5 of my favourite white water rivers to paddle in England

I often get asked the question – what are your favourite UK rivers to paddle? It is always a difficult one to answer! Partly because there are so many rivers well worth paddling across the UK and each have very different characteristics which make them enjoyable. I have put together a little series of articles looking at my favourite English, Welsh and Scottish rivers. As a Nottingham girl, I thought I would start with the English rivers!

1. River Dart

The river Dart is the one river I wish I could paddle more! Dartmoor is a fair distance from Nottingham ruling it out as a regular day trip but when we do get the chance to go down – boy is it worth it! There is a reason why many Dart locals choose to stay in Dartmoor for most of their paddling!

I owe my love of the Dart to my lovely friend and white water coach Matt Brook. He took me down my first lap of the Upper Dart and I couldn’t believe what an amazing river it was. It starts off with a series of smaller grade 3 rapids but quickly builds up to a series of continuous grade 4 rapids known as the ‘mad mile’. At lower levels this is fun and technical, although at higher levels it gets pretty rowdy. Paddling your first laps of the Upper with someone who knows the Dart well is recommended. There are a couple of distinct rapids that are definitely worth knowing the line for.

The Upper Dart. Photo by Andy Walker of paddlers Laura Wynne + Daniel Smith

The lovely thing about the Dart is the get out for the Upper Dart is also the get on for the Dart Loop. I have enjoyed many laps of the Dart Loop which is a fun little grade 2-3 section. When the Dart gets huge, you will find many of the UK’s best paddlers enjoying themselves on the Loop instead. It is good fun and a good day out in both medium and high water.

First time on the Upper – picture at the get out! Photo: Tom Clare

2. River Tees

Since moving back to Nottingham, the Tees has been one of my most common paddling day trips out. The Tees is one of those rivers that has something for everyone! I first paddled the Tees on what many consider the classic section of the Tees – High force to Low force. A fun little stretch of river with plenty of smaller grade 2 rapids and two larger more distinct rapids (Dog Leg + Low Force) that you can lap as many times to your hearts content. Low Force waterfall was my first ever waterfall as I am sure it was for many people. A good day out with plenty to challenge yourself on.

Low Force! Picture: Kristina Erzunova

My other favourite section of the Tees is Barnard Castle to Winston bridge. I love to paddle this section of the Tees in autumn as it is one of the most beautiful sections of river to paddle when the leaves change their colours. There are plenty of little rapids, surf waves and eddy lines to keep you going, as well as a couple of larger rapids. A lot of people get nervous at Abbey rapids – but this rapid is easy to scout and relatively straightforward. I would suggest that both the rapids above Winston bridge and going around the Lido require more care as both of these can become dangerous when the river gets very high. I’ve paddled this section low and on huge as well as many levels in-between, always having a good time. There are many other sections of the Tees worth paddling as well – from grade 1 to grade 5. It is river that has something for everyone and quite reliable.

Dog Leg on the Tees. Picture: Kristina Erzunova

3. River Swale

The Swale is another northern classic and like the Tees has plenty of fun sections to paddle. The most well known section of the Swale is the Upper Swale which is the waterfall section. If you have no desire to paddle waterfalls, it is still worth going for a walk along this section because it is really quite impressive! The nice thing about this section is the waterfalls are all very distinct. I will note though that this is not a river for beginners, if you mess your line up, it has potentially quite unpleasant consequences.

One of the smaller drops on the Upper Swale. Photo: Tom Clare

There are a couple of other sections of the Swale which are also worth paddling. Whilst these sections don’t have the waterfalls, they are very pretty and still some good grade 2 fun. A classic section is the Richmond to Catterick section which is excellent for intermediate paddlers to work on their river running skills.

My friend Jack on Lower Kisdon. Photo: Tom Clare

4. River Kent

A Lake District classic, the river Kent is another river that has something for everyone. My favourite section is Scroggs Weir to Sedgwick Bridge which ends with the classic Force Falls. This is a fun grade 2/3 river with a couple of bigger grade 3+ rapids at the end to keep you on your toes. The river flows through some stunning backdrops and I am always a fan of paddling through a gorge. The last three rapids are worth paddling just on their own as they are a lot of fun. I would note here that the landowners next to Force Falls will be very unhappy if you try to get out there. Paddle down instead to the bridge where there is a foot path out. It is a longer walk back up to the top drop but worth it if it means keeping locals happy.

My friend Lewis enjoying his run of Force Falls. Photo: Tom Clare

At higher levels the Kent is an excellent run but it is worth taking extra care around the weirs as some of them can get very sticky and dangerous. Also, if you miss the line on Force Falls at those higher levels, you will feel very awake afterwards!

One of the last bigger drops on the Kent. Photo: Tom Clare

5. River Leven

Another Lake District classic, I debated whether to include the Leven as well as the Kent. It is such a good fun river though, it was worth giving it it’s own shout out. The first time I paddled the Leven, my friend described it to me as the ‘HPP of the Lake District’ and I could see what he meant. It is a good fun river – perfect for a long play session with friends! Another stunning river, it has regular little rapids and play spots all the way down with some larger rapids to note.

Sunshine, rashies AND some water – a Summer Leven dream! Photo: Tom Clare

The famous Backbarrow bridge has the most intimidating (but not necessarily the hardest) rapid of the river. Dropping down into this rapid has always got my heart racing. 9 times out of 10 I come out the other side upright and smiling. However you can also get a bit of a beatdown if you are unlucky and I would never question anyone wanting to portage it. When the river is on a huge, it is definitely worth getting out to look at Backbarrow rapid first as it does get to a point where you won’t fit under the bridge upright!

Halloween on a huge Leven – we did not paddle Backbarrow! Photo: Del

The rapids immediately after Backbarrow bridge require a bit of care. There is a yucky weir that is best portaged followed by a rapid which can sometimes end in a very large hole. The final stretch can also have a problem with trees which is worth being mindful of.

Overall – it’s a river of continuous fun and as it is lake fed will run for a few days after it has rained. So deserves it’s spot in the top 5!

The end!

There you go – 5 of my favourite English white water rivers. I am not suggesting that these are the BEST rivers in England but simply 5 of my favourite for a variety of reasons. There were many rivers that I considered but didn’t quite make the top 5 such as the Duddon, the Erme, the Greta and of course the weirs on my home river of the Trent. Further details about all UK rivers can be found via the online UK rivers guidebook.

Everyone will have their own top 5 and I would love to hear yours so please do leave a comment below with your English favourites!

Keep an eye out for the upcoming articles for my Welsh and Scottish favourites!

2 replies on “5 of my favourite white water rivers to paddle in England”

Thank you very much, Del,
I haven’t done all the rivers you’ve listed so you have given me some ideas for the future 🙂

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