Martin’s Mexborough Meet
One of the many things I like about the Song of the paddle forum is its sense of community. A few weeks ago, I collected the Swift Raven from Matt, and was entrusted some paddles to transport onwards to Bren. It turned out that we could meet up on a trip that Martin was organising on a loop of the River Don at Mexborough. I had first done this loop a couple of years ago, blogged here: http://aphotographerafloat.co.uk/mexborough-meanders-loop-kilnhurst-cut-river-don/ with two other SOTPers, but Martin had been unable to join us.
Since that first trip, I have done this loop several more times, both in company and solo, but not for a good year or more. So, I was very pleased to be invited along when Martin proposed the route.
May Bank Holiday weekends can be a bit unpredictable weather-wise, and the forecast was suitably mixed, with sunshine, showers, and a building westerly through the day. The trip itself comprised a length of canal – the Kilnhurst Cut – and the resultant backwater of the River Don. The Don has been a managed waterway since at least Roman times. Until the Dutch engineer Vermuyden drained Hatfield Chase, the river had two outfalls, an eastern one that crossed the Chase to enter the Trent, and a northern navigation cut by the Romans which debouched in the River Aire at Turnbridge. Vermuyden’s scheme began the development of the canalised river which would eventually lead to a locked and managed waterway into the heart of Sheffield, with a side arm to Barnsley and links to the Aire and Calder Navigation and the Trent. Over the years of the industrial revolution, the network was upgraded steadily to handle larger barges, until finally in 1983, it was improved to handle 700 tonne ‘eurobarges’ as far upstream as Rotherham. These massive barges are the same pattern as those on the great European rivers like the Rhine and are more than capable of being towed across the North Sea. Some still operate on the Don today, serving a steel yard in Rotherham, and transporting rubbish for recycling. The huge lock chambers along the Kilnhurst cut and the long, exposed straights of the navigation are a legacy of this process, giving a very different feel to this waterway compared to older canals from the first flush of the canal age such as the Oxford Canal.
A group of six, in five very different boats, met at Mexborough Top Lock, where Martin and Helen’s waterways key let us through the gates to the canal side without a portage over the bridge. The same key would let us use the locks, avoiding some sportingly high exits from the water. Bren, unfortunately, couldn’t join us, so his paddles would take another step closer to their destination in John’s care.
Martin, in his blue Hou prospector, Mark in an Old Town Pack, John in his black Silverbirch Broadland, and Martin and Helen in their Apache Tribe soon joined me and my outlander on the water. For an SOTP trip, the departure was speedy and completed with the minimum of faff.
On the bank a strange sculpture marked our starting point.
The first leg up the canal was into the wind but was surprisingly sheltered for much of the time. This is fairly urban, passing west through Mexborough itself, then turning southwards under an attractive brick-arched bridge to pass Kilnhurst.
Waddington’s Lock provided the first opportunity to avoid a portage. Eurobarges moored below the lock dwarfed the narrowboats alongside, and our small flotilla was lost in the cavern of the empty lock while we waited for Helen, our lady of the rising waters, to work her magic with the sluices.
Kilnhurst sits along one bank of the canal, leaving open views over Hooton Common to the east. A handful of anglers were scattered along the edges of the cut, but otherwise the waterway was deserted.
We made good time up-lock and upwind and reached Kilnhurst Flood Lock where we could leave the navigation and join the more natural backwater of the Don. Last time I came this way, there had been a lot of construction work in progress related to the Archimedes screw on the weir, so I scouted ahead to check all was clear. The portage was if anything easier now than it had been, one of the obstructing fences having been removed.
Brief showers had been passing over, but the day remained warm despite the steady westerly wind. Lunch was declared as we sat on the grassy bank overlooking the weir. A fish pass next to the power plant looks like it should be passable by canoe, but was obstructed by metal posts at the top, and some large branches in the channel. The weir itself might be ok in a short plastic kayak, but I doubt even that would be comfortable.
Yellow was the colour on the banks, rape having established itself along long stretches of the river.
A brief discussion on photographic composition with Martin prompted this image of plantain heads next to our lunch site.
Refreshed and fed, we lowered the boats down the bank to a convenient eddy below the weir. John ventured close to the foot while everyone got afloat.
The chance in atmosphere was immediate. Gone were the somewhat brutal lines of the modern industrial waterway, replaced by soft, vegetated edges. The first of several kingfishers shot off downstream as I approached the first riffle, just downstream from our launch spot. The wind, which Mark had complained of suffering from (I may have misunderstood him…) on the canal leg, was now behind us, but he seemed to persist in battling both it and the current, for a while at least.
