There’s a lot to be said for canoeing or kayaking in the middle of summer, floating down the river as beams of sunlight burst through leafy green trees to dance off the water; those seemingly endless days where you can drag your boat up a sandy beach just as the sun sets on a long day on the sea, giving way to a warm evening. In comparison winter paddling can seem like an uninviting prospect: days can be bitter, are always short and the water is often so cold it burns. Get the perfect, crisp day, though, when there’s no cloud in the sky and the whole landscape is bathed in the soft hue of a winter sun and cobwebs glitter with a morning’s frost, there is nothing so magical as paddling at this time of year.
Canoeing & kayaking in winter though means that you are more likely to have the stretch of river or coastline all to yourself, and the reward of sitting, post-paddle, by a crackling fire sipping a hot chocolate as the feeling slowly creeps back into your fingers increases exponentially for every degree lower the temperature outside drops, it would seem. In fact, for some people, despite the obvious appeal of summer paddling, it doesn’t quite match up to the understated allure of a frosty winter paddle. We’ve put together a list of ten of the canoe & kayak routes we love to do at this time of year: stretches of river, lake or coast that are leant a certain beauty by the season, or that are the perfect length to fit comfortably into the limited number of daylight hours available. They are just ten of many, though, and their main purpose here is to serve as the inspiration you need to pick up your paddle, scrape the ice off the car and get out there…
1. Derwent Water, Cumbria
The Lake District is a truly omni-seasonal canoeing & kayaking destination, that is just as charming a place to paddle in the depths of winter when you will enjoy the waters largely to yourself, as it is in the height of summer. A paddle around Derwent Water beginning and ending in Keswick is a great one to do on a cold day: you can take as long as you like to explore the many islands, some of which have the remains of small buildings still present. For a bit of a twist on the island and lake shore exploration theme, though, you can head for the mouth of the River Derwent on the south-east shore. Look out for the small collection of islands that mark the delta formed at the confluence. Usually, you can paddle a long way up the marshy river before the flow becomes too much to contend with and you have to turn back.
There are a number of launching places around the lake, but if you’re in Keswick and want to get afloat without delay then the ideal place to do so from is the launch at the end of Lake Road. Or failing that, if you’re camping at the Keswick Camping and Caravan Club right on the north bank then you can put in straight from here without having to go anywhere.
2. The River Tees
This is a favourite amongst clubs from all over the northeast and beyond, thanks to its fun but friendly nature and reasonably reliable winter levels. The River Tees in the Pennines is home to some dramatic river geography, some of which even expert kayakers would satisfy themselves with admiring from below, rather than attempting to paddle. One such feature is High Force, a spectacular waterfall that cascades down over 21m through a cleft in rock, and marks the get-in for the first section of the Tees that is popular with clubs and guided groups of beginners.
From this awe-inspiring get in, the river meanders it’s way through this scenic part of County-Durham at a more leisurely grade 2/3 pace, with plenty of little waves and holes to stop and play in with just one rapid about half way down that demands a little more attention, known simply as the ‘Dog’s Leg.’ The end of this run is marked by another waterfall, this one slightly smaller, called Low Force. Beginners in the group may wish to watch the more experienced paddlers run it from a safe vantage point on the bank before deciding whether or not to attempt it themselves! Downstream of here, the Bernard Castle to Winston stretch is another section of the Tees ideal for beginners. 12km of mainly grade 3, there are plenty of play waves to keep things interesting.
3. The North Norfolk Coast
A much over-looked gem of a sea kayaking spot is North Norfolk’s coastline. You may have to time your visit correctly, the large tidal range could leave you with a lot of walking to do in one direction or another if you get it wrong, but check the times and you’re in for a real treat.
There are no shortages of great beaches to use as launch points, but Brancaster is one that is particularly convenient when the tide is in, providing great parking and access straight to the water. This stretch of coastline is abundant in bird life and atypical (for the UK) ‘barrier coast’ formations that provide a lot of opportunity for exploration.
East Anglian winters can be bitter, but the beauty endures, and the entire area is peppered with delightful teas shops, bistros, pubs and restaurants to retreat to after a stiff, fresh paddle along the coast. Most definitely one to have on your list of winter wonderland paddles.
4. The Norfolk Broads
The Norfolk Broads are an area of wetland that enjoys National Park status and is home to a host of wildlife and Sites of Special Scientific Interest contained in a vast network of rivers, broads and secluded channels and is regarded as being of ecological interest and importance around the world. Said network of rivers, channels and the broads – shallow lakes, of which there are around sixty of a great variant of sizes – which also includes fens and marshes, account for over 200km of navigable waterway, making it the third longest of its kind in the UK; this is not to mention when combined with the Suffolk Broads the largest protected wetland in the country. Countless people every year take to the water on the Broads in all manner of powered and un-powered craft, but the only real way to fully appreciate this wildlife abundant wonderland is by canoe or kayak.
