River Tees - Barnard Castle to Winston including Abbey Rapids

Abbey Rapids is easy to add on to the end of a Cotherstone to Barnard Castle trip and often some paddlers will carry on down at the end of a beginners' trip. Obviously, if you've just paddled the section upstream, you'll have a good idea of the level, but this section is also one of the easiest to check. Looking upstream from Abbey bridge will give you a view of the hardest part of Abbey Rapids.

If you are trying to check in advance, the gauging weir at Barnard Castle is just upstream. 0.55m on this gauge seems to be about the lowest level that Abbey is worthwhile, and it probably needs a bit more than that before the whole run down from Barnard Castle to Winston becomes viable. Since completion of the new Barnard Castle Weir, levels are pretty much comparable with the pre-rebuild values. If it's been raining overnight, a check of the Middleton gauge will give an idea of how much and how fast the river will be coming up further downstream. The online data for both these gauges is updated early morning (six-ish, GMT), so may be a little out of date if rain or snowmelt has been very recent. You can also look at the Harwood Beck gauge to get an idea of how water is coming off the fells. As a rough guide, peaks in the green part of the graph take about three hours to move from Harwood Beck to Middleton, and another two hours to reach Barnard Castle. As levels rise, flood pulses move faster, and a pulse into the blue part of the graph makes the same two steps in an hour and a half and forty five minutes. Simple logic produces the warning that if river levels are already high, more rain on the fells will raise levels more quickly.

UKRGB treats this river in two guidebook sections, Barney to Whorlton, and Whorlton to Winston.

If starting from Barney, there is a choice of three put-on spots. There's a small amount of off-road parking in a little park (formerly occupied by a mill building) river right upstream of the county bridge, with a path leading to a put-in just below Warren's dam. The Sills, which is the road downstream of the bridge, river right, gets wide enough for roadside parking just where a path leads onto a bit of flat water which is also a favourite summer launch spot for novices. Or the more obscure Desmesnes, via a narrow road at the bottom of The Bank (the steep hill below the Butter Market).

From the top put-in, there's bouncy rapids down to the bridge, then flattish past the second spot, followed by shallow bouldery rapids down to the big footbridge under which is an old weir which gives somewhere to play and warm up at most levels (you can paddle up to this from the Desmesnes put-in, too). Slow moving water below this leads to a natural weir, usually taken by a slot river right. This has a big rock to hit if you don't make a sharp right turn as you go over the edge, and a landing in usually very aerated water, which continues for a little way downstream, so be sharp if you need to fish anyone out. In higher water, more potential lines open, so the rock is easy to avoid.


Hit the slot on the rockstep heading right to avoid the pointy boat-breaking rock

The river then becomes wide and shallow - this section is the one which limits trips in low water. This continues for some way, with a number of bouncy waves in higher water, passing the sewage works on the left (don't capsize near the outflow). The river flattens as it is dammed up by the bouldery section above Abbey Rapids. Mill buildings on the right, with Eggleston Abbey above, and a noticeable increase in the noise level give warning of the steepening ahead. In almost all levels, start far right and watch out for a couple of boulders which lurk to trip unsuspecting paddlers. The river channels down and gets steeper, with lots of breakouts both sides, so groups tend to eddy hop their way down before hopping out to inspect the main rapid just before the high Abbey bridge. The main channel is left of centre and usually runs through with no great difficulty, but there is often a haystack wave on the last drop which it pays to hit in the middle. There are a couple of challenging breakouts to hit if you want to make it more difficult (Gail is aiming for one in the photo below), but beware that a stopper forms river right of the last drop and hitting this at a bad angle or without much speed can result in a damp feeling around the head and reduced hearing.


Abbey at a high level, given that this was mid-August !

Inspired by Mark Rainsley's "Ode to a river" thread on UKRGB, there's a 13-minute video of just the section of Abbey Rapids above the bridge at a variety of levels and paddled (or swum) in several different styles.

Immediately below the bridge the river runs deep and provides slacker water to fish people out, except in very high water where this is probably not a place to be without a reliable roll. There are several more drops in the next couple of hundred metres, one of which kicks paddlers sharply to the right and a final one has a tendency to catch people unawares as they relax too soon. One of them is immediately followed by a decent playspot to which we always seem to gravitate:


A forgiving playwave with good eddy service from both sides in the gorge

The cliffs of the right bank drop away and the valley opens out. It is possible to take-out on the right immediately after the bridge (a bit of a scramble up) or here where the path comes close to the right bank (and a walk back reaches a convenient layby). There's one last playwave just at this latter get-out.

