Navigating gently tumbling waters through wooden valleys and historic towns is all part of an expedition canoeing on the River Wye. Here’s how to enjoy a great day on the river.

There’s something energising about being on a river and canoeing on the River Wye is no exception.

The river stretches 215 kilometres from the Welsh Cambrian Mountains to the Severn Estuary, just north of Bristol. During its meandering journey it drifts along lush green meadows, through mysterious wooded valleys, and past several interesting towns. The book-loving centre of Hay on Wye being just one of them.

As it snakes between towering rocky outcrops and secret stony beaches, the river provides gentle flowing sections for a peaceful paddle and faster flowing riffles for a touch more excitement.

Canoeing on the River Wye is this year’s answer to the great British staycation.

The river can be split into 3 sections. In the upper valley, river-based views of the Black Mountains appear between quirky towns. In the middle section, the cathedral town of Hereford is the start of a voyage beside grand castles and the rocky vista of Symonds Yat. In the lower reaches, rapids and tidal waters make canoeing or kayaking the River Wye a more challenging excursion.

However, if you pick the right section, almost anyone can do it. You don’t need any experience; just a willingness to get wet and a sense of adventure.

It’s a great day out in the UK. Here’s what you need to know.

WHAT’S IT LIKE KAYAKING AND CANOEING ON THE RIVER WYE?

Quite simply, it’s brilliant. It’s also probably a lot easier than you think.

Heading downstream you hardly need to paddle at all. A few mini rapids along the course provide the faintest rush of adrenaline for inexperienced canoers, otherwise it’s plain sailing. Generally, just dipping an oar in the water to steer is about as much effort as you’ll need to muster. It’s a relaxing journey through some of Britain’s finest countryside.

Near Hay on Wye, the river slowly meanders under the imposing Black Mountains with sheep grazing in the patchwork of fields nestled below the hills. Through Hereford, all attention is drawn to the magnificent cathedral which rises above the banks. At Symonds, Yat the river snakes under a medieval castle on route through a spectacular gorge.

There are plenty of spots to soak up the atmosphere along the river. Rocky beaches are ideal for a home-made picnic; there are quality pubs for a cheeky pint, and plenty of grassy banks for a lazy summer’s sunbake. For even more adventure you can enjoy some wild swimming, hike up to caves or explore nearby castles. 


WHICH SECTION OF THE RIVER WYE?

The navigable part of the River Wye that is most enjoyed from a canoe can be split into three sections each offering a slightly different experience and requiring different levels of canoe experience. They are:

kayaking the river Wye

UPPER WYE

Glasbur – Hay on Wye – Witney on Wye – Hereford

MIDDLE WYE

Hereford – Ross on Wye – Kerne Bridge – Symonds Yat

LOWER WYE

Symonds Yat – Monmouth – Tintern – Chepstow

UPPER WYE / A QUIET MEANDER

Canoeing the upper Wye is best if you want a slow quiet meander. The river is wide and gently drifts downhill. There are a couple of mini rapids that require concentration, but nothing too challenging. The scenery around Glasbury is excellent with the Black Mountains dominating the scene. Stop off to Hay on Wye to stroll the quirky second-hand books stores and opt for some wild swimming at the Warren. Further downstream, stop off at the Boat Inn in Whitney on Wye for some excellent pub grub.

MIDDLE WYE / A LITTLE MORE EXCITEMENT

Canoeing the middle Wye is best for a bit more excitement. The rapids are a little faster creating a sense of adventure with a slightly higher adrenalin level. However, with a bit of concentration, the Middle Wye can still be completed by novices who have never picked up an oar before. The scenery is a bit more dramatic with several imposing castles along this section of the river. There are lovely riverside pubs at Ross on Wye, Lower Lydbrook and Symonds Yet with plenty of good walking and swimming from the banks.

LOWER WYE / A LITTLE TRICKIER

Canoeing the lower Wye is quite a bit trickier. Just downstream from Symonds Yat there are class 2 rapids which are apparently a lot of fun if you have some experience and a bit less so if you don’t. A little further along, the river carves its way passed the Seven Sisters rocks with its myriad of caves before arriving at Monmouth. Downstream from here, the river becomes tidal meaning it can be shallow and dense with weeds. All in all, this section needs a bit of experience or a guide.


