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‘An escape route into another world’: canoeing in Suffolk | Canoeing and kayaking holidays

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The willows and the cattle grazing on the flood plain are as timeless and tranquil as a Constable painting, but it is the pictures beneath the water that draw my gaze. As the canoe glides between tall clumps of true bulrush, the gin-clear river reveals a secret garden – tresses of trailing waterweed, water lilies and other delicate, dazzling green aquatic plants. Between them, fish dart constantly – plump chub, red-finned perch and shoals of minnows.

Suffolk map

I am not a great canoeist, I have not powered myself down the world’s great rivers, but as a long day navigating the winding, secret upper reaches of the River Waveney unfolds, so deepens my conviction that this is the best one I have ever paddled down.

The Waveney springs from Redgrave Fen, barely 25 metres above sea level, and meanders for 66 miles to Britain’s most easterly coast, at Lowestoft. This long, slow waterway marks the border between Norfolk and Suffolk. Although its lower reaches create wetlands that are included in the well-charted Broads, most of this graceful river valley is absent from visitor itineraries and tourist trails.

This is quiet, unspectacular English countryside possessed of an intriguing recent past. In the 1960s, writers, artists, crafters and bohemians were attracted to the Waveney Valley by a growing countercultural community and the fact they could buy a derelict farmhouse for a few thousand pounds. One enthusiastic incomer was the nature writer Roger Deakin, who later made an illuminating radio documentary, Cigarette on the Waveney, about travelling down the river on a canoe called Cigarette.

River Waveney at Bungay Common.
River Waveney at Bungay Common. Photograph: Graham Turner/The Guardian

I want to follow in Deakin’s ripples, and so with my expert canoeist friend Nick (and his beautiful canoe, Tern), I drop into the river at Shotford Bridge, near the town of Harleston. Deakin famously asserted his right to enjoy British waters that are often, bizarrely, in private ownership, but I decide Guardian readers should only be encouraged to canoe along a 14-mile stretch with agreed access, portage points (where we have to lug the canoe over land to avoid a weir or mill) and a British Canoeing route-guide online.

A woodpecker cries and a heron flaps away warily as we head downstream along the narrow river. Our eyes are soon drawn down to the marvellous scene below the water, which unfolds like the view from a fast train. I can’t help shouting with amazement at the massive fish flexing between fronds of green.

As Deakin said in his gorgeous radio broadcast: “The Waveney for me, as my local river, has always been a kind of escape route. It’s a way into another world.”

He’s spot on. Moving along at water level, we are concealed from the land beyond, and it is mostly hidden from us. At a portage point above the village of Homersfield, Nick and I sit on the bank for a quiet minute, transfixed by the minnows in the golden water, between the trailing weeds and sandy bottom. Deakin likened this disorientating view to “being in a plane, looking down at a rainforest”. Nick points out that this private other-world would’ve looked just like this 5,000 years ago; it’s rare to find such portals on land, but water provides them because it can’t be ploughed or built on.

Patrick Barkham Waveney canoe
Patrick Barkham on his ‘meandering morning’

It is an exciting, meandering morning. We have to shimmy into horizontal positions to slip under a fallen willow. At times, the river narrows to a slit between 8ft-high clumps of bulrush. Abruptly, the water widens into magical and unexpectedly deep lagoons, perfect for a wild swim in warm weather.

The only people we encounter on the river all day are two other canoeing parties and a fisherman wrestling a gigantic chub. Beside the ornate miniature industrial bridge (an early example of concrete) at Homersfield, we meet children messing about in the shallows. Their parents helpfully confirm that yes, the Black Swan does serve food.

We tie up, enjoy a fine lunch and a real ale in the beer garden and continue downstream. A kestrel hovers over the valley meadows. Around us bounce banded demoiselles, which resemble emerald and black water butterflies.

