Access, rivers and places to paddle | What’s the deal?

Access, rivers and places to paddle | What’s the deal?

So you’ve bought a new boat and you’re super keen to get out and find places to paddle. But where to get on the water? Where to go on that maiden voyage? There is a good chance you live near a river, canal, or maybe a lake? There are 59,000km of waterways in England, but knowing whether you can actually paddle or swim in them is not quite as straightforward as you may think….

So here’s the easy bit.

Anywhere that requires a licence to be on the water, like your local canal or some of the major rivers, there is no issue. With your British Canoeing membership, you are free to enjoy around 4500km of waterways. There is some great info here about the river licence and where it enables you to paddle.

Unsure of where these are? Check out Paddlepoints and search for the waterway near you.

These waterways are referred to as ‘Statutory Navigations’. i.e. there is an Act of Parliament granting a clear right of navigation for the public.

paddling on canals

So canals are good, what about everywhere else?

Here it becomes a little more unclear….disagreements over whether there is or isn’t a right for paddlers and swimmers to enjoy around 96% of waters in England and Wales have raged for decades. Some believe that rivers are private and require permission from the landowner before paddling. British Canoeing maintains that there is evidence to suggest that there has always been a right to access our waterways and they should be fairly shared by all. Unfortunately, unlike the rights of way network on land, where footpaths and bridleways mark clearly where we have a right to walk or ride, on water things are less clear. Rivers that don’t require a license are generally considered as ‘contested’.

What about lakes and reservoirs?

These vary. In the Lake District for example, each of the bodies of water have different rules and bylaws that affect where, when and how you can access the water. Reservoirs also have different rules, depending on which utilities company who manage them. It is always worth checking in advance before setting out!

Ok, so what does all this mean? Can I paddle or not?

We believe you can.

Despite the fact the majority of our water in England and Wales has been argued over for years, our waters can and should be enjoyed by all. So long as we all paddle or swim with respect for other users and care for the environment. Check out our article here around sharing the space. Most people paddle freely with no hassle at all, but we think it is important that you are in the know about the bigger picture.

So what happens if I paddle on a ‘contested’ waterway?

Unfortunately, because the situation is unclear, we know that from time to time paddlers and swimmers are challenged. If this happens, it is important to remain calm, polite and seek to defuse the situation.

As long as we respect other users, we respect the rights of landowners and we stick to the countryside code, we all should be able to share our waterways in harmony.

paddling on access waters

What about access to the water?

It is really important that paddlers, swimmers, anyone accessing the water respects private property. In getting to the water with your boat or board, you must not cross private land without permission from the landowner, this could constitute trespass.

Luckily, there are thousands of places to launch and land safely and responsibly, just check out PaddlePoints for places to paddle and launch!

So what is British Canoeing & Go Paddling doing about all this?

Glad you asked! In November 2018, British Canoeing launched its Clear Access, Clear Waters Campaign. We are asking the Government to secure fair, shared, sustainable open access to waters in England and Wales…that’s not much to ask for is it?

Rivers should be shared and cared for by all users. We want people to have clarity in where they can paddle and how to do so responsibly.

So since 2018, we have been lobbying hard for changes to legislation – BUT we need your help! Check out the Clear Access, Clear Waters Campaign website for more info on how you can support our campaign to secure more places for you to paddle!

If you want to unlock more places to paddle, sign our petition here!