Fairline owners Graham and Sheeleagh Lyons discover the joys of spending a summer afloat exploring the South West coast of England...
Graham and I have been boating for 10 years and acquired our second boat, a Fairline Targa 34 we named Lyons Maid, seven years ago. We started out as complete novices and gradually built up our experience and RYA training to the point where Graham has now completed a Yachtmaster course.
During those first 10 years we struggled to juggle work and family holidays with decent weather. Boating should be fun and we were loathe to go out in inclement weather, not only because of the dangers but also the risk of having to leave Lyons Maid away from her home berth in Northney Marina.
In 2018 we both stopped working and wanted to spend more time on the boat. I suggested that instead of planning a series of day or weekend trips, we based ourselves on the boat for the summer and only visited home when necessary. Our goal was to explore the South West coast of England at our leisure. Being MDL berthholders we could take advantage of their Freedom Berthing facility to leave the boat in Plymouth, Brixham or Torquay free of charge if we needed to travel home at any point.
We set off on 27 May and reached Portland Marina two days later. We prefer Portland to Weymouth for the open space, the nearby beaches, the walks and the village atmosphere, and we could still cycle to Weymouth on our folding bicycles.
Our eldest son and family were holidaying in Weymouth at the time and we spent the time exploring its historic quayside and enjoying the beaches with them. Fog hampered our plans to move further west for several days so we even managed a night out at the theatre.
Cruising from Portland to Brixham presented more of a challenge. The almanac advises caution and we had heard many tales of difficult passages around Portland Bill. I was also a little worried about crossing Lyme Bay, knowing we would be out of sight of land for a couple of hours, but the Bill was in a benign mood and we enjoyed flat seas and warm sun all the way. However, I was relieved to see Berryhead loom into view.
I am used to catering on the boat, and over the years have honed my house (boat) keeping, storage and cooking routines. We tend to self-cater, cooking on board and buying supplies in supermarkets but in Brixham I found a greengrocer, butcher, deli, crab kiosk and fish market within walking distance of the boat, leading to a memorable picnic anchored in Tor Bay watching the air show from the cockpit with my brother and sister-in-law. We also put our two-seat inflatable kayak to good use exploring the nearby bays, rockpools and caves.
Dartmouth was our next destination, having been on Graham’s wish list since staying at the Dart Marina Hotel in 2005, before our boating exploits began. We arrived with no fixed plans or pre-booked berth so it was only as we were cruising past the hotel that I radioed the marina and requested a berth.
We were in luck, there was space available and we were guided in by two very attentive dock staff. Spending four days in Dartmouth allowed us to explore the market, castle and enjoy a long walk to Coleton Fishacre along the roller-coaster Devon cliffs. We also took a kayak trip up river to Dittisham for a late lunch in the popular Anchorstone Café followed by a leisurely return, stopping at Old Mill Creek to watch herons fishing from the overhanging trees.
By the third week I was starting to realise how kind the weather had been as we completed another wonderfully serene cruise to Queen Anne’s battery in Plymouth. From QAB we took a day trip up the River Yealm, enjoying the peace of the steep-sided valley and the comings and goings of small local boats.
In the bag
Salcombe has long been on my bucket list and as the weather was starting to warm up we made a reconnaissance trip from QAB. Entering Salcombe was a little nerve wracking, but we lucked out and managed to secure a space on the north end of the visitor’s pontoon in The Bag, a wide and tranquil part of the river with farmland on both sides and stunning views up river towards Kingsbridge.
I loved the idea of mooring away from the hustle and bustle of a marina and tentatively suggested that we stay for a few days. We were still getting used to the idea of not needing to stick to a schedule but this seemed a good opportunity to start adopting a more carefree attitude.
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The West Country is packed with enticing boating spots and hidden gems. In this feature Peter Cumberlidge picks the best
High winds were expected for the next two days so we booked in for two nights and took off in the dinghy to explore the town. We found a tasty lunch of mackerel and crab at the Winking Prawn Café at North Sands beach. The high winds meant a noisy night although the slap of water on the bow eventually lulled me to sleep. As dawn broke I took a hot tea and a blanket up on deck to listen to the dawn chorus and drink in the fresh, dewy air.