At Earsham, we pass the spiritual home of the otter, the former headquarters of the Otter Trust, where otters were bred and reintroduced across England. By now Nick has seen a water vole and I’ve spied three kingfishers. It’s so bountiful I’m surprised that we don’t stumble upon an otter.

I keep expecting the river to widen out but instead it divides, and between Earsham and Bungay is the hardest section, with reeds at times conquering the river. We force through and wiggle round fallen trees. At one point we have to get out and push. Finally, as we draw beside Bungay’s castle and old houses, built into the river cliff, the waters widen. The last stretch, a couple of miles around “the Bungay loop” is broad, easy paddling as the river horseshoes across the valley and returns to the east end of this pretty little market town, which is well worth exploring.

We finish, tired and elated, at Bungay staithe, home of the Waveney Valley canoe club. We feel like visitors from another planet because, for a day, we have been inhabiting a completely different universe.

canoeing Waveney Norfolk suffolk border
Near Geldeston Lock, downstream from Bungay. Photograph: Graham Turner/The Guardian

How to canoe the Waveney
The 14-mile route from Shotsford Bridge to Bungay Staithe is a long day’s canoeing; alternatively, take two days with an overnight stay in Homersfield. The best way to do it is in Canadian canoe or an inflatable kayak. For canoeing the Bungay loop (and on to Geldeston Lock), Canadian canoes for up to four people can be hired at Outney Meadow caravan park in Bungay (£50 a day, £35 half day, until end of October, reopens 1 April). Captain Cook Canoes at Wortwell Mill (closes end of September) rents kayaks (£40) and Canadian canoes (£45) for the scenic three-hour paddle to Mendham and back. Canoeing downstream is recommended – the overgrown Bungay-Earsham section in particular is difficult upstream. Canoeists can continue further downriver from Bungay to Geldeston Lock, where The Locks Inn is another nice riverside pub. The stretch from Geldeston to Beccles is open to motor boats but still canoeable.

Where to stay
Camping available at The Black Swan in Homersfield from £15 a night. Cabin/wagon/shepherd’s hut at Roger Deakin’s former farmhouse in Mellis, via Airbnb, from £100 a night (two nights minimum). Temple Bar House studio in Bungay, via Airbnb, from £85 a night (two nights minimum).

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Delhi pollution: Is your cough because of a COVID-19 or pollution? Here’s how you can find out

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While the only real way to confirm if you have COVID-19 is to get a diagnostic test done (RT-PCR/ Antigen), another way to distinguish your symptoms from that of the virus infection that’s currently raging across the world is tracking the symptoms. Keep a lookout for the symptoms you may be getting in the early days. For example, a low or mild-grade fever is one of the most widely seen symptoms with COVID-19, along with loss of sense of smell and body ache.

With pollution and seasonal allergies, problems like a runny nose, scratchy throat, red burning or watery eyes are experienced, which are not that fairly common in COVID cases.

Another marker to keep a note of during the pandemic would be that allergy and pollution driven symptoms tend to lower down once the exposure is restricted, unlike COVID symptoms, which take a different course of time to wane out.

Nonetheless, it would still be a good measure to self-isolate yourself and practice neccessary precautions until the time you don’t feel better.


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Into the night: why walking in the dark is good for the soul | Walking holidays

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The lights from the cottagewindows recede, all too rapidly, as we walk along an unlit country lane and take a footpath through a field into open countryside. Thick cloud cover prevents the moonlight from illuminating the way ahead. Yet, as my eyes begin to get used to the darkness, the landscape around me reveals itself in a new light – albeit a shady one.

The contours of Mount Caburn, an iron-age hill fort, are like shadows against the sky. On the horizon, a tree bent by the wind is silhouetted, and the rocky outcrop at the top of the field turns out to be a flock of sleeping sheep. A fox cries, a pheasant crows and the air is full of a heady earthy scent.

“For most of human history man lived in close contact with the land,” says Nigel Berman, my guide, whose company, School of the Wild, organises guided night walks on the South Downs. “Only in the past few hundred years have we shut ourselves off from our natural surroundings. Walking at night is a powerful way of reconnecting . When your vision is reduced, your other senses are sharpened.”

