Travelling chimps

Kayaking on the Ouse with the Chimpory Flotilla

We live near Brighton beach so on a hot summers day we…. AVOID IT LIKE THE PLAGUE! The whole of London seems to descend on our fair city, even though that invariably means sitting in an epic traffic jam and then having to find somewhere to park – not easy and not cheap. Although the Hove end of the beach is much calmer, sometimes the chaos and litter just gets too much and we head to beautiful Barcombe Mills to wile away the hours picnic’ing on the banks of the river, blowing up the kayak and paddling in search of a pint.

An inflatable present

Our kayak adventures started on hubby’s 40th. I bought him an Intex Explorer K2, a 2 man inflatable that comes with everything you need except life-jackets. It was a bit of a gamble because we didn’t really have anywhere to store a boat (even one that deflates), and if it was a faff to put up then we wouldn’t have bothered using it, but it was a 40th and I had to produce something legendary. Of course legends are not always great and I’m quite ‘hit and miss’ with presents  – I can come up with something I think will solve all his problems or will allow him to indulge interests he never realised he had, but the response will be a barely hidden bemusement. Then again I can produce things that he truly loves. I’ll leave you to work out which present pile the charcoal soap (to cure his eczema) ended up on….

The kayak was a great success though. We headed out on a calm sea and did a circuit of the West Pier, which, after working with seafront engineers for 2 years, I now realise was horribly dangerous as it could collapse at any moment. Don’t try that one with your kids! Do try the kayak though – it’s really good value and has great reviews as an all-rounder, starter kayak.

Talking of kids. Ours eventually got big enough to go in the kayak and although one small bottom doesn’t really take the boat over it’s weight limit, 2 growing bottoms (or probably 4 growing bottoms if you include us grown-ups…. we were hitting our 40’s and bottoms definitely don’t downsize at that point!) and the poor kayak started to struggle. It ended up with a tear that didn’t affect the integrity of the boat – it still floated – but it didn’t feel like it would forever. We tried to fix it by stapling it together, a questionable solution when you consider what stapling actually does to material.

Needless to say, we are on to our second kayak now – a Sevylor Tahiti. We chose a 3 man kayak this time. It’s still good value but slightly more than the Intex. We also bought a little dinghy which we could tie on and tow.  We spent 6 hours gently paddling downstream on the Loire last summer and the new set-up was perfect. Kit sat in the back lolling around with a fishing rod and Soren got to sit at the front. Lord knows how that kept them happy for 6 hours but it pretty much did.

Back to Barcombe

We’ve already established that collapsing iron piers are not a good choice for a family kayak. Instead, go with the safe option of Barcombe and the River Ouse. I did a bit of research to check it would be safe / legal and apparently the Ouse used to be a commercial waterway and rights of navigation may still exist but it’s a bit of a grey area above Barcombe. It’s also a tidal river, but above Lewes that doesn’t really affect the water. Lots of the official kayak trips state it is good one for families and certainly every time we have been it has been an easy and calm trip.

Barcombe Mills car park is the best place to set off from. Head south on the A26 from Uckfield to Lewes and then turn right into Barcombe Mills Road. The satnav postcode is BN8 5BP.  You can park for free (although watch out for height barriers – we can’t take our van) and then follow a little path down towards the weir. Before you reach it, go through the gate and walk alongside the river on a grassy path. It’s easy to find a spot to blow up your boat and get into the river here, but if it’s busy then just cross the little footbridge and walk a little further around.

The first bit of the paddle can be pretty busy with families and dogs jumping in – I can’t fathom why as it is FREEZING, brown and slimy. Once you have paddled past the hoards though it is lovely – birds darting into the trees, nodding reeds and dragonflies. It’s very tranquil and we’ve seen herons before on this stretch.

If you want somewhere to head, the Anchor Inn is a good destination. It doesn’t take too long to get there – just enough to work up a thirst – and you can get out easily. If you want to go past the inn you have to get out anyway because there is a weir at that end as well. Apparently it’s around here that VIrginia Woolf drowned. Just one more reason why I don’t really see the need to get into the water!

Of course if you can’t be bothered with the paddling effort and you just like being out on the boat, we’ve been known to head for the Anchor Inn and just sack it off for an hour of bobbing around with a glass of something cold (yes – this was a on a day when the kids were not with us!).

