River Aire – Saltaire to Leeds City Centre (Whitewall road???)

Where is it?: West Yorkshire, clipping the edges of both Bradford and Leeds.

PUT-INS/ TAKE-OUTS:  Saltaire access via footbridge. There is no parking or official access for vehicles here but you can park on street and walk down or get there early and drive in and out quickly. Parkland on river left, provides easy access to river, just upstream of the weir. Grid ref.(SE 137 382) Just near Salts Mill. There are some free parking spaces on the street down to the river and paid car parks nearby. We used the main Salts Mill car park to drop off our boat then moved the card to the Free parking. We used the train from Leeds to get back to the car, parked in Saltaire. For the get out we paddled up the canal a short way to a nice quiet park, which is on a quietish road in Leeds and its possible to park briefly in the entrance to the gardens. Grid ref.(SE 291 331) 

There are also several places to finish or start a cruise:

Emmerdale Farm (Esholt)

Apperley Bridge


Grading II between the weirs, but grade IV at weirs in high flows.


TIME NEEDED: 6-8 hours in lower flows for full trip or shorter sections.

ACCESS HASSLES: Canoe England's stated policy of 365-day agreements unless proven environmental reasons prevent paddling. Leeds Basin. If you choose to get out in the car park on the right-hand side and expect to have an argument with the attendant who for some reason seems to think the river belongs to him!

WATER LEVEL INDICATORS: http://rainchasers.com/river/aire/wave

GRADING: 2, or 3 in high water, some weirs will be up to Grade 4 at times!

MAJOR HAZARDS/ FALLS: Weirs, bridges, overhead pipes in some cases detritus, it's Leeds/Bradford so expect the odd shopping trolley. Shipping Container wedged under bridge Grid ref (SE 195 397) river right. 

General Description

Like the Calder weirs are the main hazard but there are some quite good stretches of rapids, good sport at high water but then the weirs have to be treated with respect. Most of these weirs will present significant challenges for the unwary boater, at high flows, the waves will mostly be grabby and trappy and at medium to low flows the drops daunting and fast with technical line choices required. I chose to put-in at Saltaire, because the train station is very close to the river (and Leeds station at the end), meaning we could do the transfer via train an avoid parking in a busy Leeds City Centre. I found free parking next to the station in Saltaire (weekends and evenings only).

Saltaire Weir comes up just after a green iron footbridge. It can be shot down the centre in low/moderate levels. Right in the central crease near the base of the weir the weir is non uniform and has on the extreme river left a flat base extending out well beyond the base of the weir (a possible issue for long open boats which could get tipped by this rapid change in angle as you hit the bottom of the flat weir toe, for kayaks no issue). The most reliable route, for kayaks, and the one to take if river is high, is in the extreme right-hand corner, right under the mill building. This gives a very exhilarating ride! For open boats, I would assess depending on water level but aim to shoot just left of centre if possible.

Just below the weir is a river wide reef, which probably drowns out in medium to high flows, but will always provide some acceleration due narrowing river channel at this point.

A little further downstream, there is a pipe mounted on a frame running overhead, something to watch out for in higher flows as this could create a strainer. Inspection may be possible from the car park below the mill.

Just before Shipley weir is another overhead structure, should be passable in all but very high flows.

Shipley Weir just after the main road bridge. It is best to come through the right hand arch and shoot in the centre of the immediate river channel, slightly sideways (pointing left) if low, but use the shoot on the extreme right if moderate/high, for a kayak. For an open boat in low flows, I would stay left through the bridge and paddle about half way up, behind the weir (it’s on a long diagonal), then shoot at a tangent to the weir, roughly in the centre of the whole weir. For medium/high flows go through the right arch as noted above but shoot right of centre, be ready to start turning left as soon as you hit the weir toe. Below the weir on extreme right can be shallow and rocky in lower flows. Inspection is possible, via some steps on the river right, which allow egress for open boaters at least.

There is quite a lot of manmade waste in the river in this section, so tread carefully!

Don’t swim/roll or paddle unless you really need to.

Good long rapid runs below this weir and there are several more between here and the next weir (although they may drown out above medium flows).