The river now calms down a bit for some way. A rocky confluence is where the Greta (another favourite river) comes in on the right at Meeting of the waters, and this is a good spot to hop out and reccy if you plan paddling the Greta right the way down to the Tees. There is not too much else to worry about before the suspension bridge at Whorlton, except a couple of natural sloping ledges that give wide waves to punch through or play on.

At Whorlton, the former access through the Lido is now firmly fenced off, but there is no objection to getting out to inspect or portage the falls, and, if contacted in advance, the gamekeeper can usually arrange to open the gate and let you out if you want to exit here. Otherwise, paddle far left, staying above the falls, and get out just where stepping stones cross a small tributary beck, from where a path leads back to the road. Park on the south side of the bridge, whichever exit you choose.


Whorlton falls in high water - Neil finds a gap between the curling waves

Unless the level is horrendous, or you've already paddled a long way, it is well worth continuing to Winston Bridge, but there are no other easy get-outs after this. At sensible levels, Whorton Falls can be paddled in any of several spots, but if you inspected river right, then a line this side is usually easiest.


At lowish levels, the falls go on the right

At higher levels, a shuffle and seal launch on the right avoids paddling the falls with any water, but doesn't require actually getting out of your boat. Other lines are apparent on the day, but beware that all the drops are protected by stopper waves above the falls, and if these cause a swim, you will definitely go over the drop as there is nowhere to throw a line. There's a big area of flat water below, so having people in boats below will usually be the preferred way of providing safety.

The river continues flat until a left turn marks the top of a huge rockslab down which the water and your boat will slide - possibly with the loss of some plastic if the level is low. At the bottom of the slab is a nasty rotor where water from another channel to the left comes in, and this can capsize paddlers who don't see it coming. The stopper at the bottom can be quite grabby - a feature to be aware of if you go back to play. Some SOC paddlers have had a hard time escaping from this wave ! A wide right bend follows, with willows on the south bank for a way before a beach provides a handy stopping point.

The river now continues fairly fast with a few waves, past houses and, in high water, an impressive tributary waterfall. There are a couple of almost river-wide stoppers which have a lot of play potential, but can gobble boats at higher levels. If they look mean, a line close to the left bank may sneak past.


The lower of two playwaves - the upper is less fierce but has no eddy service

Further on again, there are more sloping ledges leading to river-wide stoppers, which are difficult to protect with throw lines. Some are good to play, some are hard to escape - and which ones are which varies with level. Soon, Winston Bridge comes in to view, and this is a sign to slow down and watch ahead, as there are two significant ledge drops before the end. Getting out to inspect river right is easy if the water is not too fast, but pick an eddy further away from the drop in high water when it can be difficult to get back from the viewpoint to the right line. The drops are relatively safe anywhere at low water (though the normal high-water line will be a bump and scrape). In higher water, the first drop is best taken near centre where a tongue leads out beyond enclosed stoppers which form on the channels either side. Then cut across to river left where another sloping ledge marks the end of the difficulties, though there is still fast water and a long ferry across to the takeout beach river right some way above Winston bridge.


The safest line is over the tongue of rock and past the closed-in stoppers

An easy path leads up to the road, river right, and there is a lot of parking in laybys either side of the bridge. Fishermen we have met here have always been friendly, but at the end of August 2011, four signs (upstream and downstream of the bridge, left and right) appeared, claiming that there was no right of access for canoes, dinghies or boats (but not mentioning kayaks). The most accessible of these disappeared again within a few days (it wasn't us!), and no doubt the others will suffer the same fate. Indeed, the landowner concerned told us to ignore such signs as the anglers had no right to put them up ! It appears to be someone maliciously trying to portray Stockton Angling Ltd. in a bad light, as the signs bear their name. Paddlers are quite happy to get along with anglers, so we hope that Stockton Angling's reputation doesn't suffer too much before the signs are removed. The take-out described here has been the agreed access for the river for many years, and is a public right of way (as is the river itself, of course).

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