2 Days Canoe and Camp Kempston to Matchstick Wood to Bedford

This trip has been tailored for those who want to get the most out of spending a couple of days on the river. You will begin on the rural backwaters at Kempston Mill, and with a short paddle arrive at Bedford’s historic Victorian Embankment.  You switch to the lower river and re-join the countryside to arrive at Matchstick Wood. You will get your own private clearing in the woodland, complete with long drop loo, log store and most importantly, a 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 time to relax after a good days paddle. The next day, will see you paddling back to Bedford around the Nature Reserves at Priory, teeming with wildlife, before arriving back at Longholme Café ready for a cup of tea and piece of cake after a day paddling. To make things a little easier, why not let us take the strain and book our luggage service, allowing you free to enjoy your days on the water.

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The Route

Kempston Mill is a great place to start your days paddle by canoe or kayak.  There are often large groups of ducks and swans hoping for a bite to eat from the dog walkers.

The Riverside path will be with you all the way into Bedford. The water is shallow and faster here with gravel beds and again there will be thick reed beds full of wildlife. This is a great place to spot a Kingfisher (listen out for a ‘peep’ noise, followed by a blur of electric blue as it flies on ahead of you). For the next 3 km you will be paddling through more beautiful countryside and will pass through a series of small islands where you can pass either side. On the right hand side is a more parkland adjacent the river.

You will then reach the first of several bridges marking your arrival to Bedford. The first one is a wooden pedestrian bridge, with the Riverside path on your left and peoples back gardens on your right. The second bridge is the railway bridge, followed by another pedestrian bridge and then a road bridge. From the railway bridge downstream you need to paddle on the right hand side and you will probably see other river users such as motorboats and rowers.

You are now entering Bedford Embankment, built by the Victorians as a River Promenade. On your left just after the road bridge is Viking Kayak Club and Star Rowing Club. Viking Kayak Club is a great place to learn and progress your new found paddling skills with an active membership. You will notice the beautiful red brick buildings that Bedford has, with excellent examples of various ages of architecture. The next bridge you see is the stunning Town Bridge made of stone (vehicle and pedestrian), with the iconic Swan Hotel on your left as you pass under the bridge. On the right hand side you will see the popular Park Inn Hotel and Bedford Rowing Club. This section of the river is at is widest with a series of large islands where the River Great Ouse splits. 

You stay on the top river as you pass Duckmill Weir now named the Etienne Stott White-water Arena, on the lower River, (after our town’s Olympic Gold Medallist from canoeing at London 2012). The Lower River here is where John Bunyan, author of Pilgrims Progress was baptised in 1655. Once past this you will see the Suspension Bridge (a high arching Victorian pedestrian bridge) enabling people to access the islands, along with Town Lock and then onto Archimedes Screw (a water turbine producing Green Energy).

The islands are called Mill Meadows and Longholme Island, the latter is where you will finish your paddle at Longholme café on your right in front of the white Butterfly Bridge. The Archimedes Screw (water turbine) is located next to the Schools Rowing Boathouse and Longholme Café. This is a great place to reward your calorie credits with cream tea, ice-cream or a sandwich. After a refreshment stop you will portage past the schools rowing boat hosue and rejoin the lower river.

Once back 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.

On warm days people often report seeing turtles sunbathing in the trailing branches of the Willows on the water. As you immediately 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, this mark Cardington Lock, 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, which opens back up into the main river shortly afterwards. To your right is Cardington Lock.

You will pass under a railway bridge that carries the Route 51 national cycle route. The river flows gently on and you will see moorings for GOBA (Great Ouse Boating Association). After 2 km you will approach Castle Mill Lock. There will be large green buoys across the river and you portage on the right-hand side. There are steps to help you get out. Once your boat is out of the water, you will carry it along the top of the riverbank (about 50-60m) and then down onto the pontoon to the furthest point, as there is a specifically lowered area to help you when getting back in the boats.

You then paddle under a road bridge, usually flanked by sheep happily grazing in the riverside fields. A few meandering river bends later and you will reach a little community of log cabins on your left (1.5 km after Castle Mill Lock). This area is known as the Grange Estate (a huge Country Park with cycle paths, fishing lakes and our woodland campsite). 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, where Elstow Brook joins the River Great Ouse. This is where you will turn up Elstow Brook, passing under 2 bridges before coming to the portage steps on the left. If you reach the Danish Camp (1 large log cabin café) you have just missed Elstow Brook so turn back around and paddle 100m back upstream.

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 exhilarating 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. You will put your kit in the dry bags provided, put on your Buoyancy Aid and grab a paddle before hopping into your canoe and paddling downstream on Elstow Brook, where you will join the main river and turn LEFT to head upstream.

After a few hundred metres, you will pass under the quarry bridge; the riverbanks here are heavily reeded and teaming with wildlife. You are paddling around the Grange Country Estate, with lots of footpaths and cycle routes so you are likely to see people enjoying the river from the bank. You will pass some log cabins on your right before the river meanders around some meadows, arriving at Castle Mill Lock, you portage on the left where there is a specially lowered pontoon to help you exit the boat. Once out carry you kit first (it’s much easier to carry an empty boat) up the path keeping the Lock on your right then through the wooden gate to the steps marking the ‘put on’ point. 

You will then reach Cardington Lock, marking the end of your journey. As you approach the Lock, there is a smaller waterway on your right, paddle up this to the portage point. Once you are on dry land, carry the boat and your kit over the little bridge spanning the Lock and over the next bridge spanning the Weir to the metal gate outside the carpark, where we will pick you up and drop you back to the train station, completing your mini adventure. The river on this stretch is wide and you will shortly be passing Priory County Park and Nature Reserve on your right, before passing under a road bridge and finally reaching the large inlet on your right, where you finish your journey by getting out on the right hand side (if you make it to a weir across the river, you have gone slightly too far).

Finishing by Longholme Café gives you the opportunity for good food and light refreshment. We will provide a complimentary lift back to your vehicle.

Pricing and Options

2 Man Canoe: £155.00
3 Man Canoe: £175.00
Fantastic Boat Canoe (2 adults + 2 children under 11): £220.00
Single Kayak: £95.00

Trip info

Day 1: 6.5 miles Kempston Mill (MK42 7FB  ) to Matchstick Wood (3 portage) 4-5 hrs Medium Full Day

Day 2: 6 miles, Matchstick Wood to Bedford, (MK40 3QF) 4 hrs in canoes and 2 portage Slow half day


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Welcome to Canoe Trail!

We are an award-winning, family-run business offering canoe, kayak and SUP hire on the beautiful River Great Ouse. We have riverside woodland camping and provide low ropes, archery, and bushcraft for corporate team building events. We also run a wide range of training courses for canoeing, kayaking and stand up paddle boarding. Experience the same sense of adventure further afield in the UK and overseas with our canoe trips.