Canoeing: Iken do that, says Merriel Gardiner. Pictures by Jason Gairn

PUBLISHED: 13:09 22 July 2014 | UPDATED: 13:09 22 July 2014

Iken Canoe

Iken Canoe


I’d always thought canoeing and I were ill matched.

I once took a canoe out on a Cornish lake with an ex partner. After that unco-ordinated voyage of circling fear, I knew we had drowned any thoughts of a relationship worth saving. At the time I couldn’t swim and had yet to master the concept of ‘just dive in’.

A decade later and I’m discovering that to really uncover the secrets of Suffolk, water is quite the thing. That’s where Iken Canoe comes in. If you’re a nervous beginner like me, you need to feel in safe hands.

Dominic and Kate Kilburn have lived at Iken Cliff for the last 20 years, but only began their canoe business three years ago.

The couple have always had a love of water and ran a watersports centre on the island of Corsica before they married. Now Dom is production editor of Farmers Guide and Kate is a cooking consultant for Jamie Oliver at Orford primary school.

During the safety briefing it was reassuring to learn that only two people had ever fallen in and that they were on a stag do and deliberately attempting to capsize. Dom showed us our exact route on OS maps, which we took with us in waterproof cases, but we didn’t need them thanks to his carefully installed flagged poles marking our route.

From here it is four miles to Aldeburgh, but we liked the idea of the shorter Snape Maltings trip, a popular one-and-a-half mile paddle each way. With the pub, scrummy food shop, cafes and if you’re lucky, farmers market, what better motivation could anyone need?

The children – Grace, nine, Rory, 12, and Harry, 15 – were all thoroughly into it and the next few hours passed in a haze of laughter, developing paddle technique – mine left a lot to be desired according to the crew – and racing. Our shrieks of delight set off scores of birds, which rose spectacularly from hidden mudflats. Curlews, oyster catchers, knot, green shank, red shank and lapwing are a just a few of the regulars. Much quieter canoeists might well spot an otter and, in the summer, seals bask on the mud.

Iken Canoe has a special mooring at Snape Maltings just under the bridge. This is much quieter than across the road at Snape, particularly on the day of our visit when it appeared that an event was on. We smugly glided past harried parkers and held our own picnic event across the deserted footpath. How wonderful to tuck into Helen’s homemade ginger cake, drink Thermos tea and plastic cupfuls of real ale.

Pointing the bow back towards Iken Cliff we headed back on the ebb tide. As if by magic, previously hidden land rose to greet us from the deep, so that what had previously appeared a vast lake was now peppered with islands.

Thanks to more confident paddling I was able to admire the mysterious Iken church. Rising from the headland, it stands on the site on which St Botolph first built his monastery in 647. Perhaps it was the calming effect of the surroundings, but it was as if something clicked and our bodies became completely synchronised. Just the swoosh, swoosh lullaby of paddles slicing through water.

In Suffolk Scene, Julian Tennyson (1915-45), great grandson of Alfred Tennyson, wrote of Iken: “I shall feel safe if I have the scream of the birds and the moan of the wind and the lapping of the water all around me, and the lonely woods and marshes I love so well.” In 1939 he enlisted with the Irish Rifles and was tragically killed in Burma by shrapnel, aged just 29.

Back at the boatshed, Dom was waiting to haul us in and Kate was all smiles. We were strangely calm, contented and tired in that glorious way of sunshine, exercise and fresh air. We promptly made plans to return soon, then headed back on the footpath to the cars parked in the picnic spot.

Just time for Helen and I to climb a tree before wondering where on earth the children had got to. From our vantage point we spotted three pairs of sleepy eyes, peering from inside the car. On the way home I’m told Harry said: “I really enjoyed today.” High praise from a 15-year-old.

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