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The staycation windfall for the UK

With international travel for the remainder of 2021 under new levels of scrutiny by the UK government and confusion at what can and cannot be undertaken, the Paddler has taken a look at several UK destinations that may tickle the palette of paddlesport aficionados, embracing the so-called ‘staycation’. 

So here we go from north to south…

Oban Eilean Nan Caorach

Oban, Scotland

Nothing can match the feeling of paddling around a headland and seeing the world open up in front of you. In Oban, on the west coast of Scotland, our lives are filled with these moments. We perch on the fringes of the world, where a myriad of islands laps the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.

Looking at a map of the waters around Oban, you can easily understand why the sea was once a thoroughfare, not a barrier. Patches of land lie dotted in a blue expanse of maritime highways. Oban is the Gateway to the Isles, and Calmac Ferries run steadily in and out of the harbour.

Thanks to the Scottish Canoe Association, kayaks travel free on the ferries, so with nothing more than a trolley, a foot passenger ticket and a sense of adventure, the intrepid paddler can launch themselves out across the Hebrides.

But many of the best destinations aren’t reached by ferry. Many of the smaller islands just off the mainland used to be inhabited. The Garvellachs were home to monks living in beehive cells; Belnahua, one of the slate islands, housed a densely packed population of quarrymen and their families, despite no water source. Further north lies the remains of lime kilns carved out of the hillside. All these are testament to the fact that long before roads and trains, goods and people travelled this stretch of coast. Now, they make perfect camp spots for paddlers.

The interplay of land and water creates a fantastic range of conditions for sea kayakers. North of Oban, the scenery is dominated by mountains and sounds narrow into sheltered sea lochs. Paddling south, the sea takes over. To the west of the main islands – Luing, Scarba, Jura, Islay – you can be exposed to the full force of the Atlantic. Here, there is nothing between you and America.

Sneak around the inside, however, and you enter a very long funnel. The sea, which had plenty of space flowing into the Sound of Jura between Islay and Gigha, becomes ever more squeezed as it pushes northwards, left with no choice but to force itself out through the tiny gaps of the Corryvreckan, Grey Dogs and Sound of Luing. Get your tidal planning right, and there’s up to seven knots of free ride and plenty of fun. Get it wrong, and you’ll be faced with the world’s third-largest whirlpool. 

Wildlife, too, loves strong tides and varied coastlines. Common and grey seals tag along behind kayakers. Otters dive in and out of the kelp, snatching crustaceans from the seabed. Sea eagles, first reintroduced on Mull, have spread and now nest along the coast. Porpoises and dolphins follow the mackerel migrations. Minke and even humpback whales visit occasionally. Black guillemots nest in Oban’s harbour wall. 

The west coast of Scotland is, without doubt, one of the most superb and versatile paddling destinations in the world. Oban is one of its highlights.

Sea Kayak Oban offers trips, courses and expeditions for all levels from beginner to expert, as well as BC qualifications, custom bookings, and rental for experienced kayakers. Our shop specialises in quality kayaking equipment and clothing, and we hold one of the largest sea kayak demo fleets in the UK.

Web: www.seakayakoban.com

Mail: [email protected]

St Abbs Headland

North Northumberland and Berwickshire

Having lived and worked here, mainly on the water, since 1999 I can wholehearted recommend the area for your UK staycation – from two days to two weeks, you will find plenty of paddling adventures to make you happy.

This area has to be one of the best intermediate sea kayaking venues on the east coast. We also have a fantastically wild touring river to boot with a few interesting tributaries.

The sea kayaking is suitable for most paddlers, but I would not recommend it for beginners to the sport looking to take their first paddle strokes on saltwater. This is due to the exposed nature of the coastline and the North Sea – a shallow body of water, relatively speaking, it used to be a big estuary! The North Sea has a reputation amongst sailors as a bit unpredictable, mainly because of its tidal flow up and down the east coast. Although we don’t have the biggest tides, just over five metres at big springs, there are a few areas where the tide get squeezed and can run at five knots at its maximum.

The main highlight must surely be the Incredible Farne Islands – possibly the most highly populated and varied sea bird breeding site within five miles of the UK coastline in the summer and a very important Grey seal pupping area in the winter months (up to 2,500 in the last few years). The National Trust manages the Farne Islands, with strict rules as to where and when you can land, so please contact Ollie Jay, Active 4 Seasons, to get the latest information so as not to rock the boat inadvertently.

