River Access and licences for canoes and kayaks in the UK

Three kayakers paddle a wide, remote river in Scotland

The public has a right to access rivers across the world, such as this beautiful river in Scotland. But in England and Wales, some landowners try to prevent public access.

Across the world, public access to rivers is largely unrestricted, with kayakers, canoeists, boaters, rowers, swimmers and gorge walkers all free to explore their country’s rivers and waterways.

In England and Wales however, many landowners feel that the public should not have any automatic right of access to rivers.  Whilst a few rivers have public access agreements, 96% of English and Welsh rivers do not. Where access agreements do exist, they can be highly restrictive, and often limit access to certain times of the year.

Kayakers and canoeists are campaigning hard to open our rivers up for all to enjoy, but they face strong vested interests from some landowners and some anglers, who want to keep the rivers to themselves.

However, there is some good news. As long as you hold a licence, you can paddle on any of the 2,200 miles of canals and rivers administered by British Waterways. An additional licence allows you to paddle on other rivers which are maintained by the Environment Agency, including the non-tidal Thames west of London. For more information see below.

The Canal and River Trust

The Canal and River Trust manages 2,200 miles of the country’s canals and rivers. These waterways have historically been used for navigation and are thus ideal for touring and recreational paddling.

An excellent resource is the Waterscape website, where you can download maps of every canal and river in England and Wales. To download your map, visit the Waterscape website.

Free navigation of these waterways is allowed all year providing your boat is licenced with the Canal and River Trust. See http://canalrivertrust.org.uk/news-and-views/features/getting-started for more information.

An easier way to obtain a licence is to perhaps join the British Canoe Union (BCU). Membership automatically includes a British Waterways permit and third party insurance. Adult membership cost is currently £37.00 (2013). Most London clubs hold a BCU licence which will cover their club boats.

Environment Agency

The Environment Agency (EA) is a Public Body which is responsible for protecting communities from the risk of flooding and managing water resources. The EA controls boat access to eight UK waterways, including the non-tidal River Thames (Cricklade Bridge to Teddington). Canoeists and kayakers require a licence to paddle on EA waterways.

The registration cost was £30 in 2012. Alternatively, membership of the British Canoe Union (BCU) automatically includes an Environment Agency permit. Most London clubs hold a BCU licence which will cover their club boats, and many paddlers hold personal BCU membership (£37 in 2012).

For more information see the Canoeing section on the Environment Agency website.

Access to the sea and tidal waters

In general, the public has a right to access the sea and tidal waters. This access extends to beaches below the high water mark. Above the high water mark, beaches may be privately owned.

River access: other useful links

Rivers Access Campaign

Canoe England – waterways and environment

River Access for All

Paddle Points


Kayaking is not a crime

Image credit: Sarah Gibbs