River Tees - Easy Trips

Of all the easy rivers we do, the Tees is likely to provide a trip at a greater range of different water levels than almost anywhere else. Consequently, its not only quite likely to appear on the programme, but often offers us a fall-back trip when something else has unsuitable water level or if people just want to nip out for a local trip. Releases from Cow Green reservoir at the top can mean there's water here when other rivers are lower. The lower sections below Winston still provide continuous moving water whilst being far enough downstream for there to be quite a big catchment area, so the river here can stay up longer than others in the area.

Cotherstone to Barnard Castle

Not the easiest section, but certainly the one we paddle very often, either as a beginners' trip, or as a substitute for other trips which won't run on the day. This section is also easily combined with the ones above and/or below, so beginning paddlers may paddle this run and get off at Barnard Castle Desmesnes whilst others continue on down to Abbey Rapids, for example. This section is included in the Middleton to Barnard Castle guidebook on UKRGB.

Finding the put-in is the hardest part of the trip. Nick Doll's guidebook refers to a big Monkey Puzzle Tree in Cotherstone, which made an excellent landmark for finding the well-concealed minor road that leads down to the river. Unfortunately, this was felled a few years ago... Coming up-valley (from Barnard Castle) one drives through most of the village, until a pub appears on the left, parked cars on the right come to an end (often with a red landrover as the last one), and the road is just about to start going downhill. The tiny road entrance is on the right between two houses - blink and you'll miss it. As soon as you make the turn you will know you've got it right, as a big sign "To the River, please be tidy" appears. If you miss it, you can turn round in a minor road on the left just before leaving the village, though visibility could be better, so take care. The turn is easier to spot on the way back.

The tiny road leads steeply down to a playing field and parking (left hand side only). The tarmac continues, but vehicles must not, another hundred metres to the river. If it's wet, you can save the carry by putting on the River Balder at the back of the parking area, but it's a bit of a ditch with trees, and may not be what you want for novices. The main put-in plops you into a bit of an oxbow with no flow unless the river is well up, so you can gather the group and, if necessary, establish a running order.

There are rapids from a short distance below the put-in, which can be bumpy-and-scrapey if the river is low, or continuous for some distance if the river is high. The river continues in the same vein, with flatter, slower stretches interrupted by easy shingle rapids and the occasional bend with the current sweeping close to cliffs on the left.

The first landmark of note is a widening of the river upstream of an island. With high water, the left hand channel goes, but normally one starts near the centre, paddles right to avoid shallows, then cuts back left toward the island to find the best channel. This gets bouncy with rocks and waves, with one final little drop and playwave, where there may be overhanging branches from the left. These get cut off periodically (when someone remembers to take a saw), but it is worth a check as they do grow back, and the bank is eroding, dropping more bits of tree into the stream from time to time. The hazard is less hitting the branches and more seeing them too late. Beginners then tend to lean away in some panic, and capsize. Knowing they are there makes it easy to pick a line right of the rock and hole, avoiding the problem entirely. There's plenty of slack water below to pick up debris, but a bit of advance planning will avoid the incident. When playing on the hole, some branches may be directly behind, which can be an issue if you drop off the wave in less than full control.

Further on, there are shallow rock ledges on the left, easy to get hung up on in low water. The deeper channel leads to a short shingle rapid on the right, then a long beach right, and a bouldery widening of the river. This presages the only significant drop on the trip, which may be worth inspecting with beginners. The drop is bigger on the left, with a shallow approach. In high enough water to run left or centre, a meaty stopper can form, so most people, at most levels, will run far right. This is not without difficulty, as an approach too far right will ground out on rocks, not far enough right tends to drop into a slot into a big boil, whilst the ideal line still encounters some strong rotor, so a good brace may be needed. If this all sounds a bit fearsome, rest assured that most people run through without incident and wonder what all the fuss was about. In high water, the whole thing washes out in a series of exciting but unthreatening standing waves. As usual there is slack water below to gather up any flotsam.

A quick support stroke gets Michael down on just the right line

It's not that far now, and some slow-moving water on a bend reveals a view of the old bridge footings for a viaduct carrying the railway high above the river. This has all gone, but below lies a rapid with one big rock in the middle which can produce a bit of a surprise as the waves kicks up. There's a tight break-out on the right just below, but most will just run straight through without a care. Break-outs both sides below the rapid give access to a playwave at most levels, which can cause delay as it is almost the last such feature on the trip.

A longish, mostly slow-moving reach reveals a large footbridge ahead, which is the landmark for Warren's Dam, a large gauging weir. Land left above the bridge if your group wants to portage the whole thing, then cross the bridge, down the road and back to the river through the little park beyond the houses. It's also possible to land river right where Deepdale Beck comes in just above the weir, but this is perhaps a little close to the drop if you have anyone wobbly. You can, of course, get off here, but there is nowhere handy to park. The level above the weir is what is reported by the EA gauge, which can also be read off from white posts river left by the gauging station. Below 1m, the post faces the river (and is hard to read from the shore) whilst above 1m, the gauge faces the footpath and cannot be read from on the water.

The weir has been completely rebuilt, with the work finished early in 2014. The old fish ladder which provided a bypass to the main weir in moderately high water has now gone. The central section between the walls has changed considerably and there is something of an anti-scour ledge on the bottom of both the main parts of the weir. Experience so far is rather limited, so treat with caution and if in doubt, portage. The photos we have here are for historical interest only and we'll get some new ones once we know a bit more about the characteristics of the drop. At moderate levels (less than 1m) there seems to be no difficulty running the weir, perhaps best on river left. The narrower of the two central sections is the new fish ladder, and is intended to be safe to run in boats. However, the left wall is longer than the right wall, which separates it from the dangerous central section, so there is perhaps some risk of being pulled into the main stopper. We have certainly found it easy to run at lower levels, but, being far from any bank, it would be very hard to protect, so exercise careful judgement here.