400m below Shipley weir is another overhead structure, be alert.

250m below is a straightforward constriction rapid.

250m below this is overhead pipe and railway bridge. There are many bridges on this trip, of which I consider form the 2nd greatest danger after the weirs, especially for open boaters.

Yet another pipe overhead just downstream of railway bridge.

1km further is the next rapid, a diagonal reef, starting river left. This will be bony in lower flows, but can be portage river right. Just below is a footbridge overhead.

Rapids continue below the footbridge.


Bridges, container and general trash, sewage smells green pipe, lots of head restrictions.

Whitecoats Weir is 0.75km below the road bridge at Rodley, quite a big drop. In low/moderate levels this is a straight shoot to the right of centre. At moderate/high levels this can be nasty and is best portaged. Directly below the weir say 15m is a large island and the river splits left and right around it. This makes the exit from the weir tricky as both have trees overhanging, lines are possible, but inspect first and keep alert. If an open boat makes the weir be ready for quick action below this.

The left-hand bank is part of a Yorkshire water owned nature reserve and they will not welcome boaters if you are spotted. This is the far end of the reserve and they generally restrict public access here, so if you are getting out here to inspect the weir for safety be discreet and quiet, going when the reserve is closed may also help. Right-hand bank from a point almost on the weir top is possible to portage but can be tricky in higher flows not to get swept off the weir. There is a natural rock/ramp fish pass, river left going through the nature reserve, but this has been deliberately built to keep kayaks and boaters out! So unless your one for confrontation don’t bother trying to get on it.

Newlay Weir, another big drop. 2km below Whitecoats after a railway and old iron road bridge. Shoot right of centre keeping straight down weir face. Portage on the right-hand bank above road bridge, then cross the river and get in below weir. In low flows, portage is also possible extreme river left, but beware the river channel is narrow here.

Kirkstall Forge Weir, just past Abbey. Shoot on right if low but more towards the centre if high to keep away from the wall and overhanging trees. Leeds Canoe Club on left after road bridge. Weir 10. 300m below canoe club is an island. If cruising take RIGHT-HAND route (straight ahead rally) and down-Island Weir. This is a bumpy step if low but at any level beware of stakes in centre and right. Choose a route between them.

Boomer Weir! The BIG one. 100m below the Island Weir, a horseshoe weir with walls at each end. Shoot straight about a boat length out from the left-hand bank. Keep straight as there can be a powerful boil at the bottom. When I paddled at low water there were rocks and at least one shopping trolley at the toe of the weir, all pretty much in the centre, but you will probably only notice these at low flows and they could be dangerous to swimmers in medium flows.

Museum Weir. A wide diagonal weir on a bend in the river. The best shoot is on the extreme left-hand side but check first for debris blocking the exit. If the river is low then right over by the Museum is the most likely channel to be clear.

Dark Arches. Leeds answer to the Black Hole! Take the THIRD or FOURTH arch from the RIGHT. The first and second are DEAD ENDS (literally). Depending on levels you will either slide through the tunnels or go like a champagne cork! Whatever level through it’s dark and noisy but pretty safe. We grounded out on inside the tunnel, I got out and pushed part way seemed fairly flat and stable weir face for the most part. This puts you out into Leeds Basin.

Although both the Calder and Aire might seem a bit like canoeing down your staircase they do contain some good little rapids between the weirs and at low/moderate levels are fine for novices. If you think the scenery will be grim you will be surprised at how rural it is. Even on the Aire it is only the last couple of kilometres when you are paddling past factories, and they are really quite interesting too. You certainly get a different view of the Town Centre. Wildlife is certainly abundant and it’s not just rats! In fact, kingfishers frequent the Aire up to the point mentioned above so the water can’t be that bad. This though is probably the thing that puts off most people. In fact, while they are not grade one rivers, they are not too bad. It can vary with levels quite a lot. Rising levels tend to be a bit murky as storm runoff and churning up of the bottom occurs but after a while, this clears. Likewise, a long period of low water tends to make some bits ferment a bit but it’s unlikely you would want to use them so low.