Jonathan Footerman continues his journey down the west coast of the UK, on his way completely around it in a mini-yacht, and is enthralled by all things Welsh.
The UK mainland measures 600 miles from the south-western extremity at Lands End to the northern tip at John O’Groats, the longest side of an approximate triangle smaller than the state of Texas but over twice as populous. 100 miles in any direction brings a change in the ways of life and speech despite today’s long-distance commuting, never more evident than sailing down the West coast. In three journeys, I had travelled from quarrelsome Ayrshire, the docks county of Scotland, to friendly but religiously troubled Belfast, and to easy-going, untroubled Peel in the Isle of Man. From there it is an 80 mile trip, about 20 hours, to Conwy in North Wales, which is yet another world.
I regretted anywhere I passed without stopping, but the need to complete the circumnavigation in the summer months hurried me on. My route bypassed the Solway Firth at the Scottish border which, like the Thames Estuary and the Bristol Channel, is threaded by sandbanks making crossing difficult. The Eden river flows into it from Carlisle with its 1000 year-old castle and 2000 year-old remains of Hadrian’s Wall, and north of the Solway is Gretna where eloping couples used to be married by the local blacksmith ‘over the anvil’. My route bypassed Cumbria and the Lake District, a region of beautiful mountain lakes that are navigable but cannot be reached by boat from the sea. And south of Cumbria, it bypassed the great port of Liverpool, the destination for centuries of trade ships and liners from the USA; were it not for the weather delays, I would have spared the time to sail there, one of the great ports of the world despite Beatle infestation.
Abandoning my departure from the Isle of Man was my first surrender since the seas in the Dover Straits had driven me back to Ramsgate. My reward was a sleepless night on the bumpy water of Port St. Mary on the South of the island, and I got up in sunshine at 7.00 a.m. barely three hours after climbing into my sleeping bag. Now I needed a new plan with 64 miles of open sea still to cross, and if yesterday’s forecast held good, gales would arrive well before I could get in. With the kettle on, I looked up the meteorology and the gales were delayed for 24 hours, good news to be viewed with caution in such changeable conditions. The complication was sand. All down the coast from the Solway Firth, the shores are wide sand-flats at low tide. In Morecambe Bay just below Cumbria, they are so level that the tide rolls in faster than a man can run, and in 2004 it drowned 21 Chinese immigrants scavenging for cockles and ignorant of UK tides. The approach channel to Conwy winds 2 miles through the sand, and the last stretch up the river delta sees ebb currents of up to 7 knots, no good in a 4-knot boat. Practically, I had a slot of 2 or 3 hours before high water in which to get in, the earliest I could make the next morning. No point in sailing across to be stuck outside overnight, or searching for the channel in the dark, hoping the gales hold off: better to follow the forecast during the day, and go later if all was well. I stayed put and enjoyed the sunshine until 4.30 p.m.
There was a pleasant breeze from the South-East, and for once I decided to tack up it in the classic manner, on a sea devoid of any other vessels, soon out of sight of land. The surface had settled and the sailing was a pleasure, but the wind eventually faded and I started the motor; not before time as I calculated that at my blithe rate of progress, the journey would take 36 hours. The night passed easily, with only a cruise liner disturbing my solitude before 1 a.m., when the boat suddenly lurched off its course as the autopilot ram detached from the tiller bracket. I had not seated it properly after tightening the bracket attachment. In the moonless darkness, my helming to correct the course by compass placed the mainsail, centred as a roll damper, unexpectedly across the wind: a change of wind direction could only mean the next cyclone was coming in early. As soon as I reattached the ram, the autopilot turmed her upwind again – the ship’s compass seemed to be 40 or 50 degrees different from the autopilot’s although I had recently calibrated them. The GPS plotter confirmed the autopilot readings so it had to be the compass, and of course there was a simple explanation. After tightening the bracket, I had stowed the screw-driver ready to give the screws another twist later on. It was protruding beneath the compass, and it had a magnetic tip. What a twit! To be fair on myself, I had not thought of it because the marine-grade steel screws were non-magnetic (the molecular structure of stainless alloys may not allow the iron to polarise and orientate along magnetic fields, so they are ferric but not magnetic). I reset everything and went back down into the cabin to make some tea.
In the Conwy delta, the clear Irish Sea water enters on the flood without mingling with dark, silty river water flowing out due to different temperatures and densities; a phenomenon known in the Amazon or at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles. My fuel tank was low although I had jerry-cans on board. I made a point of running it right down before re-filling, to prevent moisture collecting at the bottom in a layer of non-flammable sludge which chokes the motor when you think you have a gallon left. Just as I passed between the marker posts at the marina entrance, the motor sputtered out. A free drift in a marina tends to end in an encounter with another yacht. Fortunately, Elektra’s momentum took her neatly on to the head of a pontoon opposite the entrance, and I filled her up before anyone noticed.