HOW LONG SHOULD YOU HIRE A KAYAK OR CANOE ON THE RIVER WYE?

Canoe and kayak hire on the Wye can be for as little as half a day or for as long as multiple days. A half-day allows for about 2 to 3 hours of paddling and covers about 5 to 7 miles. A full day involves about 4 to 6 hours paddling and covers about 10 to 12 miles.

The first time we canoed on the Wye we only booked half day. We had very little experience and were concerned our arms would get tired. But the river bubbles along quite quickly and the current carries you downstream with very little effort. For most people a full day would be fun and not too exhausting (although your back may begin to get tired).  

Where to Kayak on the Wye River

BEST HALF DAY

Glasbury to Hay on Wye | 2 to 3 hours paddling | 5.5 miles

BEST 3/4 DAY

Kerne Bridge to Symonds Yat | 3 to 4 hours paddling | 7 miles

BEST FULL DAY

1 / Ross on Wye to Symonds Yat | 5 to 6 hours paddling | 12 miles

2 / Glasbury to Whitney on Wye | 4 to 5 hours paddling | 10.5 miles

BEST 2 DAY

Hoarwithy to Symonds Yat | 2 days | 24 miles

BEST 3 DAY

Glasbury to Hereford | 3 days | 36 miles

Most spend up to a day on the river, but a few companies run multi-day canoe and kayak hire. You need to plan where to eat and spend the night, but there are beautifully positioned campsites and pubs along the way.


HOW DOES IT WORK?

There are loads of companies which provide kayaks or canoes on the River Wye for hire. They offer a choice of one person kayaks, and 2 or 3 person canoes (4 if two are children). Hire includes oar, a buoyancy aid, and a waterproof barrel to store a few supplies.

On arrival you get a safety briefing, instructions on how to paddle and directions (and map) for the route you should take. After signing your life away on a disclaimer form, you’re put in your canoe or kayak, told to paddle around a bit (to check you have the basics) and then sent on your merry way.

The river now carries you downstream where you can laze about, stop for picnics, go for a swim or rush through the rapids. Now and then you need to decide which side of the river to take, but if there is any potentially dangerous sections (i.e. a tree down on the side of the river that you need to avoid) the hire company will have told you which way to go.

Once you reach your exit point, you pull your canoe up onto the bank and call the hire company who will come and pick you up.

(Note some firms operate the other way and drive you up to the start point first. Also, for social distancing requirements, some companies are currently only taking one person per group back to the beginning. Don’t forget your mask for the bus trip back to the starting point).


CAN ANYONE DO IT?

Pretty much yes.

For the upper and middle sections of the river you don’t need any experience or any particular level of fitness.

As our instructor told us: you’d find it hard to capsize. Having said that we came down one set of rapids backwards after getting the front of the canoe caught on rocks. We also saw a couple who took the wrong side of some rapids and capsized.

So although you can be a novice, you should take care and be willing to get wet. There is a high chance you will need to stand on the rocky bottom when taking a break or exiting the river and a small chance that you’ll be soaked and need to turn your capsized canoe back over.

You don’t need to be able to swim, the bank of the river is never far away and you will be wearing a buoyancy aid. You just need 1 good swimmer for every non-swimmer. Even quite young kids are allowed. For each kid that would need help if the boat capsized, you need 1 adult. For older and more capable kids then 1 adult can canoe with two children.


SHOULD YOU HIRE A CANOE OR KAYAK?

Kayaks are for 1 person. They are smaller, lighter and much more manoeuvrable. You are less likely to get stuck on the river bottom and more likely to speed over any rapids.

Canoes are for 2 or 3 adults or 2 adults and 1 or 2 young children. They are almost twice as long as a kayak and weigh about 30kg. This makes them more stable and more difficult to capsize, but also more difficult to steer.

For adventure, speed and feeling closer to the water then the kayak is a better option. For a relaxing social tour with the family then go with the canoe.

WHAT SHOULD YOU BRING?

