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Canoeing in England

Egret from NJ

How many days in a year do you remember as special? Almost all of the days that I got to put a paddle in the water are remembered quickly and happily. Getting to know another country by exploring its rivers can add a new dimension to your travels.

If you are traveling to the United Kingdom for a holiday, and you enjoy canoeing or kayaking, there are places to indulge your interest. On each of our trips to England my husband and I have searched out places that will rent canoes or kayaks on a daily or hourly basis, and have had some truly memorable paddling experiences.

However, it is not as easy to find an outfitter, or "Canoe Hire," as here in the USA. There are two reasons for this. The first one is that many UK rivers are simply not open to public navigation, or are closed to canoes and kayaks during prime fishing season (April to October). If you holiday in the summer, as we often do, this reduces your paddling options. The second reason is that many of the UK's rivers are smaller and shorter in length than those in the US, so that fewer rivers can provide a full-day canoe trip. Nevertheless, we have always managed to add at least one day of paddling to our vacations. Canoeing is also a good way to meet other people in a relaxed and beautiful setting.

Below you will find notes on several different trips we have done. There are more rivers, lakes, estuaries, and canals yet to explore, but those below are the ones we have actually paddled. I should also mention that we are not experienced "whitewater" boaters, but what is known as "recreational paddlers." We like to float gently down rivers, observing the birds and other wildlife, stopping at riverside pubs or shady picnic spots, savoring our time on the water. Slow Travel of a different sort.

Canoeing on the River Wye

Canoeing on the River Wye

Flatwater - Paddling on a Canal

Our first time paddling in England was not planned. We drove over a bridge spanning the Kennet and Avon Canal near Pewsey, in Wiltshire. We stopped the car to admire the narrowboats tied up there, and ate lunch in the canalside cafe (The Waterfront, Pewsey Wharf). We then discovered that the owner also rented out tandem sit-on top kayaks by the hour. We could not resist, and donned life jackets, grabbed the paddles and spent a leisurely hour or so paddling up the canal past several thatched-roof farm buildings and back to the cafe. We were traveling at roughly the same speed as the narrowboats who waved to us!

Canals are good for short trips, as the lack of current means constant paddling. An "out-and-back" trip is possible, with no shuttle necessary as you just paddle back to your start point. Beginners and families with very young children would find this to be a pleasant and easy paddling experience. There are a number of canoe hire establishments throughout the British Waterways canal system.

Paddling in River Estuaries

On our next trip, based mainly in southwest Devon, we discovered "Floating Leaf Canoes" in the seaside town of Looe, which is over the border into Cornwall. The Looe River is tidal, and therefore like other rivers whose upper reaches may be closed to canoes in summer, it can be legally paddled from its mouth up to the point of its tidal limits at any time of year.

Julian and his wife June run one of the best canoe hire operations that we have ever utilized anywhere. While hordes of beachgoers swarmed toward the sea, we met Julian and the other guests in the main car park and headed away from the beach, into the cool woods bordering the west branch of the Looe River as high tide approached. We ambled on for 10 minutes until we went down to the riverbank to meet June guarding the boats.

My jaw dropped as I realized that we would actually be paddling these exquisitely beautiful, all-wooden, open canoes. Each one had been hand-built by Julian over the years. If you have ever rented a battered aluminum boat just to get onto a river, you will know how rare and special this is. The canoes handled beautifully, too.

This trip is about three hours in length. The gentle flotilla of six boats, with Julian leading and June in the sweep canoe, paddles upstream for about one and a half hours. Swans accompany you on the journey, great grey herons nest in the riverside branches, and you ride a gentle current as you converse with the other paddlers. As the tide turns, and the upper limits of legal navigation are reached, the return trip begins. Another highlight of this particular trip is tea-time. The group pulls out at a lovely spot, a stove for boiling water, cups and teabags appear, and each guest is offered a cup of hot tea and one of June's home-made gooseberry cakes. The paddling level on this trip is easy, and beginners are made welcome. The whole experience was exquisite.

Paddling on Rivers With Open Navigation All Year

One river in England and Wales that is open to public navigation all year long is the River Wye. It offers about 100 miles of mainly Class I (easy) water and beautiful scenery. We have traveled to this area twice, and taken a canoe trip each time. There are many different outfitters along the river, from Glasbury-on-Wye, down to Monmouth. You may book trips in length from half day to week-long paddling/camping journeys.

If you would like to glimpse the elusive, swift, electric-blue Kingfisher, then this is the river for you. We found these birds to be abundant all along the winding river. They are much smaller and fancier than North American Kingfishers and a joy to spot.

We rented a canoe for a full day trip from Hoarwithy (where we were based at the incomparable Aspen House B & B) downriver to Kerne Bridge. Passing through the town of Ross-on-Wye along the way, the Hope and Anchor Inn provided a place to tie up the boat, a nice luncheon break, bathrooms, and a riverside garden with ice cream kiosk. After passing out of Ross the river meanders along, and the current quickens. We floated past homes, gardens, pubs, and, in glorious surprise around one particular bend, the red-stoned Goodrich Castle. We had actually visited this historic castle the previous day by car and foot, but what a startlingly different perspective it was to see it from the river, looming above the wooded hillside.

