Packrafting Shakespeare’s Avon: Bubbenhall to Warwick
Packrafting is my latest passion, it is an ultralight kayak that can be carried on your back or bike. I considered the options for water travel in my last post and decided on a packraft because of how transportable it is and suits my style of holiday.
My first outing was a short test run on the Avon in Warwick and then a half day paddle down the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal in Wales. The original plan was to paddle on the Wye but extremely bad weather and a swollen river put a stop to that trip.
But the first ‘proper’ paddle is one I have planning for the last couple of months. Back in June I went for an afternoon walk at Bubbenhall and scouted out a potential launch point. I found one in a field beside the bridge on Bubbenhall Lane which was perfect. From the launch to Warwick it is about 12 miles so I estimated 3mph and leaving at 8am would get me home in time for lunch.
Setting up the packraft was a leisurely 20 minutes of pottering around and getting it exactly how I want. It currently takes me 7 minutes to inflate and then some time attaching the seat, backband, etc. Before long I was out on the water and ecstatic at the tranquil experience bobbing down a river in the sun.
The first stretch of the Avon before the Sowe joins is quite shallow and I could easily see the bottom and river plants. However, that initial stretch is frequently overgrown with lots of overhanging branches and branches coming up from underwater. Packrafts ride high on the water so I could scrape through by crouching low and pulling them out of the way. Later in the summer or paddlers with a hardshell or bigger boat would definitely struggle without a saw or clippers. There were several fallen trees which had enough space to limbo under, and two which required portaging.
The banks were nearly always shrouded from sight by abundant reeds and when I did spot a gap in the reeds all I could see was stinging nettles. Fortunately I never had to bash my way out onto a bank as it would have been rather painful!
As this part of the Avon is quite small and frequently remote there are plenty of birds. I saw 11 Kingfishers, 3 Herons, 2 Buzzards, 3 Jays and a cormorant flying overhead. Seeing so many kingfishers was a wonderful experience as they are usually a rare treat.
The river reeds only posed a minor problem once. I approached a large patch and could either enter left or right. I mentally flipped a coin and went left, proceeding to meander through a maze of reeds and then getting blocked completely. I backtracked and went right which eventually took me out of the maze but only after squeezing through small gaps and lift shuffling the boat over the last blockage of reeds.
The most troublesome part of the route is Stoneleigh Abbey. I read on songofthepaddle that other people had problems with the owners of the estate and had the same experience. I got out at their first weir and was walking in the fields on the right side down to the next one when an older gentleman walked over and said that it’s private property and to go back to where I came from. I explained this wasn’t possible, as I came from up the river and I would be out of his way if I could just hop back in after the weir. He was quite polite about it but said it was a solid no, apparently someone nearly died 6 weeks ago and they had emergency services called in so now its a blanket ‘no’ to all watersports (and fishing). I was then walking towards the road and the manager came and said the same thing to me. She asked me where I was parked and I said miles away, and her answer was basically ‘tough luck’. They weren’t aggressive but not wanting an argument I had no choice but to walk to the next stretch of river.
I walked about 3 miles to a footbridge at Ashow and went into the field on the left of the path. The bank was overgrown with nettles but I beat my way to some water then used them as a launch ramp in. On my merry way again! The paddle there onwards to Rock Mill was pretty but the river is slow and the only obstacle was a tree to portage over. The trees a firmly wedged in so I could climb out on to them, lift the kayak over, and then climb back in. I do need to find a safe way of anchoring the packraft to stop it drifting off though!
The Rock Mill weirs pose a problem as there are private property/no landing signs all along the right bank where you have to get out to reach the river again. With no alternative option I decided to land, sprint over the grass and hop in the other side.
The most interesting part of the paddle is probably Guys Cliff House which is shortly after Saxon Mill. It was built in roughly 1751, then was damaged by a fire in 1992 when a film crew deliberately set fire to it which then got out of control. It is now known for it’s associated with the Freemasons who still use the chapel and as Warwick’s local haunted house. There is no public access other than a rare Halloween where you can book onto a ghost hunt. You can read Dicamillo which has a lot of further information on the rather interesting history of the house.
Due to the hassle I faced at Stoneleigh I reached Warwick 2 hours later than I hoped at around 3pm. It had started raining at about 2pm and it got progressively worse as the day went on but after a quick lunch at home I hopped on the bicycle and cycled 8 miles back to Bubbenhall to collect the car.
Overall, it was good fun but I won’t do it again in a hurry and definitely not in mid summer or later. The abundant foliage along with difficult weirs mean it is quite a lot of hassle. There is an alright looking launch point on Hill Wootten road bridge, so a shorter future trip could start there or Ashow down to Saxon Mill. I did this as a day trip so will look for wild camping spots early on in the next stage of the river from Warwick to Stratford-on-Avon.
No river licence is needed until Alveston Weir (after Warwick) onwards.
2 fallen trees with just about enough space under to squeeze through depending on kayak size.
2 fallen trees which need portaging, but they are so firmly wedged that you can climb onto the trunk, lift over and drop in the other side
1 very heavy patch of reeds, I expect it changes every year but I went left and got blocked. So backtracked and went right into a bit of a maze but managed to get through.
Weir 1 –
Easy portage on the left bank, and drop back in just below the weir.
Weir 2 –
Stoneleigh, no way out that I could see.
Weir 3 –
Stoneleigh, also hard to get out. I used roots a few minutes before the weir to climb up a 4 foot bank on the right side.
Weir 4 –
Stoneleigh, didn’t see it, comments as above where the estate owners said I had to leave. So I walked to Ashow.
Weir 5 –
Saxon Mill, I portaged on the left but the water is deep so in a packraft it’s a bumshuffle onto the bank. There was a good spot with an underwater ledge but had a swan with young guarding it. Easy put in just past the footbridge/weir on left.
Weir 6a –
Rock Mill, no way out. It’s fenced in on the right, and then weir 6b is right next to it.
Weir 6b –
Rock mill, could probably be shot if you were more confident than me. The banks have ‘private property’ signs all over but not much choice but to hop out on the right bank, sprint over a lawn (no windows looking onto it though) and drop back in below the two weirs.