The campaign for

River Access for All

Frequently Asked Questions

Replies to the most Frequently Asked Questions.

This section contains the latest FAQ about issues relating to river access.

Belief in a PRN
What's the basis of the belief that there is a public right of navigation on all rivers in England and Wales subject only to the size/nature of the river and the craft using them?   Read More

Magna Carta and the 1472 Act for Wears and Fishgarthes
How can you base the claim that there is a public right of navigation on things like Magna Carta and the 1472 Act for Wears and Fishgarthes? These relate to things hundreds of years and ago and in any case have been repealed.    Read More

The Institutes of Justinian (Roman Law)
The website refers to The Institutes of Justinian (Roman Law). The Romans left Britain in 410 and the first Statute of Westminster (1275) defined the start of legal memory as being 6 July 1189. Surely any reference to Roman law is completely irrelevant.   Read More

Don't landowners own rivers?
The Landowners own the rivers and control how they are used. Why don't we just get permission and paddle when and where we are allowed? Read More

Claimed rights
My local angling club claims that they have "exclusive sporting rights" on parts of the local rivers. How does this affect canoeist's rights? Read More

Court Cases
Aren't there any past court cases that have already looked at the opposing claims and have made rulings that bind any future courts? Read More

Dealing with access in other countries
We can't be the only country to have these problems. How do they deal with it elsewhere? Read More

The Environment
How about damage to the environment. Don't canoeists have a responsibility to limit their paddling to avoid damage to fish stocks and other animal and plant life? Read More

Anglers pay to fish
Anglers pay for the privilege of fishing - often quite large amounts. Why do canoeists think they should be given equal rights at no cost? Read More

DEFRA statements
Defra say that there are many miles of canals and major rivers that are already available for canoeing. Why isn't this enough? Why do you want to come and disturb our river? Read More

DEFRA and PRN
Why haven't Defra looked at the evidence for a public right of navigation and made a decision on behalf of all river users? Read More

Mass Protests
Why don't we organise mass protest paddles and force the powers that be to accept that we are going to paddle anyway? The Kinder Scout mass trespass in the 1920's achieved a breakthrough for the Ramblers. Why don't we do the same? Read More

Established rights of navigation
Weren't rights of navigation established for barges and large freight carrying craft? How can these rights be applied to canoes for pleasure purposes that weren't even thought about when the rights of navigation were established? Read More

Do rights lapse?
Surely if you can't show that a right of navigation has been regularly used in recent times it can be considered to have lapsed? Read More

Canals and navigation
Where canals are constructed to bypass loops in the natural route of a river, does the right of navigation transfer to the canal section and end on the loop of the natural river? Read More

PRN and Great rivers
I have heard it suggested that public rights of navigation in the medieval period were confined to the "Great Rivers" - specifically The Thames, The Trent, The (Great) Ouse and The Severn. Where weirs were removed on other rivers under the 1472 Act for Wears and Fishgarthes or the many other similar Acts, it is suggested that this was nothing to do with navigation - it was to preserve fish stocks. Can you disprove this? Read More

The Angling trust
The Angling Trust has referred to the court case where a canoeist dropped a claim asserting a public right of navigation on all rivers "apparently accepting his case was without any merit." If this case was without merit why are similar claims for the existence of a public right of navigation still being made? Read More

Canoeists protect the environment
Angling Clubs do terrific work in protecting the environment of our rivers and canoeists don't. Rivers are only in safe hands if angling clubs are allowed to control how rivers are used. Read More

Launching from private land into navigable water
Can I launch my canoe from private land into navigable water, whether its tidal or non tidal? Read More

Belief in a PRN

What's the basis of the belief that there is a public right of navigation on all rivers in England and Wales subject only to the size/nature of the river and the craft using them?

The most authoritative research has been undertaken by Revd. Dr Douglas Caffyn.

Rather than repeat it here the best we can do is refer you to it. If you want the most abridged version it's his Submission to the Sustainability Committee of the National Assembly for Wales.

A slightly more detailed, but very readable, summary is his booklet 'Boats on our Rivers Again'.