Wear something you are happy to get wet. You might be one of the very few who capsize. But, even if you don’t, you’ll probably end up splashing yourself with an awkward oar manoeuvrer.

Layers that dry quickly are better than things like denim. A waterproof jacket is ideal if it might rain. In summer being out in the sun can take its toll so put on suntan lotion and wear sunglasses and a hat. In winter bring layers and a fleece.

Wet boot and shoes are ideal, but trainers you are happy to get wet are also fine. Flip-flops are not advised as they can get swept downstream. Keep in mind that at least one of you will need to step out into the shallow water to pull the canoe up to the bank.

Assuming you want to take lots of photos make sure your phone is waterproof or has a waterproof cover like this one.

The hire company provides a waterproof barrel to store things you don’t want to get wet. If you fancy a wild swim (and you should) don’t forget your swimming trunks and a towel. If you expect one of your party is likely to splash about and get you wet, bring a change of clothes.

Finally, if you are heading out for a full day or multi-day plan your food stops. There are many pubs along the way that provide food and drink, but most paddlers choose to bring a picnic and have a lazy meal on the riverbanks.


HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?

In our opinion, this is a great value day out. A half-day on the water is about £25 per person and a full day £35 to £40 per person. This includes rental of the kayak/canoe, buoyancy aid, oar and return to your car. The full-day usually starts around 9am and ends about 4pm.

Canoeing or kayaking on the Wye is an almost all-weather activity. You can’t cancel for a bit of rain. But if there are high winds, lightning and thunder, the water is too cold or levels are dangerously high then the hire company will cancel and refund you.

CANOE HIRE FIRMS WORTH CHECKING OUT

If you are planning on canoeing in the upper Wye around Hay on Wye then Wye Valley Canoes offer a half-day trip from Glasbury to Hay on Wye or a full day from Glasbury to Whitney on Wye. The rather finely positioned River Inn Café in Glasbury is a great spot to begin and end. For multi-day camping adventures, Celtic Canoes will give you all you need for a 2- or 3-day trip to Hereford.

If you are heading to the middle Wye then Canoe the Wye Limited offer half-day trips in the Canadian Canoes or Wye Adventures offer kayaks and canoes from half a day up to 3 days (although they are currently not offering their shuttle service due to social distancing – check their website for updates).

WHERE TO STAY IN THE WYE VALLEY

With so many things to do in the Wye Valley, staying as centrally as possible is important. But with such a beautiful stretch of river, it’s no surprise that many of the best accommodation places in the Wye Valley take advantage of this scenic location. Here are our suggestions for great places to stay in the Wye Valley.

TINTERN

THE ROYAL GEORGE

An elegantly refurbished country pub in Tintern with locally sourced produce in their excellent dining spaces.

HOTELS.COM / BOOKING.COM

CLEARWELL

TUDOR FARMHOUSE

Stylish details in neutral tones on a former working farm with excellent packages to help you navigate the river with ease.

HOTELS.COM / BOOKING.COM

ROSS ON WYE

THE BRIDGE HOUSE

Luxury accommodation in Ross on Wye with direct access to the river and a beautiful garden setting.

HOTELS.COM / BOOKING.COM

WHEN IS IT BEST TO GO?

Most firms allow unguided canoes and kayaks to be hired from March to December (but only guided during the winter months).

In the summer holiday’s it can get crazy busy. There are lots of canoeists and locals looking for a place to cool down and swim.

You should be aware that Symonds Yat, in particular, can be extremely congested. The narrow two way roads make access frustratingly difficult. Allow extra time to get there and bring £3 in cash for parking.

If large crowds put you off then head upstream to Hay on Wye or book outside the July and August summer holidays.

Finally, consider avoiding the warmest days. If your goal is a quiet paddle then it doesn’t get much better than a misty moody day in autumn. The water is still fairly warm and you might have most of the river to yourself.


WHERE NEXT?

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Bordering on the Wye Valley is the Malvern Hills – an interesting landscape that’s ideal to explore on foot. Additionally, the Cotswolds – another area of outstanding natural beauty – is just on the doorstep.

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