Under a big sky – summer paddling on the Thurne
Back in July, I took a few days off to visit the Broads for some camping and canoeing, and of course, some photography along the way. The forecast was… summer-like, in that it was quite warm, but some active fronts were set to come through with the possibility of windy spells with brief but heavy rain and thunder. But, it looked like I would be able to get out for at least some of every day.
I based myself at Repps. There is a campsite there, only a couple of hundred yards from the public stathe along a very quiet lane. I took my bike as well as the canoe, so I had the option of one-way trips with a self-shuttle.
Norfolk isn’t on the way to anywhere from anywhere, and the journey round the Wash and across the flatlands passed Norwich is always a slow one, punctuated by tractors and roadworks. But I got there by late afternoon and set up camp.
Now a word on the tent – on the face of it, its quite an ordinary tunnel tent, a North Ridge Torre XL, which has a small sleeping compartment but a generous porch with a built-in groundsheet, perfect for base camps for a solo camper who likes a bit of space. This one was bought for me by my daughter, who found it in a charity shop. ‘Dad’ she said, ‘would you like another tent? I’ve found quite a good one going cheap.’ £25 seemed like a bargain, so I said yes – you can’t have too many tents after all. Unpacking it at home, it looked in great nick, but had no poles. My daughter went back to the shop, who found some poles they thought had come with it, but they didn’t fit. All was not lost – I had in the camping cupboard a set of aluminium poles from a Vango Hurricane, which almost fit. There were only two of them though fora three-poled tent…
I wasn’t going to be defeated. Salvation came in the form of a tent pole repair kit found online, which had several lengths of tubular aluminium with ferules and a bungy cord kit. With the aid of a hacksaw, I soon had a spanking new set of poles for my ‘new’ tent! And at a cost (marginally) cheaper than just buying a new tent too!
My new-to-me, reused, upcycled tent pitched and base camp organised, there was still some light left in the evening. I nipped onto the river and decided to head downstream to Womack Water and back, a nice 6km to unwind from the drive.
The wind was light, and as the light dimmed, I made my way down to Womack Water and rounded the loop passed secluded moorings.
A heron took flight, disappearing over the reedbeds.
Returning home, a cloud front heavy with rain threatened, but I managed to get back to the tent before it delivered on its promise.
Unsurprisingly, the night was punctuated by rain beating on the flysheet, but the morning came overcast but bright. The tent had stood firm and kept the weather out.
An early start saw me following the tide upstream under Potter Heigham bridge on my way to Horsey Mere.
The reach above the bridge is much quieter than below – the difficult passage under the bridge keeps most bigger boats at bay.
As I paddled along, a string of heavily laden figures appeared trudging along the path, intent on reaching breaks in the bank-side vegetation. On reaching such a place, they would unload fearsome assemblages of tubes and platforms and build a fortification reaching out into the river, from which they proceeded to dangle multiple rods and nets. It all looked hellishly impressive, if a lot of effort to go to just to sit on a riverbank. But I guess the amount of bait going into the water kept the fish happy…
Passing beyond the gentle plunking of lures and floats, I reached the junction with the Candle Dyke, and turned north. By the bend there was another fishing party – this one a family affair.
Great crested grebes are some of my favourite waterfowl, so I drifted for a few minutes, watching and taking photos as the birds got used to my presence.
As you leave Candle Dyke for Heigham Sound, channel markers appear to guide boats away from the shallows. On one sat a heron, contemplating the water.
One of the nice things about paddling your own canoe is that you can largely ignore such problems as too deep a draught, so I was able to explore the edges of the reed beds and take a peak into Duck Broad.
Martham church stood proud above the dizzy heights of the 15m contour, for once the landscape providing for-, mid- and background, something of a rarity when photographing from a canoe on the Broads.
The channel markers swept round towards Deep-Go Dyke, but I needed to turn right to reach my destination, along the reed-lined channel of Meadow Dyke. This is a narrow waterway that leads to Horsey Mere. The view is restricted to reeds and sky, and the twists and turns mean you need to be alert to the noise of approaching motor craft. I was ambushed by an electric boat, giving wildlife tours from Horsey Mill, but fortunately I was well to the side, and we passed with a friendly wave. Shortly after, I was ambushed again, this time from above as a pair of marsh harriers lifted over the reed margin all of ten feet over my head. I think they were as surprised as me – certainly all three of us veered off course! A fantastic sight, but too brief for me to do more than drop my paddle – the camera hadn’t quite reached my eye by the time they disappeared into the Hundred Acre Marsh.
A small side channel appears about halfway along the dyke, leading to Stubb Drainage Mill. Unless you know it’s there it is easy to overlook, the mouth being crowded with lilies, but it runs arrow-straight for around 800m up to the mill.
I decided to explore a little that way, in the hope of seeing some of the life of the reed beds more closely. Reed warblers warbled, crickets chirped, and water boatmen sculled as I made my way up to the mill. I found I was missing my macro lens, not something I would usually bring along for boat-based photography.
