Around Wales in 15 Days

by John Willacy

The circumnavigation of Wales is an interesting paddling adventure. It brings more to the expedition table: coastline, canals and rivers. There’s even a tidal bore – if you get your timing right.


It’s at times like these that my mind wanders. Just now I’m pondering the significance of my 25m swimming badge.  Ahead lie 10 miles of water, and behind another 10 miles. I wonder if those childhood swimming lessons with Miss Flood (yes, really) were adequate preparation.

I’m half way across Camarthen Bay and it’s Day One.

Day One of what?

Well, day one of an attempt to paddle around Wales by kayak.

And before we go any further, let’s get that one out of the way. How do you paddle ‘around’ Wales?

Briefly:  Follow the coast until you reach the River Dee Estuary. Turn right here. This is important – otherwise you are going via Scotland, and that is the long way around.

Head upriver to Chester and join the canal. Paddle, via Wolverhampton, until you reach Stourport.  Head downstream on the River Severn until you go under two rather large bridges. Turn right at the second one and keep paddling until you find your car once again.

The circumnavigation of Wales is an interesting paddling adventure. It brings more to the expedition table: coastline, canals and rivers. There’s even a tidal bore – if you get your timing right.

It can all be completed in a few weeks, this one doesn’t take a large chunk out of your life. Sign me up!

In 2003 I had set out to paddle this one with my good friends, Geoff and Mike. Unfortunately the weather spoilt the party. After all these years I have finally found the time to have another go.

Day One – Rhossili to Freshwater West – 37 miles – 7 hrs

It was a late arrival last night, after a day of last minute packing and kit checking. 16 years to get ready for this one Fatboy, and still you’re late!

We are standing in a car-park – it looks like an explosion in a Gore-Tex factory. But eventually all is sorted and I trolley the boat down a steep track to Rhossili Beach.

Heading down to Rhossili Beach.
Heading down to Rhossili Beach.
Launching from Rhossili Beach – day one.

It’s a nice day; the sun is out and the wind is 10 mph, though a 2-3ft swell is forecast. Good enough for the day ahead – a crossing of Camarthen Bay.

Beyond the shelter of the iconic Worm’s Head the boat starts a slightly grumpy wallow; it’s Day One for both of us it seems.

The crossing is uneventful, though at 26 miles, it’s a little long for day one. I see a pair of Storm Petrels and wonder if these visitors are an omen…

The hours tick by: paddle – drink – eat – paddle.

At Broad Haven I decide to continue to Freshwater West. There is little choice really; Castlemartin Range has to be cleared over the inactive weekend.

I turn left and move along the cliffs, aiming for Linney Head. I never like this stretch, it is a place of confused chop, clapotis and unhelpful eddies.

However Freshwater West finally arrives with a pleasant surf in, and I meet The Boss once again.  We chat for a while, taking in the view, until she has to head home. Kit dries in the sunshine and I pitch my tent in the dunes.

Day One is done.

Day Three – Porth Gain to Llangranog – 36 miles – 6 hrs 30

In the early hours the sound of water encroaching on my romantically placed tent causes some consternation, like a midnight-meerkat I sit and watch high-water go through by torch light.

Later both the tide and I feel like an easy start. The wind is a stiff south-south-east. I sneak along the cliffs until the angles are right and then the wind encourages me towards Strumble Head. I am wary as I approach, but the far side is nice and smooth.

Now it’s a typical early-exped day. The headlands take forever to fall behind. My arms are going around but the boat is sluggish and sullen. I paddle the oily calm towards Cemaes Head, where good conditions mean I must toil some more – finally finishing at Llangrannog.

Didn’t know it was a surf beach…

Day 4 – Llangranog to Aberdyfi – 32 miles – 6 hrs 45

Yesterday was a struggle and though Geoff and Joy hosted me well, I’m still feeling a little old this morning.

I paddle out into calm from Llangrannog and start once again. It’s slow going.

Spirits are lifted as my old friends the Manx Shearwater join the show. I can’t help but smile when they arrive, marvelling at the precision as they skilfully circle the boat. Their wingtips leave gentle caresses on the smooth surface, gliding by.

The paddle is nothing to get excited about.

It’s basically a straight off-shore line to Aberdyfi – there’s not much to see, not much to do and not much else to say…

Day 5 – Aberdyfi to Abersoch – 30 miles – 6hrs 45

The strong wind in the night filled the tent with sand. Tonight I’m bringing a bucket and spade to bed…

Windy night at Aberdyfi.

I’m knackered. I need sleep and ‘Exped-fitness’ is yet to kick in. I’m feeling sluggish both mentally and physically. Motivation is lacking and decision making is syrupy. A perfect combination for another crossing.