In the (pre-rebuild) photo above left, the level was just high enough not to want to take beginners down the weir itself. The boards were out of the fishladder exits and Richard demonstrates that there is plenty of depth to drop into. The smaller photo above right shows the scene at 1.45m on the gauge, when even the fish ladder had big stoppers and the main weir would be lethal. The rest of the river was a rather fine run at this level !

Sometimes the exit slots were boarded up to raise the level in the pool. The fish ladder entry stopper was much less if the level was raised this way, but the exits presented bigger drops. The exit drop facing downstream was often easiest to paddle through (but the most likely to collect lodged branches) whilst the one nearest the weir face could drop very close to the main stopper. In summer, the middle one sometimes had an extra board and was too shallow to run at low levels, but in that situation the weir stopper was not big enough to be a hazard on the more upstream exit. But - it's all gone, so take a careful look !

Below there are shingly rapids, a small broken weir which can provide a playwave if you can make the sharp breakout left, but most people blast straight through. There are various eddies and waves between here and the bridge, many good for training, but do take a good look at the bridge first - it's good at catching large trees washed down and you may prefer to minimise any risk of swimmers if there is one present overhanging the channel (as there is as I write this, summer 2010, although a couple of the branches were removed 2010-07-14 - the rest will need a chainsaw or, more likely, another big flood).

Beyond the bridge the river flattens immediately. It's shallow over bedrock river right, but a deep channel from the left-hand arch leads on to a wide pool where one get-out is river right up to The Sills. Continuing down easy bouldery rapids leads to a small weir (watch out for big pipe river left) with a playwave, and an exit beyond the houses river left to the Desmesnes.

Winston to Piercebridge

The "official" access is river right, upstream of Winston Bridge, a good path leading a hundred metres or so. However, this drops you onto a rapid which is harder than anything else on the trip, so with beginners we often use a river-left put-in immediately below the bridge. This is steep and muddy with brambles so is a bit of a pain to reach, but does ensure that novices get an easy start to the river. Other people have used river right below the bridge, from the public footpath. This is also steep but no so brambly, so is possibly a better option. There is a guidebook on UKRGB for this section.

The main hazard on this trip is from getting hung up on shallows, as it tends to be a trip we programme for "shoulder season" before it gets cold and wet with full rivers. Paddling in September, beware of the possibility of finding anglers in the middle of the river who can't hear you coming. In more normal paddling season, this is less likely.

There are few features of great note, and most of the landmarks are bridges. A few islands punctuate the descent, and most of these go on the left, though some go either side, particularly with more water. After the first bridge, a right hand bend leads to a flat reach with a cliff left. Here, a foul smell is the result of the Gainford Spa hot spring which discharges sulphurous water into the river. You often see people collecting the water in bottles - it's cheaper (and obviously far less fashionable) than Harrogate ! A second disused railway bridge and a road bridge supported on some very dodgy-looking hardware precede a sharp left bend where exit is possible to Gainford by the cemetery.

Left channel below Gainford on a rather cold kids' trip

The left channel past the next island has faster water, then a sweeping bend right below houses leads to a shingle rapid which may provide a wide playwave at some levels. The river then sweeps left below high crumbly cliffs on the right (Black Scar) before easing down to a long bimble. A large green pipe bridge over the river is the final landmark half a mile above Piercebridge. It's possible to get out river left a hundred metres or so before the road bridge (we did this to avoid conflict with an angler in the river on one out-of-season trip) and use a track (part of the Teesdale Way) to reach parking by garages, This avoids the steep climb up river right which awaits those who continue right to the take-out just upstream of the bridge. We have usually been received favourably when asking to use the far end of the pub carpark here, but the pub isn't always open for refreshments at the end of the trip.

Wynch Bridge to Middleton

This is a rarely paddled section, mentioned here mainly for completeness. Immediately below Wynch Bridge gorge (reached by crossing the bridge and walking down river right) there are more rapids, ending just above the Newbiggin bridge, which is an alternative put-in (reached by walking from the village hall) for those wanting a consistent easy grade. The gradient is gentle with just the occasional weir, for a long run down to the main bridge at Middleton (get off river left where Hudeshope Beck enters above the bridge, or river right immediately below the bridge). Quite a lot of water is needed to make this trip go, and there are probably more worthwhile things to do in those conditions. There's a fuller description on UKRGB


Well, since we are talking beginners, this is more placid water with some moving water for training. Access has always been fairly relaxed all summer at Barnard Castle between the two bridges. Put on from The Sills, river right below the bridge where the road is widest and a path leads down to the river's edge. There is very slow-moving water here, often used by novice groups, though a careful watch needs to be kept for drifters if water levels are up. Paddling up towards the County Bridge, there is usually enough flow to introduce people to ferry gliding under the north arch. More confident paddlers can try some attainment. Most can get close to the old low weir below the castle with a combination of ferry glides and eddy-hopping. Getting up that and any further usually involves a short portage and is scarcely worth getting out of one's boat for, although you can get to the bottom of Warren's Dam with a bit of effort and not too low (or high) water.

It's also possible to put on from the Desmesnes and play below the footbridge - there's a wave below another weir here, and a stronger jet to try high crosses. My experience suggests that it is usually too shallow in summer for trying moving-water rolls here (ouch!)

Putting on from the Winston Bridge put-in (well above the bridge, river right) it is possible to paddle up to a number of features which offer training or playing possibilities. However, this is definitely not a good place for beginners at high water level, and there isn't enough water in mid-summer drought, so I have no experience of using it. Yet...

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