The next highlight would be the fabulous St. Abbs headland just across the Scottish border. Impressive coloured cliffs with sea stacks and caves to explore out with the sea bird breeding season. In the summertime, the cliffs are full of breeding sea birds, now including the Northern Gannet (our biggest sea bird).

Lastly, the fabulous River Tweed and its tributaries must get a mention as one of the least paddled major UK rivers. A source to sea 97 miles from Tweedsmuir to the Historic Berwick upon Tweed, the most northerly town in England. This would be a once in a lifetime adventure. It has been paddled by canoe in 15 hours for those who aspire to race these things, but it is well worth a four or five-day gentle jaunt! 

The coastal strip becomes very busy during the school holidays, so I recommend heading north to Berwick upon Tweed or inland to Belford or Wooler to get away from the crowds. There is a wide range of accommodation available from hotels to campsites.

Berwick Youth Hostel has some excellent family rooms, Pot A Doodle Do, just south of Berwick, have heated wigwam huts for four people and yurts. Top quality guest houses include The Gables, near Duddo, and the Market Cross in Belford. Campsites include Budle Bay and Paxton House on the River Tweed.  

Active 4 Seasons, run by Ollie Jay, has operated in the area since 1999. The most experienced and highly qualified coach and guide in the area. We can offer guiding, coaching, and boat hires for those not wanting to bring their equipment across the country. We also offer rock climbing, coasteering and history bike tours for those looking to keep their feet dry for the day.

Web: http://active4seasons.co.uk

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Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland

Ireland, as a paddlesport destination, is well known for its world-class sea kayaking. The Atlantic coastline and its thousands of island have attracted paddlers from all over the world.

Often overlooked is the fantastic network of inland waterways, lakes and our amazing sea loughs. Some have been developed as canoe trails in Northern Ireland and blue ways in the Republic of Ireland. For UK paddlers seeking a great alternative to the well known Atlantic Coast, I would suggest a visit to the biggest sea lough in the UK and Ireland – Strangford Lough.

Strangford Lough, designated as Northern Ireland’s first Marine Nature Reserve, is one of the most richly bio-diverse regions in Europe, with over 2,000 marine species spread across 150km². 

When journeying between the hundreds of islands, you will often come across otters, common and grey seals, arctic terns, porpoises and on occasion, you may be lucky enough to view a passing Orca!

My intrigue with Strangford Lough started some 25 years ago, and from that time, I have paddled sea kayaks, canoes and SUPs on the lough most weeks. What lures me back is the promise that no two days will be the same. I have had unbelievable experiences, from watching otters fish within four metres to cheeky young seals coming to nuzzle our sea kayaks. At the other end of the spectrum, the lough has provided adrenaline-filled days with great friends playing on the bar mouth’s tide races and overfalls. Big downwind runs in gale-force winds and playing on the wave at the Angus Rock have all added to the magic of this place. 

The high point for me must be the shared experiences with family, on camping trips out to Salt Island, when the kids were toddlers and now paddling among the islands with my teenage daughter. I have had many memorable days introducing novices on Tollymore National Outdoor Centre’s Discover and Explore sea kayaking, canoe and SUP courses, through to training advanced sea leaders and coaches. Strangford is such an enchanting environment; it truly has something to offer all paddlers irrespective of their age, ability or experience. 

If exploring our heritage is of interest to you, Strangford Lough has more than its fair share of National Trust properties, a 6th century monastic site, many medieval tower houses and castles and a 5,000 year old log boat, still lying in the sands at Greyabbey!. For further information, visit the Strangford Canoe Trail: www.canoeni.com/canoe-trails/strangford-lough/

Logistics. Getting here is easy, with Belfast only a stone’s throw away. Dublin airport is a straightforward two-hour motorway drive, and you also have a choice of ferry ports within easy reach. Some several small villages and towns border the lough shore, making it easy to restock with essentials.

Tollymore National Outdoor Centre offer several options for novices and experienced paddlers to access the lough. We stock a broad range of touring SUPs, canoe, sea and touring kayaks and can supply all paddling, camping equipment and experienced leaders on our programmed and bespoke courses. We offer the full range of British Canoeing personal performance, leadership and coaching awards.

Email: [email protected]

Web: www.tollymore.com

Continue reading this article to find even more places to paddle around the UK including; Snowdonia and North Wales, Windsor & Maidenhead, Berkshire and Cornwall here.

For more content from the Paddler Magazine - the international magazine for recreational paddlers, click here. Don't forget, British Canoeing members get 20% off the cost of an annual subscription. Find out more.