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.