Pete Thorn’s account of a memorable adventure.
Budleigh Salterton was our only conceivable campsite for the night. As we rounded the corner into the bay, a scene of holiday devastation unfolded. On the long shingle spit by the river mouth, hundreds of very pale new visitors were everywhere. Many disposable BBQs were creating choking grey smoke so it looked a bit like the campsite of a besieging army. We anticipated a noisy night but hoped for the best. It did get quieter after midnight, though in the morning there were abandoned cans and broken bottles which we made some attempt to clear up.
However, for the most part, our camps were a delight and not too difficult to find. Shingle or rounded stones were preferred. Sand looks nice but gets everywhere. We had tried to research wild camping places using maps and Google Earth. Much of the coast between the Isle of Wight and Plymouth features steep cliffs, often with newly fallen material at the bottom.
The notion of completing the passage round the whole SW coast had been in our minds for a while. The overall distance from Isle of Wight to Plymouth was in the region of 160 nautical miles. During the trip we ranged from 15nm to 21nm/day. A fantastic coastline, not too far to travel from North Devon, with many iconic features. We could break it into one week sections, so more of a holiday than a mission. Not wilderness but still very attractive. Covid had delayed departure but July can be relied on for mostly good weather. With diaries coordinated, we needed to get started. We positioned a van in Plymouth with a helpful friend. Then Clive’s wife Susie kindly agreed to drop us off in Keyhaven, so there would be no need for vehicle recovery at the end. Keyhaven, near Hurst castle on the Solent, is ideal as a start point, though parking is desperate. The friendly river warden let us off the £10 launch fee/boat when he heard of our trip. Gradually, all the supplies and equipment we would need for an eight day trip disappeared into the hatches of our kayaks. Easy enough for me and Clive, paddling Tiderace Pace 17s, but a headache for Maria in her Valley Sirona day boat. Lots of smaller drybags rather than fewer large ones is the way to go but it’s a daily challenge to pack it all in, apart from remembering where things are. Is the boat trimmed properly? Are there any steel objects near the compass? Can I easily reach that cag, food, drink, sunglasses etc., while afloat? In all cases the boats were very heavy, requiring care not to sit them on anything sharp and tape slings to enable all three of us to lift them into the water. On that basis, a group of four paddlers would seem ideal, two at each end. The routine was to get the boats near the water, then lug all the bags down in two ubiquitous Ikea bags. These are remarkably tough and pack away to nothing as the last items.
For navigation, we had laminated copies of the 1:50,000 OS maps and numbered them. I had the SW coast guidebook. Maria had a Reeds almanac for tidal data and the OS package on her phone. This was enough for a handrailing coastal trip with no significant crossings. For communication we had mobile phones for wind forecasts and VHF radios, just in case…. Power was available through power packs, pre-charged, plus a folding solar panel. This last was remarkably effective but we did have a great deal of sunshine.
The tides were not ideal for this trip, but they were weak on the south coast so an irritation rather than an obstacle. Ideal would have been high water in the morning, making launching easy and then the benefit of the ebb to help us along. High water at Hurst castle was around midday and we consulted the almanac to gauge when it would be feasible to get round Hurst Point. To kill some time, we went for a stroll round the massive ramparts (some of which have recently collapsed into the sea) and queued for a coffee, all masked up. Eventually we were off, getting a tidal push round the point, where spring tides can flow at six knots. We watched the coast go by in slow motion, passing Christchurch before stopping for a break at Hengistbury Head. Then, we headed out across the bay to avoid looking at Bournemouth. Old Harry Rocks are chalk cliffs, visible for miles, and mark the end of the bay, with Poole Harbour, the famous Sandbanks and the naturist beaches at Studland. Perhaps Old Harry should be renamed Redknapp Rocks? They feature a series of rather temporary looking stacks with some arches to paddle through at high tide. We were going well, having covered 10 nautical miles in 2 hour 15 minutes since Hengistbury, so paddled round into Swanage Bay and camped at the end farthest away from the Town. We had done 20nm on the first day with useful tidal assistance.