There are several outfitters in the Ross-on-Wye area, but we happened to use Wye-Pursuits and were pleased with the service. The boat was in good shape and the friendly owner drove us the 10 miles back up to Hoarwithy at the end of the trip.

Our other trip on the Wye was much farther upstream, beginning in the famous bookstore town of Hay-on-Wye. We paddled and floated about nine miles of river from Hay to Locksters Pool. This stretch of river had faster water in many places, though still slow in the oxbow sections. We carried our own lunch that day, and made a picnic in a beautiful spot along the bank. The river was splendid, a great way to enjoy a gorgeous July day.

The outfitter in Hay-on-Wye will not be named here. Untypical of the warm welcome and excellent service we have found throughout the Wye Valley, this operation was basically disorganized and less than satisfactory. Next time we float the upper Wye we will probably use one of the other outfitters in nearby Glasbury-on-Wye. The River Wye itself is highly recommended, as is the entire border region of England and Wales.

Tudor House on the River Wye

Tudor House on the River Wye

Canoe and Steam Train Combination

The next canoe adventure was one of the most delightful, as it combined a leisurely paddle with a trip on an antique steam railway. I have told many friends about this trip, and everyone thinks it sounds like a grand outing. It truly was memorable.

We began the trip in the city of Bridgnorth, Shropshire, following the instructions to a city park that borders the River Severn there. The River Severn is open all year to public navigation in some sections. The outfitter, Sun Valley Canoeing, runs a very enticing trip. You get your canoe in Bridgnorth, float down the River Severn to Arley, and then return to Bridgnorth via the The Severn Valley Railway steam train.

The trip is about 10 miles of gentle but good current, easy but interesting paddling, and in our case, included many sightings of beautiful Kingfishers. Each canoe receives a map of the river, instructions for where to land for lunch break and how to find the take-out point at journey's end. The pub recommended for lunch has a huge lawn and garden area, river frontage, and good food and drink. Children are welcome, and we met many families as fellow paddlers.

Once you land at the take-out point in Arley, the guides relieve you of your canoe, paddles, and life-jackets and give you a ticket for the steam train back up to Bridgnorth. You can take the next train, or dawdle in Arley and catch a later train.

A footbridge over the river brings you to the other side where you walk uphill to the impossibly cute, flower-bedecked Arley train station. Steam train enthusiasts have lovingly refurbished both the station and the trains. The trip back is fun, and you can look down to the river and see the riffles and twists through which you have just paddled.

This was a very professionally run operation, with helpful friendly staff and a well-maintained fleet of canoes. Kayaks were available for the trip for those who preferred to float solo. This would be an excellent family, group, or solo trip.

River Severn at Arley

River Severn at Arley

What to Bring

All rental operations, or Canoe Hire, as they are known in Great Britain, will provide you with paddles, life jackets (or "buoyancy aids") for all ages and sizes, and your canoe or kayak. Contemplating a paddling day as part of your Slow Travels should not weigh down your luggage at all. All you need pack is sun block, sunglasses, and a hat with a good brim; items that are most likely in your luggage already.

Many of the outfitters also provide sealable, watertight containers to their guests, to keep lunch or cameras dry. If you wear glasses or expensive sunglasses I also recommend bringing a piece of string or a "glasses-grip," to keep your glasses from going into the water in the unlikely event you should fall in. If you have water sandals or beach shoes they can be tucked in your bag, too. Then you can truly "cool your heels" in the river of your choice.

Prices

Canoes and kayaks are rented usually by the hour, half-day, and full-day. Prices vary widely by region, outfitter, and popularity. General range is £7 per hour, £20 per half-day and £30 for a full-day. Prices are per boat, not per person. A full-day is usually 5+ hours on the water, and the most cost-effective way to rent.

Resources

www.bbc.co.uk/wiltshire/: BBC Article about Pewsey Waterfront cafe on the Kennet & Avon Canal.

www.mountainandwater.co.uk/wyeroute.htm: Excellent mile-by-mile description with photos, of the River Wye.

www.visitherefordshire.co.uk: Good tourism site with information on the Wye Valley.

www.bcu.org.uk: The British Canoe Union, an advocacy and information group for paddlesports. Lots of good information on the site, including river access.

www.floatingleafcanoes.co.uk: Floating Leaf Canoes, canoe rental in southwest Devon.

www.smr.herefordshire.gov.uk: Goodrich Castle.

www.wye-pursuits.co.uk: Wye Pursuits, canoe outfitters in the Ross-on-Wye area.

www.virtual-shropshire.co.uk: Sun Valley Canoeing, canoe rentals on River Severn.

www.aspenhouse.net: B & B or cottage, great base for all the Wye Valley and lower Severn.

E. K. Scott, 2005

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