Additionally we have a minor disaster. As I load up, I can’t find my pee-bottle. I frantically scour the beach and the dunes, but it is gone! This is not just any old pee-bottle; this one is a UK Circumnavigator, an elite amongst pee-bottles! The day starts under a dark cloud.

I plan to reach Tofanau and jump-off there for the crossing to Abersoch. The mis-leading offshore wind makes me wary of what I’ll find further out though.  A choppy 20-mile crossing does not appeal. I give it a damn good ignoring, hoping that it will go away.

Late afternoon, during a break, the wind drops. Abersoch here we come!

Arriving in Abersoch.

4 hrs later I arrive, feeling much happier. I look back to see Cader Idris in the distance – it looks quite a long way.

The Boss joins me once again and we finish the long day with an excellent pizza from ‘Crust’.

Day 6 – Abersoch to Porth Dinllaen – 31 miles – 5 hrs 40

An early morning follows the late finish. An aching body slides into the boat for 06:30.

The day starts surprisingly cheerfully though. Rather than the baking-sunshine-slog of previous days, today there is a challenge, and a plan to work to. The wind is to back to the north at 11:00. So I need to round the end of the Llyn Peninsula before that. Timings, tides and weather have all to be bettered today!

Past the Tudwals and turn right, the east wind and the flow balance nicely. The following sea is big enough to provide rides, but there’s no leaning back required – nice. The Taran comes alive, today she’s in her element. We fly along.

Black squalls funnel through Hell’s Mouth and next Bardsey Sound looms, but wind and tide work together for a smooth, fast passage.

The flow continues north-west but I don’t want to be out there when the wind changes, so I turn right and trudge against the eddy up the coast.

At Porth Colman I sit out tide and weather. The wind eases late afternoon, so I get back on for a few more miles. But things become choppy, and then move into challenging – I call it a day in Porth Dinllaen.

A good plan and good miles from an awkward day.

Day 7 – Porth Dinllaen to Beaumaris – 35 miles – 6 hrs 50

Home-turf today!

A straight line from Porth Dinllaen to Dinas Dinlle initially, the north-east breeze sitting right on the nose. Paddle – splash – paddle.

The 3 peaks of Yr Eifl loom menacingly over the coast, their tops peaking through the scattered clouds. Little else occurs. It’s tiring work.

I arrive north of Dinas Dinlle where the high-tide swell makes a steep shingle landing unappealing – in a make-a-bit-of-yourself sort of way. I sneak against the flow into the Menai Straits and land on the Caernarfon shore instead.

There’s little point going further against the ebb, so International Rescue whisks me off home. But this is not necessarily a good thing. Soon kit is all over – a washing, drying, swapping chaos.

It’s time to go again and I’ve lost track of everything – not good for a boy who likes his routine!

Heading up the Menai Straits I chat briefly to a couple of Land’s End to John o’Groats paddlers.  The Swellies, my daily training spot, is seen through strangely different eyes tonight. Next it’s over the ‘bubble’ at Beaumaris to end the day a few miles further on at Penrhyn.

A smooth silent dusk draws the day to a close. My own bed tonight.

Day 8 – Penrhyn to Point of Ayr – 32 miles – 6 hrs 30

Things are starting to ‘click’ now. Exped- fitness is coming online, and the planning and tactics are working.

The appeal of good sleep in my own bed was too strong, now there’s only 3 hours of tide to run as I start. I’m unlikely to cover the whole North Wales coast in that time.

At Penrhyn, the widescreen view of Snowdonia is hidden by mist. Heading off towards Llandudno, it’s a ‘Bearings ‘R’ Us’ day. I hope today is the day that planetary physics take a break – but it isn’t. The tide goes against right on cue – 5.7 – 5.4 – 5.0 kts…

The ebbing flow stacks up against the opposing wind though, and soon I’m getting enough rides to make reasonable progress. That’ll do!

Beyond Prestatyn the neglected lighthouse at Point of Ayr appears, signalling the close of the day on the busy beach.

Good progress. Next the River Dee beckons…

Day 9 – Point of Ayr to Hack Green – 45 miles – 8 hrs 25

I’m excited about today.

On the 2003 trip I surfed my first ‘Dee Bore’. So today is a sort of anniversary.

With time in hand I decide to take the Mostyn Channel, to look at the scenery.

The small port is now a buzz of wind farm activity. The narrow channel fills rapidly and I’m zooming along. I pass the Duke of Lancaster ‘fun-ship’ – its colourful history now hidden beneath a rather sombre layer of black paint.

The Duke of Lancaster.

But then the wheels drop off. Well a set of wheels would be useful. I reach the top of the channel and run out of water. No worries, it’s filling quickly.

