Song of the British Paddle

Salcombe Castle, on the Devon Coast, England. - tim gent
Salcombe Castle, on the Devon Coast, England.

Words and Photos by Tim Gent

Take a glance at the UK paddling scene, and everything looks very healthy. Kayaks plunge in multi-coloured shoals from pool to pool across the land, while Tilley-hatted canoeists set out to explore British water in ever greater numbers each year. Everything in our paddling world looks pretty cheery.

A keen paddler might spot something rather odd though.

While one section of fast and furious English river will heave with kayakers, the banks lined with throw-bag clutching friends, it may be some time, and some distance, before a similar scene is encountered again. A visitor might peer down from a bridge to enjoy an overhead view of a fleet of passing Grummans, but at the next bridge gaze out over nothing more than empty water. No vessel will appear around that upstream bend, no matter how long the wait. A canoeless vista will probably lie below the next bridge too, and the next. So what’s going on?

Well, it may have taken place a long time ago now, but I still blame Humphrey William Woolrych.

In 1830, this very English lawyer produced a detailed study of the legal situation surrounding access to British waters. I won’t bore you with the details, or gripe over the errors that riddle this work, but in summary, Woolrych came to a pretty devastating conclusion. Through lack of use, he claimed the public had lost their right to navigate British rivers.

One of the rare English rivers with  canoe access - The Wye.
One of the rare English rivers with canoe access – The Wye. Courtesy: Dame Products

Even today, 185 years later, the rather shocking results are still with us. Access has to be negotiated with individual owners. For every hundred river miles in England and Wales, paddlers have so far obtained such agreements for only three miles. That’s right, 3 percent.

Not everyone is convinced by all this. Doubts have even been raised in the House of Lords, but to date, the situation remains. In the view of the UK government, nearly all our inland water is out of bounds.

So while a canoeist like me might have access to much of Old Father Thames, and I can drift down the River Wye, crossing and recrossing the border between England and Wales, there’s not much more. In my home county of Devon for example, we can paddle on the Dart, and a few miles at the bottom end of the Exe, but if I try to launch my Pal onto either of the nearest rivers, I may well receive a rather more interesting day than I intended.

To make matters worse, nearly every lake in Devon and Cornwall’s Southwest peninsular is off limits too. So while I can walk on Dartmoor, which looms moodily to the south of my house, and even camp up there overnight, I can’t put my boat on any lake or reservoir. The situation is much the same across the land.

All this inevitably plays a big part in any choice of canoeing location.

Wastwater, the Lake District, England - tim gent
Wastwater, the Lake District, England.

Like many, I head as often as possible for the wonders of England’s Lake District. Here, in the land of Wordsworth’s famous golden daffodils, stand some breath-taking little mountains. There are also those lakes, lakes we’re allowed on.

Many English and Welsh counties bump up against a lot of sea. All good stuff, and even more promising when you learn that we can paddle here as well. Great for the very many UK sea-kayakers, and good too for canoeists, in the right place of course. Fortunately for those in search of somewhere a little more sheltered, our shores are cut by numerous impressive estuaries. While our rivers might be off limits, the tidal bits where they meet the sea are open to paddlers.

Mind you, we’re still not allowed to camp anywhere on that coast, or in The Lakes for that matter, at least not outside formal sites. How then was I able to write a book recently entitled Canoe Camping? The answer is given between the covers – Scotland!

Island camp on Loch Morar, Scotland- tim gent
Island camp on Loch Morar, Scotland.

In 2005, the Scottish Government introduced their Land Reform Act. Until that date, the access situation up there was as restrictive as the one still suffered south of the border. Then, at the stroke of a pen, one of the most beautiful countries in the world was opened almost completely. Today, as long as you don’t harm the environment or interfere with resident’s ability to live and work on the land, you can walk, climb, swim, ski or paddle pretty much where you like. What’s more, at the end of the day, you can probably put up a tent.

Scots should be very proud of their new law. Us paddlers are certainly very grateful.

–Tim Gent is the author of Canoe Camping. When not camping, Tim and Susannah live in Devon, England, midway between Dartmoor and the Atlantic coast.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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