Disputes over river rights muddy the water

Over the hot months of the pandemic summer, record numbers of people headed to favourite swimming spots along the River Nene near Oundle. At times up to a hundred people were estimated to have lined the banks at places in Elton, Cotterstock, Oundle and Wadenhoe, swimming, picnicking and sunbathing. The crowds brought cars that lined narrow village lanes and abandoned debris along the river.

To control and limit access to the river, some landowners and residents in Cotterstock and Wadenhoe were reported to have blocked paths and closed car parks. At a time when many people were seeking an afternoon escape to the countryside from the restrictions of lockdown, the standoff raised issues about public right of access to the country’s waterways.

Issues from trespassing to littering caused dispute and discussion, especially on the Oundle and Surrounding Villages Facebook group.

One resident posted during the unseasonably warm weather in June: “Many people have been swimming and having picnics at the Cotterstock lock. There has been a lot of rubbish left behind. The police were there today informing everyone that it is private property. The footpath between Oundle and Cotterstock runs through private property. There is no swimming, picnics or fishing allowed in this area. Permission from the landowners is required.”

In September, one village resident was surprised by the increased use of the water by the Lilford lock. “We call it the ‘costa del sheep field’. Not sure why it’s suddenly become a hotspot for campers, sunbathers and picnickers.”

In September, a post prompted debate regarding the wooden bridge in Fotheringhay. The bridge had been barricaded by the landowner, preventing people from enjoying walks along the river. Many people joined the thread in expressing their confusion and disappointment about the landowner’s actions.

Similar issues have been seen across the country. The current laws surrounding these issues are complicated. Landowners argue that they own both the riverbank and bed, so they have control over who is allowed on their property.

However, swimmers, boaters and canoers argue that no one owns the waterbed and they should have the right to roam the waters legally. Only four percent of the UK’s 41,000 miles of river have a clear and undisputed right of public access. If you swim, fish or paddle without the right permission, you are breaking the law. This has led to a nationwide dispute about the right to use the land.

An amendment to an agricultural bill is currently being considered in parliament to encourage farmers and landowners to allow access to waterways.

Andrew Mansergh is a keen kayaker and runner who uses the paths and river six times a week. He has been a member of the British Canoeing association for many years and believes river users should be able to use the river as they please, as long as they respect the land itself.

He said: “If people aren’t treating the landowner with respect, then they should not be allowed to use the land.”

He thinks that landowners should allow kayakers and swimmers to access the waterways, but the expectation must be that there is no mess left behind.

“It should be perfectly possible to go for a swim in the river and for nobody to ever know you were there.”

For some people that message is easy to understand and put into practice. Back in June one Facebook poster commented: “Whilst I am not denying that there are plenty of young people being irresponsible and inconsiderate whilst down at the river, the group we encountered yesterday at about 6pm, heading back towards the Ashton bridge from the lock, restored our faith a little bit! Polite and carrying a bag of their rubbish. We got to the place where they’d been and it was spotless. Those kids and their parents should be proud.”

Archie Atkinson
1 December 2020