Bolton Canoe Club at the Tyne Tour 2015

The Tyne Tour Festival is the successor to the Mike Jones rallies which were held in Llangollen in the eighties, where I took my first strokes (paddling and swimming) on white water. The original rallies were held in memory of a famous expedition paddler who was part of the first successful descent of Everest, but tragically died rescuing a friend on another river in 1978.

Steve on the gorge section of the Tyne Tour

The organisers reckon it’s “Europe’s largest mass participation canoeing event”, but to my knowledge the club has never run a trip to the Tyne Tour before. So this November Mark, Duncan, Joe and I drove up to Hexham to see what the fuss is about. The first step was to pitch the tents on Tyne Green which for the rest of the year is a public park. This was easy for Mark as his tent has four wheels and a Vauxhall badge, but less so for me since, as it was later pointed out, I have a “disappear-in-the-dark” tent. Then a stroll into Hexham for a swift half (or two) and a takeaway. It’s obvious that the tour attracts just as many student groups as the Llangollen rallies did, with a good part of Wetherspoon’s clientele wearing hoodies declaring allegiance to their university club.

I woke at about 5:00 Saturday morning with my tent flat on top of my face. Scrambling outside I saw that one of the poles was bent at right angles and there were muddy footprints on the fabric; it needed a bit of impromptu metalworking to get it back to an approximate tent shape. And then it started raining – a lot, so the general consensus when we all woke was to sack any attempt at cooking breakfast and wander over to Tesco’s cafe, where they didn’t really seem prepared for the huge influx of soggy paddlers.

Eventually we convinced ourselves that we really should go boating, and the river of choice was the North Tyne from Barrasford into Hexham, taking in the tour’s main event, Warden Gorge. The tour is very well organised: at Barrasford cars are marshalled into a field which isn’t normally used for parking, and after the run there are minibus shuttles to get the drivers back to their cars. The water level is guaranteed with a release from Kielder Reservoir, turning this 7-mile stretch into a pleasant touring run with a few rapids along the way. At the get-in we had the choice of a short chossy grade 4 on river left and a nice grade 2 on the right. The left hand rapid didn’t look to have a clean route down, which Joe confirmed by pinballing off several rocks while the rest of us floated elegantly down the right. The river was full of paddlers, with groups of various sizes, of various standards, and wearing various items of novelty headgear.

Mark and Duncan on the gorge section of the Tyne Tour

There was one weir and a number of straightforward rapids, mostly grade 2 (pushing 3 in places) interspersed with long flat stretches. Towards the end is Warden Gorge, a grade 3 rapid which could get to 4 in high water, but which can’t be inspected or portaged. We chose to eddy hop as much of this as we could, although most of the student groups charged down in a straight line. Still, some of these managed to keep the occupants of “Rescue Rock” entertained, as did Duncan, who tripped the back of his boat on a rock when crossing the flow after the first drop. Joe did a great job of recovering Duncan to the side, but not before he had fended off most of the underwater rocks with his backside. The tour had an official photographer pitched on the side of the gorge, who clearly thought Duncan’s boatless descent was more photogenic than most, judging by the number of pictures on the Facebook page.

Although for some the highlight of the weekend is Saturday night’s on-site ceilidh, for us it consisted of a wander round the shiny kit for sale in the trade stands while supping our free soup, and then a repeat of Friday’s beer and takeaway. Again, someone managed to avoid all the green tents on Tyne Green to wander straight over my bright red one (this time I was awake, so I gently explained the error of his ways). Mark tells me that my tent is pretty much invisible in the dark, so fluorescent guy ropes, pegs and glowsticks might be needed in future.

More rain Sunday, and if we’d been with a group of improvers there were a number of runs on the North or South Tyne we might have had a go at. As it was, the grade 3 run on the South Tyne we had planned was at too low a level, so we packed up to cross the Pennines and take a look at the old faithful Lune on the way back. Unfortunately it had rained at a biblical rate all the way across, bringing the river up to a fairly silly level. With a small group (and I had decided not to bother anyway due to lack of sleep) valour gave way to discretion and we made our way home.

So what did we think? Well for a group of adrenaline junkies looking to run the gnarl there’s not much to offer. For a club trip away with a group of improvers it would be a fun weekend both for the paddling and for the opportunity to join in such a big event. If you’re up for a rainy weekend in Hexham next November, just let us know.

Steve Thomas