It is far more romantic to tie up at the old quay beneath the castle walls, but the storm was forecast at undiminished intensity in a few hours. After forty-eight with little sleep, I took it easy in the Mulberry Inn for the afternoon. The marina area was used to build Mulberries during World War II, prefabricated harbours of floating elements that could be towed across the Channel and anchored or sunk to create the berths and floating roads by which a vast tonnage of men and equipment were landed in Normandy after D-Day. A great feat of military engineering, they are illustrated on the walls of the Inn. The storm finally darkened the skies as I was returning for my bed, and the long-promised weather gusted up to frighteningly vocal in the time it took to walk the pontoon. My log notes that the wind did not howl, it roared. The marina is gated and the water remained still, but the masts and rigging all across the harbour trembled and hummed in the air turbulence. It is good to lie gently rocked, listening to a storm. It was in full throat when I fell asleep.
Perhaps the Welsh make water of a different colour from the Irish from another cultural metabolism in the land of Calvinist Non-conformism. The Sunday Closing Act of 1881, applicable only in Wales, debarred a nation of thirsty coal-miners from the pub on their day off, albeit contributing to the creation of the world’s finest male-voice choirs still to be heard in traditional ‘eisteddfod’ festivals. Repealed 80 years later, it was part of a tee-total tradition as rare in Ireland as a wet shave in London. I was in the land of the conscientious. There was a code on the marina gate to the pontoons, a code to enter the marina building, a code to enter the shower facilities inside that building, another for the Ladies, the reception was glassed in like a bank teller’s desk, doubtless needing a code to enter, a code for the computer system, and possibly a key to the safe where the code codex is kept. It is twenty-five minutes walk to the town past houses all neatly maintained, gates and windows painted and properly closed, spiritual sisters of the white picket fence. There is a better walk along the shore but a brook makes a delta in the middle that is too muddy to cross on foot. On the marina side, there is a school playing field, locked up in case anybody steals it. The school is on the town side, connected by a footbridge which is locked up – any non-schoolchild has to walk inland to the road bridge to cross, so that the coastal path is not the pleasant short cut that it might be. There may be reason to lock up a playing field – gypsies or whatever; but anyone who builds a footbridge over a little river and then tries to tell me why it is necessary to lock it up is likely to find that I am not listening.
Conwy is the name of the river: the port is more properly Aberconwy, or Conway since Edward I crushed Welsh independence. Walls encircle the town from the castle by the water, built in a vein of martial intimidation, topped by a walkway which rises steeply above the houses with railings low enough to give apoplexy to safety inspectors and an excited tingle to the kids. It was an encouraging surprise, with some excellent vistas at the high inland corners – I looked down on the ubiquitous Rowan tree on the train station platform (with berries not as red as in Irish Bangor). Telford’s chunky old suspension bridge is anchored into the castle walls, hidden by a Victorian rail bridge upstream, and downstream by the modern road bridge. I think you can walk across it, but I was there at the end of the afternoon and, in local custom, it was locked up.
I set off on 27th August for the Menai Straits, a narrow passage between Anglesey and the mainland which many sailing the Irish Sea skip by staying at Holyhead, on the west coast of Anglesey. My route would pass by Beaumarais, site of another Edward I castle, Welsh Bangor at the start of the Straits, beneath the world’s first suspension bridge built by Telford at Menai, and the Britannia tube-metal bridge built by Robert Stevenson, and thence to Caernarfon at the other end of the Straits, the third castle in the set by which Edward Longshanks dominated the region. Only 22 miles, but it would take two days. The narrowest mile-long stretch from the Menai Suspension to the Britannia Bridge contains rocky obstructions known as the Swellies, around which currents run very fast. It is best to navigate them at high water in daylight in a safe slack of about 30 minutes. In high water and daylight I also had to exit the Conwy river against the flood, cross the sands of the bay and cover the 16 miles to the bridge. I could not do both on the same high tide, which happened to be at midday, so I would moor at Menai overnight.
Ayrshire and Belfast accents share two features with North American: a tendency to pronounce T’s as D’s (T-voicing), and a rhotic curl of R’s after the vowel in words like ‘corn’. That will not help anyone to pronounce Dwygyfylchi, the next village to the West. Conwy is in the southeast corner and Bangor and the Menai Straits in the southwest corner of a bay between the Great Orme headland and the northeast corner of Anglesey. The coastal water is so shallow that almanacs advise yachts to pick up a buoyed channel at Puffin Island off Anglesey, an hour’s detour going off-shore before Dwygyfylchi. With only a metre of draught, I thought I could cut along the coast, but sharp side currents can be a problem over sand flats. In the Mulberry Inn, the bar-lady pointed out the local sailor to talk to, and I bought a round and learnt which buoys to aim for. Following his advice without incident, on a fine sailing afternoon with a lot of yachts about for a holiday weekend, I was the only one inshore. A greater difficulty had been exiting the Conwy estuary on a rising tide, Elektra making only a knot, which did not worry me but caused a lot of motorboats to pass close by without regard to their wash. You can wave a fist in impotent fury above your head, like an old salt clutching a briar pipe. Or rub the bruise and forget it.
