A guide to canoeing, kayaking and paddleboarding in Kent
PUBLISHED: 16:49 21 September 2020
All images are the property of Manu Palomeque 07977 074797
The easing of lockdown saw a huge growth in paddlesports, with people eager to get some exercise and explore the countryside, safely | Words: Caroline Read - Photos: Manu Palomeque
If lockdown taught us one thing, it was to value our freedom. With more of us exercising close to home and seeking our daily dose of calm, it’s no surprise that when restrictions were relaxed the paddlesport industry recorded a huge spike in sales of kayaks, canoes and paddleboards.
For seasoned paddlers, the spring lockdown meant their beloved sport ground to a halt at exactly the time of year they would normally be getting back onto the water. Having champed at the bit to get going, they were finally permitted in May.
But even those with little or no experience have felt drawn to the water this summer.
The peaceful surroundings and the freedom it offers proved extremely attractive to those suffering from ‘lockdown fever’ and the proof can be found in the record numbers joining membership organisation British Canoeing.
Allowing people to take in their local countryside, city locations and coastal scenery, paddling brings both health and wellbeing benefits, encouraging people to get closer to nature and exercise at a pace that suits them, while easily maintaining social distancing.
As a result of the upturn in interest, British Canoeing has launched its ‘Go Paddling This Summer’ campaign, in the hope of attracting more people to the paddlesport community.
The group has seen a 26 per cent growth in membership since last summer and a massive increase in the number of people visiting its Go Paddling website, which suggests places to paddle, top tips on getting started and paddling safety.
David Joy, chief executive of British Canoeing, says: “We have seen a real growth in participation and membership numbers over the past few months as more people have taken to the water with their friends and families.
“Our role is to present the opportunities, to share information about where to paddle, provide handy hints and tips, point to the importance of the licences and insurance and to remind paddlers about the importance of paddling responsibly, while having a great time.”
It’s worth noting that a river license and public liability insurance are required to launch your own craft on most waterways, particularly those cared for by the Canal & River Trust and the Environment Agency.
For beginners, it can be hard to work out where you can and can’t paddle so it’s useful to look into it online before you set off.
While it doesn’t cover every waterway in the country, it’s well worth investing in British Canoeing’s ‘On the Water’ membership which includes a waterway licence and insurance.
You can be stopped and asked to provide proof of this while on the water, and hefty fines can be handed out to those paddling without it. By having a licence you are supporting the maintenance and protection of the waterways you paddle on, ensuring they are kept clean and safe.
In Kent the only main exception to the usual rule is part of the Royal Military Canal. Between Seabrook Outfall and West Hythe Damn it’s controlled by Folkestone & Hythe District Council, which requires paddlers to have public liability insurance as well as a local permit obtained from them. The rest of the canal is controlled by the Environment Agency.
You also need to work out whether you’re planning to launch from private land. For example, if you want to launch your craft onto the Rover Rother at Newenden, you need to pay a self-launch fee to Bodiam Boating Station. Similarly, you need to buy a day pass to launch at Bewl Water.
If you don’t have your own craft, or you’re hoping to try the sport out for the first time, a great option is to hire one.
Kent specialist Canoe Wild hires out canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards (SUPs) from its base on the River Stour, just outside Canterbury.
The season runs from March to October, so the business opened briefly at the beginning of the year only to be forced to close again at the start of lockdown.
“But with the guidance from British Canoeing, Visit Kent and Visit Canterbury we reopened in May,” says Elaine Gilbert from Canoe Wild. “Which was a lot earlier than we first thought, much to our relief.
“We spent a long time on our Covid-19 secure preparations, and we moved our bookings from the Grove Ferry site – which is a busy picnic park – to our private site in Fordwich. This helped us manage the social distancing needs that were required to keep our team and customers safe.”
The site has had to be laid out differently from previous years, so there is little physical interaction between staff and customers, and there are hand-sanitising stations and space markers.
The vans used to pick up customers and return them to the site from further down river have had internal screens fitted and will only pick up one household at a time.
The investment of time, money and effort has proven worthwhile. “We were nervous as to whether we would have any uptake on what we had to offer and we were very cautious about staffing levels at first,” says Elaine.
“But we really didn’t have anything to worry about. We posted about our reopening on social media and the phones began to ring with a flood of enquiries and bookings.
“Families were desperate to be able to do some form of activity. Many had never even thought of canoeing and kayaking; it was just a search for anything that was open that could be enjoyed safely and some just stumbled across us.
“There have been families that were a little nervous of heading out but after their experience with us they have given the most encouraging feedback. It is possible to manage the safe social-distancing measures while still allowing a fun experience.
“We’ve been so busy we’ve increased our stock and now have a staff of 21.”
The need to maintain a safe distance is particularly important when entering and exiting the water, so it’s important you launch from somewhere manageable. It’s a problem that has meant hire companies have had to adapt quickly.
Bodiam Boating Station has built a new jetty with handrails so customers can lower themselves into the water unaided. They’ve also booked extra time in between hires to allow staff to thoroughly clean down the boats.
The business has been almost overwhelmed by the level of interest since lockdown was eased. In these uncertain times, it’s reassuring to know that people are finding comfort in something as simple as messing about in boats, and that immersing yourself in the great outdoors has shot up on many people’s list of priorities.
It’s a fun way to spend time with the family, it’s easy to maintain social distance and it’s a great workout.
Paddling really does seem to be the perfect pastime for this most unique of summers.
Launch your own
- River Stour at Chartham, Canterbury or Sandwich
- River Medway at Tonbridge, Yalding or Teston, or follow the entire Medway Canoe Trail (18 miles from Tonbridge to Allington Lock)
- River Rother at Newenden
- Royal Military Canal at Seabrook or Bonnington church bridge
Remember: if you’re launching your own boat, be sure to have your license and to check if you owe a self-launch fee
Hire a boat
- Canoe Wild in Fordwich, near Canterbury – canoewild.co.uk
- Bodiam Boating Station in Newenden, near Hawkhurst – bodiamboatingstation.co.uk
- Mote Park Watersports Centre in Maidstone, moteparkwatersports.com
Join a local club
- Maidstone Canoe Club – maidstonecanoeclub.net
- Whitewater Action Medway at Yalding, whitewateraction.co.uk
- Tonbridge Canoe Club – tonbridgecanoeclub.org.uk
- Bewl Canoe Club – bewlcanoeclub.co.uk