by Stephen Lord
Imagine it. It’s a good summer and you have four or five days to spare, but you’re based in the UK, wracking your brains to find a decent river nearby to satisfy that urge for a good short trip, a couple of nights camping, pubs and a little white-water thrill. Britain’s, or more accurately Wales and England’s paucity of suitable rivers that are actually navigations (permitted) and therefore free from legal hassles means your list of choices is short and the Wye is bound to be near the top. It’s said to be Britain’s finest canoeing river. It probably is, but the problem is nature gave us very few to choose from before bureaucrats and landowners stepped in.
Your next problem is the state of the river and whether you’ve got the right boat. The Wye has a good variety of speeds and moods and very variable rainfall; at times it’s too dangerous and claims the occasional life, though those are often novices in rented canoes. Photos you’ll find on the web will often show dramatic class III scenes, probably taken at Symonds Yat, but these are show-off photos which aren’t typical of the conditions, even at Symonds Yat. And you’ll see whitewater paddlers wearing helmets in glass-smooth water, which makes you wonder what they know that you don’t. So choosing which boat to take is a tough one for the Wye, unless you’ve got one boat, and it’s a Gumotex Sunny. I was reluctant to take my new Feathercraft Kahuna as I thought I’d scrape the bottom too much and also feared heavy water at Symonds Yat might be too much to handle. So I borrowed the Sunny and in four days of paddling never bottomed out once, though the water levels were quite high. The rest of our group had similar concerns. John had added outriggers to his aluminium Grumman canoe, but I think that was due to worries by his front-paddler, my sister Sally. John’s mate Snoz was the strongest paddler and took a plastic Pelican canoe, the only boat he owns, and my mate Michael paddled his double Pouch folder as that was all he had to hand.
The river starts off nicely and slower boats won’t fall too far behind. Bends and shallows provide ripples and eddies for entertainment and the surrounding scenery deserves all the praise it gets, though I won’t get poetic on you. The ‘no landing’ signs commonly seen on the bank remind you that canoeists are not too popular on this river. Even pubs have ‘no landing’ signs but with some determination we managed to find a place to tie up and climb out to visit the Boat Inn, which has a miserable camping garden and no customers.
We later rescued some rental paddlers (right) whose boat was stuck in some trees on a fast corner while one of their number had somehow found himself on the other side of the river at a point where it was running too fast and deep to cross. The Wye not the wildest river, but you won’t often get a mobile signal and there aren’t many roads nearby so if you get stuck, you’ll have to get yourself out of trouble or hope someone paddles by.
Our first night was spent just above Monnington Falls. It’s a muddy scramble up a bank till you reach some steps, then an orchard campsite with a decent shower at the far end. Having a light boat is a big advantage here, though a plastic canoe could be safely tied up and left by the river. A nice spot and you can worry yourself all night about how bad the falls might be next morning. In the event, the water levels were so high that the falls were submerged and the only trick was to turn fast enough to avoid being tangled up in trees in fast water.
More beautiful scenery, more ‘no landing’ signs.
Hereford for lunch, but is there a good spot to land and get a lunch by the river? No, not at all, the city pretty much turns its back on the river, but we were able to tie up under a bridge and walk to a huge Tesco and bring back something. The river carried us on at a fair clip to Lucksall Caravan Park for our next night. A tiny jetty, steep steps with tight turns and a roller so you can pull an empty boat straight up the high bank are all that’s on offer, and the owners regard that as a great facility, but they don’t kayak. Groups of rental boats with bossy leaders monopolise the landing for an hour or more in the morning. All we can do is brew-up and ignore them.
Lunch and a pint await you at Hoarwithy where there’s a primitive campsite and a field with a bull in it between us and the pub. At that point I found out that my sister had a fear of bulls but my greater need for a drink overpowered that. In the afternoon Snoz showed us he can paddle standing up for hours at a time, even through minor ripply stuff. The evening brought us to Ross-on-Wye and the White Lion, a riverside pub which welcomes paddlers with camping in front of it. The awkward take-out is rocks and mud and again I was glad to be in the Sunny.
The last day for us was through Symonds Yat, the last possible concern for nervous nellies, then past Monmouth (the river runs around it and you won’t see much of the town) and our finish at Redbrook, where we had left our other car. After Ross, the river picks up a bit more and enters a high-sided valley. There’s a view of the river from the Offa’s Dyke long-distance footpath that is said to be one of the finest in England (though at this point the Wye is about to return to Wales), and I wouldn’t argue with that, though ‘in the top 20’ would be fairer to say. In summer the colours and leafy splendour are fabulous and it’s peaceful indeed, a blissful meander as you approach Symonds Yat.
There’s a good pub to stop at to get some Dutch courage if you need it, but the high levels made it pretty straightforward for us. Symonds Yat is a straight shot, just line up right and you’ll be through it quickly enough. After that Snoz pulled out a bottle of Wood’s rum and some Coke to celebrate and we drifted in the sun, occasionally scrambling round our boats to find leftover food to finish off for lunch. We finished at Redbrook though things looked very enticing downriver. The Wye becomes tidal after Tintern, with no take-outs (due to muddy banks) until Chepstow.
So is it a great river for paddlers, a must-do? I proclaim it’s a fantastic river, and if you haven’t the energy or time to get over to France, it’s one of the best you’ll find in Britain. The great shame is that so little has been made of it. European rivers have towns and villages facing the river rather than facing away from it; there, rivers are tourist attractions and every effort is made to allow tourists on the bank to enjoy river views and for paddlers to land, get out and spend a little money.
By contrast the Wye is a shocker, for none of this sort of development has occurred. The proliferation of ‘no landing’ signs, frequent references in the guide book such as ‘prior permission for landing requested, call 01299….’, the shabby and half-hearted take-outs, where they exist at all, it’s is a disgrace to our country, especially on a river that’s often referred to as our finest for canoeing.
I’d take the Sunny again on this sort of river, it’s a very versatile boat, mid-range for speed so you won’t be too far ahead or behind, totally stable and easy to get in and out of, and very secure in rapids and shallow water. OK you might get a soaking but you’d have to try hard to tip this boat on a river like the Wye.
‘Wye Canoe?’ is the book to get for this river, if only for the maps. As the official guide it’s full of the kind of rules and regs you didn’t want to read, but it’s got all that you want for planning.
WYE (Hereford to Ross on Wye) – classic touring.
WYE (Ross on Wye to Symonds Yat East) – a classic touring paddle.
WYE (Symonds Yat East to Monmouth) – a classic trip, with the famous Symonds Yat rapids.
WYE (Monmouth to Redbrook)