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Bikepacking on the South Downs

Whilst "green and pleasant" may stereotypically define the English landscape, there's a lot more to it than that. In fact, its the very diversity of English landscapes that make my home country such a beautiful place to explore.

I live in the crowded South East, yet even here I can escape my fellow man almost entirely if I so choose to. Just a few miles from my home near Woking, surrounded by the M3, M25 and A3, I have wild camped alongside a beautiful river, lying out under the stars and falling asleep to the sound of owls.


On the face of it, this seems to be just a new buzzword for cycle touring. There is a difference though. Bikepacking is about heading off road with your bike and lightweight gear, probably wild camping, and enjoying getting to the quieter parts of the country. The latest equipment means you can carry a surprising amount on a bike, whilst still retaining the control needed for off road riding.

I'm a regular mountain biker, but I normally just go for a few hours blast. A friend and I decided it was about time we tried a longer trip. Being a bit daft, and we have a history of doing stuff like this, we decided to do it in December, when there would be the minimum of daylight, and the maximum mud. And we decided just to sleep under tarps. 


So is England's paddling all about canals and managed navigations like the Thames? Not at all, we have some wonderful little rivers as well, where the stream meanders far from the roads and footpaths, and even in the busy South East you can go for hours without seeing another soul. We also have touring rivers, whitewater rivers, superb coastal paddling, and some surprisingly serious fast flows through the green trees of England.

Whitney-on-Wye toll bridge

The whole ethos of this site is that you can find adventure and wild places even close to home. I wrote an article for The Paddler magazine that hopefully gives you a sense of the joy of such places when paddling quietly in an open canoe on the waters of southern England.

Whitney-on-Wye toll bridge
The River Wye

OK, this straddles the border with Wales, but most of the regularly paddled sections are in England. This is one of the best touring rivers in either country, and despite plenty of paddling infrastructure, passes through some gorgeous remote countryside below the hills, before winding its way through the steep valleys around Symonds Yat. 

Glasbury to Hereford is a classic 3-day trip. Due to time constraints, we had to shorten this to two days a few years ago, but had an excellent trip.

canoeing, river wye, brobury scar

The other classic 2-3 day trip, the character changes from more open country to the narrow confines of the stunning valley around Symonds Yat, with its towering limestone crags.

Ceufad, the magazine of Canoe Wales, published an article of mine about the Wye in Sept 17.

river wye, symonds yat, ross, monmouth, canoeing
River Wey, canoe, Old Woking
Canoeing, River Wey, Bowers
River Wey, reeds, reflection
The River Wey

This is my local river, and one of my favourite places. When I first started canoeing, I was gobsmacked to find I could escape to such a lovely place and find utter tranquillity just a few short miles from home, tucked between the A3, M3 and M25. The river is a navigation, managed by locks and weirs, but the ancient backwaters remain, meandering sections of rural perfection.

A lovely route formed by going up the navigation and down the quiet backwater that passes Triggs lock, via a short weir portage. A place to really get away from it all.

River Wey, canoeing, sunset, reflections, Triggs Lock

One of my favourite adventures close to home, a stunning meandering river, with a fairly long portage and the option of a quiet wild camp despite being so close to suburban Surrey.

River Wey, canoeing, wild camping, Old Woking, Gresham

This one has it all; urban and rural canal, half a dozen portages and, linking it all, a lovely rural river with a few faster flowing bits to add to the day.

canoeing, river wey, weybridge loop, byfleet, brooklands
Basingstoke canal, Baseley's Bridge
Autumn Leaves
Leaves, black and white
The Basingstoke Canal

Canals are boring, industrial places full of rubbish and shopping trolleys, yeah? No they're not, sometimes they're wonderful, peaceful places meandering through the countryside, places where time seems to stand still. The Basingstoke Canal is a true rural idyll once you are west of Aldershot, home to badgers, owls, kingfishers and bats.

Tranquil paddling beneath the curving bows of leaf-clad trees, opening out as it approaches the closed Greywell tunnel. Canal paddling at its finest.

Basingstoke Canal, canoeing, Winchfield Hurst

More lovely rural paddling beneath the Hampshire trees. In Spring the banks are clad with flowers, in autumn the leaves turn to gold.

basingstoke canal, canoeing, winchfield hurst, barley mow
River Thames, Cricklade, tree blockage
Canoeing, Thames, Tower Bridge, HMS Belfast
Canoeing, River Thames, Newbridge
River Thames, reflections
The Thames

England's best known river is full of surprises. Whilst the classic image is either of a large urban river passing London's famous sights, or perhaps the rowing boats and boathouses of Oxford, in other parts it is a lovely rural waterway far from roads and towns. And if you fancy some adventure, head for the upper stretches where you can find yourself dodging and climbing over fallen trees in shallow water, a far cry from going under Tower Bridge.

As the Thames approaches Henley, one of the iconic towns of the river, a backwater leaves the main stream and winds it way down to join the River Lodden before rejoining the Thames.

St Patrick's Stream, canoeing, Thames, Lower Shiplake, Loddon

From Cricklade to Oxford the Thames is a modest rural river. The first part to Lechlade is a proper adventure with quick, bubbling water and many trees to dodge or climb through.

canoeing, Thames, canoeing with kids, radcot, newbridge, cricklade

An adventure of a very different kind, a serious paddle that needs lots of planning, but is a fantastic thing to do. We did this as the last part of a one-weekend-at-a-time descent of the whole navigable river.

canoeing, thames, through London, Tower Bridge, tideway
Common Seal, Chichester Harbour
Little Egret, samphire, Beaulieu river
Oystercatchr, in flight, Beaulieu River
The South Coast

As an open canoeist, I have to think very carefully before venturing onto the sea in a craft that can swamp, and can be hard to paddle in winds. Fortunately, though, with good planning and the right experience, there are a few places along the South Coast that are exceptional places to paddle, filled with birdlife.

A rare opportunity where weather and tides coincided to allow a few hours of perfection off the Dorset coast. A real privilege.

canoeing, sup, Old Harry, Dorset, tides

A wonderful evening paddle, grabbed after work, where I was joined by the only resident seals on the south east coast.

canoeing, Chichester Harbour, Emsworth, seals, common, harbour

England's green and pleasant lands are truly lovely places to explore. A quiet wander through the woodlands helps you connect with nature.

I will add more to this section as the website evolves.

Chobham Common, Surrey Wildlife Trust, Jolly Wild Christmas
Whitmoor Common, frost, early morning
Surrey's Heathlands

The west of Surrey is home to one of England's rarer habitats; lowland heathland. There are many reserves, lots of which are managed by Surrey Wildlife Trust, who I have recently started to volunteer for. These are places to walk slowly through, with eyes open, where bird flutter, and dragonflies dance.

Volunteering has opened my eyes to how we manage these natural landscapes to try and retain the diversity of life that has established itself in the south of England over the millennia. These are not truly natural landscapes, but one where nature has both been managed by man, and taken advantage of man's influence to grow and prosper.

Oxfordshire Downs, Odstone Coombes, downland, escarpment

Almost unique to England, there is something very special about the combination of chalk grassland and the open skies above. 

These are some of the few large open spaces in the south, where riders, walkers, mountain bikers, paragliders, birdwatchers and many more can find enjoyment by immersing themselves in the natural world.

Red kite, in flight, Oxfordshire
South Downs, Way, bikepacking
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