Actually it isn’t. I’m stranded, bumping and scraping over sandy ripples. It takes an hour before I can see over the top, and to my dismay the estuary has filled in my absence. The flow is not hanging around, the leading edge is long gone. Double bugger.

I set off in hot-pursuit. 10 miles later it is a very hot pursuit, in my ‘big-cag’ and helmet – sweating like a whatever. But it’s all in vain; I just catch the second wave in time to watch the Bore fade. I’ve missed it – 16 years I’ve waited for this and now I’ve blown it. You muppet.

Chester arrives with a transfer onto the canal. I sit in the sun and waste a little time, no hurry now.

Chester canal.
Trolley portage at Chester.

It’s the usual canal routine of smooth paddling interspersed with trolleying around locks. It’s a more relaxing environment. No worry from tides or wind. Safety is less of an issue, and it’s hard to get lost now.

Today ends at Hack Green. I was hoping to stop by the Secret Bunker.

I couldn’t find it.

Day 10 Hack Green to Codsall – 34 miles – 7 hrs

Exped law states that late-starts follow long-days. I’m not on the water until 10:30.

But there’s no rush – we’ll get to where we get to. No pressure.

The countryside glides by in a pleasant way. I chat to the cows and think of not much really, like a sort of floating Pooh Bear. The easy-life is only broken by trolley routine around locks.

Canal sunshine.

I have the distance between locks marked on my maps. I’m still trying to decide whether a long trolley outweighs multiple short-paddles, with the associated get-ins/get-outs. Answers on a postcard…

At Audlem the answer is not difficult; there are 15 locks over a mile or so. The long-trolley is interrupted by a stall with an honesty box: Ice cream, home-made cake, cold water and other delights. I linger a while, a long while. Eventually I paddle off, feeling rather gloriously ill. Greedy boy.

Cheshire fades into Shropshire and then Staffordshire, I think. The sunny afternoon relaxes into an evening of summer cool.

Eventually I haul out near Codsall, just outside Wolverhampton. I’d like to go a little further but it’s Hotel Canvas tonight and I’m not sure how well that works in downtown Wolves.

Campsite at Codsall.

The towpath narrows as I pitch my still sand-filled tent. There isn’t a lot of room here.

I drift off to sleep wondering if I could get the zip open before I drown.

Day 11 Codsall to Stourport – 29 miles – 6 hrs 30

Stourport is the goal today via the Staffs and Worcs Canal. It’s not too far. But the map shows the dreaded chevron symbols of more locks. Quite a few more in fact – 60 in 25 miles!

The locks add a scenic element to the canal though, and have intriguing names such as ‘Stewponey’ and ‘Bumblehole’. However they also bring a time-consuming physicality to the day.

There’s a knack to lifting the loaded boat out undamaged and onto the trolley. Then a rumbly tow-path haul ensues. Allow 3 or 4 minutes per lock and you can see that 3 or 4 hours of humping-and-dumping are added to the day’s  paddling.

Still, I enjoy the canals. These towpaths have been used daily for 200 years. History has formed and faded here, and through it all the canal has stayed in exactly the same place. You can feel the ghosts.

There are contrasts here too. Turn a corner and glide from the deepest urban blight into a sunny green glade, just like that.  The odd electric-blue flash of a Kingfisher disturbs the greenery. While a few friendly boaters and miserable danglers add colour too. Life could be worse.

At Stourport I head upriver for a mile to a pleasant and friendly campsite.

The day ends as I doze off to the incongruous sounds of an owl and a 2-stroke dirt-bike across the river.

Day 12 Stourport to Sharpness – 59 miles – 11 hrs

Today onto the River Severn, perhaps the last day before a return to the world of tide-times and weather dodging. Let’s see how far we can get.

I have to wait for the locks to open for the day. Now they are manned, a much more relaxed affair. I just sit there and let the water (and the lock-keeper) do the work.

I follow the meanders of the river, heading south in the sunshine via Worcester and a lunchtime snooze. I do still have a deadline though. If I make Gloucester Docks before the lock-keeper heads home I can gain 15 more lock-free miles on the Sharpness Canal.

Approaching Worcester.

At Gloucester Docks the lock-keeper advises me it can get ‘a bit splashy’ beneath the lock gates. Crumbs! He’s not wrong.  Inside he advises me it’s ‘a bit splashy’ up front too. Hmm, I contemplate my king-size aquatic stone coffin with jaded eyes. A ‘doom-crowd’ gathers above to watch my demise, but they lose interest once they realise I’m likely to survive.

Finally Sharpness arrives in a slightly scruffy manner, similar to me really.

I meet The Boss and we discuss how many different accents a bloke can kayak through in one day.

Day 13 Sharpness to Penarth – 39 miles – 6 hrs 30

The coffee-coloured Severn is flowing ‘upstream’ at a fair pace. We sit, watch and wait. I’m off as soon as the tide turns.

