Mid-March can be a very variable affair, even in South Devon, but we lucky to get a spell of settled weather for our week away. With the rest of the family opting for a day exploring Exeter, I took the outlander and the dog to do some of the Exeter Canal loops. The Exeter Ship Canal runs in close proximity to the river, and there are four well sign-posted loops running from the canal terminus in the city to Turf Lock down in the estuary.
I decided to put in at the Exeter Canal bridges at Countess Wear, where the University rowing club has a pontoon and there is easy parking. My plan was to head up to the top of the canal, then come back downriver. Conditions were perfect for a day on the water. Light winds and sunshine, reflections and a blue sky.
Not long after setting off I noticed a buzzard circling. Letting the canoe drift for a while in the calm conditions, I sat and watched, reaching for the camera as it passed overhead. It was more interested in scanning the surrounding fields than in my actions.
Even though it was mid-March still, signs of Spring were beginning to show. The willows glowed in the sunshine, tempting me to make an image.
Some trees still looked more wintery, but the warm light of an early Spring afternoon brought some life to them as well.
Double Locks came up too soon to stop for lunch – a pity, because I remember a very pleasant pie and pint we had here with my sister-in-law a few years ago. It still looked inviting, but I bravely passed by…
A photographer was setting up his medium format camera on a tripod on the bank opposite the pub, so I paused, not wanting to disturb his reflections, only to be asked to paddle on to give some foreground interest! Having taken his photographic directions, I hauled out at the first portage point – not a bad platform, but unfortunately positioned over the bypass channel for the lock. In a stronger flow, that could have been a bit challenging…
A good launching pontoon made getting back on the water easy, and I was quickly on my way again, enjoying the unexpectedly good conditions.
The weather continued to treat me well – t-shirt temperatures and very light wind made for a pleasant, restful journey inland towards Exeter.
Winter colours still dominated the landscape, despite early buds here and there and a scattering of celandines on the banks.
The reed beds had yet to turn green, but the old faded stems from last year caught the colour of the sun, glowing gold against the pale blue of the sky.
Quite quickly the mood of the waterway changed to something much more urban, and the city started to make its presence felt on the horizon. Wild banks became more managed as I approached the terminus of the canal.
According to the description of the Exeter Canal loops, I should have exited the canal via a few steps to make a portage to the river below the weir, but I decided to continue into the basin first. The canal had been almost empty of boats so far, but now the wharves were crowded with boats of all shapes and sizes.
The buildings around the canal basin looked smart in the sunshine. The double temptation of attractive cafes by the water and AS Watersports just next door made turning away a test of will, but I contented myself with a photo of the waterfront and turned back to the portage point.
I had a packed lunch and a flask with me, and the dog, sitting patiently in the bow, needed to have a run, so we did the portage – at 150m, the longest of the day, but no trial with a trolley on well-surfaced paths. This trip was the first time I have bothered with a portage trolley, and it did make life much easier not having to unload the few bags I had with me each time.
Having given the dog a bit of a run in the riverside park, I put the boat into the river. The route down to the river was a little challenging for a solo paddler with a 16′ canoe! After a moment or two in thought, I opted to slide the boat down the steps and then lift the bow and pass it hand-over hand into the river. I was glad I had fitted a long painter!
While I broke out the tea and sandwiches sat on the bank, the dog opted for the comfort of the kneeling mat I had put in the canoe to encourage him to stay put in the boat when we were underway. Most of the time this worked well, but he still jumped around after ducks…
This cormorant was busy fishing in the weir pool, and I hoped it would come closer to enable me to get a better image than this very cropped shot, but it kept its distance and its emerald eyes firmly on us.
Heading downstream from the first weir, the banks of the river were still quite managed, although the flow helped us along nicely after the still waters of the canal. The dog was on the alert for avian hazards, barking to ward them off before the came to close – at least I suspect that would be what he would tell me if he could. I wouldn’t believe it though, I think he just does it for devilment!
Before long I was approaching the second weir, St James’. The banks had become more wooded, and even though the river was quite broad, it had a quiet, slightly secretive air to it. The Exeter Canal Loops guide recommended portaging this weir too, so I headed downstream keeping an eye out for the portage point. All of these had been well signposted so far, and this one proved no different. An easy path looped through the woods to an eddy below the weir. It looked like levels were on the low side, as there were some sizeable rocks at the water’s edge to slide the boat over.
This done, I entered the flow from the shallows of the eddy. Even in mid-river, there wasn’t much depth, and I was glad to have brought along my sugar island paddle as well as the chieftain.
From below, the weir looked quite passable in these water conditions, but with the dog on board, walking round was the better option.
With more birdlife along the river than the canal, my bow paddler/ballast was a lot more alert and interested now – a bit of a mixed blessing given his size, but fortunately the river was very easy water. A few small riffles over shallows meant I had to pick a line on occasions, but more to avoid areas where the gulls were standing up than because of any white water.
In places the bankside bushes had grown down into the river. I tucked in to an eddy behind this bush to enjoy the catkins and the rich colours of the bark.
Just upstream of the largest riffle I saw the first of several little egrets, more common down on the south coast than at home, although we do see a few.
As I moved over to the right side of the flow to try to get near for a photo, it took flight to a perch on the left bank, level with the middle of the riffle. Coming back left, I picked a lined, and controlling the boat with my knees, drifted down with camera pressed to my eye. Servo auto-focus and a fast frame rate at least took care of the photographic technicalities!
Before long I was nearing Countess Wear and the Exeter Canal Bridges where I put in. A pair of mergansers were cruising in the shallows as on the other bank some workmen were putting in groundwoorks below an attractive riverside house.I was well ahead of schedule. The guide to the canal loops had suggested 2-3 hours for each loop, but even with stopping for lunch I had been out for less than three hours. The tide was at full ebb, and I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to get to the portage point just below the bridge.
Approaching the bridges, I could see that there was a horizon line under the arches, with some shallows to thread a way through as well. Kneeling high to get a better view, I chose a line through the second right hand arch, with a drop of about 18″ and a small wave train that I rode the shoulder of. I would imagine that this feature isn’t present when the tide is higher, but it made for a nice bit of variety, which the outlander rode nice and dry.
As I had thought, the portage ramp below Countess Wear didn’t reach the water at low tide. There was only about 10′ of mud, but with plenty of time in hand I decided not to test its depth, and continue downstream to the ferry jetty at Topsham.
The character of the river quickly changed, with mud banks and reed beds dominating the scenery. I had lost the sunshine of the early afternoon, and a grey overcast made the day seem much more wintery than the promising Spring mood I had set out in.
Although the estuary widened here, it was still very shallow, I let the ebb carry me down to the jetty to make the transition back to the canal.
Back on the canal at Topsham Lock, I followed a group of rowers from Exeter University. Despite their superior speed, their progress was very stop-start as they practised, and I was able to keep pace. In the end I decided to drop back as they needed a lot of water room, and some of the beginners had imprecise directional control. These two were more experienced, and kept up a fair lick as they did starts and short sprints.
I slowed right down on my final approach to the University rowing club pontoon I had put in at. The rowers were still getting their boats out of the water, so I dawdled, watching a heron leap-frog up the cut ahead of me.
I slowly approached the pontoon, found it to be still fully occupied and hauled out a short distance downstream, pleased with a very pleasant day and more miles covered than I had expected.