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Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Kayaking the Ivel and Ouse: Part II

“On watching a gamboling fox cub, a fawn, an ocelot, a marten, or even a well-furred pet skunk, one is apt to be carried away and declare each in turn the most beautiful and graceful creature ever seen. But when all are gone from view, when nothing but the dim impression remains it is the otter that stands out pre-eminently as the most beautiful and engaging of all pets.” Ernest Seton, 1926

I came across the above quote whilst doing some recent research about Otters.  I have never seen an Ocelot, Marten or even a well-furred pet Skunk, but I have glimpsed an Otter, and will forever remember…

Day 2
Tempsford - Huntingdon

To say we slept well would be lying. We were both tired, and had fallen to sleep almost instantaneously. But the cold soon crept in, and the ground seemed to get harder and lumpier as the night went on.  

Early morning tea

Luckily, a glorious morning welcomed us as we boiled the kettle for a mug of tea and ate our rations of cereal bars. Already Dragonflies skimmed across the surface of the water, and Butterflies flurried over the field after their thermal recharge from the early-morning sun.

Converging with the River Great Ouse

What a beautiful morning to be on the river. We cornered the first meander and carried past a weir, before hitting the River Great Ouse at Roxton Lock.

Roxton Lock

Here, the river considerably widened. Lush green woodland on either side of the river towered over us, almost like we were cutting through a hidden corridor of wildlife. The sound of our paddles cutting through the crystal calm water, as we glided over the glassy surface, added to the tranquility and beauty of the journey. The long-distant humming of traffic on the main roads was the only reminder of the modern, busy world.

Cutting through the woodland

A Buzzard called in its mewing manner from the top of an old dead tree. It’s a comforting sound that can lift the spirits. Birds of prey have certain awe about them, with their perfect adaptations to a life on the wing, hunting with precision and power, and occasionally scavenging when the opportunity arises. Buzzards have really bounced back from the slaughter and destruction of populations in the past well, now thriving all over the country, replacing Kestrels as the most common birds of prey.

Another photo of this amazingly peaceful part of the journey

The pace was a steady one, as we made good progress throughout the day. We were extremely relieved not to have to get out and carry our kayaks as we joined another boat in our first lock. Quite a crowd gathered to watch two kayakers, with their dog, in the lock just outside of St. Neots. The guys on the boat chatted to us for a while, and invited us to join them at their mooring in St. Neots so we could nip into town to fill up our water bottles (and have a quick bacon sandwich!).

Leaving the lock!

It was nice to come through the town, especially during an aptly timed river festival! We pushed on, passing the Heronry lakes. The wildlife along these stretches of water was stunning. The Demoiselles still sparkled, with noticeably more Damselflies, while the Kingfishers repeatedly flew ahead of us each time we disturbed them as we caught up with them, until they would reach the end of their territory and loop back round behind us, to carry on about their Kingfisher lives in peace.

By now our backs and bums had started to sore. As the afternoon went on, the rhythm set in. The three or four hours from St.Neots flew by, with every twist and turn of the river bringing new sights and sounds, keeping the spirits and excitement high. Occasionally we would paddle backwards to exercise different muscles and give our backs a break.

Just ahead, a Grass Snake slid across the surface from one bank to the other. Also known as the Water Snake, these amazing serpents are just at home in and around water as they are on land. With their black and yellow/orange collar, and large round pupils, these snakes are a non-venomous species, and totally harmless. Not to mention how stunningly beautiful they are!

A Mentos break in Offord!

It was time for a much-needed pit stop before hitting Huntingdon, our target for the end of the day. Out came the cereal bars. Followed by a pack of Mentos, split down the middle, shared and pocketed. A much needed explosion of flavor, distracting our bodies from any tiring, as we carried on down the river.

After Godmanchester, we soon hit Huntingdon, where a handy kayak portage meant we did not have to mess around trying to find somewhere to exit and carry around the locks. A family of Mute Swans bravely approached our kayaks, clearly used to being fed by humans and spending time around them.

Wing of a Swan

Although, the Swans were still a bit wary of the dog sitting in the bright red kayak…

Mute Swan family

Passing through Huntingdon

By now, the night was drawing in. The insects were forming small, buzzing clouds over the water surface as a faint mist began to rise. Time to set-up camp!

