The Yorkshire River Derwent – Malton to Kirkham Abbey
An easy Mum and boy paddle, Malton to Kirkham Abbey, grade one moving water (normal river levels 1.1 on the gauge at Malton – see https://riverlevels.uk/river-derwent-malton#.Ylce3OhKhD8). Takes about three hours, not rushing.
Place your finger or cursor on a map of England. Find the nearest river. There’s an almost 97% chance that if you chose to go there, you’ll be trespassing. I live on the Yorkshire Derwent, a remarkable river in many ways, but let’s focus on one. This slow, green flow has the dubious distinction of being one of the most legally contested stretches of water in England.
Navigation rights here have been picked over at the highest of our courts. And because property law is mad, in eight years of legal wrangling, the questions were not about water quality or wildlife or ecology, not about recreation or wellbeing, not about local economics…
…not even about human & citizens rights, though those things mattered to the people arguing. They were about interpretations of previous legal proceedings, Acts of Parliament, revocations thereof, and most absurdly & long-windedly of all, about the legal definition of a river.
The end result is that there is no doubt that a boy has his mum slipping into the river on an April morning are trespassing. Some piece of paper in the House of Lords says so. But there are other things I am equally sure of. I’m sure that for millennia this river was a highway – an artery for travel & trade. The Bronze Age fortifications behind my house overlook it. I’m sure that under any natural law, rivers are for everyone. I’m sure that it is the nearest ‘blue’ space to my home – a crow flight distance of about 300 metres. And I’m sure that it is my river. I’m not claiming to own it (the idea than anyone could is absurd), only to love it, and that is enough.
I swim in it, and we paddle it.
Today we’re going Norton to Kirkham Abbey, a by-river distance of about 11 or 12 km. There’s a useful parking area next to a playpark near Malton station (you’ll find it on Google maps) where you can unload, then move your car to a carpark nearby.
A short walk/carry downstream and you’ll find a spot for an easy seal-launch. If you can’t seal launch, this might not be the river for you – there are almost no pontoons or platforms on this stretch and the banks are sleep, slippery and nettly.
This lovely old image is from an amazing gazetteer of Yorkshire Rivers, by Tom Bradley, published in the Yorkshire Post in the late nineteenth century, when the river was open.
We don’t inconvenience others, unless you consider a cheery wave an affront. I choose suncream and deodorants that won’t harm aquatic life (please do research your own if you plan on swimming).
On that note, please DON’T use spot-on flea treatments on your dog if there’s even a chance they’ll go near water – that stuff is horrifyingly toxic to aquatic life. As even a well-behaved dog (she isn’t) will add complication & responsibility to a trespass. We left her at home. She was not impressed, but you can’t win ’em all.
We can do better than doing no harm. This was a #positivetrace trespass. The easiest way to make your presence on a river beneficial is by collecting litter. There’s no shortage of that. Here, it’s about 50% ‘public’ trash dominated by bottles and balls & fishing tackle and 50% ‘landholder’ rubbish – silage & cargo wrap & miles of plastic twine & tape from farmland and a distribution depot by the river in Malton. Nasty stuff – it snags, trawls, binds. We collected what we could safely reach and carry.
I’ll say this for the lack of navigation rights on the Derwent. It’s fantastic for birds. It hasn’t been dredged for yonks, trees are allowed to overgrow and lie in the water and are only removed where they pose an actual flood risk.
On a faster-moving water, trees would be a hazard, but on the Derwent in normal levels we’ve always found a way through, and with willows and alders, and hawthorns encroaching from the banks and the odd fallen giant ash or oak to negotiate there’s a lovely sense of nature taking its course.
The overhanging branches ping with life – kingfishers, heron, grey wagtail, willow and reed warblers, reed buntings, several pairs of moorhen, mallard & mandarin duck, plus all the usual woodland suspects.
There are otters a plenty here – no signs today but here’s some tracks from last year. We were hoping for a first swallow today – there were gnats for the taking – but no joy yet… maybe tomorrow.
We got off close to home at Kirkham Abbey. In the 1920s the house next to this bridge used to have a tea garden and a little fleet of rowing boats for hire. Now, you have to bring your own, and walk past a sign telling you not to.
The trash is in the bin. The birds are in their roosts. We’re home now and have washed off the silt. But the river is in us, and always will be.
Happy trespasses x