Or: A sausage too far.
Cheltenham Canoe Club Anglesey trip, 2004.
Every year, since well before Pete can remember, he's been
taking a group of paddlers from Cheltenham up to Anglesey for a spot
of camping, beer and perhaps some sea paddles. This year a smaller
group than usual (Alex, Chris S, Chris C, Pete, Duncan & Steve, with
Paul S & Jean along for the ride) headed off towards Wales early on
Friday 20th August.
As we passed Oswestry the inevitable happened -- it rained in Wales.
Not only did it rain, it rained quite a lot. The hills were strewn
with rushes of white and the rivers along the roads were running
brown. We quickly remembered that we had boats tied to the roofs of
our cars, and decided to make the best of the situation. The Llugwy
follows the A5 for most of its path, so was an ideal break in our
journey. We weren't sure about access, it being the summer and the
law being an ass, but the sight of helmets floating along the back of
a field and a quick word with the folks at Plas-y-Brenin cleared up
We put on at Jim's bridge where Chris S demonstrated a perfect roll
after a less than perfect bit of playing. A few minutes of grade II
and we came to Cobden's falls, a nice little III/IV set of drops over
slanting slabs, with a messy hole on the right to be avoided. Pete,
Duncan and Chris got half way down without any trouble, and sat
comfortably in the eddy above the main drop. Alex followed full of
doubt which showed as he made the wrong eddy and forgot how to brace
before swimming quickly to the side. Some chuckling from across the
river persuaded him back into his boat, but a shameful attempt at
ferrying over to the main eddy led him to run the falls ahead of the
group, which he did with some style until reaching the end and
swimming once again. Everyone else made perfect lines, Chris ran it
again, and we carried on downstream. The rest of the river was fun
grade II with flat bits, with a very long portage around the
death-on-a-stick that is Pont Cyfyng falls. Forestry Falls provided a
bit of excitement, mainly through the looks of fear on the faces of
beginners in a group we caught up with as they waited for their chance
to swim. We all did fine, and eventually got out at the Ugly House
where, as expected, it rained a little more.
Not having had enough for the one day, we got into the cars in our kit
and drove up to Anglesey, hoping for a quick sea trip to round off the
day. We studied the maps and settled for an easy looking bimble
around Puffin Island at the top of the Menai Straights. As we pulled
into the car park our minds were changed as we saw how rough the sea
was with waves, wind and currents washing water every which way.
Discretion proved the better part of valour, and we made our way to
the campsite for some tent raising, fish & chips, beer and sleep.
Saturday dawned bright and early (Alex slept in), and we rose to a
sunny day with eggs, bacon and, possibly, a sausage more than we
needed. We headed up to Trearddur Bay, packed our boats, and set off
Northwards round the coast. The plan was to wander in and out of
caves and coves, looking all the while for seals and birdies. A
couple of tidal races would entertain, South Stacks lighthouse would
look imposing perched above us on its slab of stone, we'd linger
around a fire for a spot of lunch, then nip past North Stacks at slack
tide before landing besides Holyhead's breakwater.
We launched into slightly choppy seas, a two or three foot swell
perhaps, with the wind against us, the sun beating down and, most
importantly, the tide rushing up behind us, driving us on our way at a
modest walking pace. Soon we came to Penrhyn Mawr, a tidal race
formed as the Irish Sea pushes its way past Anglesey and into
Liverpool Bay. A big water run, filled with surging waves and
stoppers, with no bank support and a prize for swimming that might get
you as far as Iceland. Some took the easy route, avoiding the worst
of it, but having to paddle against a mile long eddy, some more souls
fed themselves into the Mawr. Unsated it spat them out after a little
playful munching. Steve narrowly avoided a swim after bracing on thin
air while cresting a wave, and Chris S found even his sea kayak facing
the heavens while foam piles tossed boats around like corks. Legend
has it that on its more mighty days these races loop 15 foot boats,
and I can easily believe that.
The brave trio survived and ferried back to join the group under
the cliffs where we rested in a cove. The slowly swelling sea proved
a bit much for Chris C, who started to regret his extra sausage at
breakfast, but he didn't let a little seasickness sink his day and we
pressed on and soon passed South Stacks where we admired for a moment
the wire bridge above us. We carried on along the coast, stopping
here and there to investigate caves and wave to climbers strapped to
the cliffs high above us. Chris's stomach decided it couldn't hold
out any longer and emptied into the ocean. We landed at Parliament
cave for a late lunch, collected enough driftwood for a fire, and
cooked sausages over it while we lazed in the sun. We wasted a little
more time throwing stones at bottles, then launched and explored a few
nearby caves, including a most impressive cave which boomed and roared
from its depths as the waters sloshed in and out.
