Story: Tim Gent
Photos: Tim and Susannah Gent
Something is on the move beyond the sand dune, a small flickering knot of herring gulls following watchful overhead. The soft burble of an idling diesel engine grows, and as a dull silver radar reflector appears above the marram grass, a boat’s bow breaks out beyond the dune’s end. Not far from a small but lively port, the spell of this still golden dawn had to be broken eventually, and this seems a suitably gentle intrusion.
As the small trawler drifts slowly downstream on the falling tide, a lone figure works at the stern, shaking knots from a tangle of green tackle. By the time we have our canoe at the water’s edge, the fishing boat is a speck on the horizon beyond Doom Bar.
We launch into a world of soft blue, the unblemished sky overhead reflected in a taught flawless sea. Sliding out onto this shining expanse there is the odd sense that we are working our way up a very gentle slope. We seem to sit in our canoe on a vast shallow upturned glass bowl.
It is only as the sandy bottom finally drops away below us, colours falling from yellow to green, before sliding into the dark, that the surface is broken. As we approach a shoal of bass basking in the early morning sun, they swirl on mass, diving below the buckled expanse to leave bubbled silver darts streaked beneath the hull. Another Cornish estuary day is alive.
Jutting out boldly into the Atlantic, England’s Southwest peninsular is a defiant granite mass. Devon and Cornwall may be part of the busy end of a very busy country, but large chunks of the interior are still high, bleak and reassuringly unwelcoming. No more than the smallest human population (at least for England) is spread thin across this expanse of bog and shattered tors. Up here, high winds are accompanied by high rainfall, and countless small streams dance across this elevated and elevating land. These feed rivers that carve through the hard metamorphic rock, then cut across the clay remains of their past erosion, before bursting out between the cliffs and into the sea. These estuaries, ever changing, and hovering almost uncertainly between river, sea and land, make great places to canoe.
In all, Devon boasts eleven. The only English county with two separate coastlines, these estuaries are divided particularly unevenly to leave only the unruly Taw–Torridge outlet on the north shore. This dune-flanked watercourse, semi-wild and prey to seven-metre tides, is a place to launch a canoe with care. Much of southern England may be tame, but not this estuary, especially not as a spring tide thunders back against a northerly breeze to rejoin the sea.
Unkempt and uninhabited
So wild are the dunes and the tides that scour this estuary that the Royal Marines choose to train here. Paddle along the sandy-beached river edge of Braunton Burrows on the north side, and you’re more likely to see a camouflaged landing craft than a sun lounger. But unkempt and uninhabited as they are, the dunes provide a home to an incredible range of flowering plants and birdlife.
Curlew, dunlin, ringed plover, godwits, sanderling, turnstone and numerous other waders patrol the water’s edge. It is said that over 2,000 oystercatchers have been recorded here at any one time. A list of all the flora and fauna to be found around the mouth of these two rivers would run for pages. All this results in the burrows forming the core of Britain’s first UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. That’s an international designation that places this estuary alongside Ulluru (Ayer’s Rock) and Yellowstone National Park.
One estuary to the north then. So what about the south coast? Well the variety of river outlets on the English Channel side of Devon is amazing to behold, and there are ten to choose from.
Deep river valleys
Most of these southern estuaries are more accurately classed as rias – deep river valleys, flooded by the rise in sea levels following the last glaciation. As a result, filled with a good depth of water at whatever stage of the tide, the lower stretches of the Exe, Teign, Dart, Yealm, Erme and Avon estuaries have each provided sanctuary for seagoing vessels for centuries. This also makes them very fine places to canoe, and although you will find plenty of sand (and mud) along the upper reaches at low water, there is always somewhere paddlable to be found.
Marking a watery divide between Devon and Cornwall, Plymouth Sound provides a meeting point with the sea for the Rivers Plym, Tamar, Tavy and Lynher. This vast fortress-flanked expanse of water, another ria, heaves with boats and history.
The Royal Navy
presence might not be as obvious as it was when I first visited the Sound as a boy, to peer up in awe at the massive overhang of HMS Ark Royal, but any canoe journey in sight of Drake’s Island is still likely to be crossed sooner or later by something grey and vaguely menacing. Pleasure boats are also numerous, at least in summer, filled with suitably impressed visitors taking in the many highlights produced by the estuaries almost fabled past. These are mixed in with fishing boats, yachts and some fairly hefty cross-channel ferries. If you enjoy the free fairground ride provided by a good-sized ship’s wake, you won’t be disappointed here.
As the scale of an estuary is defined by the distance the tide reaches upstream, the full extent of the flood as it pushes inland up the Tamar makes this a long as well as an impressively wide estuary. Even 19 miles from the sea, the tide is only halted artificially by Weir Head above Morewellham.
