'Oar-some' row round island Norfolk

SWAFFHAM optometrist Robert Conway will celebrate his 50th birthday with a real spectacle of a voyage - while never quite leaving Norfolk.The father-of-five has spent a meticulous three years eyeing up a feat of endurance which he believes has never been undertaken before - a 300-mile canoe trip all the way round “island” Norfolk.

SWAFFHAM optometrist Robert Conway will celebrate his 50th birthday with a real spectacle of a voyage - while never quite leaving Norfolk.

The father-of-five has spent a meticulous three years eyeing up a feat of endurance which he believes has never been undertaken before - a 300-mile canoe trip all the way round “island” Norfolk.

Days four and five of a nine-day charity marathon will see Robert paddling through Times territory in a kayak, along the Little Ouse from Blo' Norton to the Great Ouse at Brandon Creek, switching to a sculling boat as he heads for King's Lynn and the open sea.

“For some time I've mused on Norfolk being an island, bounded on two sides by the sea and on the other two sides by the River Waveney and the Great and Little Ouse,” said Robert, co-owner of Dipple and Conway, the Norwich, Swaffham and Stowmarket-based opticians.


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“I decided it would be a wonderful adventure to make a trip around Norfolk by water, and now I am doing it for charity. In all the time I have been planning the trip I haven't heard of anyone who has attempted the voyage before, but if anyone has I would certainly be interested to hear from them,” said Robert.

Robert is getting sponsorship for his unusual journey from friends, family, clients and Norfolk businesses to raise money for Vision Aid Overseas. The eye-care charity provides much-needed eye camps in Third World countries in Africa and also in India and South America.

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“The idea for my marathon row came after I accompanied a friend who marked his own half century by rowing the 50 miles from Norwich to Lowestoft and back,” said Robert.

“I thought, if we could do that in a day I could, with careful planning and preparation, complete a circuit of Norfolk's boundary in 10 days or so”.

To cope with the obstacles of marshes, creeks, fast and slow running rivers and sea passages, Robert has collected four boats - a sculling boat, a kayak a seagoing sculling boat and a Welsh coracle which has been hand-built for him by the only coracle builder in Norfolk, Jason Kidman.

With over 30 years of rowing experience behind him, the former national championships competitor has no illusions as to the size of the challenge. He has spent, on average, half a day each week for three years surveying the course. He's been getting advice and talking with coastguards, and noting obstacles such as mills and sluices which will entail heaving the boat out of the water and carrying it.

“I've found so many lovely bits of Norfolk that I didn't know existed. Denver sluice, for example, is an awesome sight and the fenland rivers are well worth a visit, but most sections are only accessible by foot down long paths or by water,” said Robert.

The plan is to paddle from Norwich to Beccles, take a clockwise route along the Waveney via Geldeston and Harleston to Diss, then switch to the Little Ouse, paddle via Thetford to Brandon, take the Great Ouse to King's Lynn and follow the coast back to Lowestoft.

Robert is also undertaking a tough fitness regime.

“Sculling, kayaking and coracling are all quite different disciplines, but they all come under the umbrella of paddling. They use muscles in different ways … and put blisters in different places,” said Robert.

“And I am not under-estimating how mentally tough it is going to be. When you have had several punishing eight-hour days of travelling under your own steam like that, it is sometimes very difficult to get back in again the next day.”

Robert is setting up a link from the Dipple and Conway website which will enable people inspired by his project to sponsor him for Vision Aid Overseas. During the journey he plans to post a daily blog of his adventure on the web.

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