Norfolk enjoys one of the lowest annual rainfalls in the country and produces some of the most picturesque winter scenes too. There is so much exploration to be done on the Broads, it seems a shame to name just one, but the below resources are all you need to plan a trip of any length.
www.broads-authority.gov.uk – The Broads Authority manages the Norfolk Broads Executive Area, and its website has a wealth of information relevant to anybody planning an excursion to the Broads.
www.enjoythebroads.com – A wealth of information about recreational opportunities on the Norfolk Broads.
www.canoethebroads.co.uk – A useful directory of facilities that offer canoe hire.
www.the-norfolk-broads.co.uk – An open forum in which users can discuss all manner of things pertaining to visiting the Norfolk Broads. If you’re planning a trip, try posting a question on there.
5. The River Thames
From Gloucestershire, where it begins its 218km journey to its non-tidal reach, passing through Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Surrey – where it passes through Teddington Lock and becomes subject to fluctuating tides – the Thames is a magnet for users of boats of all sizes and methods of propulsion, not least paddlers. This is true of all seasons, and although it is undoubtedly busier in summer months the Thames is never completely bereft of canoeists and kayakers in winter.
A great trip for this time of year is the Swift Ditch Loop from Abingdon, Oxfordshire. There is a council car park (free on Sundays) next to the Waitrose supermarket car park in the town centre with access to a millstream that flows all the way down to the river. By paddling upstream from the weir and lock towards Oxford, you can reach the entrance to Swift Ditch, the old course of the Thames before it was diverted. A slide-weir marks the entrance to the ditch (make sure you shoot the right one, there is a weir before you reach the actual entrance that descends into thick, impenetrable undergrowth, and normally doesn’t have much water going over it). The Ditch is a narrow, tree-lined and often-overgrown adventure of a paddle that will bring out the explorer in you. It rejoins the Thames downstream of Abingdon town centre, near the Marina. The circuit will take 2-3 hours, and there are plenty of pubs and cafes close to the take out to warm up afterwards! Lots of paddling routes on the Thames can be found in
Lots of paddling routes on the Thames can be found in Pub Paddles by Peter Knowles, available from HERE.
The Thames is absolutely flush with great play spots in the form of weirs that run fairly reliably throughout the winter.
A bit of a one-move wonder (referred to jokingly sometimes by locals as “The Blastadrome”) but a fun little spot in this area which frequently runs even when others are too low.
Hurley & Hambledon
All in the vicinity of Hurley upon Thames, Hurley is possibly considered the most iconic of the Thames weirs, and at the right level (3 gates is ideal) is an absolutely superb wave. It is also safer and more consistent than some other weirs, hence its enduring popularity. Hambledon weir was in fact modified with paddlers in mind, although the wave it produces can be a little unpredictable and washes out in higher water levels.
Depending on levels provides a nice hole, or big bouncy surf waves great for getting aerial moves. Demands respect and are to be avoided in high flows, though.
Chertsey, Shepperton & Sunbury
The London weirs. Chertsey was (is?) once popular with squirt boaters for producing great potential for mystery moves, but in high winter flows normally produces a friendly and fun surf wave, great for the less experienced. Shepperton is not reliable in its levels, but many consider it one of the best play spots in the country when caught on a good day; Sunbury is as unpredictable and can produce spectacular beatings or worse when the levels are wrong, proceed with caution!
Level updates and a guide to the characteristics of the Thames’ much-celebrated kayak-friendly play spots can be found at www.tvfreestylers.co.uk
NB: Weir paddling on every river comes with this obvious health warning: don’t do it unless you know what you’re doing. While some weirs provide endless freestyle fun, some are merciless killers, and added into this weirs can sometimes go from one to the other depending on levels.
6. The Dart Loop
You’d be hard-pressed to improve upon the Loop section of the River Dart, Devon, for the ideal beginner and club river. Set to a backdrop of the stunning Dartmoor scenery, the Loop starts of gently and continues to delight for its six and a half kilometres from the put-in at New Bridge to the take out, throwing up plenty of boulder gardens, play waves and ‘pool drop’ style rapids that you are able to get out and look at, walk if necessary, or run multiple times if desired!
Notable highlights include drops such as ‘The Washing Machine,’ ‘Lovers’ Leap,’ ‘Triple Drop,’ and ‘Spin Dryer.’ All of these present an option to walk if you don’t feel ready and all provide an excellent introduction to the types of rapid and skills you’ll meet and require on other whitewater rivers. Not merely a terrific day out on a beautiful river with excellent whitewater, the Loop is a training ground for UK-style kayaking that you will surely find yourself returning to again and again during your paddling career. And no matter how cold it is, you’ll soon be warming up in the fully stocked bar and restaurant at the River Dart Country Park where you take out. Heated changing facilities are also available to guests paying for accommodation.
