Give people their right to access the waterways of England
If people are to truly enjoy the freedom of the country’s rivers, they must have the legal right to use them, says Suffolk author Matt Gaw.
I can still remember the first stroke. The first time the paddle cut the water and pushed us on, through a river fringed with low-slung willows and furred with pollen. It was a moment of calm, the lulling shush of water on the wood of the canoe, the whirlpools from our strokes that winked in the light, where every thought that was not of this river, dripped overboard to be carried away by the current.
It is now two years since that summer evening on the Stour when I discovered that secret window into a new world. My friend James Treadaway had, for reasons I still don’t quite understand, decided to build a canoe. He beavered away for months in his back garden, a suburban Noah, bending, shaping and gluing wood to form a 16ft Canadian canoe, whose handsome curves and broad bottom he painted a joyous nautical red, the colour of Mae West’s lips.
During the next few months after that first trip, I travelled by canoe whenever I got the chance, both with James and also alone. We re-explored the “familiar”: the Lark, near our hometown of Bury St Edmunds, the Colne, the Alde and the Granta, but also ventured across the UK, seeking new rivers, new waterscapes.
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On our quiet adventures we paddled along everything from the smallest tributaries to stent-straight canals and broad-backed flows hurrying towards the sea. Over chalk, gravel, clay and mud. Through fields, woodland, villages, towns and cities.
I soon fell deeply in love with being on the water. I treasured being sunk beneath the land, seeing waterscapes that could not be glimpsed by land. The river, the metronome rhythm of paddles that sent both brain and muscles almost to sleep, became my pulse.
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Although the pull of the river was about an increased connection with my environment and some thrilling glimpses of wildlife it was (and is still) also about freedom.
Dipping a paddle into the river is to cross a boundary, to merge with something wilder. The self is turned to bubbling, wind-whipped foam: overcome and overwhelmed. Human and current run free.
The sense of escape is increased by the fact that rivers are often borders, both to counties and countries. Following them is to occupy a no-man’s land where it feels like the only law is the push of the paddle against the current. In the canoe we are free to wander, alone and unchecked. Although there may be only ever two ways to go, the possibilities seem endless. Where there is water, there is a way.
Or so I thought. It wasn’t long into the trips that would eventually grow into my book, The Pull of the River, that I found being free on the river was more controversial than I thought.
While in Scotland and many other European countries there is a public right to access non-tidal rivers, across England and Wales there is, with British Canoeing membership, undisputed access to just 4% of rivers. That’s roughly 1,400 miles of largely slow-moving water out of the 42,700 available. To journey elsewhere, according to landlords, particularly representatives of The Angling Trust, is to commit trespass – a civil offence that allows landowners to seek damages or an injunction.
Internet forums suggest a quicker, nastier justice is often meted out with leaded lines and barbed hooks. A survey carried out by British Canoeing in May 2018 makes equally grim reading: accounts of verbal abuse, maggots hurled at children and boats pulled from the water.
During my paddles, although I have thankfully never been confronted in an aggressive way there have been plenty of indications that I’m less than welcome – whether it is scrawled signs or barbed wire strung across the river’s flow.
So, is the right to roam rivers, the feeling of freedom I and countless others have experienced while travelling on water just an illusion? The answer is simple: no.
Research carried out by Dr Douglas Caffyn, whose MA and PhD focused on historic river access, made waves when he argued more than a decade ago that non-tidal rivers (there is no dispute over access to tidal parts of rivers) have always been public and nothing in law has ever been done to change that.
His views, which were supported by British Canoeing and taken to heart by many paddlers, have though, been controversial. So much so that The Angling Trust and subsequently Dr Caffyn hired QCs to argue over everything from interpretations of the Magna Carta to the similarity (or otherwise) of paths and rivers. Defra, drawn into the debate several times, has repeatedly said the law is open to interpretation. Instead they have asked for both groups, paddlers and landowners to come together locally to work out access agreements.
Historically, such agreements have proven to be inconsistent and unnecessarily restrictive. In order for access agreements to work, water users and landowners need to be committed to work together on an equal basis that helps protect the environment and ensures our waters are enjoyed and shared by everyone. But, while landowners continue to refuse the legal right of paddlers and open water swimmers to navigate rivers, any discussion starts from a point of inequity.
My own belief is that it is now time the Government stepped in, either to mediate or preferably to regulate access to waterways in line with Scotland, which would also take into account any environmental concerns that might exist on some rivers.
It is for this reason that I have been supporting a new charter by British Canoeing, which calls for access to England’s rivers to be recognised in law.
It is a pioneering move; something that could both increase people’s enjoyment and connection with the waterways where they live, while also encouraging them to become their guardians. After all, if people do not use and love their rivers, the chances are they will be less likely to look after them.
I know that in the relatively short time I have been paddling, I have been changed by rivers. They have seeped through my skin. Flooded my heart. It is a feeling, an experience, that I believe everyone should be free to enjoy.
The Pull of the River, A Journey into the Wild and Watery Heart of Britain, published by Elliottt & Thompson, is out now. The paperback edition is released on February 21. Author Matt Gaw will be signing books at Waterstones in The Arc in Bury St Edmunds at 11.30 on Saturday, March 2.