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Heiney charts 'secret rivers' course

PUBLISHED: 15:41 26 August 2006 | UPDATED: 11:31 22 October 2010

A new television series is set to take a look at our waterways from an angle that most people never see. Sarah Brealey spoke to TV presenter turned canoeist Paul Heiney

He has sailed single-handedly across the Atlantic and learnt how to plough a field with a Suffolk Punch - and now writer and broadcaster Paul Heiney is taking up quite a different challenge. Exploring East Anglia in a canoe might seem tame for a man who has grappled with gales and had to mend his boat in the mid-Atlantic, but Paul says it has been “quite refreshing” to explore a new pastime.

Scheduled to start on ITV Anglia on Sunday, September 3, Secret Rivers will document his journeys. The seven-part series takes him from Southwold to Baldock to the Wash, putting a keen sailor in a rather less grand Canadian canoe, and letting him meet some real East Anglians who live and work along the river.

Paul Heiney has turned his hand to many things, but he says this is “a whole new area for me”.

His television career started with That's Life, and has since spanned Food and Drink, Lion Country, Trading Places and In at the Deep End. He is still watched by millions on Watchdog, of which he is preparing to film a new series in the autumn. He has presented programmes on Radio 4 and Radio 2, including Home Truths and You and Yours, and has also been a columnist for the Times.

Along the way he spent a dozen years in traditional farming, inspired by his television work and his love of heavy horses, in particular the Suffolk Punch. He still has an interest in the Suffolk Punch, describing himself as “a great supporter”.

“Whatever help I can give to them I do. They have got such an important place in agricultural history. They were the driving force of agriculture in the eastern counties. For that reason they deserve remembering, respecting and supporting.”

But farming was expensive, and hard work, and never what he planned to spend his whole life doing.

He says: “No, I shan't go back to farming personally. That is a slice of life that has happened. We both agreed it was a 10 year project, to run a traditional farm. It eventually got to 12 years after we said 10 years, and we decided to stop. I still maintain an interest.”

He and his wife, broadcaster Libby Purves, live in Westleton in north Suffolk with their daughter Rose. They have recently had to confront the personal tragedy of burying their son Nicholas, 23, who killed himself earlier this year after struggling with a depressive illness.

Nicholas, like his parents, was a keen sailor, and their passion for the water has always been part of family life. When their children were just three and five they spent a summer sailing around the British coastline, later documented in Libby's book, One Summer's Grace. Last year saw a truly impressive achievement, when Paul sailed the Ayesha of St Mawes single-handedly from Plymouth to Newport, Rhode Island. It was the challenge of a life-time in a 20-year-old family cruiser, and Paul wrote a book, Last Man Across the Atlantic, so named because he came last in his class with a time of 35 days and 14 hours.

In the book he describes Atlantic gales; dense fog; and fearing he would lose his mast. Not to mention the near-disaster of a tea bag shortage. Two weeks into the race, and with bad weather on the way, he decided to pull out and head for the safe harbour of the Azores. But seven hours later, and behind the rest of the fleet, he thought of his months of preparation and knew that “if I gave up now, for the rest of my life I would have to admit that I had turned my back on one of the greatest of life's adventures for no good reason”.

It could hardly be more different from a gentle paddle down the tranquil rivers of East Anglia.

Paul says: “I have spent a lot of time on the water during my life but I have never canoed before. This is something completely new.”

So was the steady pace of the canoe frustrating to someone used to the relative speed of sail? Not at all, says Paul.

“I just like being on the water. Whatever means of being on the water is all right by me. You can't take a yacht up these rivers.

“I liked it. It is very gentle and reflective, everything goes at a gentle pace. You can only go so fast in a canoe. You can get a new perspective on life.

It sometimes feels you are walking down the river. It is that sort of pace.”

“Canoeing is a great way to get around. The best thing about canoeing is that if you have had enough or you want a cup of tea you just paddle to the bank and there you are.”