The ditch was narrow, and there was limited space to turn my 16’ canoe at the end, but a five-point turn got me round eventually. Hemp-agrimony flowered on the water margin, attracting red admiral butterflies to feed. This time, the subject was large enough and far enough away that my telephoto lens could cope.
Making my way back to the main channel, I turned left and before long emerged from my world of narrow horizons into the spacious expanse of Horsey Mere. All at once I was under 180 degrees of sky, and with the lack of wind, the reflections completed a 360 to give the impression of floating amongst the clouds.
As I crossed the mere, a flock of cranes flew over. This is the only place I have ever seen these birds, but they appear reliably every time I visit. Their numbers seem to be increasing steadily, a real success story.
As I watched, the leader of the flock started a slow dive, and the rest of the formation dipped to follow in a graceful curve.
The millpond calm continued into the inlet leading to Horsey Mill. For once I had visited when the café was open, so was able to enjoy a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich sat by the water.
It’s a popular place for walkers to access the marshes, but there seemed to be more birders around with tripods and expensive pieces of glass than I would have expected. There was a sudden influx of cars into the carpark, and a flurry of excitement in the crowd. En masse, lenses swivelled southeast, then there was a breaking of ranks as tripods were folded and their owners scurried across the road to an apparently more favourable viewpoint. The more intrepid leapt back into cars so recently vacated and disappeared as rapidly as they had arrived. I had witnessed a flock of twitchers, in pursuit of a black-winged kite as I found out from an abandoned spouse who had been left holding two coffees.
I dipped on the kite, but thoroughly enjoyed my bacon sandwich.
After lunch I recrossed the mere, following a lovely gaff-rigged yacht from the moorings. It was heading over to Hickling Broad, while I wanted to head up the New Cut to Brograve Mill. It was a bit late in the day to see otters, but it looked like the right sort of habitat. It was a narrow drain with both reed beds and stands of trees along its banks and made an interesting change to the larger waterways and open expanses I had paddled so far.
As I entered the cut, a hen harrier coursed over the reeds of Brayden Marsh.
Reaching the mill, clearly now defunct and decrepit, I decided to retrace my steps and started to make my way back to Horsey Mere. If I had judged my timings right, I should be able to explore a bit of Hickling Broad, then take advantage of a forecast change in wind direction and a falling tide to get a lift home.
Re-entering Horsey Mere, I surprised a heron, which took flight ahead of me. The wind had picked up now, blowing across my bow, but I could find some shelter in the lee of the reed beds as I followed the shore southward.
Meadow Dyke provided more shelter, and before long I was back in Heigham Sound. I had plenty of time in hand, with a long summer afternoon stretching ahead of me and my only deadline dusk.
I turned up Deep-Go Dyke towards Hickling Broad, the headwind becoming a crosswind in the process. In the shallows outside the navigable channel, I spotted another great crested grebe, this one with a young chick from a late brood. I stopped for a while to watch the adult fishing and feeding their youngster, before heading out into the Broad.
I hadn’t got far though before a shift in the wind and a sudden rumble of thunder made me reconsider. Heavy, threatening clouds had bubbled up over the head of Hickling Broad, and lightning flashed over Stalham. With the change in wind direction, the thunder cell was almost directly upwind of me. I really didn’t fancy being caught in the middle of the Broad in a thunderstorm, so turned tail and ran downwind to find shelter in the reed beds of White Slea.
I wasn’t at all sure how much that would help against lightning, but at least I was in shallow water, sheltered from the wind and the rain which was now battering in wind-driven curtains against the vegetation.
There was nothing for it but to sit it out, wide-brimmed hat jammed on firmly and waterproofs zipped up. ‘This too shall pass’ a wise man said, and indeed it did, leaving me no worse than sodden. Behind the storm, the clouds remained sullen, the water grey, but the wind had indeed shifted to become a tailwind for the start of my homeward leg. Time to emerge from my hide-out.
The birdlife of the reedbeds was also re-emerging. Another grebe appeared, and a hen harrier flew over to roost on the edge of Bygrave’s Marsh.
The parent and chick I had seen earlier reappeared too, baby getting a piggyback through the choppy waves.
I let the wind and current do most of the work as I watched and was rewarded with a first sighting of a Great White Egret – nothing like as exotic as the black-winged kite, but I was pleased, nonetheless.
Boats were now on the move again too, another gaff-rigged cruiser heading passed me as I neared the confluence with the Thurne.
From there, the tide began to make itself felt, compensating for the loss of the tailwind as I turned westward towards home. The anglers had largely departed, the hired day boats mostly returned to their marinas. So, it was a quiet and solitary homeward leg, under the arches at Potter Heigham and back to the public staithe at Repps. From there, the brief trolley-portage brought me back to my tent, to hang out my soaked clothes and cook a meal in the now sunny evening light. 25km covered over around 7 hours, with a real mix of waters and weather and some interesting wildlife – a very satisfying start to my stay.