The terraced shingle beach was ideal with flat surfaces and no sand. We borrowed rocks from a large pile in lieu of useless tent pegs. After this first night, we dispensed with the tents and slept out. This gave stunning midnight star scenes and saved time getting the tent sorted. The only downsides were little hopping insects which emerge at night and a slightly damp sleeping bag if there was dew. Clive produced his goretex bivi bag and claimed dryness.
On day two we made a leisurely start as the tide would not be helpful till later. Coffee and pasties in Swanage were a treat and we filled water bottles. Water was a continuing challenge as we each carried only six litres, which would barely do two days. Budleigh Salterton fared worst in our survey of public taps, as they had one but it didn’t work. Otherwise, Maria persuaded café owners to fill her bottle, and oh can you just do these other two as well? As we left Swanage in bright sunshine, we picked up some back eddies to help us towards Peverill and Durlston Points, but had to push against a headwind. We rounded St Alban’s Head at slack water and stopped at Chapman’s Pool where an elderly Scottish gentleman was attempting to teach himself to roll in some particularly minging water. We had to wait here till 5pm as the firing range was allegedly active. At 5 the flag stayed up but we didn’t believe it and set off. This proved accurate because the other end flag in Lulworth was flying early next morning and clearly had not been taken down. A freshening head wind slowed us to 2.9knots as we passed impressive limestone cliffs. These ended abruptly as we passed into Kimmeridge Clay country. There are surf breaks at Kimmeridge but over rock shelves. In our heavy craft we did not indulge. We were aiming for Osmington Mills as a possible campsite but with a Force 4 headwind it was clearly beyond reasonable effort. We pulled into Lulworth Cove and camped on a shingle shelf, having completed only 16.5nm. The beach was busier than we would have liked but they all went home eventually. A new moon and stars emerged and we watched satellites passing over.
In the morning we left a 09.00, getting better at packing up. The nagging head wind and adverse tide was a nuisance but did not detract from the stunning cliff scenery. We paddled into ‘The Stair’ and through some caves including Bat Hole. Durdle Door created a frame for an almost cliched picture.
At Ringstead we took a break among the holiday families and both Clive and I immediately ordered an excellent all-day breakfast. No vegan options available for Maria though. We got going again, crossing Weymouth Bay to miss Portland Harbour. Several ‘resting’ cruise ships inspired much discussion about holidays, food and dressing up. We followed down the east coast of Portland, to stop at one of the few beaches, this one below Rufus Castle. We found a loo and a tap! Portland Bill promised to be the test-piece of the trip, with epic tales of huge tide races and disaster. A study of the tidal currents shows there are only two hours in twelve when the tide is actually helpful to the west bound traveller. Calculating this requires tidal diagrams and reference to HW Dover. So, we waited till the designated time and made an uneventful passage.
The headland features a higgledy piggledy collection of sheds, presumably the refuges of the many hopeful sea anglers, whose lines we needed to avoid.
We arrived at Chiswell, a village where Portland meets Chesil Beach. The beach there we had thought to be an attractive camp spot in view of the adjacent pub, but we anticipated local drunks at turning out time so drifted on with the helpful ebb tide. This, of course, committed us to camping on Chesil Beach. This monotonous section is 17 miles long, made up of unimaginable quantities of shingle, up to a height of 50’. A modest swell created worryingly heavy dumping surf, onto a steep shingle bank which did not flatten out for around ten feet above the sea. How to land without getting thoroughly wet and the boat waterlogged and damaged? After much thought I got close in and abandoned the boat, Maria towing it clear. Then Clive could land with assistance and we could together drag the heavy missile to safety. It was straightforward after that. Once ashore we could all dry off in the hot sunshine. We were paddling in just shorts and rash tops, so getting that dryish for next day was easy. In tougher conditions we would have been more uncomfortable. There was plenty of firewood so we soon had a small fire going. Not for long though, as the shingle started exploding with the heat, sending shrapnel in all directions. We had completed 21 nm.