But it was not always easy - even on our generally unchallenging rivers - and he certainly felt well-exercised afterwards.

He says: “It is quite hard work. It took me quite a while to get the hang of it. Keeping going in a straight line is quite difficult, believe it or not. If you paddle properly you only paddle from one side so you have to twist as you paddle.”

The series covers rivers close to home, like the Little Ouse, which flows from Thetford to Kings Lynn, and the Blyth, whose short course runs from Laxfield to Walberswick. There are also two programmes on the river Waveney, and some further afield waterways, like the Ivel in Bedfordshire.

Paul says: “None of them have disappointed. None of them have been dreary. They have all had something that has made them interesting.

“I liked the river Blyth quite a lot because that is pretty much on my home ground. I live on the Suffolk coast. I thought it was a lovely river, the way it works out of the heart of Suffolk and gets bigger as it goes.”

It was a quiet pilgrimage, uninterrupted by anything more than the occasional fisherman. Paul was struck by the quietness of the waterways - though the Broads, of course, bustles with tourists in summer, outside of the Broads the rivers are thoroughfares that have fallen silent.

He says: “These days no-one uses them at all. When I was canoeing I didn't meet anyone at all, ever. Apart from children, and of course when you get on the Broads then there are pleasure cruisers.”

His gentle, pastoral style of documentary for Anglia could hardly be more different from the righteous indignation of Watchdog - which also happens to have many times more viewers. So which does he prefer?

“That is hard to say, it is a different sort of thing, it is very different to Secret Rivers. I don't think the size of the audience matters very much. Watchdog is very very satisfying when you are chasing baddies and you catch them, there is a great deal of satisfaction in that.”

But Secret Rivers had its own subtle attractions, not least because it appealed to Paul's keen sense of the past. “I think it is the history. You can get a great sense of history. A lot of these rivers were thriving highways for trade and that has all changed.

I don't think people take much notice of the rivers. They're just something you go over quickly in the car but a lot were highly important and they were motorways really they were used for business. They from mills, they were used.

“The rivers were something about which I knew very little. I will go back to them and appreciate them.”

t Secret Rivers is scheduled to be screened on Anglia on Sunday, September 3 at 5.30pm.

SECRET RIVERS

t The Waveney. Rises at Redgrave and Lopham Fen, near Diss, in the largest remaining river valley fen in England and one of the most important wetlands in Europe. Flows through farmland, villages and the towns of Diss, Bungay and Beccles. The public navigation rights begin at Geldeston Lock. Canoes can be hired at Geldeston and Bungay, while those who want a less energetic taste of life on the water can use a new ferry, the Big Dog, which runs between Beccles and Geldeston Lock four times a day.

t The Little Ouse. A tributary of the Great Ouse, it rises close to the source of the Waveney, at Thelnetham, near Diss. Members of a local community project won an award this year for their work to restore wildlife around the Little Ouse headwaters. Turtle doves, song thrushes, spotted flycatchers, marsh tits, bullfinches and reed buntings can be found around it. Also known as the Brandon River, the Little Ouse runs along the Norfolk-Suffolk border through Rushford, Thetford and Brandon, before turning north and meeting the Great Ouse near Littleport. The Great Ouse then flows north, through King's Lynn and out to sea at the Wash.

t The Blyth. A short river, it rises at Laxfield, near Halesworth and meanders to the sea at Walberswick. The upper reaches were closed to navigation in 1934, and have remained closed ever since, apart from briefly. In 1993 the river was restored and reopened to small boats, but after flooding in Halesworth the restoration project stopped. These days you can take a cruise in a small motorboat from Southwold harbour to Blythburgh. The large estuary area is rich in wildlife, including marsh harriers, and also the location of the final drowning scene in the film Drowning by Numbers. There is a small ferry across the Blyth between Southwold and Walberswick, which saves walkers taking the detour inland.

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