From sailing to surfing, canoeing and coasteering, here’s our twelve favourite ways to get wet across Britain.
Surfing the Severn Bore
The Severn Bore (pictured above) is one of the longest and biggest tidal bores in the world. It’s a startling spectacle when you’re watching from the riverbank. If you’re actually in the river, it can be terrifying.
The river, though, is where you’ll be if you choose to surf the Bore. Since the Sixties, surfers from all over the world have made their way to the Severn to catch this remarkable wave. It occurs on the biggest tides of the year when Atlantic waters from the Bristol Channel surge up the Severn Estuary at as much as 12mph and become funnelled between the ever-narrowing riverbanks to create one of Britain’s most bizarre natural phenomena. If the equinoxes coincide with big Atlantic swells, the wave may be as much as six feet high, tearing off overhanging tree branches, sweeping away sections of riverbank and providing a ride that can last for several miles.
Go to www.riversevernbore.co.uk for more details.
Rafting in Bala
The UK’s first commercial whitewater-rafting operation when it opened a quarter of a century ago, the National White Water Centre, located near Bala in North Wales, is now, by a quirk of hydrography, also the largest. While most British rafting rivers dry to a trickle in summer, the Tryweryn is fed by a dam release. On around two hundred days each year, courtesy of the Environment Agency, some 9-16 cubic metres of water per second pour into the river from the large Llyn Celyn reservoir, controversially constructed in the 1960s to provide water for Liverpool, transforming its upper and middle sections into an aquatic funfair, complete with dodgems, bucking bronco and waltzer.
All it takes to ride some of the country’s finest whitewater roller coasters is moderate fitness, an ability to swim and a willingness to get wet. Very wet if you’re at the front. On a two-hour session you’ll have time for four trips. Sounds repetitive? Then opt for the Orca Adventure. After an hour’s guided rafting, you’ll take to an inflatable canoe to tackle the rapids alone, chaperoned by a guide in a kayak. Good luck and don’t forget to scream.
The National White Water Centre, Frongoch, Bala, Gwynedd, www.ukrafting.co.uk.
Paddleboarding in The Fens
Bought for a snip in 1899, Wicken Fen is the oldest nature reserve in the National Trust’s portfolio. With over 99 percent of the traditional habitat lost to intensive agriculture, Wicken Fen represents a Noah’s Ark for native species. Over 8000 varieties have been recorded at the nature reserve by Cambridge University scientists, making this the most biodiverse location in Britain.
Until recently, you could only experience the fen from a hide or via a network of boardwalks. Trouble is, some of the most interesting wildlife lies beside waterways that crosshatch the area. Motorboats would disturb the fragile ecosystem, and that’s where the Fen Paddle comes in. Stand-up paddle surfing – an ancient form of Hawaiian surfing that has caught the imaginations of J-Lo and Cornish surfers alike – provides a minimum-impact way to experience these otherwise inaccessible parts of the reserve. Who needs waves when such natural beauty abounds? After a quick lesson in board basics, you are off on safari with a conservation warden, sculling gently through water lilies across Wicken Lode, the fen’s principal watercourse, with a single paddle.
Wicken Fen (www.wicken.org.uk; daily 10am-5pm; £5.75) is near Wicken village.
Floating downstream in a giant, inflatable doughnut amidst the stunning Perthshire woodland scenery around Pitlochry might sound relaxing, but the deceptively strong currents of the River Garry mean that Scotland’s only adventure tubing experience is not for the lily-livered. Even in webbed gloves, you’ll find a half-day’s tubing requires a surprising degree of exertion – you’ll certainly feel your shoulder muscles pleasantly aching afterwards – not least because these surfing vessels are ill-designed for hanging ten: you’ll be pitching into the drink and having to hoist yourself back into your ring more times than you’ll be able to count.
Some parts of the river are too hazardous to negotiate by inflatable, while others afford a chance to try jumping from the surrounding cliffs. Such plunges are optional, so you needn’t jump if you don’t fancy it. But where’s the fun in that? Better still to go the whole hog and book yourself into an even more intense experience: whitewater tubing through the foaming spume of the River Tummel. Now that certainly won’t leave you with much time to relax.
Nae Limits, Ballinluig, near Pitlochry, Perthshire, www.naelimits.co.uk.
