The first challenge though was just getting to the river. Google Earth will take you so far, but it can’t see barbed wire fences or patches of nettles, and the field with easier access was full of sheep, which made me reluctant to take the dog through a couple of times ferrying kit and canoe.
Both barbed wire and nettles proved to be in abundance. A bit of route scouting got me there, with only two fences to lift the boat and the dog over. The canoe proved to be very effective at cleaving a passage through the nettles when pushed on in front, so it was without too much discomfort that I reached the bank.
The obligatory faff of stowing dry bags, cameras and painters that all open boaters will be familiar with was complicated by standing on steep slippery mud, so perhaps unsurprisingly, I finished squaring the kit away stood in the water. As it turned out, this wasn’t to matter, but my start was delayed somewhat by emptying the boat of an inch or two of water brought aboard in addition to my planned cargo.
The river was low. The SEPA gauge at Newcastleton had read 0.27 and rising that morning, but it was immediately obvious that it needed to rise quite a bit more. Still, my lift had left, so I had only one way to go – downstream by whatever method worked.
Within a few boat lengths I was aground. That early baptism was starting to look like just an acclimitising dip. Rather to my dog’s confusion, I stepped out of the boat and towed it over the first rocky shelf before jumping back in and making a few strokes with the paddle to cross the next pool. A rhythm was soon established, although with much less paddling than I had hoped. Most of the first kilometer down to the confluence with Hermitage Water was spent on foot in the river, but where it deepened secret pools hid under the trees. Despite the hard work and wet legs, it was lovely.
Hermitage Water added a significant volume to the flow, and the spells in the boat got longer. But every rock bar that crossed the riverbed had to be waded. Sometimes the dog got out too, sometimes not. He seemed to wait until I had stepped out – if it was only ankle deep he joined me. Knee deep and he stayed put! In places it was quite deep, in between closely spaced mossy boulders sitting below the surface. These were positioned so as to nicely wedge a canoe, especially when the paddler’s forward view was obstructed by a dog standing on the bow airbag looking for ducks.
As we passed Sandholm, the river became flatter. While it was still quite shallow, it was at least possible to paddle most of the time. Now instead of short rocky shelves, wide shingle bars obstructed the flow. Sometimes there was enough water to scrape over, with a judicious shove of the paddle against the river bed.
But where it was too shallow to float an occupied canoe, it now became possible to line the boat down. This was turning out to be more of a walk than the dog had expected, but he was happy strolling along the bank while I dangled the canoe on the end of its painter from mid-river. Once passed the ford at Brox, we made good progress, both of us in the canoe together for once.
Then on a right-hand bend, came another series of gently shelving drops, scattered liberally with rocks. But at last, there was water under the hull, and a clear run into each V of water. With a few inches more depth, I would have enjoyed picking a line down river left between the rocks, but as it was, straight down the middle was the order of the day, and momentum got us clear of the scrapey bits. After 100m or so, the gradient eased again, and I broke out into an eddy to look back.
In the grand scheme of things, this brief rapid was nothing much, but it was great to be able to actually paddle it.
The river stayed a workable depth now, and I made good time. It felt good to be using the paddle instead of the painter to make progress, despite the steady drizzle that kept the camera it its bag. But it was now 2 ½ hours since I had been dropped off, and I would need no more delays if I was to complete my planned journey.
As I reached the outskirts of Newcastleton, I realised I would have to cut things short if I was to meet my lift. I was only halfway, and I had arranged to be picked up in thirty minutes time. Another shingle bar needed some determined poling to cross, and even the last kilometer alongside Newcastleton required two periods of wading over cobbled shallows. I managed to rearrange my pick-up and called it a day at the bridge. At least these all these enforced halts gave time to enjoy the details of the banks.
It couldn’t in all fairness be called a paddle, more a journey with a canoe. But time on (or indeed in) the water is always quality time. I hadn’t had the chance before to practice towing and lining for such extended periods, and it gave the trip an expedition feel to add to the interest of exploring an unknown river. It would have been nice to paddle more and wade less, but there was too Liddel Water…