Where we had stopped, a pile of fish scales and remains on the riverbank, another potential sign of Otters on these parts of the river! I love finding tracks and signs, poo and remains. I love the smell of an Otter spraint, or finding their five-toed, slightly webbed paw prints in the mud. But what I do not love so much, is having to go to bed in a small tent, with Sky smelling of rotten fish after deciding vigorously rolling in it was a good idea. Mmm.

 We drank our tea, and ate our risotto. This time, we fell asleep to the sound of a Tawny Owl calling from the other side of the River…

Sitting by the fire

Day 3
Huntingdon – The Lazy Otter

Good morning!

Sky emerged first thing to join us for a cup of tea. We were used to the smell of rotten fish by now (probably smelling of it ourselves). The night was surprisingly cold, and unsurprisingly lumpy. We wearily loaded our kayaks and got back on the river for our third day kayaking.

Morning number three!

Once again, the sun was shining and the sky was beautifully clear. After a check-in with Granddad, the weather was apparently due to worsen. We passed rafts of Mallards, with plenty of mothers with their chicks. Warblers trilled in the tops of the reeds, while Moorhens and their chicks bumbled around in the depths, ducking and taking refuge on their nest built into the reeds as we pass a little too close for their comfort.

Navigating another lock!

We hit a lock, exiting and carrying once again. A Spider climbed its web, seemingly delighted with today’s catch – a Meadow Brown butterfly. There is something that appears slightly more tragic about the scene. Normally it is exciting to see a Bluebottle or Hoverfly get caught and eaten by a spider. But to see something as beautiful as a butterfly succumb to the same tangled death has a certain impact on the emotions. Although flies are pretty awesome too, some beating their wings up to 1,000 times a second. Its just unfortunate they are not always as visually pleasing…

A Meadow Brown feast!

It was not long before we made St.Ives, where the boat club kindly let us fill our water bottles as we carried on through. We promised ourselves a cup of tea and a pack of Mentos after the next hour or so kayaking. Perfect motivation!


By now our backs and arms were aching and stiff, especially around the top of the neck. Once we picked up a good rhythm, the pain was easily adjusted to. Finally, we found a good place to pull over, and get the stove out for a quick half hour break. We set everything up, got Sky settled, and out of nowhere, we were surrounded and pinned against the riverbank by around 50 bull Cows. They were not too keen to have a fox-like dog sniffing around, and seemed pretty intent on killing her. Holding them off with our paddles, we scrambled along the bank and made a quick get-away, re-locating on the opposite bank around the next corner. At last! Mentos!

Chased by the storm

The distant, thundering storms on the horizon soon caught us up. We spent the next leg of the journey to Earith dodging sudden downpours, taking refuge under the over-hanging trees and bushes. We weren’t the only ones dodging the rain – Damselflies took rest upon perches under the trees as well.

Three hours and a whole load of muscle burn later, we made it to Earith. Little Egrets, Geese and Herons waded in the flooded meadows to our right. We stopped by the Marina to tie up and pop into the shop for supplies (more Mentos). A large splash behind Dads kayak… then silence. Like a scene out of Jaws, the water fell calm. All of a sudden, two dog-like heads popped up. A pair of Common Seals! Stunning mammals, one clearly younger than the other. Presumably the mother comes here to give birth, a fair distance from the sea!  Curious animals, as they checked out our kayaks, they swam around popping up behind us. A great way to lift our dampened spirits!

Common Seal

From this point onwards, the river changed. We decided to follow the rivers natural course, avoiding the canals of New and Old Bedford River. The transformation took us by surprise, as mans influence on this part of the river became massively apparent. Dredging and reinforcements along the riverbanks gave this part a sterile and unwelcoming feel, void of the bustling and thriving wildlife that had previously blessed the River Ivel and the early stages of the River Great Ouse.

Heavy storms and torrential downpours prevented much more progress through the evening. We warmed ourselves in the Lazy Otter pub, and waited for the storm to blow over. 20 minutes on, we set up camp. Just beating the darkness and rain. Oh how I longed for another cold, and lumpy nights sleep… We talked about the progress made, the things we had seen, and people we had met. Sky climbed into my sleeping bag. At least the stench of fish had long gone! 