Canoeing on the River Wye
The peaceful River Wye, which for part of its length forms the Anglo-Welsh border, runs through some of the greenest and most luxuriant countryside in Britain. On a lazy summer’s day, paddling through its tree-fringed waters in a canoe or kayak, stopping by a country pub for lunch, is one of the most relaxing experiences imaginable.
It’s also a novel way to access some of the attractions, both bucolic and cultural, in the area. From the antiquarian bookshops of Hay-on-Wye to Chepstow Castle to Tintern Abbey, there are some great reasons to hop out of your canoe along the way. You can rent a canoe for part of a day, or organize a multi-day trip, sleeping in guesthouses or campsites en route. The 31-mile stretch between Hereford and the market town of Ross-on-Wye has no rapids to negotiate, making it good for learners and kids.
The Canoe Hire Company in Ross (www.thecanoehire.co.uk) can organize a three-day trip between the two towns, with suggestions for pub stopoffs and campsite stays.
Hoisting the sails in Cornwall
Big yachts, little yachts, sleek yachts and working boats – the south coast of Cornwall comes alive with billowing sails when the wind doth blow. As home to the world’s third deepest natural harbour, an expansive bay, the wending estuaries of the Carrick Roads, the River Fal and the Helford Passage, Falmouth and its surrounds are a haven for yachties of all calibres.
Perhaps nowhere is more apposite to begin a water-bound expedition than Mylor, home to the Olympic training facility and a convenient base from which Mylor Boat Hire rents out dinghies, day boats and pocket cruisers. With some basic sailing experience under your belt, the River Fal is ideal for a day-trip.
For novice sailors a Clovelly Picarooner is the perfect vessel for creek crawling, while those with more experience who want a zippier ride can opt for a Devon Yawl. Sailing aficionados can navigate beyond the Fal on a multi-day trip into Falmouth Bay and the Helford Passage.
Mylor Boat Hire, Mylor Yacht Harbour, near Falmouth, Cornwall 01326/377745, www.mylorboathire.co.uk.
Messing about in boats on the Norfolk Broads
The riverside village of Horning lies right at the heart of the Broads, the largest wetland area in the country, stretching from Norwich all the way east to the coast. It’s a haunting, eerie wilderness of lake and river, reedbed and marsh, a flat landscape of huge skies and distant horizons cut only by windmills and the gaff-rigged sails of far-off yachts. Run by the Broads Authority, and with the status of a national park, it’s a haven for bird- and wildlife, but most of all it’s the perfect place to mess about in a boat.
You don’t need any experience – at least if you opt for an engine rather than sail, which is what most people do. Not surprisingly, it’s very busy in peak season. But the Broads have a Tardis-like ability to absorb visitors, and even in the height of summer it’s possible to escape the crowds. Better yet, get out in a canoe and explore the smaller waterways that aren’t navigable by larger craft. You really will feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere.
The Norfolk Broads Yachting Company, Southgates Boatyard, Lower Street, Horning (www.norfolk-broads.com) rents out proper old-fashioned Broads sailing boats.
Taking the plunge on the North Devon coast
Craggy cliffs and remote caves on the North Devon coast are lashed by great undulating swathes of ocean, as they have been for millennia, and gently swirling winds hurl sand into every crevice of the rock face. Behind the cliffs, emerald hills roll off into the distance, creating a gem of a backdrop for coasteering – a nerve-rattling adventure pursuit that’s as terrifying as it is thrilling.
The sport – if you can call it that – began as a distraction for bored surfers waiting for the next big swell, but has since become a major attraction in its own right. The aim is to swim, climb and jump your way along the barnacle-crusted coastline, which is fun, of course, even if the tamest sections are more suited to geology students than adrenaline junkies.
As you get that stomach-in-your-mouth sensation of falling, falling, falling, through the air, like a sea bird dive-bombing its prey, everything’s out of your control. Gravity sucks you into the water, causing a splash that floods the nostrils, and you’re left to swim up through the tornado of blue-green bubbles you just created. When you surface, grinning, you’ll already be scanning the shoreline for a higher cliff to conquer.
Barnstaple-based company Point Breaks (www.pointbreaks.com) runs coasteering trips on the North Devon coast.