If you want the full detail you need to read his Thesis for his Master of Laws Degree

'The Right of Navigation on non-tidal Rivers and the Common Law, 2004'

and his Thesis for the Dr of Philosophy 'Rivers Transport 1189 to 1600'.

Magna Carta and the 1472 Act for Wears and Fishgarthes

How can you base the claim that there is a public right of navigation on things like Magna Carta and the 1472 Act for Wears and Fishgarthes? These relate to things hundreds of years and ago and in any case have been repealed.

Magna Carta and the 1472 Act for Wears and Fishgarthes did not create statutory rights of navigation but they are historical documents witnessing the common law right that already existed.

Revd. Dr Douglas Caffyns work 'The Right of Navigation on Non-tidal Rivers and the Common Law' says the following on the subject. (See page 83)

In the British Library there is a manuscript headed, 'Lord Chancellor Macclesfield's Notes concerning Rivers Navigation's etc..'
This appears to be a draft of a reply to a letter from the Mayor of Derby asking if a Charter of King John provided evidence to establish that there was a public right of navigation on the river Derwent.
The document was probably written in 1719, but it refers to the law of earlier times.(1472 Act for Wears and Fishgarthes)

Lord Macclesfield starts by stating, Magna Carta chap 23 supposes that it was the common law before that all public rivers were the King's Highways, and as such free for all his subjects... (the statute) is not introductive of a new law but declative of the old...

You can't repeal historical evidence, but new statutes and court cases can, of course, over-ride or amend existing common law. We know of no cases where this has happened except for specific Acts relating to specific rivers. The common law therefore remains unchanged throughout history.

Mr Justice Lightman has ruled in the case of - Josie Rowland v Environment Agency. 2002. (Case No: HC 0102371) that once established a public right of navigation can only be extinguished by legislation or exercise of statutory power. We have no evidence that this has ever happened for unregulated rivers.

The Institutes of Justinian (Roman Law)

The website refers to The Institutes of Justinian (Roman Law). The Romans left Britain in 410 and the first Statute of Westminster (1275) defined the start of legal memory as being 6 July 1189. Surely any reference to Roman law is completely irrelevant.

It was common in the period when English law was being developed to borrow from Roman Law to fill any deficiencies in English Law.

This quote from Douglas Caffyn's 'The Right of Navigation on Non-tidal Rivers and the Common Law' (page 58) illustrates that this practice continued into modern times.

Tindal CJ in 1843, when giving judgement in a case concerning percolating water, said, 'The Roman law forms no rule, in itself, upon the subjects of these realms; but, in deciding a case upon principle, where no direct authority can be cited from our books, it affords no small evidence of the soundness of the conclusion at which we have arrived, if it proves to be supported by that law, the fruit of the researches of the most learned men, the collective wisdom of ages and the groundwork of the municipal law of most of the countries in Europe.' (Acton v Blundell 1843. 12 M & W 324, 353)

The inclusion of reference to Roman Law, in the absence of any evidence that it has ever been any different, justifies our assertion that there is, and has always been, a Public Right of Navigation on all rivers in England and Wales, subject only to the physical constraints of the river and the size/nature of the craft using them.

Don't landowners own rivers?

The Landowners own the rivers and control how they are used. Why don't we just get permission and paddle when and where we are allowed?

Riparian landowners may own the banks and beds of a river but they cannot own the flowing water itself.

Ownership of the land does not give landowners any power to control rights of passage over it any more than ownership of a field through which a public footpath passes allows landowners to control the use of the public footpath.

Prior to Revd. Dr Caffyn's research, the British Canoe Union and Canoe England spent 50 years attempting to gain agreement with landowners and angling interests to shared use of rivers with no significant gain. Such agreements as were reached were typically highly restrictive.

No statute or court case has been found limiting the exercise of a public right of navigation to those situations where riparian landowner or angling group permission has been obtained.

Claimed rights

My local angling club claims that they have "exclusive sporting rights" on parts of the local rivers. How does this affect canoeist's rights?

