It was early summer 2018, the sun had beamed from a cobalt blue sky for what seemed liked forever. Our new home, tucked away just behind Hell’s Mouth, was a dreamlike paradise. I folded the map, turned to Sally and stated with a confidence that far exceeded my ability to execute the task, ‘You know something? I can paddle from our new back door to our old front door’. Or in other words, from Abersoch to Poynton: a village near Macclesfield in Cheshire that sits alongside the Macclesfield Canal that had been my playground ever since I was a small boy, and where we had gone on to make our family home for over thirty years.

I then went around telling folk that it was my next project, without actually checking what was involved. It turned out to be quite a lot! Summer drifted into autumn and I half forgot about it. Somewhere in my mind it was on some loose, barely-formatted, bucket list. Something to be done—one day.

Then came the news that daughter Sophie Stocks had been diagnosed with skin cancer. Tackling it eventually involved an unpleasant but ultimately successful operation on her scalp. Initially, plastic surgery was envisaged but the surgeons were able to stitch everything back together. Sophie being Sophie, rather than complaining about it, described it as, ‘The facelift I may one day have invested in but hadn’t planned for several decades!’. She was looked after brilliantly and, semi-retired as I now was, it felt as though I should do something to say thank you—to the folk who looked after her so well and to the unearthly powers that dictated she would make a full recovery. Cancer Research UK was to be the charity and #thehometownpaddle had lift off!

I began my research, which meant properly looking at some maps—a worryingly large number of maps in fact. It turned out the route would take me from Abersoch Beach around Cilan, across Hell’s Mouth, around Rhiw, across Aberdaron Bay, through Bardsey Sound and then a long, long haul up the north coast. Whistling Sands, Tudweiliog, Porthdinllaen, Nefyn, Trefor, Dinas Dinlle, up the slightly terrifying Menai Straits, past Llanfairfechan, Conwy, around the Great Orme, across Llandudno Bay, traversing Colwyn Bay, Abergele, Rhyl and Prestatyn before arriving at Point of Ayr lighthouse at Talacre. Then across the gaping mouth of the Dee Estuary and around the head of the Wirral before taking on the mighty tidal monster that is the Mersey Estuary from New Brighton to Runcorn. From there I would join the Bridgewater Canal to head across Cheshire and into Manchester city centre. The final leg of my adventure would take me up the Ashton Canal to Portland Basin, the Peak Forest Canal to Marple and finally my old friend the Macclesfield Canal to my former hometown of Poynton.

Just over 200 miles in total—a combination of some waters that would undoubtedly test my limited technical ability and some long slogs that would push the limits of my stamina. Remember that I am an enthusiastic but very ordinary paddler who turns sixty this August—self-taught with no great technical expertise. I am in the sea surfing or paddle boarding most days, so I am fit in a general sense but not in any definitive way. I know the sea and have a healthy respect for the dangers it holds but I am by no means an expert seaman. I have paddle boarding equipment, but nothing specifically designed for a project of this sort. In short, I am a little under-cooked.

Looking at my gear, I have two paddle boards that should just about do the job. I really need a touring board but my all-round Red Ride inflatable and my ancient, rigid Starboard Big Easy (for when the going gets tough) should cope. The Red inflatable is particularly important—the bloody-minded part of me simply wants to prove just how versatile these inflatable boards are and the pragmatic part tells me that if conditions make any part of the paddle impassable I can deflate my board, pack it onto my back and walk the Coastal Path. One way or another, my paddle board and I will complete #thehometownpaddle.

I have a buoyancy aid, quick-release leash, VHF radio, waterproof phone case, dry bags for spare gear, waist-bag for essentials and an excuse to buy loads of new stuff. It is mid-summer but, even in good conditions, it can be surprisingly cool on the open sea. I also have new wet-boots and thermal socks to line them, a pair of the brilliant Gul Hydroshield pants, breathable shorts and tops and a Henri Lloyd jacket for the inevitable rains. For accommodation en route we have our camper-van which my peerless support crew, the one and only Sally Bell, will drive each day, meeting me mid-paddle and setting up camp each night.

I start researching. Sam from First Light brings around my Bible: Welsh Sea Kayaking. Fifty Great Sea Kayak Voyages. I may be on a SUP and more exposed to the winds but the same principles apply. Phill Wood from Abersoch Watersports becomes my mentor, poring over maps and charts, explaining the dangers and assistance the tidal stream can offer and making introductions. He organises the Abersoch Lifeboat to escort us on the challenging waters that sit between Abersoch and Porth Oer. I am confident to do much of the paddle alone, but I know I need assistance for the really challenging waters. So many folk volunteered their time—don’t believe what anybody tells you, the world is a good place. A couple of days before I set off legendary paddler Tony Bain calls me up. I don’t know him, but it turns out he has been keeping an eye on me. He interrogates my risk-planning, my itinerary and state of mind. He is not shy of warning me that I face some dangerous waters and seems at least partially relieved when I explain my approach. Nevertheless, he leaves me with words of wisdom—’You’ve nothing to prove, to yourself or anybody else. Do what feels right. If it doesn’t, don’t do it’. I am slightly overwhelmed and will eventually be very grateful!

