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Optometrist to row round 'island Norfolk

PUBLISHED: 17:43 21 August 2008 | UPDATED: 10:37 12 July 2010

Adventurous 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.

Adventurous 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 two and three of a nine-day charity marathon will see Robert paddling through Mercury territory, using two different vessels - one of them specially built to navigate the marshy area of Redgrave Fen which separates the sources of the east-flowing Waveney and the west-bound Little Ouse.

He will arrive along the River Waveney in a kayak - then switch to boat rarely seen in Norfolk....a Welsh coracle.

“A coracle is not usually associated with rowing in Norfolk, but it needs only about four inches of water to float, so it will be very useful around the area of Regdrave Fen - the source area of both the Little Ouse and Waveney,” explained Robert, co-owner of Dipple and Conway, the Norwich, Swaffham and Stowmarket-based opticians.

“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,

“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 anyone has I would certainly be interested to hear from them,” said Robert.

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

“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.”

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.

“Even things like fallen trees can add quite a bit of time,” said Robert.

The task of checking out the entire course has been a journey of discovery in itself for Robert, who has been struck by the beauty and diversity of the Norfolk landscape he will become part of for nine energy-sapping days.

“I've found so many lovely bits of Norfolk that I didn't know existed. Later, I will definitely go back and explore them at my leisure.”

The plan is to paddle from Norwich to Beccles, take a clockwise route along the Waveney via Geldeston and Harleston to Diss. Switch to the Little Ouse, paddle via Thetford to Brandon, then take the Great Ouse to King's Lynn and follow the coast back to Lowestoft. 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 sea-going sculling boat and the coracle which has been hand-built especially for him.

Apart for reconnoitring the route, Robert is undertaking a tough practice and 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,” laughed Robert. The kayaking and coracling are my weak areas and I am grateful for the advice I have received on boats and technique from members of the Norwich Canoe Club and Jason Kidman the coracle builder.”

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.

People can sponsor Robert on-line at www.vao.org.uk at a page which is being specially set up, or by cheque made payable to Vision Aid Overseas and sent or dropped in to Dipple and Conway 19 Castle Street, Norwich, Tel 01603 626 750. Dipple and Conway, 63 Market Place, Swaffham, Tel 01760 724 777. Dipple and Conway 46 Ipswich Street, Stowmarket Tel 01449 612 436, or by cash at any of the Dipple and Conway practices and shops in Norfolk.


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