South Devon Week September 2021

By Ben

9.00am on Wednesday, day one, five of us met at the campsite at the pitch with the car with all the sea kayaks on top. Luckily, Rob Davis’ car was the only one with multiple kayaks on top. Everyone was on time. After introductions and a brief description of the planned trip for the day, five of us got into two cars to head to North Sands, which, confusingly, is just south of Salcombe, but is north of South Sands. Boats and kit were off loaded in double quick time, not because we were keen to get on the water, although we were, but because the free parking within easy reach of the beach is limited.

Once all the boats were close to the water’s edge Rob gave a fuller briefing concerning the planned trip from North Sands to Hope Cove and back again including a brief summary of the forecast weather, sea conditions and the standard paddle/hand signals. The template for the start of each day’s paddling was set.

We did not always avoid paying for parking and it turned out that Rob had one or two unorthodox hand signals which he introduced on an ad hoc basis. The principle one being a wavy fluttering of the hand which, when asked to explain, Rob said was not meant to depict the sea conditions, but was in fact supposed to signify that the passage between outlying rocks and the cliff was a bit tricky and individuals were free to decide whether to follow Rob through the gap or to paddle around the outside in deeper, less disturbed water. The duration and simplicity of the signal did not really do justice to the complexity of message to be conveyed, but seemed to cause no confusion. Paddling between/around outlying rocks and the cliff, often referred to as ‘rock hopping’ or, as Rob prefers, ‘rock gardening’ was on offer on each of the four days of coastal paddling and is one of the pleasures of sea kayaking. At no time we were encouraged to do something we felt uncomfortable about and all of us ducked out at some stage.

After a couple of hours paddling in benign conditions west from Bolt Head, past Bolt Tail and into Hope Cove it was time for a lunch stop and the discovery that not all were equal in the packed lunch stakes. Simon, who had chosen to stay in a B&B rather than camp, had been provided with a three-course packed lunch with individual red and white polka dot cold bags for each course.

Sea conditions for the trip back were a bit more boisterous. Stronger post-lunch winds were to become another part of the daily pattern.

Back at North Sands, getting the boats off the beach onto the grass by the car park was much more difficult than getting onto the beach in the morning. Half the slipway is blocked off by a coastguard sign, presumable positioned to prevent trailer launching. The gap is more than enough for a sea kayak, but the habit of the elderly and kids to stop, without warning, either side of the gap turned the 50-metre carry into an unpredictable obstacle course. A quick change, boats back on the cars and it was time to head back to the campsite and a cup of tea for the tea drinkers and showers for all before the last part of the daily routine – the walk to the pub for the evening meal.

The evening routine, it turned out, had been established the night before; only we didn’t know it at the time. Leave at 6.30 to walk from the campsite to the village of Marlborough and the Royal Oak pub. A distance of almost a mile and uphill the whole way; just the thing to work up a bit of an appetite before dinner. It is fair to say that the Royal Oak was not our first choice pub on the Tuesday night, but it was the only pub open in Marlborough and so by default became our preferred choice and what a happy find it was. Tim, the Landlord, has a way about him which totally belies his true character. On the first evening when we asked if we could eat, we were told in no uncertain times that we could eat if we wanted to but as we were a large party (we were four), it might be sometime. The previous party, of two, had been told the same thing and had walked off in high dudgeon! Not wanting to have to walk back to the campsite to then drive elsewhere to find a pub that was open and was serving food, promptly, we opted to stay and take our chances. The Chef, Scott the Scot, appeared with the menu board, to take our orders before we had even sat down properly. With no starters and only five main courses plus a veggie option (of which more later) ordering didn’t take long and nor did the food take long to arrive. We never did get to find out what Tim’s opening gambit was all about. Both the beer and the food were good and reasonably priced, and an unexpected bonus was the provision of very acceptable Dutch low alcohol beer, appropriately named Playground, for those of us who don’t drink much or, as in Simon’s case, were driving back to a warm bed in the B&B. An unnecessary drive, we found out, on the last night; the pub has on-suite bedrooms.

The pattern for the rest of the week was established. All that really varied was each day’s paddling –

Day 1 Wednesday West from North Sands to Hope Cove and back again (23.4 km)

Day 2 West from Hope Cove to Ayrmer Cove and back again, including a circumnavigation of Burgh Island (15.3 km)

Day 3 North from North Sands up the Kingsbridge Estuary with detours almost to Herring Street and Frogmore (18.5 km)

Day 4 West from Challaborough to Bugle Hole and back for lunch at Beacon Beach (I think) before returning to Challaborough (13.7km)

Day 5 Sunday East from North Sands to below Prawle Point and back to an unnamed beach just to the west of Prawle Point for lunch before returning to North Sands (11.6 km)

(Distances do not include the detours for Rock Gardening.)

I am sure Rob worked hard unseen (except perhaps by Martin) to organise each day’s paddling
itinerary to ensure that we made the best of the weather and tides but to me, who was only
expected to turn up on time with the appropriate gear and a full lunch box, it all seemed pretty
effortless. What Rob had to do, who he had to sweet talk, to make sure that it did not rain whilst we were on the water is anyone’s guess.

Even if the day started cloudy, we came off the water in sunshine, except possibly on Day 3. The afternoons were noticeably windier and made for interesting paddling conditions especially when the wind was against the tide. Rob organised things such that wind against tide paddling was kept to a minimum, but could not be avoided entirely especially on the last day when Rob, in consultation with the group, elected not to paddle around Prawle Point which had been the intention when we got on the water.

We started the week as a group of relative strangers with a common leader, Rob. By the end of the week, we were a group with all the best characteristics of friendship – a willingness to help each other because we wanted to rather than just because it was expected, a sympathy for the plight others in the group and an appreciation for the good fortune of others – Simon learnt that he was to become a grand-father on the Friday to the pleasure of all, although the round of drinks he bought helped the bonhomie. There were commonly observed idiosyncrasies, in-jokes, a long running joke and a butt for said joke.

For the last two days we were joined by Matt who’d had an epic journey down from London by coach, bus and taxi arriving in the dead of night. There he was on Saturday morning. Matt was different to the rest of us. Much, much younger and fitter and with different dietary requirements which were exploited for maximum comic effect by Tim and Scott in the pub. Fully anticipated and much to the amusement of the rest of us they were theatrically unimpressed by his preference for Guinness and the veggie burger. Matt also differentiated himself from the rest of the group by being the only swimmer all week. Not an involuntary dunking; he actually chose to swim at lunchtime on the last day. Given that the rest of us consider ourselves to be sea kayakers, we showed a clear preference for warm water out of a shower or tap.

I think I can speak for all when I say that the 5 days paddling met or exceeded everyone’s expectations. The weather and finding the pub were fortunate, but Rob has a winning formula for trips in future years, if only he can arrange for good weather. Just one word of warning – the Co-Op garage and shop in Marlborough is handy for topping up on things like fresh milk or things for the daily packed lunch. It is open daily from 6.00am to 11.00pm… except when it isn’t.