Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Waterway access rights: A river runs through it.

The late great Mike Jones
If the hikers Right to Roam is still a distant dream for walkers in England and Wales, the canoeists' right to paddle is right out there in the distant realms of the galaxy. Remarkably, what used to be a common right-the right to travel freely upon UK waterways- has been eroded to such an extent that in 2017, paddlers and other recreational waterway users, enjoy access to just 4% of our rivers....FOUR PERCENT!!!

What paddlers are up against is the all powerful landowner/fishing lobby backed up by the government, who enjoy absolute control over waterway usage. Those free spirited paddlers who do risk so called ‘bandit runs’ do so at risk of incurring the wrath of the landowner/angling lobby,and the very real risk of  being on the receiving end  of often violent retaliation. Stones have been thrown at paddlers, barbed wire stretched across fast, inescapable sections of river. Canoeists have returned to their cars to find their tyres slashed...etc etc. Not surprisingly, for most canoeists, its just not worth the aggro and expense. Hence the Riparian lobby continue to exercise their complete control over waterway usage through violent acts of intimidation and political indifference.

Naturally, the government and its agencies of state, including the police, continue to display contempt for the basic freedoms and rights of ordinary people and in matters of dispute, inevitably side with the Riparian lobby. Several years ago I took part in a memorial paddle down the Upper River Dee in North Wales- The Mike Jones Rally- which was a charity paddle in memory of the eponymous paddler who drowned  in Pakistan when paddling on the Braldu River that flows off K2.  I remember the great buzz I had as a non paddler at the time, joining with hundreds of other paddlers in various boats- from little slamon kayaks to great hulking Canadians- and exploring this ‘forbidden’ river for the first time. My friend and I were just about the last people on the water that mid November afternoon in our ancient two man boat as we set off from the village of Cynwyd, heading for the Horseshoe Falls, 12 miles away at Llangollen. We arrived when it was almost dark but it was wonderful, paddling in the fading light, seeing all those secret places from the water. By then, everyone had finished and would be happily engaged in the apres paddle festivities as we held up the rear in the quiet gloom.

It was an all too rare glimpse of what open access on our waterways could be. Free to travel these quiet water roads. Enjoying a rare glimpse of our land as no one else can see it. A few years later, I got into sea kayaking and have since travelled most of the Cornish creeks by sea kayak and what a great experience it has been. Winding off the main creeks to explore the shallow side creeks. Inaccessible to all but the paddler. At times it is like being on an Amazonian tributary with just the quiet swish of the paddle, the chatter of birds and the splash of leaping mullet to disturb one’s reverie.

The Mike Jones Rally finished on the Dee that year I believe. Despite being a charity event, the Landowning/Angling lobby were not minded to let it continue as an annual event-for one day a year for God’s sake!- and I understand that’s now being held up on the upper Tyne in the North East of England.

Somewhat bizarrely for those climbers and hikers who do at least enjoy their activity without any incurring any financial penalty, paddlers who do wish to exercise their limited rights of access, have to pay for a licence to do so. British Canoeing who oversee the activity offer this advice on their website.

“If you want to canoe on many of our rivers and canals you will need a licence to do so. British Canoeing has teamed up with navigation authorities who manage the waterways to offer British Canoeing members a great rate for a waterway licence in England. Included with your British Canoeing membership is a licence to paddle over 4,500km of rivers and canals.’

Adding...."As a British Canoeing member, you are given a membership card which also serves as your waterways licence. A lanyard is also provided for ease of display. Carry your British Canoeing membership card with you at all times, as you may be asked to show this to authorised navigation officials. You can see the list of included waterways in the list below.’

Imagine the uproar if climbers, mountaineers, hikers, surfers etc etc, had to pay a licence to carry out their chosen activity! A jobsworth wandering under the cliff at Cloggy checking a climbers’ licence or being met on the summit of Cader Idris by an employee of the BMC..’ Can I just see your hillwalking licence sir?’.

Pity the poor paddler, Screwed over by Landowners, Anglers, The Government and even their own body. In instances like this I always reach for my Edward Abbey book of quotations; 'A Voice Crying in the Wilderness'. How about his classic, ‘If wilderness is outlawed,only outlaws can save the wilderness’. That’ll do....... Bandit Run down the Dee anyone?

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