Coronavirus: 'I was desperate for a way to get on the water'

By Kate Scotter & Rachael McMenemy
BBC News

  • Published
Jenny EvansImage source, Jess Ashley
Image caption,
Jenny Evans took up paddleboarding during lockdown as a way to relieve stress

Kayaks, canoes and paddleboards have seemingly become more popular than ever during the coronavirus pandemic, with some firms reporting record sales. But what has led to the sudden surge in interest and how has it changed the places where people now go for paddlesports?

Jenny Evans was looking for somewhere to escape the stress of lockdown.

She started a new business selling nature subscription boxes from home, while also looking after her two children.

"I bought a very cheap kit for an inflatable board that fits in a backpack," she said. "I was desperate for a way to get on the water that was quick and easy."

Like many others, Jenny headed to the River Stour in the heart of Constable Country, an area on the Essex/Suffolk border made famous by the paintings of John Constable.

It is also within walking distance from her house in East Bergholt.

Image caption,
Dedham has become a hotspot for people with inflatable kayaks, canoes and paddleboards

"It's a great way to explore the local area and I see some amazing wildlife, especially when I go out early and the river is quiet," she said.

"Paddleboarding has allowed me to have some peace and tranquillity. It has opened up a world of micro-adventuring that I can do solo and is also a great activity for the whole family."

Jenny, 33, enjoys paddling on her own or with friends, often with her three-year-old son sat happily on the front of her board.

Image source, Neil Armstrong Boast
Image caption,
Dedham is in an area known as the Constable Country

About four miles (6km) further up the river, Dedham has become popular with novice and experienced paddlers alike.

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Andy Large, from nearby Colchester, spent 36 years as a "corporate slave" and said paddleboarding gave him an outlet to relax when he retired three years ago.

"It's literally so easy to do, you jump in the car, drive somewhere, pump it up and off you go," he said.

"It's a freedom and you're out in nature, it relaxes and calms you down."

Image source, Andy Large
Image caption,
Andy Large says there has been a "surge" in interest for paddlesports

British Canoeing has seen its members rise to almost 50,000, up 14,000 since May. Of those new members, 38% are female.

Supermarkets have helped swell the popularity by selling inflatable kayaks from £40, while paddleboarding lessons start at about £30.

Emma Jones and her partner Gary Willingham run an online inflatable paddleboard company, called SUP Inflatables, and have seen a surge in sales.

Image caption,
Emma Jones and Gary Willingham who run SUP inflatables have been inundated with requests

They have already sold three times the amount of stock they normally would shift in the summer months.

"People have had more time off than they've had before," said Ms Jones. "It seems a lot of people are using the time to do the hobbies they've wanted to try but never had time for."

But there are concerns around the explosion of interest.

Mr Large, 55, said: "We do worry that they do not have the right training, safety equipment or licences to use the rivers."

He suggested novice paddlers should research where they are going and the type of equipment needed before setting off.

Image caption,
Paddleboarders have been flocking to Dedham

As for Dedham, it has always been a popular spot for families looking to enjoy the river as well as art lovers wanting to discover the setting of Constable's famed works.

But since lockdown restrictions have been lifted, there has been a rise in litter and parking problems in the village, which some people associate with the increase in river traffic.

Tom West, landlord of The Marlborough pub, said: "The rise in the usage of the river is a worrying thing as the amount of litter and waste being left in the area is abhorrent."

Image caption,
Local people are angry at the increase in litter

Mr West said he had noticed an increase in day-trippers to the the village, which has caused potentially "dangerous parking" situations with cars parked on village roads due to car parks being full.

"The village is beautiful, but parking to unlock the potential for the village, in a safe way, needs to be built," he said.

Image caption,
Landscape artist John Constable went to school in Dedham

Colchester Borough Council said it had noticed the increase in visitors to the area.

"We are aware that visitor numbers have been well above normal since the government relaxed lockdown restrictions, which unfortunately has led to increased littering and fly-tipping and put a huge strain on the local community and our resources," it said, in a statement.

To combat the increase in litter, neighbourhood teams and the parish council have been out on patrol picking up rubbish and emptying bins more often.

But debate has raged on social media about who is to blame.

Image caption,
Debate has raged over who is to blame for the increase in parking and litter problems since lockdown was lifted

Whatever the case, it looks unlikely that the area will become less popular any time soon, as more people look for summer fun.

People like Abi Davis, 20, from Southend, who was trying out paddleboarding for the first time on Friday.

Image caption,
Abi Davis went paddleboarding for the first time after friend Ian told her about the fun sport

"It is really fun, a bit nerve-wracking at the start but I'm really keen, I had such a good time," she said.

"It would be quite nice to make it a regular hobby."

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