The River Swale is SOC's local river, and it was the intransigent attitude of some landowners towards access that led both to the formation of CRACK and to the annual Swale Charity Paddle, which, for many years, was the only agreed access to the river. Softening attitudes to access in the light of discoveries in law research showing that there is an ancient public right of navigation on all physically navigable rivers in England has led to the river being paddled far more frequently without challenge. The recognition that it is better for all concerned to have the river paddled (at any time of year) when it is at a suitable level, rather than concentrating all the paddlers into one weekend a year when the level may be quite unsuitable, has finally led to the demise of the Charity Paddle after its cancellation due to lack of water in 2009.
SOC paddlers still probably know the river better than most, so the river guide used for many years to advise visiting groups for the charity event is reproduced here, hacked to be applicable for any time, rather than for the organised event.
There is a much harder section of the Swale up near Keld. This, too, seems to be being paddled increasingly often, as a result of the availability of the EA gauge at Park bridge by West Stonesdale making it much easier to catch the river at the right level. The ideal level seems to be about 1m on the gauge, though it was paddled in December 2011 by a pair (not SOC) at a level which broke the previous record well above 3m - we don't recommend this for those unfamiliar with the section ! The middle part of the dale is flatter, and if the level is up enough to paddle this section, there will probably be better things to go for. In high water it is possible to paddle Arkle Beck, joining the Swale at Reeth, from where it is but a short distance to the usual start point at Grinton, which is the subject of this guide. There's a river level gauge for the Arkle on the Environment Agency site. The club rarely paddles the section from Richmond down to Catterick (though this seems to be changing), nor uses the Catterick playwave, so see the UKRGB river guide by Nigel Wilford for this section.
The Environment Agency provide relevant data at Grinton Bridge, and Lownethwaite (by the waterworks above Richmond). Way downstream at Catterick Bridge is perhaps less useful. The Environment Agency keep changing the interface (and the URLs) to their website - I've given up in despair of trying to keep a graph embedded in this page - sorry. The Grinton EA gauge is the one river right below the bridge, not the one paddlers have traditionally used on the middle bridge pier (which is much easier to see - photo below).
Visually - if you are coming up the dale, the take-out at Richmond is a good place to get an idea of the level, by looking at the falls. If the river looks OK here, its worth the drive up to Grinton. On the way, after passing Swaleview Caravan Park, and just as a long straight section of road is coming to an end, look right to where you can see Tree Rapid, which is also a good visual indicator. At Grinton Bridge, there is an old wooden gauge on the downstream side of the middle bridge pier facing the right bank (best viewed from on the bridge as it can' t be seen from the put-in - the photo below was taken from on the water). The gauge measures in feet above the concrete foundations of the bridge. If the water doesn't reach the gauge at all, it really isn't worth paddling. It stops being a painful bump and scrape somewhere about six inches on the gauge, and the best level is between one and three feet which provides a good flow, with a variety of waves and playspots. Above three feet, the river is going to be fast, with fewer playspots as rapids wash out. Allow six hours or more if it's below zero, four hours for a group below one foot. Three feet will drop the time below two hours if you keep moving, and the run to Richmond has been done in under an hour at very high levels, but a swim would be a serious error at these levels, especially if the river is up through snow-melt. The EA gauge (online) doesn't equate to the old gauge - zero on the graph is about six inches on the wooden gauge. This means that the river is often below zero on the online gauge. If it's below zero and coming up but not yet high enough to paddle, it may be high enough by the time you get there, but you can't tell from the gauge.
Put-in and take-out points
Put-in river left downstream of Grinton Bridge, down river from Reeth. Parking is very limited, please be considerate to other road users and leave all access clear. You can drop boats off, and park in the village where there are toilets.
Possible access at Downholme bridge after 7.5km, public footpath river left downstream of bridge, limited parking (it was stipulated as emergency use only during the Charity Paddle).
Egress at Lownethwaite Bridge after 15.5 km, river right (public footpath upstream of bridge, but nowhere to park), or river right at Round Howe footbridge then cross the bridge to the (pay-and-display) carpark.
Normal finish point river left above the falls at Richmond. Note that the Falls carpark is pay-and-display but has a limit of two hours which is not usually long enough to complete the trip. There is limited free parking in a bay along the riverside road, usually empty in poor weather midweek, but often occupied at weekends and in tourist season. Follow the small riverside road up to Richmond Bridge upstream of the take-out, turn right (north) away from the river (poor visibility at this junction, take care) and follow the road as it turns left. The longer-term pay-and-display car park is ahead of you as the road once more turns right to go up the hill. Coming from up the Dale, turn right about 1 km inside the built-up area, and follow the road down a steep hill, the carpark is on the right as the road turns left just before the green. Watch out for 20 mph speed limits in Richmond !
