GUIDE TO THE RIVER WALKHAM
(Merrivale Bridge to Huckworthy Bridge)
NAME OF RIVER: Walkham.
WHERE IS IT?: It flows from high on Dartmoor with easier sections downstream.
PUT-INS/ TAKE-OUTS: Merrivale Bridge (SX 550752) is on the main road crossing Dartmoor from Ashburton to Tavistock. Turn off for the Inn there and follow the road down to a smaller bridge. There is parking for a few vehicles right at the river’s edge, but this might flood in the conditions needed. Earlier guides suggested walking to access the river a kilometre downriver, due to the tree hazard at the start. Plenty of experience of testing all options suggests that you are better off just launching from Merrivale Bridge; but be extremely careful...
The takeout is Huckworthy Bridge (GR 532705) in the lovely hamlet of the same name. There is room for a single car below the bridge on river left where you climb out.
APPROX LENGTH: 5 km.
TIME NEEDED: About two hours.
ACCESS HASSLES: This is a remote valley and you are unlikely to meet anybody in the upper sections. There is only room on the river for very small groups. Huckworthy is a quiet place and the friendly residents presumably have no desire to experience the worst aspects of paddlers' car park culture.
WATER LEVEL INDICATORS: This will only work in high water conditions. Expect to paddle this during or after heavy rain as the put-in is high on the moor and runs off fast. Spate conditions provide an utterly continuous grade 5 scarefest.
There is a gauge directly upstream of Huckworthy Bridge on river left. It is however on private land and can only be accessed by paddling a short distance upriver. It should read at least 0.7 for this section. We have paddled this up to 1.4 (full-on!), but something around 0.9 would probably be ideal. A simpler gauge is to take a look around at Merrivale Bridge. Is the river filling its banks? Is the rain hissing down?
November 2003...the Walkham seems to rise and drop amazingly fast, so judging the water level at the takeout can be a bit futile; and the river will change while you are on it. Don't wait if it is raining, head to the Walkham first as this will be in condition before anything else.
GRADING: Grade 4+ or 5 depending on water levels down to Ward Bridge, grade 4 below.
MAJOR HAZARDS/ FALLS: The first kilometre is not recommended, it's tree-choked. Plenty of siphons on the steep section; I broke out right on top of one and had a fright.
GENERAL DESCRIPTION: Despite what you might suspect at the get-in, this is no godforsaken tree ditch. This is a fantastic river offering some of the steepest creeking in England; there are no big falls, but no flat bits either. Non-stop frantic paddle flailing is the BCU approved method for descending the upper Walkham.
If you choose to paddle the first eight hundred metres, you will find yourself repeatedly strained over, under and through bushes and trees. This can be done (with a few portages), but is a miserably dangerous experience.
The river changes character dramatically when it reaches a sudden rocky waterfall. The trees simply disappear and you are presented with a gobsmacking vista; the bottom falls out of the Walkham and all you see looking downhill is a long series of horizon lines. Lovely.
The paddling for the following two kilometres is relentless, endless small drops with sticky stoppers and must-make micro-eddies. In normal levels this is very technical grade 4+ and 5 eddy hopping, in spate the eddies become infrequent and you are forced to straight-line some very chewy holes. The amazing thing is that there are no obvious portages and no significant tree hazard.
Finally, the river eases in gradient and just before Ward Bridge, there are a couple of portages around fallen trees. Carrying on past the bridge is recommended; directly downstream of the bridge the Walkham picks up pace again, with a kilometre of grade 4 drops. Towards the end of these rapids, the river narrows into a tunnel of rhododendron bushes and then flattens out above a sticky weir.
The last kilometre eases down through the grades and includes a second portage around a fallen tree before Huckworthy Bridge is reached.
It is possible to carry on past Huckworthy, but things get much easier.
OTHER NOTES: Which is better, this or the Plym? Best paddle both to be sure.
CONTRIBUTED BY: Mark Rainsley, also Simon Westgarth.