I was keen to visit Salcombe’s famous white beaches but the water was still a bit choppy so we hailed the water taxi and took a bus to Kingsbridge instead, enjoying the rolling countryside and picture-perfect villages. The weather cheered up after lunch so we took the tender on a short but bumpy trip to the beach at East Portlemouth.
Little rainbows appeared in our wake to remind us that summer was back. What a joy it was to walk barefoot, feeling the soft sand between our toes, eating ice cream and building a sandcastle just because we could. After such an idyllic few days, we both felt a little sad to be leaving this pretty spot. Our 48 hours cocooned in The Bag was a perfect reminder of the joy we find in boating – seeking out peaceful spots away from crowds with no pressure to do anything except enjoy the moment.
Graham warned me the sea might be rough coming out of Salcombe and he wasn’t wrong! For 30 minutes we pushed our way through eight-foot waves at a speed of 6 knots. It was worse than expected but I didn’t feel unsafe and when we changed course to cross Bigbury Bay the sea calmed considerably. As the weather forecast was looking unfavourable, we left Lyons Maid at QAB to head home and visit family.
After a few days away from the boat, returning to Lyons Maid felt like a homecoming. The minute we stepped across the swim platform, all our stresses seemed to ebb away. I awoke to a bright blue sky at 6am and after gathering provisions from a corner shop, we slipped our lines. With the sun on our backs and a light breeze on our faces, we enjoyed a smooth ride to Falmouth, arriving at St Anthony’s Lighthouse early in the afternoon.
Although I had studied the charts I was emotionally unprepared for the scale of Falmouth Harbour – such a large expanse of water linking several towns and villages, separated by miles of farmland. Despite the tempting setting of Mylor Yacht Harbour, we decided on the more practical location of Premier’s Falmouth Marina.
Graham’s persistence with the marina staff won us a fabulous berth at the edge of the marina, looking west up the Penryn river with uninterrupted sunset views. Initially, we agreed to stay here for a week and then move on, perhaps to Mylor, but we loved it so much we stayed put for 15 nights
With time on our side we settled into the natural rhythms of the river. Trips up to Penryn and across to Flushing were timed to coincide with favourable tides. A delicious late lunch at the Muddy Beach Café stretched long into the afternoon as we made the most of the views from the deck and the chilled white wine!
We also took the kayak across the river to explore the creeks, where huge hulks slowly crumbled into the mud even as other smaller craft were brought back to life by locals. And every morning we’d sit in the cockpit waiting for the procession of swans that glided into the marina in search of a free breakfast.
Our first foray up river towards Truro was a delight. We followed the channel markers as they zigzagged across Carrick Roads before entering the narrower section of Truro River where the lush greens of early summer rolled down to the water’s edge. We anchored at Channels Creek with only two other boats and enjoyed a salad lunch with views of Trelissick House and the beach below.
We returned again a few days later and kayaked over to Flushing to explore the village and walk to Mylor. The marina there is in a glorious spot but we agreed it would not suit us as well as the convenience of Falmouth Marina.
The only time we took Lyons Maid out of Falmouth Harbour during our stay was to motor a little further west to the Helford River. The 30-minute trip took us across the bay and past the Gyllyngvase and Swanpool beaches we’d enjoyed so much for swimming and paddle boarding.
Although conditions remained calm and sunny, we were a little taken aback by the fast flow of the river near Helford itself. Graham motored about a mile up river before settling on a mooring buoy near the river mouth giving closer access to Helford passage. We called a water taxi to take us across to the short but very steep walk to Trebah Gardens. The warmer climate and sheltered location allow all manner of tropical plants to grow here, including palm trees, Gunera and a fascinating collection of bamboos.
Leaving Falmouth was not a sad moment but it did feel like a turning point now we were heading back east again. We waited until 10.30 for a reasonable depth of water outside the marina (we had seen several other boats run aground here during our stay). Graham was keen to arrive in Fowey just before midday to improve our chances of finding a good mooring so we agreed to delay our sightseeing tour of Polperro Heritage Coast for another day.