As departure day approaches the forecast is increasingly frustrating. The weather is sunny, but the unseasonal winds refuse to die down. Headwinds are the enemy of the paddle boarder because your body acts like a sail, pushing you backwards. Downwind is good but those days will turn out to be few! Media commitments mean sticking to the finish date of July 10th so, in consultation with Phill, we call the paddle on as planned for June 15th.

We had a heart-warmingly strong turn-out that morning with local and Poynton friends joining us, rattling Cancer Research UK buckets as myself and departure escorts, Phill, Ste Barrand and Robbie Moore, set off under sunny skies accompanied by a painful headwind and the rather more welcome Abersoch Lifeboat. Conditions were unkind but the world felt good as we made the first stop for a collection at Mickey’s, before we headed out round the old Lifeboat Station. It became immediately clear just how big a problem the winds were, our little group becoming stretched out and Phill correctly called us in. We waved our thanks to the lifeboat and paddled back to Machroes, where what would become a pattern for those first two or three days unfolded. I deflated my board, hitched it onto my back and set off along the Coastal Path, meeting Dave Lamacraft who not only kept me company around to the foot of Cilan but pumped my board back up so I could cross Hell’s Mouth to our house behind the beach. The middle may have not been as planned but I had begun and ended the day with a good paddle and experienced what was to become a familiar story of heart-warming kindness. It felt good to count the collection that night, make our first payments into the JustGiving account and see the other donations that had begun to flow in.

Despite overnight prayers, the winds had not miraculously died as I set off next day to complete the four-mile paddle across Hell’s Mouth. An onshore mess of whitewater, it was a nightmare and already clear I wouldn’t be able to paddle around the wave-lashed waters of Rhiw. So again, the board was on my back and we trudged through a miserable rainstorm along the Coastal Path to Aberdaron. My board and I were getting there, but this wasn’t what I had planned!

Day Three was a by now familiar battle with the wind sweeping into Aberdaron bay as I made a tricky paddle across to Porth Meudwy, with Sally panicking, her binoculars shaking every time I disappeared into the swell. I made it but the only disappointment of the trip was the realisation that I would not be paddling through Bardsey Sound. I had been psyching myself up for it for months, but it was not to be (Phill and I have agreed to make the paddle this summer when conditions and availability align). Instead, if Day Two had been tough, Day Three became a real struggle. I am no great walker and whilst my SUP is indeed portable, it is a big, heavy, awkward piece of kit to hike with for 3 days in succession on this, the most challenging section of the Coastal Path. With a procession of significant ascents and descents around to Porth Oer I made it, but I was shattered—as tired as I have been in a very long time. The only thing that kept me going was the messages of support and the donations steadily rising on my phone.

Day Four was still sunny, still windy but I was back on my board—no compromises! David and Helen Spencer were there to organise a collection and wave me off on my first full day on the sea—in fact, I would only have another 2 or 3 miles of ‘portage’ on the whole trip. It was magical, my board danced across the waves, the aches in my back forgotten, the seals dropping by to say hello. The tidal stream pushed me along as the guidebook predicted, generating strong flows at every headland—a reminder of the need to respect the power of the sea. I beached at Tudweiliog a happy man. We were really on our way now!

Next came Tudweiliog to Nant Gwrtheyrn via Porthdinllaen, a welcome from Vanessa from Beresford Adams and Andy from Fresh, and donations from the Tŷ Coch pub. I blasted across to Nant Gwythern on a rare down-winder—the 11 mile day a relative breeze. Day Six included the tricky headland around to Trefor, but our recce that evening showed the wind had turned again so, despite a lone dolphin heralding us from the sea, we called a rest day.

