The UK Rivers Access Issue, and a total idiot on the River Severn

England-Wales-River-Access-Map

The current rivers navigation access situation

For those not familiar with canoeing and kayaking in the UK, we have a particular situation in England and Wales. In our supposed free and democratic country we still have remnants from our feudal past. That being that many land owners and angling associations think that the rivers belong to them and that they can control who and what goes on the water.

I won’t bore you with the details, suffice to say that there is no law that says that it is illegal to go on the water itself, and that the situation is unique to England, Wales, and Iran. Yes, Iran. Pretty much every other country in the world allows its citizens to freely canoe and kayak and raft on their rivers, but not in the UK. Apart from Scotland of course. As per usual while the English and the Welsh suffer idiocy, the Scottish sorted things out, made a really good access code, and opened up all their rivers.

Just like the UK television license, the situation on our rivers perplexes most foreigners. It also perplexes most of the UK population who aren’t even aware of the stupidity of the situation. What makes things worse is that, as I mentioned earlier, there is no law, just a perceived one, or at the very least a situation that has never been fully clarified in law.

It is true that landowners own the banks and the riverbed. However they do not own the water. So quite how they, and the angling fraternity, think that they can control who or what goes on the water itself is beyond most water users. Somehow the idea that rivers are part of our natural heritage, and that as land owners they hold the rivers in public trust seems to go over their selfish heads. Take a look at the map in the picture. Note the amount of purple (disputed navigation rights) compared to green, and yellow (access agreements the Government is so idiotically in favour of).

That the Government keeps trying to push voluntary access agreements as ‘the way forward’ when ‘the way backward’ going back 60 odd years of trying proves beyond any doubt that they do not work is bad enough. Today though I came across a gentleman, a word I use in the loosest possible terms, who decided that even the open navigation of the River Severn was off limits to anyone but himself.

He had decided to perch himself and his teenage son on the only piece of public land for a few miles around that it is possible to launch a boat from. That place being Pixham Ferry in Worcestershire. The fact that it is called Pixham Ferry should be a big clue as to what it was used for in the past. There is even the remnants of an old boat storage hut right next to it. The ferry in question was just an ordinary rowing boat.

Now, I do not want to tar all anglers with the same brush. I have been going to Pixham Ferry as regularly as I can over the summer. I have met a number of anglers who have set up on the place I need to launch the boat from – the old ferry launch point. All of them until now have been really friendly and courteous. Many of them have even helped get my boat to the water and back out. Some have even asked how they can start kayaking themselves. But it only takes one bad apple to ruin everything, and boy did I find it today!

As I got out of my car in the parking area and saw a gentleman of rather large girth sat by the river I just had a niggling feeling that he wasn’t going to be a happy bunny. I don’t know why, but I just got that vibe somehow.

I unloaded my kayak and got into my gear, looking forward to some flatwater practice. It is now Autumn, but today the sky was clear and the temperature was in the mid 20’s. I dragged my kayak down near to where I needed to launch from and asked politely if I could just quickly launch my boat. It has never been a problem in the past as I have already mentioned, possibly because most of the anglers in the area are decent human beings who realise that being polite doesn’t cost anything.

The man with the sizeably challenged stomach had pretty much brought, from what I could tell, the entire contents of his garage with him, and had laid it all out on the bank in as wide an area as he possibly could. He could have asked me politely to wait a few minutes while he moved a few things to clear a path. I wouldn’t have had a problem with that. He could have told me politely that he had too much gear to move, and would it be possible just this once for me to find a place further up river to launch from. This would have involved me crossing private land, which no doubt he would have taken issue with if he was in the usual angling spot (on said land), but I would have been fine with it just the once. Especially so if he had been polite.

But no. The horizontally challenged baffoon instead said, and I quote word for word, “Not a f***ing chance!” Those were the very first words out of his mouth. No hello’s, not even an umm or an ahh. Just those words straight.

I’ll let you digest that for a second. Here I was on public land, at a known boat launch spot, but also a public land regardless, being sworn at for daring to ask if he could possibly allow me through to launch my boat.

