The BCU offers sound advice to paddlers on how to paddle rivers in a manner which earns us a welcome and doesn't harm the surroundings. Every paddler should and hopefully does follow this sensible advice without question:
The Way it Is
- Access to English and Welsh Rivers in Practice
These notes are based on extensive experience but are not set in stone. They are here for your consideration as a paddler; only you can decide what use to make of them.
They are intended to do two things:
a] Give a clear prcis of the way that access to English and Welsh rivers works for canoeists in practice.
b] Offer suggestions on how best to enjoy rivers that do not have access agreements or rights of navigation; ie. the vast majority of English and Welsh rivers.
What these notes are NOT intended to do is to make suggestions as to where we go from here. That is another question entirely.
Access in the real world
Oh no, this article is concerned with 'banditting' rivers!
Clearly, it is written by some reckless yoof who wants to stir up trouble!
Clearly, it is intended to incite folk to break the law!
Clearly, it will make canoeists into 'their own worst enemies' (as various patronising 'Canoe Focus' editorials have put it in the past)!
Clearly it is anti-BCU! Anti-anglers! Anti-society!
Now, that's cleared away the old clichs. Now, let's think about the way that things really are. It's important that we do not - to each other at least - delude ourselves about the way things are and what paddlers really do.
The Brighton Uni study commissioned by DEFRA suggests that, 'Estimates suggest that only 12% of the physically navigable major river network is available for use by craft'. In other words, you can't paddle nearly 90% of our rivers. The study also noted that in the few paddling guidebooks they consulted (mainly 'Welsh Rivers' by Chris Sladden and the website www.ukriversguidebook.co.uk), they found 7000 km of rivers described without access agreements or rights of navigation. The obvious inference here is that these rivers are being paddled illegally, regularly enough to be described and published. Are these rivers purely being paddled by Mr Sladden and myself (UK Rivers Guidebook website editor)? Of course not. Anybody who paddles in our country knows that a huge proportion of boating is done outside access agreements or rights of navigation - illegally, some would claim. Incredible as it seems, much of (most of??) the time when a paddler goes paddling on English rivers, he or she is doing so without permission and possibly in contravention of the law.
The result is that a huge proportion of paddling in the UK is done outside access agreements or rights of navigation; what some would call 'bandit' runs. This suggests that whether knowingly or otherwise, the chances are that YOU have at some point been a 'bandit' in someone's eyes. This is the last time I will use this offensive phrase, as it usually refelcts the outlook of the person using it than that of the paddler referred to.
Access 'Agreements' are negotiated by BCU or WCA River Advisors. These people are unpaid volunteers who have a thankless and often impossible task, operating against ancient feudal laws, deeply selfish interests and general indifference to achieve access agreements on our rivers. In most instances - and it is hardly surprising, given the opposition - they fail to achieve worthwhile access to their nominated river(s). They deserve our full respect for their efforts. You try it yourself.
'Voluntary agreements have failed to provide adequate access' - the Brighton report for DEFRA.
Do we pretend that this is not happening? This is the reality of English paddling. The average paddler has to figure out how best to make use of it. The following notes are aimed at those who are in the tough position of wanting to paddle a river outside an access agreement. Many such people are deterred by fear of abuse and/ or censure, and sadly this is a real possibility. However as noted, a significant proportion of paddling is carried out outside access agreements. The surprising thing is that in the vast majority of cases, this happens smoothly and causes no disruption and no offence to anybody. This is able to happen because paddlers usually follow a common-sense and pragmatic approach, which is outlined below.
Your decision. There are paddlers who have grown old waiting for the opportunity and permission to enjoy their local river. Only you can decide whether you wish to take this approach or whether you wish to enjoy your natural river heritage at your leisure. The key in either case however, is to have as much information as possible about the river and the situation regarding it. Only then can you make a reasoned decision. Guidebooks are useful in this respect, but River Advisors are in most cases prepared to give you realistic and pragmatic advice based upon their local expertise.
Paddling without abuse or censure
As noted above, there is a right way and a wrong way of paddling a river where access is not formally established. Many paddlers quote the phrase, "It is easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission". Thankfully, in practice most paddlers take a more thoughtful and structured approach to paddling such rivers. Here are some suggestions which are generally agreed as 'good practice' for enjoying a river trip without receiving abuse or censure.
" The early bird gets the worm. You can often be on or even down a river before anybody knows.
" Late runs are also a quiet time. Save this for rivers which you know well and are confident to descend quickly in dusk conditions.
" Large groups are anathema. They are loud, visible and slow. They are an irritating curse on rivers with access agreements, on those without they are the kiss of death.
" Minibuses and trailers. No.
" Park your car where it will not cause offence. Remove roofbars as sadly, your car may be vandalised by those who wish to deny you the river. Tire slashings are not unheard of either.
" Ideally, have a shuttle driver who can drop you off and leave quickly.
" Arrive changed and ready to go. From arrival to launching should take no longer than two minutes.
Paddling the river without abuse or censure
" Where possible, stay off the river banks and in your boats.
" Speed is everything. If you know a river well, you can descend quickly and minimise time wasted on inspection. If you are on an unfamiliar river, then do not compromise safety; just make sure that your inspection and protection methods are efficient and inobtrusive, eg. do you really need everybody out of their boats? Likewise, swimmers should be dealt with quickly and efficiently.
" Keep your group together at all times. The more you are stretched out, the more you are vulnerable to abuse.
" If you encounter anybody along the banks, don't look shifty or guilty. Smile and wave. Almost invariably this will be returned.
" If you encounter confrontation (and this is thankfully extremely rare in practice) never get into an argument. Quietly and politely assert that you are going to carry on with your paddling trip. Continue with your trip at your earliest possible convenience, this conversation will go nowhere productive! If legal action is threatened, do not protest or argue. Explain politely that if the person abusing you feels that a crime is being committed, he should put it in the hands of the police who can meet you at the end of your trip.
Off the river
" Tell other paddlers - especially BCU/ WCA River Advisors - what you have paddled, when and where. There is no stigma in enjoying rivers, sharing knowledge or in acknowledging the realities of the access situation in practice.
" Circulate information about rivers that you have paddled and encourage others to do so instead of sticking to crowded 'tours', commercial rivers, open days, suchlike. These unfortunately serve to reinforce the current unsatisfactory access situation.
Rivers with access agreements
Where possible, paddle within the confines and strictures of such access agreements as exist. Why not? An River Advisor has worked hard to achieve them, respect that. There are however a number of instances where this is not so clearcut. Only you can decide how to proceed in these instances:
a] Governing body policy is to make access agreements for members only, and many agreements as a result only allow for BCU/ WCA members (or affiliated clubs, etc). Such agreements cater to 40 000 BCU members out of a paddling population in the millions. As a non-member, do you respect such agreements or not? Not an easy decision to make.
b] Rivers with access forbidden by the BCU/ WCA. Incredible as it may seem, there are a number of rivers across the country where the BCU/ WCA have agreed to ban paddling in return for limited access on a separate river. Do you respect this or not? Many paddlers have found such agreements very hard to swallow.
c] A number of access agreements specify the date and manner in which a river may be paddled. The water level conditions and dates that you wish to enjoy the river will not always coincide with these rules. Decision to be made?
Only you can decide what use to make of this information. It is grounded in the extensive experiences of many paddlers regarding the reality of paddling English and Welsh rivers. By all means debate, query and criticise the observations made; if this does not generate debate then it has been a pointless exercise. But when all is said and done, this article simply tries to describe the way it is.