By Friday morning things had calmed and I flew around the headland, heading for Pontllfyni on what was to be ‘The Best Day’. En route, I paddled into Aberafon Bay in beautiful sunshine, to be greeted by a group of folk running down the path shouting my name. Daughter Sophie and husband Jonny had travelled over from Leeds, picking up son Laurie from Manchester Airport to join Sally in a Welcome Party! I was completely disorientated because I had been following Laurie’s football match in Sweden the evening before and now here they all were, telling me that they would be paddling with me the next day too. Dave Lamacraft then paddled out from the beach at Clynnog Fawr to join me—I was a little emotional! Day Eight was something of an eye-opener for my fit, young paddling partners as the short paddle to Morfa Dinlle hit headwinds. We all made it, but it was, I am ashamed to say, a little gratifying to have them recognise the challenge! Above all, it was so good to have them with me, as were the ice-creams and smiles we shared on the beach. I needed to be distracted from what was to come the following day…

Day Nine was The Menai Straits. 15 miles of slippery water from Dinas Dinlle to Bangor Pier that had come with endless warnings. Thankfully, local expert, Chris Thorne from Snowdonia Watersports, had kindly volunteered to escort me. It was to be a day of battles against strong winds (again!), followed by calm passages helped by the powerful tide and leaping salmon off the starboard rail. With the boiling, eddying, fast-moving waters of The Swellies beneath my feet, Sally was high above us on Menai Bridge, her heart leaping as much as mine was racing, as we successfully negotiated our way to the safety of Bangor Pier. Thank you Chris for your company and guidance on an incredible day that will live long in my memory bank.

On I paddled up the north coast, every day a new challenge, new friends, the Cancer Research funds swelling far above our initial target. My thoughts were a recipe for insomnia—a jumble of tides, currents, raging waters, waves and wind—but my body was so shattered I slept like a king in our little camper-van. The Great Orme was a highlight. Dawn brought an eerie coating of sea mist but the forecast indicated it would clear just as the helpful tidal flow kicked in. I set off from Conwy ready to abort if necessary. Instead, the sun came crashing in, the tide treated me like a favoured guest and I shot around that amazing hunk of coastline, seabirds and seals serenading me as Llandudno Pier appeared like magic around the final rocky outcrop.

Those winds refused to die down and Colwyn Bay was to be my final part-portage. Two and a half hours of paddling barely covered 2 miles in Penrhyn Bay. It was only when I was actually going backwards that I realised it was time to change plan, with Tony Bain’s words ringing in my ears. The board was deflated for the last time as I covered a few miles on foot before finishing the day back on the water to Abergele.

Prestatyn was a highlight as one of a growing band of Instagram followers—@boosmedley and her lovely family—met us on the beach—thanks guys. The day finished in the company of seals and sea mist at the mouth of the Dee Estuary, a daunting stretch of water slowly being enveloped in the evening fog. With the news that the unrelenting winds had cancelled the Wirral Kayak Challenge, it was clear that crossing the mouth of the Dee Estuary was no route for a lone paddle-boarder. So, the longer route, Plan Dee so to speak, came into play. Local kayaker Chris Bolton had briefed me on the Dee Estuary up to Chester, where I could pick up the Shropshire Union Canal to reach the Mersey by a much longer but less exposed route. The tides meant that the final few miles of the Dee were made as darkness fell on what was to be the most unnerving paddle of the trip. Alone in the gathering gloom, the winds constantly trying to push me into places I didn’t want to go, it was a serious test of mental and physical strength. The canalised section of the Dee is another world—a spooky, time-forgotten waterway of rotting jetties, unexpected sandbanks and abandoned shipyards, not a soul in sight. I was mightily relieved when Chester Racecourse appeared through the mix of dark waters and city lights. We treated ourselves to the only hotel of the trip that night. I slept well.

With the Mersey now looming on the horizon, the Monday – the first on an inland waterway, it should have been a care-free breeze. Instead that unrelenting enemy turned the Shropshire Union into a wind tunnel. The only day of the trip I got mentally down I, slightly pathetically, felt I deserved better treatment from the weather Gods. It wasn’t to be, but I made it, in no small part thanks to the company of old friend Pete, travelling much slower than normal on his bike.

And so, on to the Mersey. We took a look at New Brighton that evening. Blimey, it’s big isn’t it! Those ships were massive, and the tide was racing—and it was more than 20 miles to Runcorn! I was never going to attempt this on my own, but a Facebook call-out had found me kayaker Kris D’Aout, who regularly commutes along the river, and fellow Mersey paddling pioneer Adam Caris. I had been paddling for 2 weeks now and was as ready as I was going to be. We launched in the sunshine, the VHF crackling with instructions from the helpful river authorities. Sally was as startled as I was as to how powerful the tide was—she turned around to pick up her camera and we were way upstream already. What a journey, what an experience! Those big boats kept their distance, but their wake created a swell to rival Hell’s Mouth. Huge jetties and piers, many now derelict—an industrial water-scape alien to the eyes of a man who had been hugging a natural coastline for weeks. And that skyline! Paddling before the Liver Building and its fellow Three Graces, across Albert Dock and Pier Head, it was easy to see how my heroic escorts had fallen in love with this astonishing paddle. Alert to the best flow, they guided me across river and back, catching the best of the tide, hurtling along at a pace unlike anything I had made to date. The shores eventually gave way to a surprisingly pastoral landscape, green fields and woods tumbling down to the bank, nature reclaiming its long-lost history. Hale Point Lighthouse stood alone and aloof, its proud history subsumed, its only role now to offer an echo of a glorious past as it bears witness to the muddy waters swirling by. Then, as if by magic, the Runcorn bridges swung into view—3 hours to cover over 20 miles! With millions of gallons of water channeling into a narrow gap, we shot beneath the Silver Jubilee Bridge and suddenly, with the Mersey Gateway before us, we were there, gliding towards the safe shores of Wigg Island. It was a modest reward, but we treated our guides to fish and chips on a park bench, celebrated with a shared bottle of Kris’s favourite Belgian beer then waved them goodbye as, with the waters now turning, they headed back to New Brighton on the dropping tide. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for an experience of a lifetime.

