GUIDE TO THE RIVER EXE
(Bolham Weir to Bickleigh)
NAME OF RIVER: Exe.
WHERE IS IT?: The River Exe runs from northern Exmoor (Somerset) south to Exeter (Devon), flowing through a large estuary to Exmouth.
PUT-INS/ TAKE-OUTS: Access - Drive from Tiverton through the village of Bolham, about half a mile up the road is a track leading off to the left, there is room to park here and access to the river is down the bank next to the track. Park near the top where the track is widest, taking care not to block the track. Carry down to the lowest part of the track. Put in a few hundred yards above Bolham Weir - look for a track running diagonally away from the road a short distance north of the pumping station.
Egress - Driving from Tiverton go over the river bridge at Bickleigh and immediately turn left Bickleigh Mill, but don't park in the road - instead turn right under a bridge into a car-park-cum-field. There is lots of room to park on the track near an old bridge. Exit the river on the left after the weir below Bickleigh bridge, don't get swept down too far as it is a bugger to get back upstream. Alternative access/egress in the centre of Tiverton, river right.
APPROX LENGTH: 6 miles.
TIME NEEDED: 2-3 hours.
WATER LEVEL INDICATORS: If there is water flowing across the main face of Salmon Ponds weir(by A361) and Tiverton Town weir it should be possible to paddle this section. But there will be some shallow sections.
GRADING: Grade I along most of this section, with some small easy grade II rapids. However six weirs which add considerable interest.
MAJOR HAZARDS/ FALLS: Weirs, especially Bolham Weir - see below. Tree lined banks, but as this is not a fast flowing river they are rarely a problem provided you don't let your beginners drift into them. Three quarters of a mile of so below Bolham weir is a sweeping left hand bend with a bridge beyond it that tends to collect a lot of tree debris (and unwary paddlers).
Andrew Woolfenden (Feb 2006)...'The main weir has been broken for many years and I have always paddled straight over where the main flow is, however at low water on inspection there are large shards of angle iron and weir reinforcement pointed steels just under the surface covering all of the main flow areas. We decided to portage after inspection. Even in medium flow water levels it would still be a major hazard and in any sort of coloured water it can't be seen. My advice is stay well away...'
Mark Drury (Feb 2006)...'I paddled Tiverton to Bickleigh section on the Exe on Sunday and as it was my first time on that section I inspected broken weir, and was very unimpressed when I saw a variety of pointy bits of rusty steel sticking out of the remains of the weir in the central shoot. These bit of angle iron were sticking straight up from the bottom and were about half a foot or so from the surface (at a medium water level). I dont think these spikes would be a problem if you knew you were going to stay upright going down the shoot but anyone going down there upside down or swimming would have a real risk of entrapment or injury.'
GENERAL DESCRIPTION: The river is generally a grade 2 with several sloping weirs, most of which can be easily inspected before hand as the road follows the river quite closely. The first weir is at Bolham and deserves to be treated with caution as at least one canoeist has died on it to my knowledge. It consists of a wide sloping ramp followed by a wide pool and a second broken section which looks like a short rapid. The ramp is perhaps best run on the extreme right at most levels; an almost river wide stopper forms below the rest of the ramp so leaders should inspect this weir before deciding where/ whether beginners should run it. At high levels this stopper becomes extremely dangerous, and even at moderate levels beginners can get severely stuck in it (it holds swimmers and flushes them towards river left - Mark R), but the route on the right should be ok. Portage on the right if necessary. The second part of the weir is best run on the left, so traverse the pool - you'll see what I mean when you get there. Directly below the weir is an excellent spot for elementary break in/ break out/ crossing practice.
After about a mile of small rapids with one play spot below a bridge, you will reach Head Weir, also known as Salmon Ponds. This is the start of the Exe Descent. A large gently sloping weir which often has very little depth of water, but with a series of (five?) steps river left which provide entertainment for the beginners and a challenge for leaders. It's impossible to see the bottom of the weir from the point where a group would safely wait for their turn to run the weir, so ideally you should have three competent paddlers for this - one with the group, one at the top of the steps and one at the bottom. If you can position someone part way down so much the better. A rapid immediately follows the weir so swimmers should be fished out promptly. At higher levels you can run the centre of the ramp, but the current tends to push you left into the steps so get well across to avoid this. Despite all this, Salmon Steps is perfectly suitable for inexperienced paddlers at low to moderate levels. This weir can be inspected from river left, and if none of your group has paddled it before that's probably worthwhile - not because it's hard, but because you'll need to know how to set up cover for your beginners. The last salmon step has the greatest potential for play, but there is sometimes a surf wave under the road-bridge.
The next half mile or so has a few ledges and boulder dams, which usually provide some entertainment before reaching the first of the two sloping Tiverton town weirs... Large and daunting for the inexperienced but actually very easy. The usual route is river left but don't let the current push you into the curved wall on the left, more confident paddlers may want to break out half way down and play in the stopper at the bottom of the first slope.
The second smaller town weir (shown on the map as Walronds weir but known to local paddlers as 'Tivvy 2') follows very soon after and is very good for surfing, we often stop here for a drink as it takes quite a long time for the more energetic paddlers to get bored.
When you have had enough surfing, paddle on down through two or three miles of gentle grade two, there are a couple of playable stoppers near to a footbridge. Make sure you keep your eyes open for wild life down this stretch as we saw a wild otter last time we did the trip (early 1999).
This brings you to Broken Weir. A small easy weir, broken as the name implies so the best place to run it changes from time to time - just inspect from your boat. The final half a mile brings you to Bickleigh Bridge, immediately under which is Bickleigh bridge weir. Another easy one, run it anywhere centre-ish. The get out is a small shingly beach on the left below the weir - don't overrun this as it's near impossible to paddle back or to carry back through the trees. Play at the bottom of the weir if you have any energy left.
OTHER NOTES: An excellent river for beginners - never hard, pleasant countryside most of the way, all hazards are easily manageable. Anyone with one star skills can paddle this section at moderate levels with suitably experienced leaders. However I would not recommend this river for beginners when very high. Consider also carrying on down the next stretch of the Exe.
A flatwater alternative if the water is too high is the canal from Tiverton to Sampford Peverell
CONTRIBUTED BY: Martin Harrall (Precision Drifters CC), also AS Watersports, Andrew White, Mark Drury, Chris Andrews, Andrew Woolfenden and Steve Balcombe.