Ratty from Wind in the Willows got it exactly right when he said: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” And with summer looming, what better location to mess about in a boat than the River Wye, just a little over an hour’s drive from Cardiff.
The Wye, set against a stunning backdrop of the Black Mountains and Hay Bluff in the south and the the Kilvert country and Clyro to the north, is up there with the best of British rivers. The river is the fifth longest in Britain and meanders 130 miles from its source in Plynlimon in the Welsh mountains through Hay-on-Wye, Hereford and Ross-on-Wye, on to Symonds Yat, Monmouth and Tintern, before joining the Severn Estuary at Chepstow.
The river’s luscious banks are ideal for walkers and provide a great vantage point for spotting wildlife, including the odd otter or heron, as well as being popular with fishers. The River Wye is widely acknowledged as a good place for beginners to have a go at canoeing because of its relatively slow-flowing waters, while the white waters of Symonds Yat provide the more experienced river-goer with some adventure.
The Wye Valley Canoe Centre in Glasbury-on-Wye is a good starting point for hiring closed top single or double kayak or a more leisurely two-person Canadian canoe, which is open top and essentially more of a boat. The canoe centre offers a range of packages for parties of any number, from a half-day five-mile jaunt to Hay-on-Wye or full-day trip 10 miles downstream to Whitney, to a multi-day camping expedition.
We opted for the full-day trip. Before setting-off, we received a safety briefing, were kitted-out with lifejackets and prepped on our route by the centre’s helpful staff.
Those with boating experience sat at the rear of the canoe and were responsible for steering. This was the perfect opportunity to sit back, relax and watch the person in front do all the paddling.
The Canadian canoes were equipped with waterproof barrels to keep essentials dry – most importantly, a carefully prepared picnic. There was a dose of healthy competition between our fleet and a competitive dad on another boat who was intent on demonstrating his boating-prowess in front of his wife and child, which made for some good banter.
Keeping our eyes peeled for the elusive river otter, we half-paddled, half-drifted downstream, enjoying the sunshine. Messing about on the river would definitely not have been half as fun in the rain.
Navigating some of the mini rapids – emphasis on the mini – ended in laughter as the canoes spun 180 degrees, sending us backwards down the river, before becoming lodged on a rock or hurtling towards the riverbank.
Around the four-mile mark, we stopped for a picnic on the riverside. Five miles downstream was a spot to moor the canoes to visit the picturesque town of Hay-on-Wye – a must for literature fans, the town is renowned for second hand book shops and has little else besides coffee shops and eateries.
The remaining stretch of river to Whitney is more peaceful than the first section. The Boat Inn has a beer garden overlooking the river and is the pick-up point for the trip back to Glasbury-on-Wye, making for the perfect excuse for a post-paddle pint or two.
After a day on the river, one can see why the Romantic poet William Wordsworth was so entranced by it. In Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”, 1798 he wrote:
How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,
O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro' the woods,
How often has my spirit turned to thee!
While sunny days are the best time to go, it pays to be mindful of water levels which can get very low in the summer months meaning the canoes run aground.
Half day all-in canoe hire costs £20 per person, but with a full day only £5 extra it makes sense go for the latter. Camping trips cost £30 per person per day and includes pick-up from final destination on the last day.
For more information, go to www.wyevalleycanoes.co.ukor call 01497 847 213.