Coast to coast in a sea kayak

The idea came from an introduction, written by Ed Douglas, to a sea kayaking guidebook; where he made reference to using a combination of rivers and canals to paddle across the country from coast to coast. Imaginations were captured and a plan was hatched, or rather a date was set aside in the diary.

Heavy rain, strong winds and a broken vehicle delayed our projected start, but also gave me the necessary time to calm my sense of being totally unprepared for the challenge ahead. From Steve’s home in Llandudno Junction we rationalised kit, sorted food and checked equipment. Phone calls to the Port Authority and Coastguard reassured us that the ferry and other commercial shipping would not be a problem and that the low-water start would help with favourable tidal currents.

Liverpool from the River Mersey

I have never been to Liverpool before so the first view I had of the famous waterfront was from the middle of the River Mersey as we paddled past the port. Beyond the John Lennon Airport and Hale Lighthouse we ran aground on sands, with no way through to deeper channels. Here we walked the kayaks with the assistance of a rising tide and were soon back afloat.

Just after the Runcorn Bridge we left the Mersey via muddy banks at Wigg Island to be met by Steve Foxley, with much needed coffee. A 400m portage over the Manchester Ship Canal to join the Bridgewater Canal was the first test for our trolleys. These were to become absolutely crucial in the days ahead as we encountered more and more obstacles.

With head torches packed in the least accessible places, darkness soon overtook us as we escaped the built up area to beyond Norton Priory. As the sleet started we found a convenient bridge that we could camp under. Morning dawned with snow and a reluctance to get up. However, the re-emergence of Steve F. on his bike and the promise of more coffee spurred us back into action. After Steve left us it proved to be a drizzly cold day through the Cheshire countryside. With the success of our first night’s bridge camp we aimed to reach the M63 between Sale and Stretford. The campsite we found lay between the railway and canal under the massive concrete motorway overpass. It was clearly not as quiet or scenic but proved to be a secure refuge from various night time drive-bys and drunken revelry.

Wild camping under the M63

The challenge of Manchester now lay ahead. From Castleford Basin a series of nine locks leads through an amazing subterranean world under Deansgate Shopping Centre and Piccadilly Station. Admittedly the detritus and smells were not pleasant but there was no threat in this daytime passage. It was also a very surreal experience carting our kayaks along Canal Street and crossing roads between cars and remarkably indifferent people. In fact, the friendliest and most interested people were a group of youngsters who looked like they might have succumbed to a drug or drink habit. “Eh lads, you won’t believe what these two guys are doing. They’re going all the way to Hull!” (six expletives beginning with ‘f’ have been deleted for clarity). He was so impressed that he gave us two completed loyalty cards for free coffee at McDonald’s – in the circumstances it was a very touching gesture.

Canal Street, Manchester

This is not a kayak-friendly journey as lock followed lock with back breaking lifts and carries - quite often the trolleys were useless going over the ancient large cobble stones. With just over 11 miles covered in a full day of effort I was mightily relieved when Steve spotted a grassy campsite by a factory at Middleton. The Canada geese moved on and we spent our first quiet night in the open and on a soft surface.

The next day followed a similar pattern as we continued towards the Pennine watershed at Summit. However, it was enlivened by a visit from Jane. Her appearance at Rochdale was the motivational boost we needed. Fruit juice, coffee and water restored a degree of hydration before the final ascent to the highest point of the Rochdale Canal. Warland Lock was our chosen and most appropriate campsite, because it was Mother’s Day and Warland is my mother’s maiden name. (Yes, of course I phoned her from there!)

Summit 185m

It was a cold night. Water bottles froze and we started the day energetically trolleying the kayaks along the towpath to warm up. Theoretically it was now all downhill to the Humber but metaphorically it was anything but. On the outskirts of Todmorden the reality of the December floods became apparent. A fence now blocked further progress but we just about weaved our way around the barricades, moving in and out of the water as necessary.

Negotiating canal and towpath closures.

It must have been a frightening sight as the River Calder and Rochdale Canal broke their banks and flooded the valley towns. Sections of the canal are now drained and undergoing multi-million pound repair works. At least two bridges were in a state of collapse. Perhaps we should not have ignored the closure signs and paddled under them but the diverted alternatives were even less attractive.

Flooding aftermath.

At Sowerby Bridge we finally came to the end of the Rochdale Canal and portaged across the High Street to join the Calder and Hebble Navigation. We camped soon after the Salterhebble flight of three locks near Halifax.

Day six was a special day – Steve’s 50th! What a way to spend your birthday. Our onward journey varied between the relatively fast flowing River Calder sections and the slower canal sections that by-passed unnavigable weirs. The amount of flood debris was astonishing – mainly plastic bags and bottles entangled high up in the riverbank vegetation and huge bits of wood floating downstream.