He then said that if I wanted to sort things out we could do it in the car park, if you get my drift. I would never let things devolve into a physical confrontation, but it was clear that a) he wouldn’t be adverse to escalating the situation to an attempted physical assault, and b) that he very, very clearly had one hell of a gigantic chip on his shoulder about canoes and kayaks. Maybe he was bullied by a boat at school, I don’t know.

I can usually remain calm and collected in such situations and talk people down but in this case I lost my temper. I wasn’t going to let such a complete idiot tell me where and when I could access the river from such a point. Eventually he started waffling on about licenses – I hold a British Waterways license for the Severn, which totally ballsed up his argument on that front – and then started to accuse me of deliberately ruining his ‘swim’.

For those not familiar with angling terminology a ‘swim’ is basically just an area where anglers fish and set up bait. He seemed to think that a lone kayak going into the water and paddling away to leave them alone (which is what I would be doing) would ruin ‘the swim’. Never mind the fact that as we were arguing a whole multitude of large sea capable cruisers, canal boats and the like passed by. Of course, I forgot, my little 7’7 boat would of course cause far more disturbance than a 40ft motor cruiser!

The man with a tyre for a stomach and a goldfish for a brain wouldn’t back down. I left, and risked crossing the private field to the water further up. But my day was ruined. The practice I wanted to do was thrown out of the window and I couldn’t focus. I gave up not long afterwards. This was a man who had a vendetta against canoes and kayaks. I could have been Mother Theresa and he still would have reacted in the same way. He was spoiling for a fight from second one.

What can I say? Other than visit The Canoe Days Out Access Map to see for yourself how bad the situation is, and to add your own incidents if you have the misfortune to have one.

12 thoughts on “The UK Rivers Access Issue, and a total idiot on the River Severn

  1. I enjoy fly fishing on inland rivers in Wales – and I have no problem with kayaks and canoes using the water… I disagree with any angler who says it ruins the fishing or scares them away (I cannot speak for course fishing as I find that too mind numbingly boring to care).
    BUT – the issue I feel that needs to be addressed and the reason many anglers are unhappy with the situations is that we pay a lot of money to be able to fish the waters we fish.
    We pay a licence fee to the Environment Agency which is £70 a year if you fish for salmon too and then we pay a licence fee to the landowner for us to have the right of access to the water and the right to hunt for fish on those said waters.
    We also spend our own time and our angling club money to pay for maintenance of the banks of the rivers and the access points. We (Speaking for my club only) ensure we clan up after ourselves and leave no mess.
    We are constantly having to think and act on behalf of the environment and eco-systems that live within it – and even don’t access the waters at certain times of the year as migratory fish run the rovers to spawn. It doesn’t take much to disturb the eggs of a fish on a river bed.
    So… either it is free access for all – which in my opinion would be carnage – or anyone who wants access to the waters, pays a licence fee just like the anglers… then we all take on a shared responsibility for the water and the banks of the rivers.
    We all have the same goal and that is to enjoy our countries beautiful inland water-ways. I hate that we are all fighting about it.

    • Hi Lewis, thanks for your thoughtful comments. Please don’t take my comments below personally as they are based upon general observations and discussions I have had. I appreciate your open and calm points, and only wish that other anglers would be similarly minded!

      All river users have to think about the environment, and most paddlers would only be too happy to act accordingly if there are specific environmental reasons in particularly sensitive areas. You will find that the vast majority of kayakers and canoeists care deeply for the natural environment. Indeed this is one of the main reasons we indulge in our hobby in the first place.

      This stance has even been set out by the BCU and Canoe Wales. There is however little empirical evidence to suggest that kayaking and canoeing particularly affects spawning, with floods and the like being the real risks to eggs. An Environment Agency report confirmed this, although strangely seemingly after pressure from some circles they seem to have distanced themselves from its conclusions without providing any contrary evidence.

      Requests to know where spawning beds are on rivers have often been turned down, and so in some instances we are left in a no win situation where we are accused of damaging spawning beds if we go on the water, but on the other hand are refused the information needed so that we can avoid them when launching. For 99% of the time however it shouldn’t be an issue because we don’t tend to like boating on water that is so shallow that hulls and paddles are hitting the river bed! It is also sometimes used as a red herring as it were.