The Bridgewater Canal came calling—30 miles of peaceful, largely rural waters. Friends and relatives appeared at every turn, accompanying me for miles and helping me celebrate the end of each long day in a friendly pub. At each bend in the canal somebody who knew our story would come rushing out to tell us how much they loved Abersoch and hand over a donation. Paddling past Old Trafford stadium was a highlight because my Dad was born just a few streets from the ground—he would have loved that. On to Manchester city centre on a hot Sunday with the glamorous crowd tucked into the bars of Castlefield. Sitting amongst them a sweaty, weather-beaten man in a bright pink T-shirt with a paddle and an unlikely SUP under one arm and a Cancer Research bucket on the other! We dodged through the city, mini-portages around locks and tunnels in some of its last-remaining darker underworlds, before coming out the other side on the Ashton Canal, past the Etihad and onto Portland Basin in Ashton. Paddling was easy now, the winds had died and the sun shone. Just two days remaining as I turned right following the signs to Macclesfield—we were on the map. Across the mighty Marple Aqueduct I paddled, the tumbling waters of the River Goyt barely audible far below, and onto the endless climb of Marple Lock Flight.

And so on to day Twenty-four. A short paddle of 4 or 5 miles, with a welcome party due at 7pm. I allowed plenty of time, whiling away an hour in the softening sunshine by an old stone bridge, memories tumbling from forgotten corners of my mind. A big part of me had grown up here—cycling from my childhood home to fish and paddle on these waters. Our children were born here—I had carried them both in slings at dawn along this tow-path, singing lullabies in the pink light of daybreak whilst they slept in my arms and their loving Mum slept back at home. We had rowed our little boat here, picnicking in another world only a few hundred yards from our home. I had played a thousand games of cricket just down the road. It had been time to move on, Abersoch had long been calling, but I missed this place.

The finale had the potential to be a little underwhelming, involving as it did a fairly old, extremely tired man paddling quite slowly towards a group of largely middle-aged folk standing on the side of a canal. It turned out to be great. Jess, Jake and Emma took to the water to escort me home and lots of old friends, several new ones we had made along the way and some from Abersoch Life, cheered me home as I paddled back to where we had spent so many wonderful years. We retired to our local of over three decades, The Boars Head in Higher Poynton, just a few strides away from the canal—renewing old friendships and trying to talk about old times when I wasn’t banging on about my mega-paddle!

What did I learn? With a little willpower and some incredible support, you can do it. If you ask in the right way, people are kind. Everybody loves a good story. Nearly everybody loves the water, or at least somebody else’s adventure on the water. The wind blows to its own tune. Take care out there, the world is very different when you get out past that headland. You can rediscover that body you had in your twenties! If you plan for 200 miles and eventually have to cover 220 but end up all square because you have to portage about 20, then it is probably a lesson of some sort. You need the love and support of a great partner—thank you Sally Bell, you are the true hero.

Driving home to Abersoch took 3 hours to cover what had taken me more than 3 weeks to paddle, but it brought home just how far my board and I had traveled, which made me rather proud. Although, to answer your question: yes, I did. Fall in, that is! Crossing Hell’s Mouth in the messed-up surf and then, less happily, on the Menai Straits. The latter did me good—I climbed back on board and paddled on, confidence restored, pride intact. Which is, I guess, as good a metaphor for surviving life as there is.

THANK YOU:
#thehometownpaddle has now raised over £5000 for Cancer Research UK—five times our original target. Thank you to everybody who donated, you kept us going. To donate please visit:
www.justgiving.com/Kevin-Bell14

There are too many people to thank in print—I have done a dedicated thank you post on Instagram (@kevinbellwaterman) but I would like to give a special mention to Phill & Emma Wood, Chris Thorne, Kristiaan D’Aout & Adam Caris.

Written by Kevin Bell for Abersoch Magazine Autumn issue. To subscribe click here

cof