Scuba diving in Scapa
Surrounded by the windswept Orkney Islands, one of the world’s great natural harbours conceals a dramatic episode of naval history that’s ripe for underwater exploration. Scapa Flow, Britain’s finest dive site, inspires awe in the most blasé of Aussie Scuba instructors and commands respect from seasoned deep-sea rig divers. In fact plunging deep into these chilly Scottish waters to explore the shipwrecks of Scapa is an unforgettable experience for anyone with the courage to attempt it.
This is the last resting place of the German High Seas Fleet interned by the British at the end of World War I. Sunk in peacetime, and by their own commanders, these wrecks are not war graves, but even knowing that they conceal no ghosts, the ships have a powerful effect on the imagination. Over almost a century these ruins have become mature reefs. Encouraged by the northern summer sunshine, “dead men’s fingers” and blooming plumose anemones swathe the wrecks in bouquets of cream and orange. Conger eels, crabs and octopus have made these sunken beasts their home, while silvery shoals, colourful wrasse and seals patrol with a proprietary air; all keep a close eye on visiting divers.
Seasoned cold-water divers will get the most out of Scapa on a diving charter with an experienced skipper: try Halton Charters (www.mvhalton.co.uk), based in Stromness, Orkney. For tuition or dive guides contact Scapa Scuba.
Taking out a sea kayak in Scotland
The glens and hills that define the Highlands, tramped by millions and immortalized on countless tins of shortcake, are undeniably grand. But Scotland’s far northwest is different. The region of Assynt, just shy of Britain’s northern edge, is mostly flat and mostly empty. From its moorlands, crofting fields and slender lochs rise strange, isolated sandstone peaks that offer hikers splendid scrambles along tortuous, crumbling ridges and great views of the Western Isles and much of northern Scotland.
The weather isn’t always clear of course, and water is never far away. Get on a kayak, and a whole range of possibilities are at your disposal. You really appreciate the great stretch of the Scottish coast when you’re bobbing off its rocky shores, paddling past sea birds and seals to abandoned huts and gold-sand beaches that look almost Caribbean – until you dash into their clear waters to come up gasping and twitching with an ice-cream headache and a thudding heart.
Norwest Sea Kayaking (www.norwestseakayaking.com) in the village of Lochinver, Sutherland, is just one of several operators.
Kitesurfing Camber Sands
Along with reliable winds, the quirks of Camber Sands’ geography make it a natural playground for kitesurfing. For a start, the prevailing onshore conditions provide four miles of south-facing beach to rip past. Then there are the regular slow-rolling waves to leap when a swell barrels in. Best of all, Camber’s size and relative isolation swallows all but the heaviest crowds. Fly your kite here and south coast hotspots such as Brighton, Wittering, Poole or Weymouth seem crowded (not to mention expensive, given the large free car park, Jury’s Gap, a couple of miles beyond Camber village) in comparison.
Tides add a new dimension to a beach that can be surfed three hours either side of low water. Surfing is dangerous at high water, when groynes are submerged. At low water, though, sand bars create shallow, flat lagoons – perfect for speed-freaks to get an adrenaline fix. Just as appealing for novices, too, who will appreciate the gently shelving bottom that never leaves them literally out of their depth – always a good thing when being body-dragged through the sea by a powerful kite for the first time. Kitesurfing at its best, then.
Rye Watersports (www.ryewatersports.co.uk) schools everyone from novices to experienced surfers.
Skiffing on the Thames
Boating was a highly fashionable activity in the late nineteenth century, when dapper gents in stripy blazers and their parasol-twirling sweethearts took to the Thames in all manner of pleasure craft. The Victorian camping skiff is a rare sight nowadays, but eight of these beautiful, hand-hewn specimens are still waterborne, thanks to Thames Skiff Hire. They come complete with attachable metal hoops, over which you sling a canvas roof to transform your boat into a cosy nest if you decide to forego the easy but less authentic option of a riverside B&B. The most popular route is from Oxford to Henley, a leisurely four-day trip in the opposite direction from that taken in the book, saving you the arm-ache of rowing upstream. You could cover the whole 132 miles of navigable river from Lechlade to Richmond in a week.
Thames Skiff Hire (www.skiffhire.com) is based in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, though trips can be arranged anywhere along the river.