Our prior reccie to Fowey was invaluable and we quickly identified a number of free berths. Without the pressing need to grab the first available one, we continued up river to Mixtow where we discovered another heavenly spot on a walkashore pontoon. Again we were blessed with an open view across the river, albeit towards the china clay loading docks.
This deep-sided wooded creek is wonderfully sheltered with still water making for quiet nights, although the facilities are a far cry from most modern marinas. The showers are coin operated with timed sessions and lights controlled by a movement sensor outside the cubicle so I soon learnt to take a few missiles with me to lob over the door and keep the lights on!
The long, winding, hilly stroll along the River Fowey from Mixtow to Polruan was both a pleasure and a useful way to stay fit. The countryside here is glorious and although the fields were showing signs of drought the wooded riverside walk was beautifully cool.
We couldn’t leave Polruan without a look at the ocean so we climbed the hill up through the village to St Saviour’s Chapel ruins, where an elderly gentlemen invited us into his house to admire the view and listen to his stories of his career as a local boat builder and ferry master.
On the morning of our departure, Graham turned the key only to find the portside engine wouldn’t start. He waited a few minutes to give the battery time to charge then tried again – success! It surprised us both how unsettling a small hiccough like this can be; during the time it took to start the engine we had both privately considered a number of alternative plans in case we couldn’t make our planned voyage to Plymouth.
Taking advantage of the calm seas and light wind we took a slow sightseeing tour of the coast en route to Plymouth, taking in Mevagissey Harbour (where leisure boats are allowed to use the moorings but may have to vacate them in favour of fishing craft), Pentewan Beach (the location of many family holidays when our children were younger) and Polperro Harbour (with space for only six boats on fore and aft moorings and an entrance less than 10 metres wide).
Hugging the coast gave us spectacular views of the steep black cliffs topped with rolling fields of green and yellow.
Graham decided to use the Western Approach to Plymouth Harbour, which gave us the chance to survey the coast around Cawsand, Kingsand, Portwrinkle and Drakes Island on our way into Mayflower Marina. I had nothing planned for dinner so we opted for a two-minute dinghy trip to Royal William Yard and a meal in the French Bistro Pierre.
Being on the west side of the harbour gave us the opportunity to explore the Tamar and River Lynher aboard Lyons Maid, and make use of the outdoor swimming pools. After much poring over charts Graham decided that our trip across the river should be late afternoon/early evening so we set off at 3pm, North along Hamoaze past the vast Naval Dockyards.
We both found motoring under the Tamar Bridge a thought provoking experience, bringing back memories of trips by road and rail to Cornwall. Beyond Saltash the river is prettier and we motored as far as Cargell and the once popular but now deserted Smugglers Inn. Before returning to Mayflower, we followed the River Lynher to Dandy Hole to enjoy the views of the viaduct at St Germans and observe the wildlife while eating a picnic supper.
The next day I awoke feeling rather directionless so we had a leisurely breakfast at Jolly Jacks restaurant and booked in for a few days at Plymouth Yacht Haven. We took a detour to spend a day anchored off Cawsand beach before pressing on to the marina with its convenient access to challenging but beautiful walks at Jenny Cliffe and towards Bovisand and Turnchapel.
We both love these beachside days; I enjoy swimming from the boat and exploring the rocky coastline from the kayak, and Graham likes relaxing on deck listening to the slap of water on bow and watching the ever-changing view as the boat swings on anchor.
I wanted to do another off-grid stopover and the tide times provided an excellent opportunity to spend 24 hours on the river Yealm. We motored round to the mouth in bumpy seas and were grateful for the shelter from the high cliffs on either side and the help from other boaters to bring us safely alongside. Determined to make the most of our time, we launched the kayak and headed upstream on the rising tide, enjoying the still water and the company of swans and mallards.
We awoke the following morning to mirror smooth seas for our cruise to Brixham. During the school holidays, this proved to be a very different place to the one we’d left five weeks earlier – bustling with holidaymakers, anglers and children crabbing under colourful bunting.