This time we took friends with us (one of who had bought his own Intex explorer) and all took it in turns to go for a paddle in convoy. It meant that we didn’t really get to the tranquil bit but it was a good fun day. Ros (my mum) was so inspired she went home and ordered her own kayak. Watch out for the Chimpory flotilla next time you pass a river – we are growing in numbers and confidence!


Cape Wrath – dune surfing and hot chocolate

We plugged the kids into their MP3 players for some peace as we drove the stunning 45 minute journey to Durness for some family adventures at Cape Wrath. Of course that just meant we were accompanied by two slightly out of time and two definitely out of tune versions of the SING soundtrack coming from the backseat, but it did mean we could enjoy the view without too many questions about when we would be going to get hot chocolate (just wait and you’ll find out!)

Top of the country


There is something cool about getting to the furthest edge of a country. Cape Wrath lighthouse is the most north-westerly point and we thought this, plus the Avengers style name might appeal to the boys. It’s a faff to get to the lighthouse though – a boat and a minibus – and so we just walked along Balnakiel Beach – following the Path across a short section of cliff top to a second gorgeous beach – and looked out at Cape Wrath and the wild seas. Balnakiel is a great beach for family adventures. It has massive sand dunes to climb up and hurl yourself down. We all had sand in our shoes (and pants) by the time the snow set in and we had to make a dash to the car.

The best hot chocolate ever

Balnakiel Craft Village, is just up the road from the beach and I’d seen a Guardian article suggesting there was a hot chocolate shop there with the best cup of ho’cho’ in the country. Cape Wrath may have been a faff but nothing was going to stop us finding the chocolate shop. I’m pleased to report it was amazing. I had a regular size and it had drippy melted chocolate all over the cup so every time you sipped there was real chocolate to kickstart your mouthful. Warning to parents though – the kids version is espresso cup sized and whilst it may have marshmallows on it, the size difference between theirs and mine was a bone of contention!

We had a look around a couple of the galleries and one in particular was great. A guy finds old pieces of washed up junk on the beach and turns them into pieces of art using their shape or the colours, each enhanced with charcoal or some kind of stain. There were old saucepans with faces marked into the rust and pieces of metal turned into shimmering fish. The boys were really interested in the fact all the materials were recycled and the owner was great with them, explaining his materials – apparently instant coffee makes a great paint!

The secret of Smoo Cave

That has got to be a title out of a Famous Five or Secret Seven book surely? Smoo Cave is really close to Durness and although there are deeper, more exploratory trips into the dark recesses on boat, you can just pop into the first part for free. I’m not a cave fan (claustrophobia alert!) but this was very open – the first section has a blowhole at the top and the second section, along the walk way, is pretty cavernous.

Soren, a massive animal lover, found it hilarious when we spotted two dead rabbits in the blowhole cave. They must have been hopping along the top and fallen straight down the hole. He re-enacted it for us as he chuckled away. Odd child!

Seven seals a’ swimming

On the way home to our ice box, I mean caravan, we spotted something in a loch. We were quite far inland but this was a sea loch, so fed by the ocean. We stopped and saw a seal, then another and then five more. They were all playing around the edge of the water and so we hopped out the car to watch them. They were popping up and down all over the place – an amazing way for the boys to get up close to nature. A big tick off of our family adventures list.

Kit got a bit grumpy that they would disappear as soon as one of us cracked a twig or dared to breathe – I think he thought they would get closer to him. I suppose when you are young it is hard to know the difference between tame creatures that are just a bit shy and wild creatures. I suspect he’ll realise later on how amazing it was to see seven so close.

All too soon we had to pack up and return to our odd little caravan.

Where we walked on our family adventures: Balnakiel Beach

Our walk (in blue)

Follow signs to Durness (and then spend a while wondering why there is a John Lennon memorial garden!) and then head towards Balnakiel Craft Village.

Drive past the village even if the chocolate shop calling is strong.

Park at the end of the road by the beach.

Walk the first beach and then cross over the cliff area to the second, even more deserted beach.

Climb up and hurl yourself down the sand dunes or get lost in the ‘sand dune maze’ (seriously – watch where your kids head because it is very disorientating!!).

Walk as far as you want along the coast and then head back to the car for the trip to the chocolate shop and the arty bits and bobs.

There is a cafe in the craft village but it was closed. The kids were delighted they got to have chocolate for lunch but perhaps it is sensible to feed them up first.