While the Tamar provides this impressive tidal encroachment on inland Devon, the River Axe at the east end of the county manages no more than a rather puny two miles or so. The flood extends an even less impressive mile and a half up the very pretty Otter nearby, although this tiny river does hold (for the moment at least), England’s only resident beaver population – all three of them. Small and nature filled, this estuary is probably bests left uninvestigated, and, in good weather, the coast here provides a very good alternative.
Cornwall might not have any large tree-gnawing mammals, but it does possess its own rias. And while it may have only four, or four and a half if you count that equal share with Devon of Plymouth Sound, Cornwall makes them big.
The immense spread of water that stretches out between Falmouth and St Mawes, then up Carrick Roads (a wet road, for boats) is said to represent the third largest harbour in the world. Fringed with pretty villages, bays and inlets, it is certainly popular, and somewhere to sharpen observational skills afloat. It’s definitely not the destination for any paddler seeking solitude, at least not in the summer months. But for any canoeist that enjoys boats, particularly wooden boats of all ages, functions and size, a day on the Cornish rias of the Fal, Fowey, Padstow Bay or Helston River in Cornwall, will be one to remember.
Not that a visit to a Southwest estuary has to be busy.
Even in summer the mouth of the Gannel, set close alongside Newquay on the north Cornwall coast is usually pretty quiet. With each low tide exposing a lot of sand, this isn’t an area lined with expensive moored yachts. Visited by canoe at full flood from a car park near the town, it can be a real pleasure though. Fall back with the ebb to do beachy things during the day, and you can even play in the tiny remains of the river before letting the next making tide waft you back to your metal steed. Just watch out for soft sand along the river edge.
Large or small, busy or quiet, each Southwest estuary has its own charm. Visit Exeter for example, to paddling out down the country’s oldest canal towards the broad sandy mouth of the Exe. You could then turn sharp left to work your way up this river, re-enacting the arrival of the Romans that built the city, or the Vikings who later used this convenient water highway to sack it. Alternatively, paddle out from Looe on a fine day to circumnavigate St Georges Island, or leave Totnes at high slack water, to drift down to the boaty wonder of Dartmouth. Here, with the castle alongside, you could catch mackerel or even bass, before letting the tide lift you back, perhaps visiting Greenway, once home to Agatha Christie, on the return journey.
In good weather you might choose to push out beyond the protection of the estuary. Meet the Atlantic swell to inspect the pier jutting out from Teignmouth for example, leave those otters in peace and inspect the red sandstone cliffs to the east of the Otter, or peer down into the depths of Starehole Bay beyond Salcombe. Here, you might catch a glimpse of the Herzogin Cecilie, a four-masted barque, lost in 1936, and now a popular diving location. Whether you spot this once proud vessel or not, the bay makes a lovely spot for a picnic, and another great fishing area.
Just the view from Devon’s River Avon of Jenkins Quay and its boathouse, set tight below the low cliffs of Bantham Sands, makes a trip to the Southwest worthwhile. Man-made structures surely don’t come much prettier than this functional mix of stone, timber and thatch. Or perhaps you could just begin your canoe investigations where we started this article, launching from Rock or Wadebridge to revel in the sand, sky and sea perfection of Padstow Bay.
Two wilder bits to mention though – a natural one produced by the sea condition over Doom Bar as the tide rushed backwards and forwards, the other man-made, once everyone rises, perhaps rather muzzy headed from their holiday evening revels in Rock or Padstow, to head out onto the water in anything fast they can find. The early paddler gets the calm.
If one estuary might deserve a little more attention, it is the mouth of the Jordan at Boscastle. It may be small, more of a crack in the cliffs than an estuary, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in beauty. In good weather you can meander out to marvel at the benefits this tiny refuge offers on this rugged coast. In bumpier conditions a canoeist can find plenty of entertainment just inside the zig-zag entrance, edging out carefully to play in the fractured remnants of those unceasing Atlantic rollers.
A good storm and low tide here, combine to produce a sea dragon. As waves pound the seaward side of the rocky defences, water is forced at high pressure through a sub-cliff tunnel to spew clouds of cool spray breath across the harbour entrance. Each misty exhalation is followed by a radiating wave. These might not be very big, but each is fun to play on.
Doused periodically with that icy sea-monster breath, it is as if the Atlantic, irritated by the protection the little harbour offers the small boat user, is taking this last chance to make its presence felt. If that’s the case, this great ocean must find each of England’s Southwest estuaries rather irritating.
The sea may be a fine place to canoe, but not everywhere, and always with an eye on the ever-changing weather. An estuary offers the perfect compromise. Caught between open sea and the bank pressed river upstream, an estuary provides a taste of wild beyond the cliff or sand-dune edged mouth, but with enough of the comfort of land to leave the experience memorable for all the right reasons.