So you may have heard me bang on about access on dry land quite a lot as I’ve shown you how to protect your local routes in my series of blogs on Lost Ways. I’m also passionate about raising awareness of access on the water. I am a recreational paddle boarder and love exploring the UK on my board from the Norfolk Broads to the white beaches of the Outer Hebrides, so read on to find out why access on the water is so important.
According to Action for Access In England and Wales less than 4% of the 41,000 miles (68,000km) of rivers have public access. That figure drops to 2% if smaller watercourses less than 3m (10ft) wide are taken into account. This means that there is a mere 2,800 miles (4,500km) of the estimated 42,700 miles of river in the U.K to explore once canals and other watercourses are taken into account. If you compare that to the 140,000 miles of public rights of way in England and Wales it’s not very far to enjoy nature with on the water.
So why are these waterways not accessible for us all to enjoy? The person who owns the riverbank – the riparian owner – also owns the river bed. Canoeists argue no-one owns the water flowing over the river bed on which they wish to paddle. Some also argue that a public right of navigation dating back to medieval times still exists. You might be aware of the Mass Trespass on Kinder Scout by ramblers fighting for their rights to public access on land, well there is a similar story for the Seiont Mass Trespass.
In the late 1980s a group of British canoeists decided that a militant approach was needed in the campaign for river access. They set up a group called CRACK – Campaign for River Access for Canoes and Kayaks. Some years later, in early 1988, there were some access problems on the River Seiont in North Wales. When there was no success with access negotiations, CRACK organised a mass rally (or mass trespass).
There is a wealth of historical evidence, that there is, at common law, a public right of navigation on all rivers which are physically capable of navigation. This position is firmly rejected by others such as anglers and landowners and this is where the access issue begins.
British Canoeing have an active campaign called ‘Clear Access Clear Waters’ this highlights the need for public access to waterways.
Legally the water itself is not owned, but ownership of the lands include stream bed ownership. Under common law, the presence of water does not provide a right to use the space occupied by, or immediately above the water. This is a civil offence, and may incur a fine or possibly a court injunction to prevent further trespassing. This applies to any member of the public, be they canoeists, rowers, swimmers, or anglers.
It’s time we fight for the Right to Roam our land and waters, head over to the Clear Access Clear Waters petition to do your bit and send a letter to your MP to ensure you protect your waterways and improve access for all.