      A case in point is the Wye & Usk agreement, which bans boating during the spring and summer in all but the highest levels (which are suitable for beginners). This is a time of year when fish are generally not spawning, and yet boating is banned despite the rivers being perfectly floatable at much lower levels than the official “green light” level. However during the autumn and winter when most fish are spawning and the eggs are laid into the river bed they permit boating at all levels. If there really was a serious environmental risk from boats to spawning then surely the agreement would allow boating in the spring and summer, but not in the autumn and winter?

      As it is I am told by a fishy friend that different types of fish can in fact spawn at different times of the year. Yet this doesn’t stop anglers wading out into the river. In fact on the Fishing Magic forum there was even advice on how to wade out over spawning beds! With this sort of information pertaining to the situation, in other words a “do as we say, not as we do” attitude, it can hardly be surprising that many boaters view anglers reasons for wanting to ban boating with deep suspicion.

      National license fees for kayaks and canoes are generally unworkable. There would need to be a return for that payment as well as a national payment system, and even if it was in place would the angling associations support it? There is much evidence to suggest that they wouldn’t, or at least they would expect unworkable restrictions in addition.

      When anglers have to pay a fee to fish while other pastimes are free, this is an issue that should be taken up with the people who charge the licenses and hand out the fishing rights rather than used as a reason to restrict other activities. Remember that the fees paid by anglers go towards restocking fish and the provision of facilities. As I say, if the price for this is felt to be too much, the anglers should be campaigning for a reduction and better rights. It is no secret that some landowners see angling as a cash cow. A stark illustration is on the Wye where the boundary between fishing rights holders changes, and to fish the same stretch of water you can pay a fraction of the cost of only a few hundred yards further upstream!

      Grouse hunters have to pay to hunt on land while hill walkers walk for free for example. The hunters aren’t campaigning to ban hill walking! Well, not any more, they did at one time, but I can’t see anyone supporting a return to those days.

      The right to navigate has existed since Roman times and has been reaffirmed through Parliamentry statute many times. The right to charge for fishing rights on the other hand is a relatively recent introduction in comparison, and is notable that most conflicts on the river have occurred since being introduced in the 1800’s. Although most conflict only generally started to occur regularly since the 1950’s or so. Before then the ability to boat along rivers has generally been accepted without challenge. There are even historical books about canoe journeys along rivers which are now hotly disputed, such as the Dee and the Hampshire Avon.

      For managed navigations such as the Avon, Severn, Trent, Thames etc we do have to pay a license fee to paddle on those rivers along with the canal network. It is notable that when these rivers were modified there was no compensation paid to landowners for loss of land ownership or rights, which one would expect if they owned the river. The reason is simple, navigation along a watercourse that supported it was already a public right. These rivers were used for navigation freely before they were modified. The modifications were put in place to make navigation more reliable. For example the Severn in Worcester was always at the mercy of the tide and the weather. Modification gave the river a consistent level and ability to navigate.

      The navigation acts on these rivers did not grant permission to navigate and many angling groups wrongly believe, since this right already existed. What they did was grant permission for the river to be modified, because installation of weirs and other obstructions to navigation was/is illegal without permission. Payments for use are needed because it cost money to create the canalisation and to maintain it.

      We also pay to access rivers over private land where facilities are provided. A prime example of this is Symonds Yat where we pay for parking as well as a launching fee. Landowners would do well to realise that if they provided such facilities, paddlers would pay to use them. Landowners would also benefit from diversifying into camping etc.

      I recently came back from Slovenia. The two main rivers there are the Soca and the Koritnica. In order to paddle these rivers a local permit is needed, which only costs a few Euros. In return for this permit payment the local government provides parking and toilet facilities along the many ingress and egress points along the river. This local system works quite well, but as you can see good facilities are provided in return. The local tourism economy is booming, and brings in a lot of income from kayakers and canoeists. Camp sites are everywhere with farmers and landowners realising the potential. For some reason in England and Wales the landowners only see the negatives instead of the positive opportunities that more open countryside access would bring. Such a negative outlook on things seems to be a uniquely British thing. The Welsh coastal path is direct evidence of this, with tourism economies along its length benefitting businesses and opening new opportunities for people to make money.