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Kayaking the Ivel and Ouse: Part I


Having already kayaked the length of the River Ivel in the past, Dad and I had always wanted to take it one step further. We wanted to continue the journey, all the way to the mouth of the River Great Ouse, where the river meets the North Sea. After years of talking about it, we finally had the perfect opportunity to attempt it. However, the short notice meant we had less than a week to plan and organize the trip properly. Did I mention we are taking the dog? Sky will be sitting between Dads legs, as much needed moral support!


The River Ivel starts in Baldock, at the aptly named Ivel Springs. It travels north for over 20 miles, where it joins the River Great Ouse at Tempsford. The Ouse then travels East and Northeast for well over 60 more miles before hitting Kings Lynn and meeting the North Sea. We aimed to leave on the Friday, and be finished by mid-day Tuesday, camping on the riverbank along the way. This gave us less than five days kayaking to reach Kings Lynn, which meant that we would have to average about 20 miles a day to reach our target. Because the early part of the river is packed with obstructions, is rarely any deeper than your ankles, and seems to completely disappear back into the Earth itself in places, we plan to walk the first stretch from Baldock, and begin in Henlow in the kayaks.

From Baldock to The Wash

The Springs

The sun beat down in the early afternoon, Sky was pleased to be out, totally unaware that tomorrow morning, she will begin an 86 mile journey in a kayak. Ivel Springs Nature Reserve is packed with wild flowers this time of year. The long grasses peppered with vivid violets, reds and yellows.


We crossed a bridge where freshwater first starts to make an appearance, as it upwells through the chalk ground.

The Ivel Springs

From this point, we follow a series of small, blue, circular signs, with the image of a Kingfisher printed onto them. This is the start of the Kingfisher Way, a walk that follows the length of the Ivel from Baldock to Tempsford. It was this handy trail that we followed to Henlow.

The River widens in places, often giving the appearance of a perfectly navigable river, until it turns the next bend. At Radwell the river forms a large, dead calm pool, before becoming an extremely shallow trickle, cutting through dense woodland.


Similarly, as the path traverses through the woodland outside of Stotfold, fallen trees and over-hanging bushes and shrubs make kayaking extremely difficult, even impossible. The walk itself is still magnificent, and the river retains an ancient appearance in places, that appear to have avoided being decimated for the Ivel Valleys fertile farms and Willow trees.

The river passes through Stotfold Mill nature reserve, and appears perfect for kayaking, but it wouldn’t be long until you reach the mill, and would have to exit and carry. This continues in this pattern for a long while until it finally becomes more established by the time it has reached Henlow. We have kayaked to Henlow in the past, but spent more time carrying the kayaks than we did on the water.

Day 1
Henlow - Tempsford

It was another cracking morning. Only the odd cloud occasionally preventing the crisp sun light from showering through the tree canopy as we loaded our kayaks, and prepared for our first day on the water.

The beginning

Getting in for the first time

And we were off! Many thanks go to Granddad for dropping us off with all of our gear. Plenty of smiles all round, and spirits were high as we got on our way.  It felt great to be on the water, wave goodbye, and finally be on our four and a half day trip to Kings Lynn. We cornered the first bend. And couldn’t help but crack up with laughter. A tree had recently fallen across the river. A mere one minute into the journey, and we had already had to clamber out onto the tree, carefully squeeze our kayaks under, and climb back in. This was to be the first and last obstacle of this sort; the rest of the tree fell was perfectly manageable.

Navigating a fallen tree (we could easily get under this one!)

In fact, the overhanging trees and bushes really give this part of the river a feeling of exclusiveness, detached and hidden in the shadows from the surrounding towns and villages. And it is these fallen trees, overhanging branches and high banks that make this perfect for my favorite, and arguably the most beautifully colored, bird in the UK. The Common Kingfisher.  It’s a bit cliché to describe them as electric blue and vivid orange. But that is exactly what they are. With their long, dark, arrow-like beaks, they hunt the small fish, amphibians and insects that frequent these wonderfully clear waters.

After a short stop at Langford Garden Centre, where the Ivel Valley coffee shop kindly sponsored us a cup of coffee, we soon hit Langford Mill. By now the river had widened enough to make kayaking very pleasurable indeed. I would highly recommend kayaking here to anyone, the only downside, is the number of weirs and mills along the river. At Langford Mill, we got our first taste of what it was going to be like exiting and carrying our kayaks around. The kayaks were heavy, and probably the first time we had broken a sweat. We knew it wouldn’t be the last.

