Three clients and I met at Solva on the Pembrokeshire coast where the canoes and safety kit was already waiting on the harbour slipway.
Following us 'kitting up' and a short safety briefing we set off into the harbour, starting a coaching session which developed the clients confidence and ability in controlling the canoes (and which also enabled me to assess their skill and capabilities in order to plan the length and challenge of the afternoons coastal journey).
Much fun was had within the harbour, working as pairs in the canoes to turn the craft plus forwards paddling, reversing and stopping as well as playing a number of games and challenges designed to develop and consolidate the skills each paddler had. Only once each client was happy with their competent paddling did we turn our sights to the sea and the real adventure of coastal canoeing!
Leaving the harbour we headed along the coastline staying outside the zone of the small swell waves impacting on the cliffs as the group settled into a rhythm and got used to the rise and fall of the swell. Within a very short time indeed we had seen a large seal who was curious about our small flotilla and surfaced around us sporadically for the next few minutes as we gawped and marvelled at it, excitedly pointing and trying to find cameras as it did so.
The wind was rather against us as we paddled and a short paddle back towards the harbour convinced the group that passing around the next headland would have made for some very serious and committing paddling on the return journey. This fact didn't dampen the adventure though and we began to explore the gullies and caves of the rocky coastline as we scouted for a sheltered spot for our lunch.
Landing should have been a swift and easy affair but we got rather distracted by a row of buoys in a sheltered bay and time was happily wasted as we pulled up a large lobster pot to discover a fine crop of spider crabs waiting for the fisherman to collect. These are a delicacy on the Continent but we rarely eat them in the UK ... I'm not one for seafood though so I didn't feel I was really missing out!
Refreshments taken care of we resumed our paddling, heading out past the rocky guardian of the harbour and across to the jagged teeth of rocks breaking the surface as the waves rose and fell. Working hard within each canoe we began setting challenges between the pairs as each craft threaded its way between the rocks, using the incoming swell to push through the channels between rocks and walls.
Time had passed rapidly as we were out exploring and in no time it was 4pm so we headed back into the harbour, paddling up past the moored yachts and back to the slipway ... which is conveniently close to both pubs and cafes (I'll let you guess which one we chose to have our debrief in!).
Our next Coastal Canoe Adventure is in Pembrokeshire on August 12th then August 13th
followed by trips in Anglesey on August 16th then 17th
Whilst we were exploring the Nedd Valley we decided to rig ropes and explore the lower section of the canyon, including a trip into the difficult-to-pinpoint Town Drain and the impressively wet White Lady cave.
Reaching these caves was harder work and more unpleasant than the actual trips themselves but a knowledge of ropework and setting anchors is very definitely needed in order to ease the return back up the slippery rocks and into the canyon.
Town Drain is accessed by one of three rifts in the rock face and the short passages join together, leading into one phreatic tube lined with the most fantastic scallops showing the speed and direction of the high-pressure water that flowed through and formed the cave. The main passage twists and turns and the cave heads deeper into the hillside, heading for the Little Neath River cave system that lurks behind it, with some amazing water-worn rock features to negotiate and explore! Moving around a number of corners the cave becomes lower and the floor increasingly covered by loose boulders and pebbles which make crawling quite unpleasant. The unpleasantness continues until the cave becomes more and more muddy and shows evidence of the flood debris washed in during the winter spates.
White Lady Cave has a more larger and more obvious entrance but this is guarded by deeper water which is cold enough to deter most, even in the summertime! With a certain sense of masochism we waded through the first test and climbed the slippery rocks into the impressively large interior chamber.
The flowstone and calcite features are really quite impressive within the cave passage although they were somewhat overshadowed by the sudden presence of the deepwater sump (which is often cave dived by specialists).
Our return journey led us up into the upper series which held a series of ever-increasingly captivating flowstone features and gour pools which ranged in size from centimetres to metres in size! The price for seeing this amazing display of geology came in the form of 'the lake' which is a deeper, colder and more committing water crossing, involving a duck underneath a rocky rib separating the passage into two chambers at head height! Trapped within this water was a remarkably calm Bullhead fish who seemed to rather enjoy having his photograph taken!
Caving isn't my natural sport; I haven't the body shape for tight spaces and I haven't the desire to find contortionist ways to push my bulk through 'squeezes', 'chokes' and 'rifts' ... however ... I do also see the appeal of caving and I can't quite keep myself away from it!
I can totally understand why people are drawn to exploring the bizarre and incredible passages left by water cascading underground many thousands of years ago and are attracted by the truly breathtaking formations that are to be found in the harder-to-reach corners of the 'underworld'. I can also understand the need (the addictive searching) for new, undiscovered cave passages; but it is this element of exploration that also causes me the most stress. I simply do not like the experience of first wandering down a dark passage and not knowing where, or if, it goes. My second or third trip into a cave is usually made with a pretty laid back confidence but the first trip into any unknown cave always pushes me between 'stretch' and 'panic'!
Anyhow, as all good stories begin at the beginning, let us go back a few steps and start properly!
Five of us set out to explore the Nedd Valley in South Wales, aiming to visit three of caves that I will need to be put onto my Cave Leader 'ticket' when I finally get brave enough to face my assessment. We were lead by the indomitable Sean who is caving-crazy at the moment as he builds up to his assessment and will be qualified well before me!
Starting with Bridge Cave; we set off down the 60m crawl passage towards the boulder choke which is precariously protected by pieces of wood and scaffold pole, looking dubious enough to reinforce the advice to stay well away from disturbing the boulders as you wriggle through!
Luckily the boulder choke doesn't look so threatening from the passageway and we all slid through slowly but without too much difficulty - it is only when you return that you notice the 1960's wooden posts and scaffold poles which have been braced between the shifting boulders and the cave sides!
The long crawl gave way to a wonderful stream passageway that allows you to walk fully upright as it meanders left and right, leading into the enormous main cavern of the cave. Stood at this entrance it is hard to take in the full size and scale of the underground void and it was only when we began exploring a side passage and waterfall within the cave that we began to appreciate the full scale of the chamber.
Moving through the length of the cave I was busy taking a photo' when I noticed the stone bridge high above us (which gives the cave its name). It is a staggering sight and worth the long, painful crawl to reach. The sights were only just beginning though and some careful rope work and rigging led us to the upper series and the most fantastic views of the bridge as well as the flowstone formations and stone pillar that guard it:
Back at floor-level we made our way further into the back of the cave to visit the sump that leads (after 11m of nerve-wracking cave diving, I assume) into the Little Neath River Cave. The sump isn't much to look at except dark water under a low rocky ceiling, but the flowstone and calcite formations that adorn the walls of this sump passage were amazing:
We spent around 3 hours in the cave exploring and filming. Most of this time was spent in a childish state of wonderment at the incredible beauty of formations and water-worn features that had taken thousands of years to form ... seemingly just for our enjoyment! The need to protect and conserve the cave environment and these magical formations was powerfully apparent.
The passage from the main chamber was as long as before, yet it didn't seem quite so hard this time. I wasn't entirely happy on the way into the cave but couldn't help deciding, on the way out, that such beautiful formations deserved such challenging access in order that each caver really 'earns' the privilege of seeing them.