Show search form

Access on Water

Throughout England and Wales there is a high level of uncertainty regarding the legal rights of the public to enjoy access on water. 

Through the Clear Access, Clear Waters Campaign, we are working hard to improve access on and along all our waterways.

British Canoeing believes that there is a strong case to demonstrate an existing public right of navigation (PRN) on all navigable rivers.

Until such time that the law is clarified, either in court, or through legislation being enacted, British Canoeing will campaign on behalf of the public, for fair, shared, sustainable open access on water.

Why should the laws on Access and Navigation on our waterways matter and what impact do they have on paddlers?

Anywhere that requires a licence to be on the water, like your local canal or some of the major rivers, there are no access issues. 

With your British Canoeing membership, you are free to enjoy around 45,00km of waterways. There is some great info here about the river licence and where it enables you to paddle.

Licenses can also be purchased directly from the individual navigation authorities. 

If you are operating commercially on licensable water, it is always worth checking with the relevant navigation authority whether a permit is needed.

Unsure of where these are? Check out Paddlepoints and search for the waterway near you.

Waterways that require a license are referred to as ‘Statutory Navigations’. i.e. there is an Act of Parliament granting a clear right of navigation for the public. 

These statutory navigations make up about 6.4% of our total inland waterway resource in England – and just less than 4% of rivers.

So canals and river navigations are good, what about everywhere else?

Read more

Here it becomes more unclear. Disagreements over whether there is or isn’t a right for paddlers and swimmers to enjoy the majority of our waters in England and Wales have raged for decades. 

Some believe that rivers are private and require permission from the landowner before paddling. 

British Canoeing maintains that there is evidence to suggest that there has always been a right to access our waterways and they should be fairly shared by all. 

Unfortunately, not everyone agrees and unlike the rights of way network on land, where footpaths and bridleways mark clearly where we have a right to walk or ride, on water things are less clear.

What about lakes and reservoirs?

Read more

These vary. In the Lake District for example, each of the bodies of water have different rules and bylaws that affect where, when and how you can access the water. 

Reservoirs also have different rules, depending on which utilities company who manage them. There are often tight restrictions on access to reservoirs so it is always worth checking in advance before setting out!

And the coast?

Read more

In nearly all cases there is a Public Right of Navigation (PRN) on tidal waters. This includes the seas, estuaries and tidal rivers – up to their historic Normal Tidal Limit (NTL). 

Where a river’s tidal limit has by altered by the building of weirs, sluices or other structures the historic (or natural, unrestricted) NTL is the relevant limit. 

It is worth being aware that the right to paddle tidal waters may be subject to a payment of harbour dues and restrictions due to exclusion zones or use by the Ministry of Defence. Again, it is worth checking in advance before you set out.

What about Scotland?

Read more

The situation in Scotland is very different to that in Wales and England. 

The Scottish Land Reform Act 2003 provides the public with access rights to land and inland water. this means that:

  1. There is a right to be on land and to cross land

  2. There is a right to exercise access rights for recreational, educational and commercial reasons

  3. Rights of access to land include inland waters, canals and foreshore

All three points above are underpinned by the phrase ‘responsible use’ by both the public and landowners. 

The access provisions in the Land Reform Act are an extremely important milestone in Scottish history. Further information can be found via the Scottish Canoe Association.

Ok, so what does all this mean? Can I paddle in England and Wales or not?

Read more

We believe you can.

Despite the fact the majority of our water in England and Wales has been argued over for years, our waters can and should be enjoyed by all… so long as we follow the Paddlers’ Code.

By following our code, we can ensure we stay safe, respect other users and protect the precious environment at all times

Check out our article here around sharing the space. Most people paddle freely with no hassle at all, but we think it is important that you are in the know about the bigger picture.

So what happens if I paddle on a 'contested' waterway?

Read more

Unfortunately, because the situation is unclear, we know that from time to time paddlers and swimmers are challenged. If this happens, it is important to remain calm, polite and seek to defuse the situation.

As long as we respect other users, we respect the rights of landowners and we stick to our Paddlers’ Code and the countryside code, we all should be able to share our waterways in harmony.

What about access to the water?

Read more

It is really important that paddlers, swimmers, anyone accessing the water respects private property. In getting to the water with your boat or board, you must not cross private land without permission from the landowner, this could constitute trespass.

Luckily, there are thousands of places to launch and land safely and responsibly, just check out PaddlePoints for places to paddle and launch!

So what is British Canoeing doing about all this?

Read more

In November 2018, British Canoeing launched its Clear Access, Clear Waters Campaign. We are asking the Government to secure fair, shared, sustainable open access to waters in England and Wales, that’s not much to ask for is it?

Rivers should be shared and cared for by all users. We want people to have clarity in where they can paddle and how to do so responsibly.

So since 2018, we have been lobbying hard for changes to legislation – BUT we need your help! Check out the Clear Access, Clear Waters Campaign website for more info on how you can support our campaign to secure more places for you to paddle!

If you want to unlock more places to paddle, sign our petition here!

Ok, so what if the worst happens and if I am accused of Trespass?

Read more

The law of Trespass is an extremely complicated subject but it is vital that coaches and their students, peers and clients are familiar with the law. We recommend that all coaches, guides and leaders are familiar with the British Canoeing Trespass briefing note.

If you are paddling on a river, lake or other waters where there is a disputed public right of navigation, then it could be alleged you may be trespassing. Usually trespass is a civil, not a criminal, offence (see the information on Aggravated Trespass below). 

Damages can be awarded against the trespasser and an injunction can be issued to prevent repetition of trespass or to restrain threatened trespass. 

As civil offence trespass is not a police matter unless a criminal offence is also committed. 

This would only be the case if willful or malicious damage was done, there was a conspiracy to commit trespass, there was behaviour likely to cause a breach of the peace or it was a case of Aggravated Trespass. 

Responding to Trespass Allegations If you are challenged whilst paddling, always: 

Our advice is to be courteous, calm and polite, and attempt to defuse the situation through positive dialogue.

Seek to find positive ways of working with other water users, for example passing by anglers with minimal disruption (following our Code of Conduct). 

Avoid anything that could be interpreted as Aggravated Trespass, such as a breach of the peace, or conspiracy to trespass as these are criminal offences. 

Do not admit to trespass under any circumstances, or give your name or contact details unless a Police Officer asks for them.

Aggravated Trespass is the act of trespassing with the intention of obstructing or disrupting a lawful activity (such as hunting, shooting or fishing) or intimidating those engaged in such lawful activities. Canoeists should not fall foul of this law if they canoe in a peaceful and considerate manner. 

It is really important British Canoeing is notified of any access related incidents on or off the water. While we may not always be able to act on a specific dispute, it does help us identify where and what types of incidents are occurring.

For the BC Incident Report Form please visit our website here

Useful Downloads

The content above, and any other section of the website which sets out British Canoeing’s position regarding waterway access and the law is provided for general information only. Whilst it is given in good faith and represents British Canoeing’s understanding of the current position, it is not intended to (and does not) constitute any form of legal advice.

Whilst British Canoeing make reasonable efforts to update the information on our website, it make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content on this website is accurate, complete or up to date.

British Canoeing respects private property rights and actively discourages paddlers from accessing water through private land unless the appropriate consent or permission has been obtained from the relevant land owner, where applicable.