Graham was keen to anchor in Babbacombe Bay and have lunch at the Cary’s Arms so we arrived at 11am, grabbed a free mooring and launched the tender. Though the sea was calm I was worried about arriving wet and bedraggled in the restaurant so I stashed a change of clothes in my drybag and changed in the ladies before enjoying a wonderful lunch on the terrace overlooking Lyons Maid bobbing in the bay.
Once again the weather gods were on our side for the cruise along Dorset’s Jurassic Coast, allowing us to motor close in to the vertiginous cliffs and nose into Lulworth Cove for lunch. It was surprisingly busy for a weekday and finding enough room to anchor was tricky but eventually we found a secure spot, which we savoured for several hours, swimming in the clear blue water surrounded by the amphitheatre of cliffs before popping into Portland Marina for the night.
As with Brixham, Portland was now in full summer swing with many more visitors enjoying the sunshine. The Boat that Rocks laid on a BBQ and live music, while the UK Topper Championships provided some spectacular dinghy sailing entertainment.
Having booked into Cobbs Quay in Poole Harbour for the next three nights, we dropped in to Chapman’s Pool for elevenses in the quiet of an otherwise empty bay. Although mindful of the potentially tricky passage around St Alban’s Head Graham was sufficiently relaxed for a spell of sunbathing on the bow.
At high tide we raised the anchor and headed for the inner passage. The sea was as flat as a mirror and eerily quiet but we could see the wavelets on the overfalls ahead. We pressed on through and soon agreed that it didn’t feel at all unsafe. With the next bridge lift not due until 2.30pm, we tucked into Studland Bay for lunch in the shadow of Old Harry Rocks.
We couldn’t visit Poole without an overnight stay at our favourite spot in the Wych Channel next to Brownsea Island. The fast moving tide and lack of a pickup float on the visitor moorings made this a little trickier than usual but I managed to lassoo the buoy and secure two good bow lines.
Although the harbour master runs a water taxi service to the town from here, we opted for dinner on board and enjoyed one of the most spectacular sunsets of the trip. For breakfast we ran the dinghy over to Brownsea Island ahead of most visitors and walked through woods, silent except for birdsong and scurrying red squirrels, to the visitor centre.
The following day we enjoyed a roller-coaster bus ride through the Purbeck Hills to Corfe Castle before returning to Brownsea Island in the evening for an atmospheric performance at the island’s open air theatre.
For the remainder of our trip we decided to base ourselves back at Northney Marina. I took the helm for most of the trip, feeling the warmth of a homecoming as we approached the iconic Needles lighthouse. We stopped off at Newtown Creek for a break, uncrowded for once due to the unseasonal drizzle.
It was only on leaving Newtown and encountering the first of several fleets of yachts that we remembered it was Cowes Week. The busyness of the Solent had all but been forgotten in the West Country. Turning into the harbour at West Pole we relaxed into the final leg of the journey, feeling nostalgic for the familiar sights but with the joy of knowing that even after 65 days our trip wasn’t quite over yet.
Return to Northney
Over the next three weeks we spent the time exploring parts of Chichester Harbour and the Hamble River we weren’t yet familiar with, including paddleboarding the upper reaches of the river and Banham’s Creek next to Mercury Marina. I love the tranquillity of these quiet corners that many boat owners never get to.
We spent a few days in Hythe Marina, too – a handy spot close to the village shops and restaurants with great transport links into Southampton and the New Forest. Before returning home for good, we went back to Newtown Creek one last time, kayaking around Clamekin Lake in the company of a large and very curious seal and walking in the adjacent nature reserve.
Our final return to Northney was not a sad moment. When we set out 100 days previously, we had only a loosely planned aim to reach the West Country and couldn’t possibly have predicted either the glorious weather or the unforgettable experiences we enjoyed.
We ended up cruising further and longer than we could ever have dreamed. Our cruise has given us countless treasured memories, a huge boost in confidence and the best possible start to our retirement. Lyons Maid is no longer just our boat, she has become our second home.
First published in the October 2020 issue of MBY.