Bedford to Matchstick Woods to Great Barford


This is a fantastic canoe and camping trip for those who want to experience the best of the river and woodland camping, sandwiching a longer day followed by a shorter one as a reward.

We will meet you in Bedford at Longholme Café and Boating Lake, kit you out in paddling equipment before giving you full bank tuition and then you are ready to set off. To make your trip even more enjoyable, why not opt for our bag drop off and collect service, so you bags will be waiting in your clearing upon your arrival. After a stunning paddle through the countryside you will arrive at Matchstick Wood, on the banks of the river.

You will get your own private clearing in the woodland, complete with long drop loo, log store and most importantly campfire, to sit round under the starry night sky. Once you’ve pitched your tent, have the campfire roaring with the wine/ beer cooling in the brook this trip will seem like the ideal tonic to a busy life, allowing you to spend some quality time in the great outdoors. You will have you boat ready on site for the following day, so you can get back on the water and enjoy some time with nature.

The Route

If you have booked the drop off/ collection service, we will put all your camping kit in the vehicles so we can drop it off at the campsite ready for your arrival and leave you free to enjoy a lighter boat. If you have decided to go ‘native’ and carry your kit, we shall put it into waterproof barrels and bags ready for your day on the river.

You will see the Victorian Boat Slide (to the right of the inlet) when you get back on, now converted into a water turbine. Once on the water, your journey will take you downstream along the side of the island, passing another little island (you can pass it on either side), before passing under the road bridge, 500 metres from the start. On warm days people often report seeing turtles sunbathing in the trailing branches of the Willows on the water. As you immidately pass under the old railway bridge you will come round the bend in the river and see the Pyramids of Bedford, which house the Oasis Swimming Pool. 400 metres later you will see the New Cut (waterway) branch off the main river on your left followed by the entrance to Priory Marina (housing some beautiful narrow and wide beam boats as well as one of George Clarkes Amazing Spaces creations). The river then opens onto a long (500 metres) straight wide stretch, a hotspot for swans and geese. As you make your way around the bend on your right there are several moorings and waterfront gardens. You will see a small weir on your left shortly followed by the Barns Hotel on your right and then a larger weir on your left. You will see large green buoys across the river, paddle up to them and there is a portage area on your left (with a sign). Once you have lifted your boats out of the water there ‘put in’ point is directly across the grass (10 metres) to a smaller part of the river.

To your right is Cardington Lock. As you paddle out from the lock area you will be surrounded by countryside again, with heavily reeded riverbanks. This is a great area for wildlife as you are paddling around the Priory Park, and bordering its extensive nature reserves. After 2 km you will approach Castle Mill Lock. As before, there will be large green buoys across the river and you portage on the righthand side. There are steps to help you get out. Once the boat is out of the water, you will carry it along the top of the riverbank and then down the pontoon to the furthest point, as there is a specifically lowered area to help you when getting back in the boats. You will paddle under the road bridge before reaching the country park on your right closely followed by log cabins on your right (1.5 km after Castle Mill Lock). After a few hundred metres, you pass under the quarry bridge then shortly afterwards there is a little viewing platform/ pond dipping pontoon on the right Elstow Brook joins the River Great Ouse. If you are staying at Matchstick Wood, our wilderness campsite you will paddle up Elstow Brook, passing initially under the bridge where the River Great Ouse meets Elstow Brook and then continuing on upstream, passing another low pedestrian bridge before coming around the bend to see the portage into the campsite on your left.

Once the boats are out of the water (leave them on the left after the portage steps, with a Loo on your right but take your paddles and buoyancy aids with you), using your map of the woodland you can find your specially reserved clearing, which are all named for your ease.

You can setup your camp, by choosing where to pitch your tent in your clearing and by having a look at the long drop loo and getting used to the exhilerating idea of a ‘loo with a view’ around your own secluded bit of woodland. Once the campfire is roaring, the beers/ wine are cooling in the brook, it is time for some dinner. Whether you have packed your own or you are visiting the nearby café or pub, the evening will be rounded off by sitting under the starry night sky, with your fairy light tree adding the finishing touch and hearing to ‘toot’ of the resident owls.

After a refreshing night’s sleep (hopefully our resident deer hasn’t woken you by barking at your tent) you can get the breakfast cooking over the campfire, before packing up your tent. With all your kit packed, you are ready to hit the river. Once back in your boats, paddle down Elstow Brook to where it meets the River Great Ouse and turn RIGHT, to continue your paddle downstream. Shortly after joining the main river you will see the Danish Camp on your right, and then you will come to Willington Lock, paddle to the mooring on the right with a lowered area to help you exit the boats. Once you have carried the boat onto the pontoon below the weir, you are off again on the stunning river. This stretch is particularly good for seeing grass snakes, taking a quick dip, but be quick as they are very shy and quick to hide. This part of the river, is also is listed on some of the UK wild swimming sites.

About 1 km downstream from Willington Lock, you will come to a small fork in the river, to the right there is a small brick channel, which is an old river lock, which is located at the Old Mill. You will see a No Entry sign (this applies to motorised boats). You can paddle either side of this island if you explore the old lock you will re-join the rest of the river in about 300 m. As you paddle onwards you will be passing a meadow on your right, usually with cows in it, drinking form the river and then you will see the beautiful 15th century red stone bridge that marks the end of your journey in Great Barford.

Immediately after the bridge turn left for the lowest point in the river bank to help you get out the boats. There is a riverside pub called the Anchor at Great Barford. This is Great Barford Locks and weir and usually is a hive of activity with other motor boats and cruisers.

Once at Great Barford you will have completed a fantastic adventure, full of lasting memories. 

Trip Info

Day 1: 6 miles, approx. 4 hrs in canoes and 2 portage

Day 2: 2 miles, Approx 1.5 hrs in canoes and 1 portage