After Bangor, I was waved over by six children fishing from a tender with a powerful outboard on the back. The smallest was the skipper, 9 or 10 years old. They could not start the motor. Dad was on the shore at Gallows Point a mile or two further on and they were in VHF contact, but adrift. I threw them a line and towed them in, and the following morning as I waited at a mooring by the Menai Suspension Bridge, Dad and son came alongside and explained that they had flooded the motor and run the battery down. They were indignant that so many people, including a local ferry, had sailed past without responding to the boys’ signals, surprising in the close-knit community of the Straits.
Locals know the moorings along the 12 miles of the Straits, down to the individual buoys and to whom they belong. The harbour master was unavailable at Menai and I was about to pick one up when a yacht came alongside and told me that he was using that buoy, ‘… at least for this season’. I did not believe he had paid for it, but he indicated another which would be all right. I demurred, on the point of asking why he did not take it, but in a sort of zen moment I conceded and picked it up. Dad and son told me it belonged to the Victoria Pub at Menai, but that they did not need it that night – you may use a private buoy but must leave it if the owner turns up. The system works well, and I don’t know what ailed the other yacht.
Danger begins beneath the Suspension Bridge which crosses the narrowest point at the start of the Swellies. Tide enters the Straits from both ends, but from the East it has further to travel and high water on that side of the narrows is two hours behind the other side. When the tide turns, rising water sluices into falling water, generating infamous currents. It was a spring tide (when the sun, moon and Earth lie along the same axis) which ran very hard until the 30 minutes of slack we were all waiting for, eddying around the moorings so that every boat lay oddly on a different bearing. One yacht motored too early towards the bridge at 7 or 8 knots and simply came to a halt under the central span. But it was paradise for personal watercraft (they look like jet skis or water motorbikes) who tore up and down like Hells Angelfish. When the slack arrived, there were plenty of boats waiting to go through in each direction, and it was simply a matter of following the convoy.
The wind is channelled along the Straits, and on that afternoon it was on the nose. As soon as the water broadened out past the Britannia Bridge, yachts pulled out their sails and tacked, but the sky was darkening and I decided to get in quickly to Caernarfon rather than mess about testing my technique. A 33-footer criss-crossed in front of me and I watched in admiration as two elderly men easily passed the sheet and the tiller to each-other rather than hopping about the cockpit at each manoeuvre. A few miles down from the Britannia Bridge, the last bend in the Straits turns towards the sea, with Caernarfon on the south bank, and as we came out of the lee of the land, the wind climbed rapidly and almost laid the 33-footer down before they could release the sail. Twenty minutes later we were at the marina entrance and the wind had reached force 6, and boats were running for cover. It is not a large marina, but the berthing master shepherded us into position in a pleasant manner that dissipated a lot of the competitive tension and packed every inch of the basin. I was rafted up to a 24-footer, May Rose, tied up to a pair of motor cruisers, and Graham and John who were sailing her took my lines and put the kettle on. The weather deteriorated and that evening Graham thought to reorganise the lines to the shore for safety, finding that one rigged poorly between the motor cruisers had frayed through in the few hours since we arrived. It was made of polypropylene which floats but is not the strongest material, reduced to useless in three hours fretting across an edge. The overnight storm did not blow out until the following midday, but Graham’s prudence kept us safe.
Caernarfon castle has a great frontage on the water, but no walls around the town like Conwy. Lloyd George was exerting his more contemporary presence from a statue by the main square, his hand up in declamatory pose, drowned out that Sunday by a pop group on a temporary stage. I found somewhere away from the admonishments of both in which to enjoy a piece of Bara Brith, a traditional Welsh fruit cake in which the dried fruit is first soaked in tea, giving the product a dark substance and flavour.
It is a great town but I would not stay more than a day, planning a night sail down the Lleyn peninsular with the May Rose. One gale after another was telling me to get south without delay. I needed to make Milford Haven on the south coast of Wales, the kick-off point to cross the Bristol Channel to Lands End on the longest trip of the circumnavigation.
Next week: Hard-going to Milford Haven.
Jonathan’s trip is excerpted from his book and serialized here:
My ports of call:
- Gosport, Haslar marina, the start and end of the voyage.
- Eastbourne (Sovereign marina)
- Felixstowe Ferry (River Deben)
- Wells-next-the Sea
- Grimsby & Spurn Head
- West Hartlepool
- Low Newton-by-the-Sea
- Muir Town Basin (Caledonian Canal)
- Dochgarroch (Caledonian Canal)
- Fort Augustus (Caledonian Canal)
- Gairlochy (Caledonian Canal)
- Corpach (Caledonian Canal exit)
- Crinan (Canal entrance)
- Ardrishaig (Crinan Canal exit)
- Lochranza (Arran)
- Bangor (Belfast Lough)
- Peel (Isle of Man)
- Port St.Mary
- Milford Haven & Dale
- Newton Ferrers (to visit friends)
- West Bay (Bridport)
- Yarmouth (Isle of Wight)
(From there back to Gosport)