The Loop is by no means a one-hit wonder in the Dartmoor area, either, with the likes of the Tavy, Walkham and the Lower Dart there’s plenty to keep the beginner whitewater kayaker occupied all weekend without having to paddle the same river twice.
7. Cardiff International White Water Centre
Sometimes a cold winter’s weekend with no rain topping up the rivers can mean only one thing: time to visit a whitewater course. Wales’ very own international-standard whitewater centre serves this part of the country excellently as an option for whitewater kayaking on such occasions. You can just turn up and hop on at the publicised ‘park and play’ session times and there are plenty of waves and holes for beginners to touch up important skills and just generally have a good time on!
Although some might see such places as summer refuges, they are actually ideal for winter paddling: Cardiff is no exception to the rule that most centres dotted across the country have great cafes on-site to go and warm up quickly after a paddle (not to mention indoor changing!), and because of the nature of artificial courses you never have to commit to a longer run on a river, great if an accidental dunking leads to you getting cold and deciding to get off!
8. The River Wye
The entirety of the Wye Valley attracts huge numbers of visitors on account of how stunningly beautiful it is and the walking opportunity it offers, but it is also a hugely popular destination for canoeists and kayakers. The Wye’s Upper (the last 8-17km down to the town of Rhayadar, depending on how long a trip you’d like) and Middle (the town of Builth Wells down to the town of Boughrood) sections are both excellent day trips, which largely hover between grades 2 and 3 whitewater. One of the most year-round popular sections is that which goes from the 300m Symonds Yat rapid located in the Welsh /English border area and Monmouth. Very busy in summer, but quite a bit quieter in winter this section has been described by many as one of the finest touring rivers in the UK.
The best place to start is the car park next to the caravan site in Symonds Yat, where a nominal launch fee is payable. You are almost immediately upon the rapid, which is entry level and nothing to worry about, but is nonetheless easily portage/scoutable from the bank. From here the next 10km or so down to Monmouth is completely flat and very beautiful, and can easily be completed within two hours. Egress at some concrete steps on river right. There are plenty of hot chocolate-serving establishments to be found in Monmouth to warm the soul after a wintry paddle, or even something stronger if you’re looking for it!
9. The Pembrokeshire Coast
Pembrokeshire in Southwest Wales was the UK’s first ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ and is home to the UK’s only coastal National Park. For the visiting sea kayaker, the area really does have everything you could wish for stunning beaches mixed with imposing sea cliffs, peaceful estuaries and, for when you get more experienced, even island crossing and circumnavigations.
Pembrokeshire is an ideal year-round sea kayaking destination: due to its dramatic and rugged geography there are plenty of sheltered inlets and bays to dip your paddle in, even if the conditions outside won’t allow for the longer coastal explorations that are spectacular and rewarding in fine conditions.
10. The Great Glen
What better way of spending a few days that crossing Scotland in your canoe than passing over misty lochs, historic castles and magnificent hills. A combination of natural lochs and man-made waterway the Caladonian Canal this has long been a popular multi-day trip with open canoeists and kayakers.
Earlier this year a new canoe trail was opened on the Great Glen, so now has never been a better time to undertake a journey on all or part of it, with an abundance of new paddler-friendly facilities available to all of those carrying the free license obtained from the Great Glen Canoe Trail website. The site also contains comprehensive information on planning a trip. Got to www.greatglencanoetrail.info for more information.
There’s probably no need to point out that the consequences of getting wet and cold in winter can escalate very quickly if not dealt with. It’s worth bearing in mind too that often flows in winter can be faster than you are used to in summer, so always take this into account when planning a trip and before deciding whether or not to get on the water. This is all common sense stuff and provided you take all necessary precautions there is no need for the cold to put you off paddling in all seasons. These are just a few basic safety precautions to help minimise the risks of taking to the water when it’s cold.
- Dress for the worst: just falling into icy water in the depth of winter can take your breath away and effectively disable you if you’re not dressed appropriately. Purpose-designed dry cags or dry suits are worn over a suitable number of thermal layers is ideal. Always, always where a personal flotation device.
- Have a quick exit route in place for if somebody is getting too cold as a result of an accidental dunking or otherwise.
- Where possible carry spares of dry warm clothing.
- Take proper provisions including thermos flasks with a hot drink.
- Avoid paddling alone and tell somebody where you’re going.
- Keep an eye on the forecast beforehand and look out for any sign of deteriorating conditions while you’re paddling.