Tuesday, October 21, 2014

River access rights ....drowning in an ocean of indifference.

A while ago, I did a couple of blog pieces about the lamentable cRow act and how it was a missed opportunity with regard to the general public’s right to roam freely and without risking the ire of landowners in England & Wales.(Scotland enjoys this right although as writers like Andy Wightman point out in his excellent blog, feudal landowning relics still remain up there and walkers are still encountering access problems on some sporting estates). However, to get back to England and Wales, despite the fine promises from the Blair government, the cobbled together cRow act was a compromise aimed at appeasing landowners and farmers. The aforementioned blog pieces mentioned access problems I myself had encountered in the uplands of north Wales since the act came into force.

Whatever the failings of the campaign for the right to roam in the countryside, these failings fall into insignificance when compared to the appalling access situation on English & Welsh waterways. An incredible 96% of our rivers are out of bounds to canoeists and boat users, as landowners and the all powerful Angling body has the Westminster government quite firmly in its pocket. Even the more progressive Welsh Assembly appear to be loathe to muddy the waters-if you’ll forgive the pun-when it comes to taking this powerful lobby head on and putting river access on its legislative agenda.

Just down the road from here is the River Dee which meanders from it’s source under the mountain Dduallt near Bala (see Defending Ancient Springs) to the sea at the Dee Estuary. Access problems in the upper reaches are a case in point. Although the Dee is deemed navigable and thus technically canoeists enjoy the right to use the river-The section of river between Llangollen and Bala is deemed ‘bandit country’ by paddlers and any trips down river hereabouts are termed ‘bandit runs’.  At the end of the 80’s I took part in one of the ‘Mike Jones Memorial trips’. These were charity fund raising trips in memory of the eponymous late paddler.

At an amenable paddling Grade 2, this 12 mile run between Cynwyd and Llangollen was open to anyone and the event saw a range of craft from dinky white water kayaks to big Open canoes bouncing down the river through some fantastic countryside. Sadly the continuous battle with the riparian community became too much for the organisers and they finally gave up. Denying charities like the Muscular Dystrophy organisation, thousands of pounds in funds from future events.

On other Welsh rivers like the Afon Conwy, I’ve known friends who have had rocks hurled at them by angry fishermen. On rivers like the Seiont in NW Wales, farmers and paddlers have fought running battles as the former group try to run sections of the river and on my local river, the Afon Alwen, I’ve encountered barbed wire stretched across the river at head height at rapid sections where escape or avoidance would be difficult Why should paddlers or indeed any recreational river user accept this state of affairs? If landowners tried to garrotte mountain bikers or walkers crossing their land there would be outrage!

As I write, things are as they’ve always been. There is absolutely no chance the current Tory/Liberal administration will upset one of their key constituencies, the farming and landowning community. Not that a Labour administration would offer any more hope given their current craven position as the ‘Tory Lite’ party. The only hope we have in Wales would be seeing  a more radical influx of AM’s in the next assembly election. A new breed of politicians who are not stuck on the issue like rabbits caught in headlights. Terrified of upsetting the powerful status quo and who would not be afraid of introducing legislation which would be in the interests of ordinary people.

It’s almost 2015 and still our river access rights remain rooted in the dark ages. Why do we accept this. At least some organisations are fighting for our rights although it appears a David and Goliath battle at the moment.
Rivers:Griff Rhys Jones

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