After an excellent insect-free night we managed an easy launch at 09.20. We could only manage 2.8knots against the tide, which we would have nearly all day. Wind was light and variable under a blazing sun. Floppy hats and much sun cream protected us. It was vital to stay well hydrated, resulting in regular loo stops in isolated places. Distant landmarks were slow to arrive but we eventually landed at West Bexington and Burton Bradstock. They both scored nil points on the loo/tap rating. West Bay was much better but bare feet on the hot shingle was a bad idea. Clive had painful feet for days. We ended an arduous day, landing at St Gabriel’s Mouth on shingle, where numerous mud slips had solidified into a rather lunar surface. We searched for fossils, being near Lyme Regis and Maria found some Ammonite fragments. We all took a swim to cool down. As our mileage was only 15.3nm, it was becoming clear we would need an extra day to complete.
In Lyme Regis next morning we homed in on Tesco’s to get fresh veg and sundry supplies. They did not take kindly to Maria’s bare feet, though we failed to see how they could be any dirtier than our shoes. Coffee and pasties formed our second breakfast. Then, how to find room for all this shopping in the hatches? We paddled on past old seaside towns of Seaton, Beer, Branscombe (site of that container ship wreck) and Sidmouth. I resisted the urge to visit Auntie Ruth. The impressive deep red sandstone cliffs overlooked stony beaches. There were many recent cliff falls, making wild camping a hazardous prospect. It had to be the infamous Budleigh Salterton then, after 20nm. The large car park behind the beach must have been producing a fire hose of income to the council but not a penny had been spent on grass cutting, the loos weren’t cleaned and litter bins over-flowed. Come on East Devon DC, get your act together.
In the morning we left thankfully and headed across to Dawlish where we filled water bottles and enjoyed more coffee. The passage to Straight Point and across the Exe estuary was slow, with a foul tide and general weariness setting in. We bypassed Teignmouth, being tired of holiday beaches and jet skis. It was a long jag down towards Hopes Nose and the back of Torquay. I regaled the team with a comic song about which they were polite. We began looking for a likely camp but most coves were heavily populated by noisy family gatherings. At one point a large gentleman set off across the bay on a jet ski at 40mph, with a lady clinging on behind and a loud marine sound system giving out rock music. A little later, one cove looked quieter. We drifted in, noticing some people unclothed. We were immediately challenged by a very tanned and wrinkly naked man who claimed this was a naturist beach and we had to take all our clothes off. Maria and Clive looked anxious. We smiled, nodded and ignored him. Moving on, we rounded Hopes Nose where many Eastern European men were fishing, camping, drinking….
In Torbay, after a day of just 16nm, Clive found a tiny cove behind some big rocks which we claimed as our own for the night. By testing the dryness of the sea-weed we concluded there was enough scope not to be floating at 1am on the high tide. However, the shingle, such as it was, was alive with insects. We became creative with the tops of boulders and actually slept quite well. Clive could not afford to turn over though, without falling several feet. When the jet skis went home, we looked across an idyllic scene with a rocky island and the 200’ cliffs of Berry Head behind. Torbay was used by the Channel fleet during the Napoleonic War as a temporary anchorage when winter gales drove them away from blockading the French ports
The next morning, day 7, was bright and sunny again. How long can this last? We left at 08.00, getting earlier and more efficient at the packing saga. We needed supplies so headed for Brixham, past more cruise liners at anchor. This fishing port has a big harbour which we avoided. A side beach gave access to the main streets. After a ten minute walk, led by Maria’s phone, we found the artisan baker for decent bread. He also provided good pasties and coffee.
We relaunched and headed off to Berry Head while I bored my partners with tales of cliff rescue training in Outward Bound days, when we had stayed in the basement of the lighthouse in primitive conditions and lowered hapless students down these vertiginous cliffs on stretchers before hauling them up again. After avoiding the many fishermen, we discovered a superb coastline of cliff features and caves, feeling quite remote.