In this article in Sporting Life, the solicitor Elizabeth Earle says:-

'Sporting rights' is rather a vague term, but was described in the 19th century as the right to; 'hawk, hunt, fish and fowl'

It doesn't affect the public rights of navigation at all. The angling club will have purchased or rented/leased their rights from the riparian landowner who had no right to control the exercise of public rights of navigation in the first place. As with any other case where anyone purchases something that the vendor didn't have the right to sell, the purchasers should take up their grievance with those who they feel sold them something they didn't own.

Public rights of navigation can only be extinguished (or otherwise interfered with) by legislation or exercise of statutory powers. These will be a matter of public record.

Unless the landowner can show there is no public right of navigation the angling club will have no more right to obstruct passage on the river than on a footpath that runs alongside it.

Court Cases

Aren't there any past court cases that have already looked at the opposing claims and have made rulings that bind any future courts?

Defra have recently said "There is no clear case law on whether a common law right of navigation exists on unregulated rivers. This is widely accepted to be an unclear and unresolved issue"

The case most commonly referred to by anglers is Rawson v Peters where 50p damages were awarded for interference with fishing. This case was prior to the research carried out by Revd. Dr Douglas Caffyn and the defendant did not claim a public right of navigation. Nevertheless in Haylsbury's Laws of England it is stated that,

Lord Denning MR, added (although he was not reported on this point) that there are many cases in which a canoeist has a right to navigate: the right may be acquired by long user or by grant or reservation, and if the canoeist has the right, the owners of the fishing rights must allow the navigation and put up with the disturbance of the fishing.

Dealing with access in other countries

We can't be the only country to have these problems. How do they deal with it elsewhere?

See the website section that deals with this.

The Environment

How about damage to the environment. Don't canoeists have a responsibility to limit their paddling to avoid damage to fish stocks and other animal and plant life?

Most canoeists will recognise the need to balance their rights with the rights of others and the needs for sensible protection of the environment where possible.


The Environment Agency has investigated the risk of damage by canoeing to fish stocks and fish breeding and concluded

The general conclusion from this study is that canoeing is not harmful to fish populations"- EA Report W266 Effects of canoeing on fish stocks and angling.

A Memorandum of Understanding between Canoe England and English Nature (a forerunner of Natural England) agreed

English Nature and the BCU agree that there is unlikely to be any significant impact on or lasting disturbance to wildlife and the water environment from the passage of canoes.

That was in 2003 but we are aware of no new evidence which would revise this assessment.

The Canoe England publication You, Your canoe and the Environment provides useful guidance on good practice on using your canoe in a responsible and appropriate manner.

Anglers pay to fish

Anglers pay for the privilege of fishing - often quite large amounts. Why do canoeists think they should be given equal rights at no cost?

Public rights of navigation do not rely on using the landowner's riparian rights, unlike fishing rights which do.

Anglers may pay landowners for the use of a particular stretch of river for extended periods, using the banks or beds of the river and the riparian right to fish. Canoeists generally need none of these things from landowners. Where canoeists use private facilities for car parking, launching or other facilities there is no issue about paying.

Anglers also pay a rod licence fee to the EA. Canoeists pay licence fees to the EA, The Canal & Rivers Trust and others where this is required. Canoeists are not required to pay on unregulated rivers, similar to pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders on roads, footpaths and bridleways.

Canoeing is a low impact pastime, which in general does not require significant investment in infrastructure. Where investment is required, such as at the White Water Centres at the Lee Valley, Cardiff, Stockton on Tees and Northampton, canoeists pay.

DEFRA statements

Defra say that there are many miles of canals and major rivers that are already available for canoeing. Why isn't this enough? Why do you want to come and disturb our river?

There are many types of canoeing, requiring different types of water.

For example, white water is required for slalom, flat water for touring and sprinting and a coastal environment for sea kayaking. Suggesting that such a variety of needs can be met within the limitations of the regulated canal and river system shared with motorised vessels makes as much sense as suggesting that the needs of walkers can be met by the road system or fishermen's needs by trawlers.