Sharpness snooze.

It’s a breezy day. The silty water kicks up into a spikey chop. Bridge Number One slides impressively over the top and then the rather squirrely conditions under Bridge Number Two arrive.

Down by Avonmouth the flow eases, I’ve cut it a bit tight and I think I’m in an eddy from the sandbanks. I chase around to find the flow.

Trying to scrounge more miles, I’m caught mid-channel when the tide does really goes against. It’s a big place to be when things are not in your favour.

The turn of the tide lets the swell in too and things start to get lumpy. I’m slogging over towards Penarth now – hoping the tide doesn’t get any faster or there may be an unscheduled and muddy stop at Cardiff Barrage.

Paddling past Penarth Pier.

I work hard for the next hour and a half to make it into Penarth. Relieved I flop out onto the beach.

The Severn Estuary – no place for complacency.

Day 14 – Penarth to Port Talbot – 39 miles – 8 hrs 10

The weather has changed. With the finish line almost in sight, it is going to be touch and go. For once I would like to finish one of these sodding things with a gentle paddle in.

The forecast is for a breezy day. Rounding Lavernock Point brings a stiff headwind, but the tide comes for the ride too. It’s splashy and the wind is a pain, but the GPS shows over 5kts – I can live with that.

And that’s how the day goes, grinding steadily towards Porthcawl. The chop makes admin-stops a touch ‘cheeky’ but otherwise life is good. I’ve said before, these trips are a view into our rest-home-future: eventually you spend your days slightly damp and smelling of wee.

Clearing Porthcawl the tide dictates a break, so I take a rest appropriately at Rest Bay. I’m hoping to continue later across to The Mumbles.

Leaving Rest Bay.

Early evening I set out, but after an hour I realise it’s not going to happen. The tide and wind are still too strong. I don’t want to be out after dark in these conditions. I turn back.

But I’ll be beggared if I’m going back to Rest Bay. So I head north – a quick bit of maths and I reckon I can make Port Talbot by dark. It’s not ideal (no offence) but still closer to the finish.

Later I pass the breakwaters of the steel-works and turn for the beach. In the dusky light Port Talbot has become one long sodium-lamp silhouette. We arranged to meet at a roundabout on the prom (romantic!) I can see car-headlights changing direction at one spot and hope that is the roundabout.

Welcome to Port Talbot – not necessarily where you want to be, but better than where you were.

Day 15 – Port Talbot to Rhossili – 28 miles – 7 hrs

Today doesn’t look easy. So I break the day into chunks and plan to chip away at it, bit by bit.

First comes the crossing of Swansea Bay. There are strong winds and the 200m visibility means I can’t see the conditions. I’m not happy but I set out telling myself that I only have to survive an hour and a half. Thankfully I do.

Arriving at The Mumbles.

At The Mumbles the wind is too strong to go around the corner.

I land awaiting a change in the weather. We sit and wait. I go for a look. The only change is that I’m more nervous now.

The forecasts are contradictory. Some show a window this afternoon, others don’t. Where they do agree however, is that it’s going pants after today. Getting stuck with only 20 miles to go? Come on give me a break.

Then the mist lifts and the rain passes. From the top of the cliffs I form a plan. I’m going to sneak to each headland. If I can’t get around I return to the nearest beach. Otherwise I paddle to the next one and go again.

It’s windy but the plan works. I make steady progress towards the finish. But as I near Worms Head the tide starts to go against, allowing the swell to come in. It’s breaking on the reefs and I have to move further out, into the opposing flow. Progress slows.

Rounding the end life becomes seriously unhappy. Eddy, flow and swell all meet in an unpleasant tidal conflict. Unfortunately it’s where I need to go.

Long story short, it’s a scary time. But eventually I am pointing at the beach.

I paddle in slowly, holding back as the swell runs beneath me. I’m in no mood for macho bollocks now, I pick the smallest bit of surf I can and head in. The boat hisses up the sand and I’m done.

Finish at Rhossili.

My left hand is sore; I look down and see why. Gripping the paddles tightly I have worn through the skin, blood is oozing from my fingers.

It’s not over ’til it’s over.

I drag the boat up the steep path in the sunshine and strip off in the busy bank-holiday car-park to sort my kit for the last time.

16 years on and I’ve paddled Around Wales, and in 15 days. Well that will do.

John Willacy

 

This article was previously published in the Canoe Wales Ceufad magazine, December 2019. Thanks to Vicky Barlow for her help.

If you want to see the Dee Bore:
https://www.performanceseakayak.co.uk/Archive/the-dee-bore-edit/

Daily blog of the trip:
https://aroundwales2019.blogspot.com/