Darkness is a thing we have come to fear and shy away from. It has become a metaphor for evil and depression, a place held at bay by our electric-lit world. But in the parts where darkness holds sway for much of the winter, inhabitants embrace it rather than yearning for longer days. In the Arctic Circle during the polar night, when the sun never rises and the Earth is swathed in darkness for several months, the Norwegians simply wrap up, strap on a head torch and head for the hills.

Dew pond on the South Downs at dusk.
Dew pond on the South Downs at dusk. Photograph: Martin Bond/Alamy

As nights in the UK close in and a Covid-induced indoor isolation looms, it is a perfect opportunity to take note and go into the countryside, or walk across a deserted beach, to see starlit skies and moonlit rocks, spot owls, see bats swooping and breathe in the night air.

Nigel and I walk from Glynde, a village near Glyndebourne opera house, across the South Downs towards the town of Lewes. It’s a walk I know well by day but at night everything is different, and a familiar stroll becomes a mini adventure. The lighter strip of sky above it highlights the ridge of the downs that we head towards to start. At the top, we edge along a wire fence looking for the gate that will take us along a path through the Mount Caburn nature reserve to Oxteddle Bottom.

When Nigel told me not to bring a torch, I was alarmed. I can’t remember the last time I used my night vision and I’m not even aware of how it works. Nigel explains that in the dark our pupils not only expand to allow light in they also switch to use different light sensors. In bright light, cone-shaped sensors respond to different colours of light and allow us to see fine detail, but in the dark the eyes switch to rod-shaped sensors, far more sensitive to light but unable to sense colours.

We descend past clumps of trees into the darker, hill-surrounded valley, aiming for the eerie shimmer of a dew pond where we pause to sit. I’m aware of the breeze caressing my face, the rustle of leaves and, as I watch the clouds swirling and slowly changing colour against the sky like a natural sound and light show, it feels mesmeric.

A silhouetted sheep on the South Downs in Sussex
A silhouetted sheep on the South Downs.
Photograph: Lemanieh/Alamy

Normally at this time of night I’d be having a glass of wine in front of the television, but being out in the countryside is a purer form of relaxation. I forget about work and family tensions and begin to blend into the surroundings. There is no one other than Nigel to see or hear me and, with little visual distraction, my mind calms.

Walking at night is not without risk, but with knowledge and preparation it opens up a new side to walking. For example, it’s important to know your route by day so that you know what features to pick out by night; to have good navigational skills; take the right kit (hat, gloves, insulated layers and a daypack with a flask of hot drink); and pick favourable weather.

A deep unfamiliar sound rouses me from my reverie and Nigel tells me it is the “cronk” call of the raven. We continue walking and, having got used to the dark, the chalk path that leads up the escarpment of Saxon Down now appears to almost shine in front of us. We climb carefully, feeling, rather than groping for, our way on the uneven ground.

As we reach the top, Lewes appears below as a twinkly mass of lights, a sight I’d generally think of as inviting. But in just a few hours I have gone over to the dark side and find myself reluctant to walk back down.

Walking at night is like discovering a new world on your doorstep, one that allows you to roam beyond the duration of winter’s short days and explore in the time of Covid. As Henry David Thoreau wrote in Night and Moonlight: “Night is certainly more novel and less profane than day.”

Guided mindful night walks are available from schoolofthewild.com, price information is available through the website

More ways to explore by night

National parks are some of the best places to see the star-studded autumn and winter skies, and there are a number of dark sky festivals that include organised stargazing walks.
darkskiesnationalparks.org.uk

The Bat Conservation Trust has groups across the UK and most run local bat walks.
bats.org.uk

Ramblers groups offer group night walks.
ramblers.org.uk

Many charities now run organised night walks as a way of raising money. The original MoonWalk, organised by breast cancer charity Walk the Walk, now takes place all around the world.
walkthewalk.org


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I’m secretly dating a reformed sex offender. Is it a terrible idea? | Dear Mariella | Life and style

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The dilemma In high school, one of the boys in my group had a tough time in the final year. We lost touch, but recently we reconnected and have now started a relationship.