As we moved onwards we briefly spotted a bull seal, but he wasn't
in a friendly mood, and disappeared before we came to North Stacks.
As we rounded the corner we heard another roar, this time from the
sea, and saw the tell tale white water rounding the rocks. We were
too late for slack water, the tide had turned, our route was blocked
unless we could surf and struggle ourselves upstream. Given how close
we were to our get out, we decided to chance it. Some had the
strength but others, already tired, were washed back. Chris C was
caught by a crashing breaker as the stopper surged and was forced to
swim. Pete and Chris S executed a perfect H rescue in the stream,
quickly getting Chris C back into his boat before the torrent rushed
all three onto the rocks.
Everyone was now safely tucked into an eddy, except for Steve who had
managed to crest the race and reach the gyre which let him drift
quickly down the coast away from the group. As the group was too weak
to paddle against the tide we decided to use our escape route, but one
of us was now hundreds of yards away. Initial attempts to get his
attention with a whistle didn't work, so Chris S battled his way up
the rising current and fetched him back for a slog with the rest of us
towards South Stacks where we knew that steps led out of the sea to
safety. A thankfully uneventful mile and half of paddling got us
there, although the sea state was growing -- aggravated by the passing
of a high speed ferry -- making it hard going, and making Chris C feel
less and less well.
Landing at the lighthouse was easier said than done, the egress point
being a set of rough steps hewn from the sheer sides of the island. A
three foot swell required a bit of timing and good luck to get boats
beached and out before being washed back in. With a few people off
Pete headed up to the RSPB post to ask permission to land (access to
the island usually costs three pounds), adding to our case by
mentioning the medical emergency of Chris's seasickness. Taking him a
little too seriously, the warden reached for her walkie-talkie and
asked if we'd be needing a helicopter to evacuate him. Pete quickly
Everyone was now safely off the water, if a little exhausted, but the
adventure wasn't quite over. Boats had to be carried 100 feet up the
island, over the bridge we'd admired earlier, then up four hundred and
nine winding steps to the car park. The sea kayak provided extra fun
for Duncan and Chris as they leant out over the edge to maneuver the
boat around the switchbacks on the staircase. As we changed at the
top of the path the warden checked we were ok, and asked that we
didn't make a habit of getting out at the lighthouse. Puffed out from
the climb, we were all too ready to agree with her.
Pete and Chris thumbed a lift from a friendly local, collected the
cars from the get out we didn't get to, and we made our way back to
our tents for a welcome shower, BBQ and a few cans of beer before a
well deserved sleep.
Sunday was -- with no regrets -- less interesting, a shorter paddle
was planned and the weather was much better, with flatter seas and a
calmer wind. Things were due to worsen, though, so we didn't dally
too much. We put on at Llanbadrig/Cemaes Bay and got off at Bull Bay.
Along the way Chris S, Pete and Steve detoured to Middle Mouse where
they met a friendlier seal while Alex, Duncan and Chris C explored
calmer bays and ruins. We regrouped and headed into Hell's Mouth, an
oddly peaceful place when we were there, then rounded the point into
Porth Wen Bay where we landed to explore an abandoned brickworks.
Once a hive of industry, now a mix of collapsing kilns, chimneys and
rusting boilers. A rowing crew from Bull Bay dropped by for a little
rest as we munched our chocolate, needless to say certain members of
our group didn't pass the chance to chat up the ladies in the boats.
We carried on up the coast, left in the rowers' wakes, trying to
squeeze our boats through the narrowest of channels as the swell rose
and fell. Apart, that is, from Chris S who didn't want to scratch the
fine sea kayak lent to him by Outdoor Active for the weekend.
Along the last stretch before Bull Bay we were rewarded with a
sighting of some porpoise, five or seven depending on who you ask,
leaping gracefully between our boats as they drew breath. The peace
was shattered by a motorboat out in a hurry and the wildlife soon
disappeared. We gradually rounded the final point into Bull Bay and
pulled our boats out of the water, glad that today we hadn't needed an
escape route, and that there would only be a short walk to our cars
and a good night's sleep back in Cheltenham.
Any story with a helicopter in must have a moral to it and this is no
exception. Our paddle past the Stacks was one the club doesn't do
often and was planned from written notes including the times that the
tide is slack around North Stacks (which we missed by about 15
minutes). Our timings during the day were fine, except that we'd
misread the slack times, so were doomed to turn around if all went to
plan. Having realised our mistake, though, we had with us the skills,
equipment and calm heads that let us safely rescue swimmers in hard
conditions, have ready escape routes (including another easier get out
an extra half-mile of paddling away), and have enough kit with our
boats that we could have sat out the tides comfortably if we'd had to.
It's these skills we learn in the pool, or on courses, that make
demanding trips possible, enjoyable and safe. Also we drank beer.