We passed through various flood gates (locks that are usually open but can be closed to protect the canal system when water levels are high), Elland, Brighouse, Mirfield, Dewsbury and the M1 until we arrived at Wakefield and the Thornes Flood Lock. This one however was closed and signalled a warning. Fortunately, we were able to get off the river at a steep bank with some fisherman’s steps and set up camp by the flood lock. A call to the Canal and River Trust confirmed our fears. Heavy overnight rain was expected and the following three flood gates had also been closed. With a rising river and submerged landing pontoons it was just not safe to continue if the forecast was correct. With the pounding of rain on the tent during the night we did not really need to check the river in the morning to know that we were going nowhere that day.

Time was now getting extremely tight because I was committed to getting home for an event on Saturday. Given the current state of progress our finish point was clearly a bridge too far and Jane was consulted on a plan to pick me up before the end. She was having none of it however, and insisted that we finish regardless. This was all we needed to commit to a big day and paddle through the night if necessary. An incredibly helpful lady from the Leeds office of the Canal and River Trust also confirmed that although the flood gates would remain closed it would still be possible to proceed because the landing pontoons were now usable again.

The enforced day of rest did us a power of good. The river had duly subsided and over a long day thirty miles were completed. We had already seen several kingfishers and as dusk approached we were graced with the presence of both a barn owl and a tawny owl - halcyon days indeed. Our campsite under the M18 was spacious, dry and put us within striking distance of Goole. We were back on track.

The River Ouse at Goole

We initially thought that the thick mist in the morning would yet again impede us. However, the Port Authorities quickly assured us that it would work in our favour because all shipping movement had been cancelled and that we had the River Ouse and Humber to ourselves. A 6.30am start ensured that we arrived at Goole at high water ready to transfer to the adjacent Dutch River that flows into the River Ouse. Calm foggy conditions meant there was no horizon and limited visibility but we confidently paddled with increasing speed in the ebbing tide. Occasionally the fog lifted to reveal a beautiful day and there far ahead was the elegant, impossibly long, Humber Suspension Bridge.

Humber Bridge

Jane was there to meet two unkempt, unshaven and probably smelly kayakers. 54 miles in the last two days and the end of a grand adventure. Well not quite the end, because we now drove back across the country via the M62 and M56 to Helsby Services where we were re-united with John and Steve F. for a celebratory coffee. A couple of hours later we were back in Matlock and I was taking the essential bath.

Within 24 hours we were at the Buxton Dome for the annual Chatsworth Staff Dinner, hosted by the Duke & Duchess of Devonshire. A scabby paddler was transformed into a dinner jacket & bow tie wearing party-goer. From the sublime to the ridiculous, how wonderful life can be.


  • Start: Fort Perch Rock, New Brighton at the mouth of the River Mersey on the Wirral Peninsular
  • Finish: Humber Bridge near Kingston-Upon-Hull. Purists may argue that Spurn Head is the true finish but the spectacular suspension bridge seemed an iconic and appropriate finale.
  • Distance: 154 miles /247kms
  • Number of locks portaged: 135 (many other portages were also made due to towpath and canal closures as a result of the catastrophic flooding in the Calder Valley during December 2015)
  • Duration: 9 days (including transport to and from the start and finish, and one enforced day of rest at Wakefield due to heavy rain and closed flood gates)
  • Accommodation: unplanned wild camping

Essential advice

If you are thinking of tackling this or any similar challenge I have one piece of advice to offer. Choose your paddling partner carefully i.e. someone who:

  • is super-strong to lift and carry heavily loaded kayaks with apparent ease
  • has Spartan needs and delights in the consumption of tinned macaroni cheese, 5-day old sandwiches, oatcakes by the dozen and no change of clothing
  • is massively focused on the end objective where failure is not an option
  • ignores or blazes a trail through seemingly insurmountable obstacles (drained canals, washed away towpaths, fenced off access, iced-up canals, etc)
  • is called Steve Davis and looks like this guy to the right:

Steve Davis on his 50th birthday


Although this was an unsupported journey it could not have happened without the help of the following:

  • John Davis (Steve’s dad) and Jane Harle (my wife) provided vital transport services at the start and finish.
  • Steve’s friend Steve Foxley and Jane met us at Runcorn and Rochdale respectively with much appreciated words of encouragement and coffee.
  • The Canal and River Trust, Liverpool and Goole Port Authorities, and the Coastguard gave us really useful advice and information.
  • All the friendly and motivating people we met along the way who took such an interest in our adventure. (“No, we’re not doing it for charity, just for the fun and challenge.”)
  • Jo Astill, who loaned me her sea kayak and paddle.

By Chris Harle
The 'Book Man'

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Chris Harle
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