Back in his early 20s, he was making a lot of mistakes, taking drugs and hanging out with the wrong crowd. An underage girl he was friends with sent him a pornographic picture of herself, and one of her friends called the police, resulting in him becoming a registered sex offender for eight years. He’s now in the final year of this.

Am I making the wrong decision being with him? We are looking to move in together and to me he is a beautiful man with a heart of gold – kind and loving. This is the only fault (albeit a big one) that I find in him. He knows he made a terrible mistake and is in the process of trying to create a new and better life by enrolling in university. I haven’t spoken to any of my family or friends about this, because it is a sensitive subject and I fear the criticism and misunderstanding that may occur. I haven’t even spoken openly about dating him. What he did was appalling, but I truly feel he is a better person now. I just want to know that the investment I am making by being with him is not a terrible and obvious mistake.

Mariella replies That I can’t tell you. I do know that forgiveness is essential in this life and that it can seem in short supply in these binary times. If you are responsible for criminal behaviour your punishment is supposed to have a time limit, unless it’s a life sentence. As you describe it, this man appears to have paid the price for his misdemeanour – but is being further penalised by one-time friends and acquaintances bordering on mob justice.

Your description of events suggests this man has found himself onerously punished for a misjudgment and should definitely be deemed acceptable for re-entry into civilised society. But are you telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Or simply the version you think I’ll find palatable?

To some it might seem an extravagant waste of your time to write to me if all you’re after is a voice from the wilderness echoing back at you that everything is OK. But as you’ll hopefully have discovered, writing an account is an excellent way of confronting your own thoughts and feelings. Whether you’ve told the truth or attempted to delude me, you’ve probably already answered your own question… I do wonder how much of the detail, under the influence of the golden glow of your new relationship, has been lost in the telling.

Human beings have a propensity to rewrite history to suit their purposes – and my instincts tell me that what you are offering is a sanitised version of events. The fact that you are afraid to mention this man to family or friends, based on his receipt of one photo, suggests a darker story than the one you are telling. You should not feel the need to make excuses for his behaviour or, indeed, contextualise it.

We all have corners in our closets where secrets are stuffed and if you get to adulthood without at least one shameful incident behind you then you’ve probably not been living life to the full. That’s why I keep coming back to the yarn you’re spinning and wondering if it knits up into something fit for purpose. You say that what he did was appalling, yet your version of his story has this man receiving an entirely unsolicited photograph from a girl and being given a criminal record for it. Even for a committed feminist and anti-pornography campaigner that seems pretty rough justice for simply opening his inbox. It would certainly be deemed forgivable in the eyes of most members of society. That’s why I’m wondering if one of you isn’t being transparent. Has it occurred to you it might be him? It is why I recommend that rather than keep this relationship a secret, you open it out to a wider constituency. By having the discussion with people you trust, you may learn things you need to know – or find that others also think he’s served his time.

A clandestine liaison is rarely the best basis on which to build a committed relationship and in this instance you really need to hear the voices of those with your welfare at heart. If it’s as simple as you make it sound, I’d be surprised if those who care for you don’t give the relationship their blessing. Of course, ultimately, it will be up to you to decide but, sometimes, having to defend our actions leads to clarity on why we have made certain choices. I definitely wouldn’t want you to find yourself in a vulnerable situation because you have chosen to isolate yourself along with your man.

If this relationship has legs you need to use them to stand up and show it off. Only then can you be sure if those things lurking in the corner are merely shadows or further secrets.

If you have been affected by any of these issues, contact victimsupport.org.uk

If you have a dilemma, send a brief email to [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @mariellaf1



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