Stand up paddleboarding the Cuckmere River in East Sussex had been on my and my buddy Markmeister’s mind for several months. According to Wikipedia, the reliable source of half-truths, conspiracies, and myths, its length is 5km. In actual fact it is more like 30km, of which we paddled about 15km.
BEST ENTRY POINT WHEN STAND UP PADDLEBOARDING THE CUCKMERE RIVER
We took the train to the tiny hamlet of Berwick (1.5h from London with one interchange). From there we walked 1.8km along country roads to the river, nearly getting run over by fast cars on two occasions.
GETTING OUR GEAR READY
As soon as we reached the river, we got our gear ready and changed into our wetsuits. I wasted nearly half an hour trying to find a hole in my inflatable board. Then I realised that the problem was not a deflating board but a malfunctioning pressure indicator on my air pump.
A NARROW CONTINUOUS PUDDLE
The river isn’t more than a narrow continuous puddle at that stage. At least when we paddled the river, there was zero current on this stretch. Vegetation and submerged debris, tree roots, and broken-off branches were obstructing the way to such an extent that we were initially considering walking the first few kilometres.
PADDLING OUT OF NECESSITY
In the end we opted against it. Not because of any mitigating factors we would have detected. We simply decided that it would be too much hassle to carry all our gear along the uneven riverbank, so might as well try to paddle it from right where we were standing.
ICE ON THE RIVERBANK
There were bits of thin ice covering the ground in areas, even though the air temperature was a surprisingly warm 7C and so was the water temperature. The forecasts had predicted 2C air temperature and we would have expected the water temperature to be closer to that too. There are no reliable forecasts for the Cuckmere water temperature, as it’s not a significant waterway.
THE FIRST 200 METRES WERE QUITE PLEASANT
After we took a few pictures and did some last checks on our gear, we pushed the boards onto the water and hopped on. The first 200m or so were quite okay, but soon we were doubting our wisdom of having entered the water that far upriver.
Despite the fact that we hadn’t attached the fins to our boards yet, our boards constantly got stuck on submerged tree branches, roots, and other debris. The rest of the time low hanging tree branches were trying their best to push us off our boards and into the icy water.
AT LAST SOME AIR TO BREATHE, THEN: THE WEIR
After another two kilometres the stream finally became wider and almost started to look like a proper river. Then we spotted the weir. We had not been aware of it. Thankfully due to the non-existent current it was very easy to avoid going over it. It took a little while to find a good exiting point, but then we were on our way.
We pulled our boards out of the river. Unpacked. Carried the boards the 25m to the downriver side of the weir and started to lower them towards the water again.
ALL LOOKING GOOD
From our entry-point we could only see about 50m up to a bend in the river, but everything looked good. So, in a moment of madness, we decided to put our fins back onto the bottoms of our boards.
Literally right behind the bend we froze stiff: shallow water flowing over rocks as far as the eye could see. We were both too cold to bother to get aggravated. There was no swearing. We took the boards out of the water again and removed the fins. We checked if there was an easy way to walk around the shallow bits.
A twenty-minute expedition along the riverbank simply proved one thing: it would be too much of a hassle to carry the boards that far through treacherous terrain.
LET’S FIND OUT HOW TOUGH THESE BOARDS ARE
Unsure how our boards would fare brushing over the sharp rocks, we decided to find out. On a dozen occasions we had to step off our boards and walk, pulling the boards alongside us on ropes. Our feet in our neoprene socks and thick neoprene shoes started to get rather cold. Finally the water got deeper again and we hopped back onto our boards.
US BEING MORONS
For an hour the depth and width of the river stayed pleasantly deep and wide. Like complete morons we pulled the boards out of the water and re-attached the fins.
PASSING BY ALFRISTON
You guessed it. After the next bend, just after the beautiful village of Alfriston, the river narrowed to about 2m width and a depth of perhaps 1m. There were bits of reed and other debris floating about everywhere, getting entangled in our fins. In the end each of us were pulling long strings of debris with us on our fins, slowing us down enormously. We picked the stuff off each other’s fins. But as soon as we did, more debris attached to it.
THE LAST STRETCH
After we had paddled for more than three hours without scheduled breaks (and not counting unscheduled breaks), we finally reached the last stretch. This is the Cuckmere that people know. A very wide river that gently meanders towards the sea.
A group of hikers at the riverbank asked us where we were going. Jokingly we replied “France.” They took us up on our line like seasoned comedians. Jokingly they advised us on how to approach the French shoreline and get through their defences. Strike only when you see the old port’s lighthouse, they said. We thanked them for their assistance.
NOT ONE OTHER SOUL ON THE RIVER
It was nice to speak with other humans. Throughout our journey we have not seen a single person on the water and hardly anyone on the riverbank.
VERY PLEASED TO REACH THE FINISH LINE
Despite the short length of our trip (15km, 4h on the water, not counting expeditions on land), Markmeister and I have hardly ever been so pleased to reach the finish point of a paddle. When we spotted the car bridge at Cuckmere Haven, we were very relieved. Our feet might well have frozen stiff if we would’ve stayed on the river for another half hour. Stand up paddleboarding the Cuckmere River had turned out to be a far bigger challenge than expected.
NASTY EXIT POINT
The final test of our taker qualities was the condition of the riverbank near the exit point. A foul-smelling, muddy, steep embankment with lots of debris like discarded bikes. It was not great. Somehow we managed to get our boards, our gear, and ourselves onto the fairly ‘clean’ grassy strip on top of the embankment. Surprisingly we managed to keep most of the mud off our gear, despite slipping several times on our way up. We deflated the boards, packed everything up.
THE GOOD FOLKS OF THE CUCKMERE INN
Our eternal gratitude goes to the good folk who run and operate the Cuckmere Inn. We must have looked like hobos from hell. Probably worse than that. We left our gear outside the pub, cleaned ourselves up best we could, and walked to the bar, prepared to be told that the venue had had “last orders called” or similar. However, these beautiful human beings made us feel welcome, served us mulled cider and fish and chips. God bless them.
TAXI TO SEAFORD
After a very pleasant 90 minutes of warming up and food and drink the Cuckmere Inn called us a cab which we took to the train station at Seaford to get back home.
WAS IT FUN?
Did we have a fun day out? By all means, yes. Would we recommend stand up paddleboarding the Cuckmere River to anyone else (in winter)? Probably not. Unless you like this kind of thing. In which case, by all means, you go right ahead. Good on you.