A bitter war over the right-of-access to one of Britain’s finest fishing waters has broken out between anglers and paddle-boarders.
The River Avon, which runs through the historic harbour town of Christchurch in Dorset, has become the scene of a territorial dispute between the two groups.
Anglers have positioned a punt boat beneath a bridge as they block the way to kayakers and paddle boarders, who the anglers claim are trespassing onto a private fishery. They accused the paddlers of ruining a day’s fishing with up to 150 ‘disturbances’ a day.
The paddle-boarders, however, insist the river has been used for centuries as a right of passage.
A bitter war over the right-of-access to the River Avon, which runs through the historic harbour town of Christchurch in Dorset, has become the scene of a territorial dispute between anglers and paddlers. Pictured: a stand-up paddleboarder passes two fishermen during calmer times on the river
Much like the rest of the country, the number of kayaks and Stand Up Paddleboards (SUPs) has dramatically increased on the river over the past year due to the number of people taking up the hobbies during the pandemic.
That has led to frequent clashes beneath the bridge that spans the river close to the town’s Norman castle and the site of the Royalty Fishery.
It is claimed both parties resort to hurling foul and abusive language at each other.
One fisherman is said to have deliberately caused a woman to be thrown off her board while others have reported being recorded on smartphones.
On the other side, anglers have complained of having stones thrown at them from paddlers stood on the bridge above the river.
The paddlers’ case was recently boosted when the local council rejected planning permission for a sign in the river which stated ‘unauthorised crafts had no right of access’.
Amy Bower, who works at the SUP Store which sells and hires out paddle boards, described their ongoing ‘rivalry’ with the anglers.
She said: ‘They get quite annoyed with anyone using the river because they pay a lot of money to fish there.
‘But it’s not their river – we have as much right to use it as anyone else. This is such a beautiful part of the country and it should be for everyone to enjoy.
‘On a busy Saturday we’ll get a lot of customers who come back very upset. The other day, one woman complained because her little girl ended up crying by all the shouting.
‘One of the ladies I teach said a fisherman yanked the chain anchoring the punt boat to the river as she tried to get past.
‘She fell off her paddle board and the guy kept shouting at her.
‘Now we always tell our customers to watch out for the fishermen because of how aggressive they’ve been.
‘We tend to avoid them. It can be very stressful.’
One 34-year-old woman, who wished to remain anonymous, said she felt intimidated by two fishermen silently filming her on her paddle board.
She said: ‘Me and my housemate, who has a kayak, were paddling up the river.
‘When we got to the bridge there were these two men fishing.
‘I said hello and asked them what they were fishing for but they just stared at me. Then one of the men got his phone out and started filming us.
‘It was so intimidating. I asked them to stop, which they eventually did, and they told me I was trespassing.
‘We didn’t feel comfortable going past them and further upstream so we turned around. They were like trolls under the bridge.’
One fisherman is said to have deliberately caused a woman to be thrown off her board while others have reported being recorded on smartphones. On the other side, anglers have complained of having stones thrown at them from paddlers stood on the bridge above the river
Anglers and canoeists have been at loggerheads for years over the right of access on non-tidal waters where private fisheries own stretches of the river bank.
Several years ago cricket legend Sir Ian Botham, a keen angler, and TV star Griff Rhys Jones came to verbal blows when the latter criticised anglers for having too much control over rivers.
There is a right to paddle on all tidal and statutory navigational waters in England and Wales but the River Avon doesn’t came under either of those categories.
British Canoeing maintain the law is vague and point to leading canoe campaigner Reverend Dr Douglas Caffyn whose masters thesis concluded that there is a general public right of navigation for canoeists.
He believes a law dating back to 1664 allows them to freely roam the waters as they wish.
The stretch of Avon is privately owned by the Royalty Fishery and anglers pay a daily fee to fish there.
Jason Lewis, who has been general manager of the fishery for 16 years, said he is losing £100 a day in refunds to anglers unable to fish because of disruptive paddlers.
He said: ‘I have the long lease, meaning I can derive profit from all fishing activity on the Avon, but I am having to refund anglers £100 a day at the bridge pool because of disturbances to the water.
‘They get between 100 and 150 disturbances a day – the SUP store leads up to 10 people around the Christchurch bend.
‘It is an erosion of respect for lease holder rights and a generation of people who do what they want, when they want.
‘Last year, we put up a large sign at the bridge pool explaining that unauthorised crafts had no right of passage but the local BCP council demanded we take it down because we didn’t have planning permission.
‘We applied for retrospective permission and it received 1,000 signatures of objection. The council then rejected it on the grounds that it would have an impact on a heritage asset.
‘But I am trying to protect the heritage of the site and assert my property rights – the bridge pool is one of the most important spots for sea trout in Britain. It is an important asset which I am trying to safeguard.’
Ben Searl, from British Canoeing, said there have been reports of verbal and physical abuse at Christchurch.
He added: ‘The law is unclear and what exists is legal opinion that is not legal fact.
‘The Avon isn’t a statutory navigation but we believe there is lots of evidence to say people have always had the right to access. People have used it for centuries for trade, travel and recreation.
‘But because the law is unclear you get incidents of confrontation and flare-ups between anglers and paddlers.
‘The Royalty Fishery want to defend their turf.’