A lunar eclipse, paddling with seals and a night on an island

The beaches between Blakeney Point and Holkham in Norfolk are broad and stunning.

At low tide they stretch to the horizon, and when we visited they were completely empty and untouched, potentially because they can only be reached by hiking through salt marshes that flood rapidly when the tide turns.

This makes them dangerous to all except locals with an intimate knowledge of the tides and shifting creeks and paths or those with packrafts and a carefully laid plan.

Over two days, we paddled and hiked in a large loop covering approximately 20km. We left our car at Stiffkey car park and after a short walk came to Cabbage Creek, where we inflated our packrafts and caught an ebb tide out towards Blakeney Point. Here we paddled with seals and then played in the surf. We then paddled and hiked along broad empty beaches until we came to an island, where we stayed the night, slung in hammocks between trees.

As we rose in the early hours of the morning, a rare lunar eclipse disturbed the wildlife, setting off a chorus of bird calls across the marshes. In this moonless dark, we caught the flood tide into Wells-next-the-Sea. Then as dawn began to break, we hiked back along the edge of the Wells and Warham salt marshes to our car.

We’ll definitely be coming back to this stretch of the North Norfolk coast to explore more!

The footbridge over Cabbage Creek, Stiffkey Marshes. We visited in January when the temperature hovered around zero and ice still coated much of the ground.

The footbridge over Cabbage Creek, Stiffkey Marshes. We visited in January when the temperature hovered around zero and ice still coated much of the ground.

Catching the ebb tide out along Cabbage Creek.  Whilst it’s called a creek, it’s more of shifting channel through the sands, which has changed course substantially since it was last mapped or photographed by satellites.  We came across a seal, which was temporarily caught in a deeper section of the channel and unable to escape through the shallows. It seemed happy, inquisitive and would be liberated by the tide in a few hours.

Catching the ebb tide out along Cabbage Creek.

Whilst it’s called a creek, it’s more of shifting channel through the sands, which has changed course substantially since it was last mapped or photographed by satellites.

We came across a seal, which was temporarily caught in a deeper section of the channel and unable to escape through the shallows. It seemed happy, inquisitive and would be liberated by the tide in a few hours.

An unknown wreck exposed at low tide far out on West Sand.

An unknown wreck exposed at low tide far out on West Sand.

Lunch with Blakeney Point in the distance.

Lunch with Blakeney Point in the distance.

Being followed by seals (that refused to stay still long enough for a decent photo).

Being followed by seals (that refused to stay still long enough for a decent photo).

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Paddling out to sea.

Paddling out to sea.

We paddled parallel to the coast for a while, but let time slip away a bit as we played in the surf.  Realising we weren’t going to be able to reach our destination before dark, we beached our packrafts, deflated them, slung them into our rucksacks and hiked the final 5 km to the island (in the distance).  The ability to switch between paddling and hiking at a moments notice is completely unique to packrafts.

We paddled parallel to the coast for a while, but let time slip away a bit as we played in the surf.

Realising we weren’t going to be able to reach our destination before dark, we beached our packrafts, deflated them, slung them into our rucksacks and hiked the final 5 km to the island (in the distance).

The ability to switch between paddling and hiking at a moments notice is completely unique to packrafts.

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Hiking to our camp before the sun sets and the tide returns.  We were tempted to continue paddling but at this stage we were a long way from dry land, which is not somewhere you want to be caught out after dark as the tide can return faster then you can run.

Hiking to our camp before the sun sets and the tide returns.

We were tempted to continue paddling but at this stage we were a long way from dry land, which is not somewhere you want to be caught out after dark as the tide can return faster then you can run.

My bed for the night on an island overlooking the marshes. The perfect spot to watch the total lunar  eclipse  due in the early hours of the next morning (labelled a Super Blood Wolf Moon by the papers).

My bed for the night on an island overlooking the marshes. The perfect spot to watch the total lunar eclipse due in the early hours of the next morning (labelled a Super Blood Wolf Moon by the papers).

Unfortunately it’s hard to photograph a lunar eclipse so you’ll have to settle for a picture of the earlier moonrise.  The first sign of the eclipse was the noise of the birds.Across the salt marshes the silence was broken by a cacophony of birds calling to each other.

Unfortunately it’s hard to photograph a lunar eclipse so you’ll have to settle for a picture of the earlier moonrise.

The first sign of the eclipse was the noise of the birds.Across the salt marshes the silence was broken by a cacophony of birds calling to each other.

Inflating packrafts at 5am on a moonless night. Decent dry suits meant that sub-zero temperatures and driving rain wasn’t a problem.

Inflating packrafts at 5am on a moonless night. Decent dry suits meant that sub-zero temperatures and driving rain wasn’t a problem.

Night paddling up the estuary.

Night paddling up the estuary.

And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping now... .

And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping now... .

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Wells-next-the-Sea

Dawn.

Dawn.

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Hiking home at dawn.

Hiking home at dawn.

Notes:

  • Charts - Admiralty Charts, OS Maps and even the satellite images on Google don’t reflect the channels and paths which shift regularly.

  • Seals - Please take care not to disturb the seals. Keep quiet and keep your distance. If they are interested they’ll come to you. Local companies take tourists out to see the seals on scheduled boat tours and there are anecdotal tales of the skippers of these boats getting irate with kayakers. If you do want to paddle this area, I’d advise avoiding the the scheduled tours times and sticking to the guidance contained here and here. Large tracts of these salt marshes are SSSI so again please be mindful of your impact.

  • Safety - As always please do your own research, ensure you have suitable experience and equipment and be particularly aware of the tides, which can flood faster than you can run.

Tim Clark