Then past the sunbathers on Slapton Sands and the memorial to the many servicemen killed during the rehearsals for D-Day. More were killed in the rehearsal than in the actual Normandy landing. Torcross marks the end of this mini Chesil, with the villages of Beesands and Hallsands following. Hallsands was destroyed by a massive storm overnight and only two beach level houses remain, both boarded up. Extraction of millions of tons of gravel from the sea bed off the village, for the building of Plymouth Breakwater, removed natural protection and led to this catastrophe. We had enjoyed a good day’s paddle and Maria was making the pace in her Sirona. As the ebb tide final got going, we rounded Start Point and found a delightful cove for a camp, having paddled another 20nm. Only accessible by a long cliff walk, the beach visitors had chosen not to bring boom boxes and beer. As they wound their way back to cars, we scavenged for firewood and had a fine little blaze.
What did we do for a toilet you may wonder? We used public ones when available. Otherwise, it was a discreet walk, a rolled over boulder or a dug hole. We burned the toilet paper. Always below the high tide line, so natural processes would work fast. We left no trace and often cleared up other’s litter. The amount of plastic was depressing, particularly on Chesil so our efforts were token.
On day 8, we left even earlier at 07.30 to catch the remaining ebb tide. A brilliant sunny morning with a mirror sea and no wind. We made steady progress towards Prawle Point and across the wide mouth of the Salcombe estuary. A steady stream of yachts and motor launches needed watching but we had no near misses. This is a more select bit of coastline and the bothersome jet skis were absent. Bolt Head, which usually has a lively sea state, was flat calm. I was busting for the loo so made a risky landing among rocks where some ground swell interfered. However, a few hundred metres further on was a sweet little beach so I should have been more patient. The 1:50,000 maps are not quite detailed enough to identify all potential stops. Bolt Tail led round to the pretty Hope Cove, where we purchased rather poor coffee and huge pasties. Then across Thurlestone Bay and round the back of Burgh Island. This craggy feature is famous for its Art Deco hotel, scene of Agatha Christie TV productions with M. Hercule Poirot. It was recovered from a state of dereliction by the owners back in the seventies and they now charge eye watering amounts for your special stay. We were more interested in the passages and zawns behind the island which we reckoned would be spectacular with swell.
We aimed to stay at Aymer Cove, within a mile of the Journey’s End pub in Ringmore. But Aymer had had a delivery of rotting seaweed and was unpleasant. The next cove at Westcombe was fabulous, though we struggled for a phone signal. We had covered just 16nm. Here I had spent many short stays with Outward Bound students in the seventies, doing cliff rescue practice so was able to dredge up more entertaining stories! Clive and Maria humoured me. We managed to find wood for a fire. We drank the last thimblefuls of whiskey. This had become a warming custom after dinner when a small libation seemed attractive. There simply wasn’t room in the boats for beer or wine.
The final day of 16nm. An even earlier start before 07.30. It was calm, sunny and later quite warm. Any breeze over the sea made it pleasant. The sun on our backs warmed the water in the hydration packs to more than luke warm, so hardly refreshing. We crossed the Erme estuary which is impressively large for such a tiny river. These flooded valleys create handy temporary moorings for visiting yachts and the gin motor launches. At Noss Mayo we marvelled at the sprinkling of wooden frame buildings where people had created holiday homes or permanent dwellings. I imagine the Planning officer rarely gets to this remote spot, with its spectacular views and primitive services. Later we crossed the Yealm estuary and finally turned the corner of Wembury Head into Plymouth Sound. We lacked a decent map for this section due to my ordering mistake, so used Maria’s trusty i-phone to locate Mountbatten. This took an hour of paddling which shows how big the Sound is. My friend Buck was waiting to greet us with a cool box of drinks and snacks. I put up with his teasing about our sketchy final navigation in the absence of a map. My van was quickly recovered and we dismantled the operation, loading boats and bagging up wet gear. With thanks to Buck we headed for Tesco Excess and ordered second breakfasts. We probably smelled, but no-one complained.
A cracking trip with great paddling partners. We were so lucky with the weather; July seems to be the premium month, though as I write, Storm Evert is approaching. Camping out of a kayak or canoe is a brilliant experience. Maria wanted to keep going, while Clive and I hankered after proper beds after eight beach nights. We aim to return before the summer ends to head to Land’s End and beyond.