DEFRA and PRN

Why haven't Defra looked at the evidence for a public right of navigation and made a decision on behalf of all river users?

They say that they cannot justify such expenditure from the public purse and in any event only a court may authoritatively make such a decision.

We believe that an authoritative investigation by Defra or an appropriate select committee of parliament would provide sufficient clarity to end the recurring conflict on many rivers.

In Scotland the situation was resolved by the introduction of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act, 2003 supported by a code of conduct. In 1973, the Select Committee of the House of Lords on Sport and Leisure said

The legal question of rights of way over water must be settled. A number of different legal interpretations of this right of way have been referred to in evidence and it is time for these to be resolved..

We can see no good reason why Defra should disagree.

Mass Protests

Why don't we organise mass protest paddles and force the powers that be to accept that we are going to paddle anyway? The Kinder Scout mass trespass in the 1920's achieved a breakthrough for the Ramblers. Why don't we do the same?

Those that oppose recognition of the public right of navigation characterise canoeists as trespassers with no respect for the law or the rights of others. "Mass trespass" or "protest Paddles" reinforce those stereotypes.

Canoeists just want the peaceful enjoyment of their sport/pastime. Therefore, where you believe you have a right to navigate, do so responsibly and preferably in small groups, mindful of and seeking to balance your rights and needs with those of other river users and the environment.

If others choose confrontation and intimidation, respond as calmly and constructively as possible and resume your peaceful navigation of the river as soon as you can.

If an angler is fishing where you need to pass, it is polite to wait while he plays or lands a fish and, where possible, to follow his/her suggestions regarding the preferred route past him/her.

Established rights of navigation

Weren't rights of navigation established for barges and large freight carrying craft? How can these rights be applied to canoes for pleasure purposes that weren't even thought about when the rights of navigation were established?

There is no evidence of any public rights of passage (including navigation) ever being confined to specific types or sizes or craft other than on the basis of possibility (large craft cannot have a right to go where it is impossible for them to go).

In his work "The Right of Navigation on Non-tidal Rivers and the Common Law" (see page 141), Revd. Dr Douglas Caffyn says (referencing the case of Yorkshire Derwent Trust Ltd and another v Brotherton and Others) :-

Balcombe LJ then stated that he considered that there was also a public right of navigation for pleasure boats.

The reasons he gave included the fact that at common law rivers are either publicly navigable or not navigable at all; that on land the classification of a public right of way by one type of user has always implied use by a less burdensome user, eg pedestrians may use a carriageway; dedication may be made for a less intense use but it is not possible to dedicate for use by a section of the public.

His final reason was that the fact that some vessels paid tolls did not preclude free use by recreational craft since pedestrians were allowed to use turnpike roads without the payment of tolls.

Do rights lapse?

Surely if you can't show that a right of navigation has been regularly used in recent times it can be considered to have lapsed?

In the case of Josie Rowland v Environment Agency, 2002. (Case No: HC 0102371.) Mr Justice Lightman said

RN may only be extinguished by legislation or exercise of statutory powers or by destruction of the subject matter of PRN e.g. through silting up of the watercourse.

So public rights of navigation that existed in antiquity (in practice 1189 or after) still exist, unless it can be shown that the right has been ended by legislation or the exercise of power delegated by legislation.

If silting makes it impossible for large craft to navigate but it is still possible for canoes and other small craft to do so, the public right of navigation persists for those craft capable of exercising it.

Revd. Dr Douglas Caffyn covers this subject fully in his work "Once a Public Right of Navigation, Always a Public Right of Navigation"

Canals and navigation

Where canals are constructed to bypass loops in the natural route of a river, does the right of navigation transfer to the canal section and end on the loop of the natural river?

No. As above, the right of navigation on the section of river bypassed can only be extinguished by legislation or the exercise of statutory power.

PRN and Great Rivers

I have heard it suggested that public rights of navigation in the medieval period were confined to the "Great Rivers" - specifically The Thames, The Trent, The (Great) Ouse and The Severn. Where weirs were removed on other rivers under the 1472 Act for Wears and Fishgarthes or the many other similar Acts, it is suggested that this was nothing to do with navigation - it was to preserve fish stocks. Can you disprove this?