      I have only seen British landowners realise opportunities like this once. There is a farmer next to the river Swale in Yorkshire who provides parking and an honesty box. Most people pay to park there. He could of course demand a payment, which would be fine. Either way he has recognised that it would be silly not to take advantage of the opportunity gained from a very popular adventure sport up there.

      Many anglers in the UK seem to think that we should pay simply to navigate along the river with no facilities provided in return. This would not be acceptable since the right to navigate along a watercourse can historically be shown to be a public right since time immemorial. It is the access to the waters edge that is the real debate. In addition the owner of the Fishing Magic forum for example openly stated on his own forum that even if paddlers paid full whack to use the rivers he would oppose it simply because he does not want anyone else to be able to use the river! It is public gaffs such as this that show the true colours of many of the vocal anti-canoe anglers out there.

      This is indicative of a bigger issue that in many cases the “we pay” argument that is used by many anglers is a smoke screen when in reality they would not welcome any sort of extra official access no matter whether paddlers paid for it or not. If a national payment license scheme was introduced they would then move on to suggest huge restrictions, such as imposing a paddling season, when the reality is that in the UK we often have water all year round. There is no paddling season as such.

      We should all be able to share the waterways like they do in most other countries. The only way this can be done effectively is if we all start from an equal standpoint and respect that everyone has a right to use the water. Only then can specific local issues such as spawning beds, erosion etc be discussed openly and productively. If we all started from the standpoint of accepting we all had a right to use the water then the anglers and other recreational water users could then start to work together for the mutual benefit of the environment like they do in other countries instead of opposing one another.

      • HI – thanks for the reply – You said an awful lot there and to a certain degree (a large one) I completely agree – I think your last paragraph sums it up and also concludes my feeling towards the matter – we need to be on an equal playing field – I think anglers need to be less defensive and realise that they don;t own the waters and yes – we should all have a right to use the waters, as long as we respect the environment and it’s residents.
        It is a deep and complicated matter, and although it doesn’t have to be – we are dealing with humans – and as such it will continue to be complicated.
        I think if all parties could sit down and discuss matters with the interests of the river in mind and not selfish motives, then it will all be resolved very quickly.
        Money is a huge factor – Fishing is big business – it’s the largest participated sport in the UK and the landowners make a lovely retirement fund for themselves from it, not to mention the amount of money the EA gets from Fishing, plus tourism etc…
        Thanks for your blog – nice to read it from the “other side” as it were – hope you don’t encounter any more characters of the same vein as you did in the incident you detailed in your blog! We’re not all like that I promise!

    • But you are doing something substantially different, should walkers pay the same fees as grouse shooters when on the moors? Sporting rights and access are completely separate.

  2. Crikey, that was not a result at all for you was it? Your ‘day was ruined’ back in Autumn?

    I do however think that your retort regarding the gentleman’s girth held its own prejudice. There’s your problem. If you fundamentally delude yourself consistently that others will hold your needs in high regard then you will perpetually be unhappy with the result. You are no better than he to respond by mocking aspects of his character and appearance that have no bearing on the point your trying to make.

    So you had a bad day that day? Get over it. You’ve had plenty of respect on other days. I used to be a kayak user and I now chair a syndicate of fishers. I know both sides of the coin and actively encourage tolerance. Arguments and disagreements occur daily around this country and nobody truly knows how it is for anybody else in any aspect of life.

    Don’t you think that fishermen would much prefer to not have the feudal system of carving up the rivers? They’d love to roam free too, but they pay their dues and (for the most part) are respectful of the system. Rather than reflect badly upon what is currently in place, and rant from your own deluded position on the changes this country ought to make your access to the rivers better, why don’t you accept a reality? The system is there and you are perceivably trespassing and antagonising law abiding citizens into reacting to you.