0 km Put in river left where the bank is sandy 20-30m downstream of the bridge. Please don't scramble down the bank close to the bridge as this causes erosion. There is deep slow water here, and at low-medium levels, a small play wave just under the bridge to warm up. Downstream starts with a series of easy shingle rapids which can be very shallow in low levels. Don't worry, it's not like this all the way ! Soon the water deepens and the public footpath leaves the left bank after 600m.
After another 700m, the river swings left into a short reach with bridleway access on each side (ford). There is a sharp right bend, occasionally with some low branches river left below it, a shingle beach on the right. 150m after the bend, stepping stones cross the river – in low water the best gap is to the right of centre. In higher water a small stopper forms here, but should give no trouble. 600m on, and the river curves left. Keep left of the island here – right looks feasible in high water, but the exit is blocked by trees, and it is awkward to get back to the main channel through the willows. Fast water takes you to a right hand bend where there is a boulder garden which can be troublesome in low water, turbulent in higher water. 200m on is:
3 km Marrick Steps rapid: short grade 2/3 rapids and standing waves. Plenty of break-outs but the best line is not always obvious from the water and quick turns may be needed. In low water, start on the left and try to work into the centre as soon as it is deep enough. In high water, any line will do, but some big waves.
Boofing back to the centre on Marrick Steps in lowish water (Charity Paddle 2007)
The river now flattens out for a while. A kilometre or so on, the right bank becomes steep and wooded – watch out for the occasional low branch or fallen tree here, but the river is wide enough to avoid these. A longer flat stretch precedes the next rapid.
Open boat on the bouldery rapid at 6 km (Charity Paddle 2007)
6 km Short rapid – start right of centre and aim right as the shingle steepens – it's easy to get hung up in low water. The line gets less critical as levels rise. A small river enters on left, be careful of left hand eddypool. A public footpath comes close to the left bank from here to the road – it has proven a good place for photography. 500m of shallow water with odd boulders leads to a right hand bend (a very visible tree house on the left) and a long shallow shingle rapid – aim to end near the right bank where the main current leads into a left hand bend. Left or right are about equally good through the short section to
7.5 km Downholme bridge (Marske road). Access/Egress here was strongly discouraged by the landowner during Charity Paddle events, but should be less of an issue for normal trips. There is, after all, a public footpath river left downstream of the bridge. This is also handy for photographers, but please park well away from the bridge, respecting all access – leave room for tractors with trailers !
Immediately below the bridge is an island, usually with more water to the right. The right channel splits as some water crosses to the left, and this little channel goes in high water. A fallen tree in the lower part of the right hand channel from 2005 had 3m sawn off in 2008 and is now fairly easily avoided, or you could cross left after the first island. Newly fallen trees may prove hazardous throughout this section, especially if river levels are high. The right hand side seems more prone to these, so left of both islands may be better in high water, and open boats often seem to favour the left even in low water.
Tree Rapid from upstream left bank. Topo Duo on the normal line (Charity Paddle 2004)
9.5 km Tree rapid – watch for low branches river left on run-in, avoidable on right (red line on photo above) with little or no manoeuvring but can be quite shallow in low water. Confident paddlers in short boats find deeper water on the left (yellow line) but needs sharp turns with a pinning risk if you get it wrong - and the branches hang much lower in wet summer weather (with leaves on), so this line doesn't really work. Rescue difficult from left bank (no landings, overhanging branches). In higher water, left route gets harder (you may not get under the branch!), right route easier. At limit of photo is a wide pool for regrouping. This precedes a steep shingle slope with fast water and standing waves below (photo below). The river flattens below, making rescues easy, and this is also a good lunch stop as well as a fine place for practicing high crosses (or watching carnage). Land or portage either side – but portage right if you choose to miss the run in as well. Right bank also usually easier if you choose to portage back for a second go... In very high levels a whole new channel opens on the right, but watch for trees washed onto the island (right of centre background in first photo, behind the Topo Duo).
The final shingle rapid of Tree Rapid, with standing waves leading into a flattish stretch
The river becomes much easier for a while with only short rapids of note in the next two kilometres. Two of these (in quick succession) have a strong current sweeping towards the left bank on right hand bends – watch out for trees in the river here – one was quite nasty in 2007 and the shingle banks and bends hereabouts seem to be a very common place for trees washed down to become stranded.. Later, a wide rapid has a choice of routes, most of the river going right over a shingle bar which can be quite shallow in low water, but is essentially a straightforward bounce down. Close to the left bank is much more technical, with low branches providing sport or hazard, depending on level. One particularly nasty branch was removed in 2009 but will no doubt grow back – a very well timed right turn was needed to avoid this and not get stuck on the rocks. The river slows and deepens, with just the occasional boulder waiting to trip the unwary ... A water pipe suspended above the river indicates proximity to...
