Paddle pusher

Canoes have a low impact on the environment, yet they are more restricted than cars.

By George Monbiot.

Published in The Guardian, 28th August 1999.

Last weekend the water was so clear I felt I was floating on air. I could lean over the side of the boat and watch shoals of rudd cruising through the weed on the riverbed, perch as hunched and bristling as wild boar and a pike hanging perfectly still among the streaks of sunlight. It took some effort to remember that I was drifting up the channel between the park-and-ride and the dump.

I spend much of my free time visiting some of the least prepossessing places on earth. At weekends, I travel through industrial estates and warehouse parks, round the back of council depots and alongside “waste reception centres”. Most of the time, I am blissfully unaware of my surroundings. Sitting on the water, separated from sight and sound of the rest of the world by walls of vegetation, watching the fish, the grebes, the mink, and even, in the winter, the occasional water rail, it’s not hard to imagine that I have drifted into an uncharted wilderness. A nine foot piece of plastic is all that’s needed to turn hell into heaven.

Kayaks can be shoved and hauled through a two-foot ditch, or paddled across the North Sea. Once manufactured, they consume no fossil fuels. They cause little disturbance and make no noise. But to judge by the restrictions on their use, you might imagine they were lethal weapons.

As people become both more adventurous and more conscious of the environmental impact of the high-tech watersports, paddling is booming. The British Canoe Union estimates that about one million British people use a kayak or canoe at least once every year. But, despite the fact that Britain is peculiarly blessed with running water, there is almost nowhere for us to go.

Paddlers have a right to explore the tidal stretches of rivers. There are a handful of inland waters with a general right of navigation, but on most of these you must pay for the privelege. To put a canoe or kayak on the Thames, for example, you must first hand £17 to the Environment Agency. It’s not easy to see what this pays for: the services the Agency provides – installing locks and weirs for example – serve only to ruin our sport, as free-flowing rivers are more fun than regulated ones. But if you don’t pay, the lock keepers can impound your boat.

We are also entitled to travel on any river for which we can establish, in a court of law, that a right of navigation existed in the year 1189. This is a simple enough procedure. All you need do is acquire a PhD in ancient history, stumble across a set of hitherto undiscovered documents relating to that year (1188 or 1190 won’t help you), hire a QC and lodge half a million pounds with the Attorney-General to cover the costs of all parties if you lose the case. Curiously, this method remains woefully underused.

If you paddle down a river for which navigation rights have not been established, you can expect to encounter serious trouble. Rivers in which fish can be caught are guarded as zealously as any grouse moor or pheasant pen. In most circumstances, you’ll be committing simple trespass, which is not a criminal offence. But if the owner can show that you are disrupting the fishing, you could be threatened with criminal proceedings for aggravated trespass. The most potent menace is contained in the 1975 Fisheries Act, under which you can be prosecuted for wilfully disturbing spawning fish. While this provision was drafted to prevent gravel extraction, it is so loosely phrased that canoeists have been fined merely for passing through a stretch of river in which fish might be copulating.

The government has long acknowledged that the sanctions against kayaking are out of proportion to any harm the sport might cause. It has advised the British Canoe Union to broker agreements with riverside owners. But this is rather like asking the chickens to sort things out with the fox. Among the bankside proprietors are some of the most powerful people in Britain. They have nothing to gain from striking an agreement, and plenty to lose, especially if the people who pay them astonishing sums to fish object to our harmless intrusion.

But the Department of Environment is finally beginning to recognise the massive public demand for harmless recreation, and has commissioned research into extending access for canoeists. There has never been a better chance for British people to assert their right to the water, just as they are slowly asserting their rights to the land.