Having been utterly lacking with regard to motivation to write anything recently I thought I might make the effort to tell a very brief story of a regression to the summers of my childhood. Not that I ever grew up or anything it’s just that those warm summer days with their soundtrack of skylarks high above the fields of ripening wheat and the hum of bees around the wild flowers feel as if they have been in rather short supply recently. So, with proper summer weather very much in force, and following a rather agreeable early morning surf yesterday with a pod of dolphins in attendance I hopped on my bike with a friend for a two-wheeled ramble east towards the Cornwall of my childhood where summers were filled with days riding bikes along clifftop trails, fishing off the rocks, messing about in boats along the sheltered coast, chasing model aeroplanes across the fields, and sleeping out… I’m doing nothing more than playing on my bike, and it’s brilliant.
A few weeks ago I received a copy of a rather nice new book from Wild Things Publishing, the background being that there is a little bit of my photography between the covers – but really only a very tiny amount and it is, quite rightly, lost amongst the rather splendid photography that features throughout the book. Reviewing books is not something I am proficient at, and one of the reasons it’s taking me so long is that at the time I had all sorts of things I thought I wanted to say but I wasn’t sure how to articulate myself properly without involving some sort of rambling tangent. Having had time to reflect on it however I’ve decided that actually all I really need to say is “great book”.
Well, perhaps I should say a little bit more. It’s packed with well-researched routes throughout mainland Britain which, although lacking in true wilderness, does have some pretty nice places to ride. I think though that the value of the book is more than just the routes themselves, and besides I’m of the opinion that a route put together by someone else is akin to a curry recipe, for sure you could just ride it but better to take it and make it into something personal. Rather the book is a reminder that it isn’t necessary to jump on a flight and bugger off halfway around the world in search of some great riding, instead there are plenty of mini-adventures to be had closer to home. A reminder I could do with from time to time. So it is definitely inspiration to get the maps out and spend a little bit more time at home. The photography between the covers is lovely and can only help with that inspiration.
There’s no point in me going into fine detail as regards regions and routes, format and so on – you can find all that, as well as a preview, on the publishers website here. It’s £17 and holding it here in my hands I’d say it’s good value. There.
As an aside it has been interesting over the last couple of years to watch the meteoric rise in the popularity of ‘bikepacking’ in the cycling world. Of course it is nothing new, folk have been exploring on bicycles since the dawn of the bicycle itself. I have some rather wonderful original print editions from the late 19th and early 20th century describing journeys by bicycle that even today would be considered rather ‘out there’. Of course what has changed is the availability of tremendously more capable bicycles and equipment with which to explore. The other key factor I think is that the world in which we live has changed. I’m not really sure how to describe that which is thought of as “modern living” beyond saying that in my opinion an awful lot of it is a bit rubbish. I think a consequence of the way most folk live these days is causing many more people to seek to rediscover their connection to the natural world.. and a bicycle is one of the more accessible ways to do that. It’s certainly not something you can achieve from behind the tinted glass of a luxury 4×4, or astride a noisy dirtbike. I confess I worry a little bit that it is becoming too much of a “thing” in the same way that has happened to road cycling and surfing, particularly visible here in Cornwall – at times the hostility between individuals in the water is palpable. In recent months I’ve seen bikepacking and cycle touring feature in big budget commercials for mens fragrance (for f**ks sake..), software, and designer clothing. A couple of years ago it would have been unthinkable. Once the marketing departments of certain ‘lifestyle’ and ‘luxury’ brands get hold of something I fear that it too often is to the detriment of the activity and the genuinely involved… prices go through the roof, image becomes everything, it becomes more important to be seen to be doing something, while dressed in the ‘correct’ attire of course, than genuinely enjoying doing it, attitudes become hostile, and fights break out.. well, surfing in particular has always been a little bit tribal I suppose… Oh well… in reality it’s probably only a better class of person that is happy living in the dirt with minimal kit anyway so I have nothing to worry about.. time will tell..;-)
Oh that was a rambling tangent wasn’t it….
Right, enough of that. I have an extremely mucky bike to attend to. There was an off-road “brevet populaire” audax event locally today, and being summer it was of course pissing with rain. Great fun though, very social with lots of tea and all flavours of cyclists from weatherbeaten old dudes with many, many decades of miles in their sinewy legs, to teenagers on super techy full bounce bikes.