11 km Swale View Caravan Park river right, but deeper water channel is mostly river left. Egress in emergency only (unless you're a guest there). River is generally easier below this, but may be slow-moving. There are a few shingle rapids, mostly on the bends.
15.5 km A long shallow shingle rapid leading to Lownethwaite Bridge (this is where the second EA gauge is). Best left of the island except in high levels - in 2012 the right channel was undercutting gabions and these promise to be a hazard in the years ahead. Stay left to portage under arch of Lownethwaite bridge (yellow route), or cut right to small rapid directly under right arch (red route), which is the normal route. You can land right to inspect this if the water is low (and also egress here to the footpath by the water treatment works), but a portage is difficult on this side owing to a vertical bank and restricted access downstream. The drop is a bit of a bump down in low water, but reveals a small play wave when a bit higher. At higher levels, the middle arch becomes the easiest route, as it is not obstructed by any big rocks, and some big waves form below the right. Left of middle possible in very high water ... It would be useful to relate these experiences to the Lownethwaite gauge levels, so any info you can report will enable us to improve this description ! Do look carefully before choosing a route - this bridge seems to catch washed down trees quite frequently.
Lownethwaite bridge from upstream side, river right (waterworks path)
The river now sports more bedrock and some interesting eddies below the steep and wooded right bank. There is a footpath in the woods, which is quite often close to the river over the next three kilometres and can be reached from either the footbridge from the picnic area at Round Howe or from the Richmond bridge.
17 km Footbridge – watch out for trees caught up on the piers – usually easy to avoid. There's access to the carpark and picnic area up on the left here, but the bank is steep to reach the river. The bridge itself is useful for photography and gives access to the footpath going both ways on the right bank, though not always close to the river. Slow-moving water precedes a bend right. Another, sharper, right bend is marked by a small weir where you are often watched by the picnicking populace. There' s a very good wave at certain levels here, but be ready to catch it as there is no eddy service at some levels which work and you may only get one go ! On the next, left hand, bend, Richmond comes into view – at last! Watch out for shallow water on the left – the best spots for photography are also a minor pinning risk. There's a play wave on the left (although low or fallen trees have been a hazard here recently) before:
18.5 km Road bridge – cross to the left arch in low water, a bit of a scrape. Splendid views of Richmond Castle on left. Last small rapid/chute (photos) then keep to left bank – take-out is just out of sight round the bend in the left photo.
19.5 km EGRESS on left above Richmond Falls, either to finish or inspect. There's a sandy beach just below the carpark. Take care not to overshoot in high water – passing the concrete jetty sticking out from the left bank commits you to running the falls. There is a stall here selling snacks and ice-creams, so remember to bring some money for the end. If you are parked at the green, walk left along the riverside road to the bridge, turn right and follow the road up. You can usually bring your car to the Falls carpark for long enough to load boats without paying (if you have a pay-and-display sticker from the other carpark, leave it in your window, but don't rely on it if you leave your car unattended here).
Note that Richmond Falls is significantly more serious than the rest of the river. Many groups do run the falls if the level is right, but the fall is undercut, forming a holding stopper with double recirculation in high water. This can potentially trap paddlers under the fall and, needless to say, the falls should not be paddled at this level as the results could be fatal ! If the level is low, the line is quite hard to make as the approach is shallow and this tends to result in a teeter and vertical drop – make sure you pick a bit with a deep plunge pool. Note that the river left channel closest to spectators leads to a fall with a very shallow landing and should not be run. You can run the main falls and ferry glide back below this fall to reach the carpark, unless the level is high.
The photo left shows about the most popular line. If your group chooses to run the falls, you should inspect from the bank first, then paddle the initial small drops fairly well to the left – you can land on an island in the middle, left of the main flow, to get a close look at the line on the main falls. It is barely possible to escape left from here in levels when you might run the falls, although it can be reached on foot at low levels and is a popular swimming spot in summer. Once past the jetty and iniitial stoppers at decent levels, you are pretty much committed to running the falls or lowering boats on a rope. Safety cover needs to be from on the water below the fall, as the river is too wide for throw-lines from the bank., although it may be useful for one person below the falls to land on rocks in the middle of the river with a throw line if the level leaves these exposed. Swimming the rocky rapids below the falls is not recommended, but in any level safe to run the falls, you should be able to reach the shore before the main A6136 road bridge.
If you run the falls, you can take out river left below, or fight your way back up to the top corner nearest the carpark. Running the rapids below the falls leads under the A6136 road bridge, which has an eddy right just below. In higher levels, carry on round the next bend to slack water river right. In both cases, you can then climb up the bank to reach the Station car park (which is free:). Alternatively, if you have the arms left, continue down to Catterick Bridge !