    • 1) I wasn’t trespassing. It was public land (confirmed by the local Parish Council).
      2) It is a known boat launch area and the local anglers are openly allowed access to the field next to it.
      3) I don’t know how close you read the article, but he was aggressive from the very beginning, despite my polite request. As a result I reserve the right to poke fun at his rather horizontal girth, made more hilarious and ironic by his threats of violence (I think he would have struggled to get up the hill to the car park).

      Regarding the feudal system, I think that quite a lot of anglers like the system because in their eyes it keeps the riff raff away, and the money rolling in for the clubs and the sport. I have certainly seen no objections to it on any angling forum to speak of. Quite the opposite in fact.

      I will quite happily offer respect. I can and I do. But don’t expect me to react in a nice and pleasant way when someone decides to tell me to F off and threaten me with physical violence completely unprovoked.

  3. You state that the landowner owns the riverbed. Generally the landowner owns the land up to the banks of the river. It has been a cartographic practice to show a border as lying on the middle of the river, but this has never been enshrined in law. Therefore in actual fact no-one owns the river bed, never mind the water flowing above it.

  4. Walked Offa’s Dyke, Hadrian’s Wall, Coast to Coast and various hills, peaks and mountains in England and Wales over the last ten years and hope to do more- my 80th birthday present wish is going to be a new pair of hiking boots. I also enjoy paddling on rivers and ocean in Western Australia.
    Being born near Caerleon, on the Usk, I am considering paddling the river of my birth. On researching this I was astounded by the restrictions imposed on doing so.
    The public footpath access throughout Wales (deliberate precedence) and England is I believe as sacred, if not more so, than Magna Carta or the Bill of Rights; freedoms are fine but what is liberty if you don’t have freedom to move?
    The finer points of access/ fishing and other waterway uses are moote. However, if it is the case that landowners own to the banks that appears to me to be an access issue- how many ingress/egress points are needed?
    The other concerns of the water/riverbed ownership, fishing “rights” and environmental issues may be more complex but these can be resolved through the legal process.
    I can’t remember the source but to paraphrase- bad things happen when good people do nothing.
    I hope to paddle the Usk and use my boots for at least four years after 2031
    Good luck I will follow developments

  5. Hello

    I was wondering if anyone can help me or have any info on a problem I am having with a land owner,

    I go kayaking pass a place called stoneleigh abbey on the river avon Warwickshire , the land owner said that this is private property (the water } and to in his words clear off or I will get the police , I know the owner owns the bank and the rive bed but what about the water that I’m on and going through does he own the water as well and he does have the right to tell me the clear off, I’m ok if he’s in the right I just like to know my rights on the water ways ,
    the river gos right infront of the abbey .
    If you are unable to help do you know who I can contact or where I can view the info.

    • Hi Stewart,

      For starters, the Warwickshire Avon is a managed navigation, managed and controlled by the Canal & Rivers Trust from Alveston. However, the fact that this section has been canalised did not give ‘permission’ for navigation. It merely enhanced it. The Avon itself has a long history of navigation, and your right to use it as such goes back to time immemorial. It is a public right that has never been extinguished by any statute.

      Lastly, the idea that a land owner owns the bank and the river bed is not true any more. The Land Registry no longer accept that a land owner owns the river bed unless the deeds to the property make explicit mention of it, or the land owner can prove it. The Land Registry now presumes that they do not own it. Even if the boundaries go through the river, they make it clear that boundary lines on maps are usually only a general guide, and are not accurate.

      Regardless, they do not own the water, and you have a public right to navigate as long as you get onto the water from publicly accessible land. If he calls the Police, just be on your way and say you might call them yourself for harassment! The Police will not be bothered with him if he calls them, because trespass (which you aren’t committing by the way) is a civil offence, not a criminal one.

      If you want more information on river access, take a look at;
      http://www.caffynonrivers.co.uk
      http://www.riveraccessforall.co.uk
      http://www.watersofwales.org.uk (Wales focussed, but the everything on there is directly applicable to England, too)

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