Recently I had a chance to make a short visit to the Tees Barrage whitewater course in Stockton on Tees. Hopefully this will be of interest and use to anyone visiting the north of England and find themselves in a dry spell. To give an idea of distances, from Threlkeld in the Lakes it is an hour and a halfs drive, and an hour from the Washburn area.
I have wanted to visit the site for while now, after its refurbishment and conversion into a modern course in 2012. If I could best relate it, I would say that it is halfway between HPP and Cardiff. There are two courses. The long course and the short course. Both are powered by a combination of tidal flow and/or Archimedes screw pumps. This means that the site is far cheaper to run than CIWW. Even better is that when the tide runs in the right direction, the Archimedes screws get powered by the water, generating electricity, which is then sold back to the grid!
The long course is the main run, and is on whenever the centre is open. This is a grade 3 run, and for an artificial course it is fairly long compared to others. If you are used to CIWW there are a few things that you will notice immediately. The first is how the course is laid out much more like a river. The centre staff told me that this is important to them. On certain sections, to keep your speed you have to thread lines. There are even parts where you can use curlers on the edge of stoppers to help you with this. I’m not used to this sort of detail on an artificial course.
Other sections enable great boof practice, sometimes with two or three good boofs being needed in a row. At the end of each rapid is usually a decent sized hole, and they can be pretty darn sticky if you cock up! The rapid blocks are set up in such a way to encourage the water to flow, as opposed to being set up at 90 degrees to the side walls to back up the water to create drops. Another aspect that CIWW regulars will notice is that the eddies are friendly. There are none of the surging boils and recirculation found at other courses. You can actually stop and have a chat without being capsized by an errant boil catching an edge while you are taking a rest!
Lastly, the course is deep. Very deep. Emily confirmed that when she took her test dip, all in the name of science you understand, that her feet couldn’t touch the bottom! This also explains why the stoppers and play holes are so good. The long course is excellent for beginners, with each rapid being broken up by a decent sized area for collecting pieces. And the depth of the channels means minimal head bashing and knuckle dragging.
There are some great fun parts, such as the long “slide” on the back straight that fires you straight through a nice stopper at the end at speed, the middle rapid which is excellent for timed boof practice, culminating in a short steep drop and a deep V shaped hole at the bottom. In fact this is one of my favourite aspects compared with CIWW, the drops are shaped in such a way that you can properly boof over them and get that satisfying slapping sound on the bottom of the boat confirming your success.
The final drop on the long course depends on whether the short course is running. If the short course is running it can wash out due to the depth of the pool at the bottom. But if it isn’t, this is quite a hit! I was quite taken aback by it. Doing the course in my playboat, which is all I had at the time, was great fun, and this stopper span me out after a great big plug every time! Thinking about it, what Tees have done is create a course that works well for rafts, is great for creekboaters wanting to improve continuous river running skills, and also satisfies the playboaters with a multitude of very deep play stoppers and waves spread throughout.
It isn’t surprising though. The centre often has regular Rapid Bloc days where paddlers can come and experiment with the block position so that continual improvements can be made. Involving the local paddle community like this is a fantastic idea, and maybe one that CIWW could take on board?
The course changes character throughout the day depending on river level, tide direction, how many pumps are running (if they are running), and whether the short course is also running. So even on the same day you get a varying course. I am told that with all four pumps running in addition to the tide, some of the features can be huge. Particularly the last drop.
Which leads me nicely onto the short course. This seemingly innocuous course only runs under certain conditions. It ran while we were inspecting the course, but not while we were paddling, alas. However we got to watch others on it, and it looks to be incredible fun! There are only three main features on it. The initially drop in, which looks to be a good surfable wave/hole, and a short channelled slide. But you might want to rethink whether you want to play too much, because almost immediately you come across the third feature.
Effectively, if we discount the initial drop at the top, the last feature pretty much takes you down the entire gradient of the long course in one go! I would say that it must be at least 8ft high, dropping at 45 odd degrees straight into the most colossal hole you have ever seen on an artificial white water course in the U.K.! I have seen videos of it at even higher water levels and it can be truly huge. A sizeable percentage of people who we saw going through it, if they didn’t capsize, had a few teetering moments! The only exception were the slalom guys, who just sliced straight through, getting a fully submerged face full of water in the process! We saw one brace soul go in and play on this stopper. Let’s just say that he couldn’t get out! Well, I tell a lie, he did come out eventually, but only after conceding defeat and going over to pull his deck.
Just like CIWW there are nice clean changing rooms, and a really good cafe that you can use in your paddling kit (although they do insist that you remove spray skirts before entering). Water quality, I am told is good. At least as good as any other white water river we would paddle. There are the occasionally bits of floating rubbish, which can lead you to question this. But it is nothing compared to some of the stuff you can see floating through HPP sometimes!
At £8.75 for the day, Tees Barrage Whitewater was really good value for the money. You will have to fill out forms, which are almost exactly the same as the ones at CIWW. Although they are good for a year once done, and there is no membership or park and play card fee to pay. There is a very similar friendly atmosphere to CIWW, and in the summer I can imagine it being a fantastic venue to visit. You might even see some seals!