Langford Mill

As we entered the other side, a Crayfish, likely an American Signal Crayfish, slowly crawled along the stony riverbed. These guys are an invasive species, introduced from North America, and carry a plague that our native species, the White-Clawed Crayfish, is highly susceptible to. The best way to tell them apart is by the underside of their claws; white/pink for the native species; bright red for the American Signal.

American Signal Crayfish

Buzzards were soaring over the fields and surrounding woodland. Swans slowly passed the kayaks in a gracious but cautious manner. Swallows skimmed the waters surface as they sipped a drink, before continuing their hunt for small insect prey. There were two Otters, one swimming in the river, and the other scuttling into the reeds and along the riverbank. Now, I cannot just casually mention the Otter sightings amongst the others without elaborating. I don’t like to be ‘species-ist’ because every animal and plant is amazing in its own right. But some animals are more special than others, which can vary depending on who you are and what you like. Otters are exactly this for me - special. I have spent many hours ‘Ottering’ on these riverbanks, and to finally see one, if brief, was still a special moment. Probably Britain's most elusive mammal, Otters have been hunted and, being top of the food chain, have suffered heavily from the chemicals and pollution that has entered our waterways. The chemicals pass up the food chain and accumulate in their bodies, making them impotent or ineffective at producing sufficient milk for young. But now, they appear to be recovering. Fingers crossed for these amazing sleek and elegant mammals, perfectly adapted to survive in our rivers (and even the sea up in the Shetlands!).

Back to kayaking…

Keeping the sun out of her eyes!

We passed Broom after a sandwich and doughnut, where we had to climb out and carry once again, before heading to Biggleswade. In all of our years kayaking, we have never had a fall. Until we decide to do a massive 86-mile trip, where Dad falls on the first day as he tried to climb out on the riverbank. I caught it on video, and could not stop laughing. Sorry Dad! I am debating as to whether or not I should make the video public…

Little bit wet!

The wildlife sightings were coming in thick and fast! Between Broom and Biggleswade, a Hobby cut through the sky, circled a large tree at high speed, before dropping down to the river, snatching a Dragonfly mid flight, and just catching the surface of the water with its talons. Incredible.

It wasn’t long before we passed Sandy, where Common Terns fished in the lakes over the bank, and Herons stalked the edges of the river.  Demoiselles numbered well into the thousands, like the river had been dusted in a hyperactive emerald glitter, as they skipped across the surface. The Banded Demoiselles teaming up and fighting Beautiful Demoiselles out of their territory. They actually appear quite aggressive animals!

A Beautiful Demoiselle, probably feeling sorry for itself after a barrage of abuse!

We soon hit the weir at South Mills, a vertical drop. Sport kayakers can drop over the far corner, something we couldn’t risk with the size and weight of ours.

Heading for the Canoe/kayak portage point

This brief break calls for a cereal bar and some Mentos. Mentos played a big part in our lives whilst on this trip!

South Mills Weir

The next stretch was to be the ultimate of the day. The last push before it gets dark; bearing in mind we still needed time to be fed, watered and to setup camp. The river here is wide, with a nice gentle flow, surrounded by lots of fantastic green scenery. The stings of the nettles along the riverbank seem to have an extra potency about them. Still surrounded by the thousands of Demoiselles, we cracked on.

An hour or so later, and the sun began to drop below the scattered clouds behind the woodland in the distance. It was time to start setting up camp!

The beginnings of a wonderful sunset

Our camp was just short of Tempsford. We would reach the River Great Ouse early the next morning. We boiled up some water in a camp kettle on our small gas stove. That was one hell of a nice cup of tea! We emptied a packet of vegetable rice into the billycan as we finished our drinks. Dinner was served!

Enjoying a cup of tea after setting up camp

As the darkness set in, we decided to call it a day. We tucked into our sleeping bags, and prepared ourselves for a good night sleep on a somewhat lumpy and solid ground. We talked about the journey ahead, and reflected on the many sightings we had already had throughout our first day. We saw over ten Kingfisher sightings, trying not to include obvious sightings of the same individual. Impressive as the Kingfisher Way definitely lives up to its name. Eventually I nodded off, dreaming of electric blue and vivid orange birds darting ahead in a blurry flash...