There is a great deal of evidence to show this proposition is incorrect. Here is enough to disprove the theory.

The Lisle Letters is a revealing historical record in the form of correspondence to and from the Lisle family. On page 140 there is reference to an order for destruction of a weir at Umberleigh on the River Taw in 1535 and the fact that the king himself spent time in Hampshire making sure that similar orders were complied with there.

None of the supposed "Great Rivers" is in Hampshire.

On page xii in the Foreword, the historian Hugh Trevor Roper confirmed this was part of a general purge of removal of weirs on navigable rivers.

A letter illustrates further steps taken to protect navigation other than in the proposed "Great" rivers.

"852. [Sir] Peter Philpot to Cromwell.

Your commandment for the weirs of Kyrcheche (fn. 7) shall be accomplished as soon as possible. Mills, weirs, and fishgarths are being plucked down, and by Whitsuntide next every man that hath any ground adjoining to the river shall cut the trees away, "and the shelpis to score," so that a boat may have free passage.

Kyrcheche is Christchurch in Dorset and Shelpis are shallow areas in rivers that needed scouring.

These extracts from THE NAVIGATION OF THE RIVER LEE (1190 - 1790) published by Edmonton Hundred Historical Society, confirms the use of the river for navigation (referencing Hunt, "History of Ware" p.17. and V.C.H. Herts. Vol III pp.380-91 and p.383. as the sources)

The Lady of Ware and her bailiffs were accused of neglecting the weirs, even of altering them in such a way that boats were unable to pass, to the great annoyance of the people of Hertford...

This was by no means the end of the matter and wrangling continued. The lord of the manor of Ware in 1275 was again accused of intercepting the shipping as he had erected a weir between Ware and Hertford."

Fisheries and mills were not the only impediments to a free navigation, The Prior of the hospital had made "a new bridge over la Hegh Legh with 12 piles under it...

In spite of these recurrent problems the Lee formed one of the main routes into London and there is abundant evidence of trade on the river in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, chiefly corn and malt."

The Angling Trust

The Angling Trust has referred to the court case where a canoeist dropped a claim asserting a public right of navigation on all rivers "apparently accepting his case was without any merit." If this case was without merit why are similar claims for the existence of a public right of navigation still being made?

Details of the case, the case for the claimant, the case for the defence and the notice of withdrawal are all shown on this website.

The claim was withdrawn not because of any lack of evidence to support the claim of a public right of navigation but because no member of the public has the right to bring an action in the courts defending a public right. The right to bring such an action is reserved to the Attorney General.

The Angling Trust/Fish Legal statement is here.

Canoeists protect the environment

Angling Clubs do terrific work in protecting the environment of our rivers and canoeists don't. Rivers are only in safe hands if angling clubs are allowed to control how rivers are used.

It's quite wrong to suggest that angling clubs have any monopoly of virtue.

This blog, shows less than responsible stewardship of the environment by anglers while this shows canoeists and others working constructively to protect the environment.

This draft report by the EA details the remedial action required to reverse the environmental damage to the River Itchen, almost all of it relating to the unintended consequences of managing the river for fishing. Few canoeists will not have spent time retrieving discarded fishing line from trees etc.

Stereotyping of fishing as responsible and good for the environment and canoeing as irresponsible and damaging for the environment is simply unhelpful prejudice used by some in an attempt to defend an unjustified claim to exclusivity.

The right thing to do is to acknowledge the true value of good work done by all parties and the harm, sometimes unintentional, done by others. Better education and unbiased advice from those able to provide it should enable all river users to work together to protect the things of value to all of us.

Launching from private land into navigable water

Can I launch my canoe from private land into navigable water, whether its tidal or non tidal?

Only if you are launching from somewhere where you have a right to pass...

Only if you are launching from somewhere where you have a right to pass and re-pass such as a public highway, public footpath, common land or public access land under the Countryside Rights of Way Act, 2000. Other than such land you will need the permission of the riparian landowner.