You know that post I mentioned in my last post that was coming… this isn’t it. Rather this is because I apparently should share more of my incidental photography.. at least until I get around to building a picture site.. so here is some…
I confess I have increasing doubts about sharing anything as the frequency with which I find my pictures being used without permission by individuals and organisations for their own gain – profit and self-promotion in particular, seems to be escalating to a great degree. Copyright aside, it’s rude, and as a self-employed individual, picture sales are a small part of my income stream. I used to be nice about it but nice is all used up, it becomes wearing. Now I’m just blunt. I could include a dirty great watermark right across the pictures instead of the small copyright.. I don’t want to do that, there’d be no point.. it makes a picture look shit, so instead I think I’ll continue to accept the reality of the internet… but if I do find you helping yourself and without asking, and particularly if you are a commercial exercise, I’m just going to invoice you directly. It’s in the T’s and C’s :-)
Just a couple of snaps from the just past weekend local ‘adventure’ with friends. I was going to include them as part of a post I’m working on that, for once isn’t about me, ha, and that also, for a change, requires me to think a little about what I’m going to write – it’s important you see. I changed my mind however on including them in that post so, while that one sits in my drafts for a little while longer, I’m slinging them up here. I’m sure I’ll manage to insert myself into that next post somehow however, because, well, you know… ;-)
Right, having got that out of the way I can go back to that other post.. stay tuned :-)
Just an advance warning – this post contains a lot of pictures, including a number of grey seals that may make you just go “aww..”. It just means the page might be a little slow to load. So with that out of the way…
Following from my post of a few days ago I’d arrived back on Barra on my bike and was about to chuck all my gear into a sea kayak for the journey south with a couple of friends. I didn’t bring my own kayak all the way from Cornwall, it was easier to make use of “ex-employee privileges”, or really just that they’re super friends and generous with it, and borrow a Valley Etain 17.5 from Barra-based Clearwater Paddling. It’s a usefully sized, rather than barge-sized, expedition kayak, perfect for cramming in kit and plenty of food without being tedious to paddle.
The plan was to make use of the now arrived calm weather and paddle south along the chain of islands south of Barra and Vatersay (the southermost of the inhabited islands), in order: Sandray, Pabbay, Mingulay and Berneray (another one, the other being at the top of North Uist). I found a wiki-commons map and put some labels on just so you can see where I am talking about.
Once south of Sandray the journey becomes a little more serious than the average weekend paddle. Remote from any assistance there is minimal boat traffic, your VHF won’t have line of sight with any receiving station and there are few safe get-outs, none on the west coasts of the islands – essentially leaving only the beach on Pabbay and the beach on Mingulay. Both face east and hence have some shelter from prevailing winds but can suffer heavy Atlantic swells. The west coasts of course face the full fury of the Atlantic, and prior to the lighthouse on Berneray being automated, the keepers there on occasion reported fish being deposited on the cliff-tops during storms… some 200m above the ocean surface. Hence the need for a reasonable weather window. Some tidal planning is also required, flow rates on spring tides in the sounds between the islands reach 4 knots with numerous overfalls. With some swell and wind over tide it has the potential to be a rather lively place. We were really lucky… light to moderate east to northeast winds and just a couple of metres of swell from the northwest. A rare opportunity to explore some of the more remote islets in the chain and to really become intimately acquainted with the incredible caves and clefts in the 200 metre high cliffs on the west coast of Mingulay and around Barra Head.
Distance-wise it is not a long paddle, the journey south on day one from Barra around the west of Mingulay to camp on the beach turned out to be 37km, we took all day over it however – glorious sunshine, fantastic bird-life to enjoy and so much to explore. You could easily break it into a two-day with a camp on Pabbay. Day 2 was a lazy day.. a morning on Mingulay exploring, swimming with the local seal population followed by an afternoon circumnavigation of Berneray, with the return journey, straight into a force 6 nor’easterly on day 3… Up the west coast of the islands to find a little shelter and an early o’clock start to make the most of the tides.
I would love to make this journey again with a long lens on board (my on-kayak camera is a fixed 35mm lens), the birdlife is captivating. Mingulay and Berneray in particular are home to large populations of Puffins, Razorbills, Guillemots, Fulmars, Kittiwakes, Skuas .. and eagles – both Golden and White-Tailed. I never tire of watching birds. Below the cliffs of Berneray, in one look up we saw four Golden Eagles and two White-Tailed sea eagles all soaring the cliffs together, circling lazily in the updrafts with their great barn-door wings. The birds see little human interference or traffic and thus are generally unbothered by the presence of sea kayaks. That combined with the clear waters means it is not unusual to paddle through the midst of rafts of Guillemots, Puffins and Razorbills, all hanging out together, while watching them ‘flying’ through the water beneath the kayaks. The waters between the islands are the domain of gannets. It is rather wonderful to be the subject of curiosity of these beautiful birds, soaring low overhead, their pale blue eyes very obviously checking us out. Then there are the skuas… not a large bird, sort of gull-sized, but aggressive. I watched a Great Skua take down a fully grown gannet (up to almost 2m wingspan) mid-flight. Dive-bombed from above it was like watching a plane crash as the gannet tumbled into the sea at speed. An incredible thing to watch first hand. Having seen the same thing before in the Sound of Harris the skua will attempt to drown its target. That time successfully, in this instance the gannet made its escape.
Enough with the background, I’ll tell the rest of the story, of what is truly a super short sea kayak journey, in pictures. Just as an aside if you’re keen to have a look at the area from the seat of a kayak and are not confident in making the journey alone or with friends then Clearwater Paddling run trips down here with camping opportunities on both Sandray & Pabbay, as well as to a number of other captivating destinations in the islands. You’ll have a terrific time.
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