The rest of us enjoyed the double ease of travelling both downstream and downwind.
The backwater meanders prettily between wooded banks, hidden below the wider landscape and we travelled in a quiet convoy under willow arches.
In places other colours replaced the rape seed. A brilliant orange swathe of poppies brightened the south-facing bank as we approached Kilnhurst Weir.
This is the hardest feature on the backwater – a broken weir with a rocky slope leading to a pool, below which two further small drops wait. In high water, this could be a problem as the left side, usually dry, is overgrown with bushes. But in low summer levels, only the right side carries water. A few rocks need to be avoided, but the line once spotted requires little manoeuvring.
Mark came down with his game face on, while Helen and Martin initially aimed straight at one of the obstructing rocks, requiring a bit of effort to turn the straight-tracking Tribe.
The second and third drops are fast and straightforward. Martin and John in their river-orientated boats swiftly slid down the wave train under the bridge.
Below the third drop, we gathered for a little play, crossing the current between two friendly eddies. The Tribe had taken on a bit of water over its low sides so was drained on the bank.
Normal serene service resumed below the third drop, until we came across a new obstruction. One of the willows had fallen across the river in the last year, with a small rubbish dam blocking easy passage. Fortunately, there was a boat-width side channel on the left, which we could squeeze through. Below the blockage, inspired by those true ditchers Patterdale Paddler and the Hippo, I cut down some of the dead limbs on the left side which will hopefully allow a channel to wash clear in higher water. There was some talk of chainsaws to cut the main trunk lying at water level, but I will leave that to the experts and simply come back another time with a bow saw to cut a few holes.
We were now nearing our starting point, and the smell of baking began to fill the air as we passed the industrial bakery near Mexborough Station. Despite having had lunch already, the smell of cinnamon made me reach for a snack as I let the current do the work for me.
We had been accompanied by plenty of bird life on the way down the river. The kingfisher count reached seven by the end of the backwater, though none stayed within camera range. A dipper had flown by near the weir, and mallards, Canada geese and swans were all out in force, with their broods in tow. I drifted close enough to this little gang to make an image, and shortly after a swan overflew us.
Down between the banks, we were sheltered by the meanders as we progressed downstream. Overhead we could see the wind striking the trees but nothing except our passage stirred the surface of the river.
Every now and then another small drop would appear, relics of weirs that provided brief entertainment as we went.
More rape seed, growing by the water’s edge, caught my eye as we approached another riffle.
The natural line through this came close to the right bank and occasioned a smile from Helen as they negotiated the tight turn away from the bushes.
Shortly after this, an island split the current. The obvious wide channel on river left is actually very shallow, so we turned down the overgrown rightward path.
The showers had cleared now, and sunlight bathed the river. Reeds glowed in reflection on the river’s surface as we rounded a corner to approach the shallow-sloped weir level with Mexborough Top Lock.
There was a potential get out here on the left bank, steep, but possible, that would avoid the end of the backwater and the final exposed canal reach. None of us took that option though, preferring the slide down the weir face and continue downstream.
Willows reasserted themselves over the water as we carried on down the last stretches of the backwater to rejoin the navigation at Mexborough Bottom Lock.
Once again, we chose to lock through. The navigation is fed by the river so there are no concerns about water use depleting upstream pounds here.
As the water rose, the full force of the wind became apparent. It had increased considerably, as forecast, but down on the river, it had been mostly behind and above us. Now, on the canal sat higher in the valley, it could blast straight down the cut at us. It was even raising small breaking waves as we exited the lock.
For the next two kilometres it would be head down and fight, trying to pick a line up the narrow corridor of relative shelter along one bank. Inevitably, the group got spread out as the boats with less windage drew ahead. Half an hour of sustained effort saw me reach the relative shelter of the lock approach below our starting point. Along this final stretch in previous summers, I had been greeted by a very protective cob swan, and he didn’t disappoint this year either. But the wind even deflated his efforts at intimidation. He charged me two or three times before giving up, and largely left the others to follow unchallenged.
We regrouped in sunshine below the lock for a last portage back to the cars, tired after a surprisingly physical finish to a flatwater paddle.
My thanks to Martin for getting us organised, and to John, Mark, Helen and Martin as well for sharing a day on the water.