Full Day: Kempston Mill to Great Barford

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You start just below Kempston Mill and paddle downstream through picturesque river meadows with lots of wildlife to see. You will portage (carry your boats around weirs and obstacles) four times, allowing you plenty time to stretch your legs. The gentle river flow will take you towards Bedford town centre with its tree-lined embankment and promenade. You pass under several historic bridges before arriving at Longholme Café where you portage onto the lower river and can grab tea, cake and freshly prepared food.

Once back on the lower river the paddle from Bedford to Great Barford is beautiful with meandering river banks, hidden gems such as riverside log cabins  and the Danish Camp, another place for grabbing a snack.  There is lots of wildlife to spot with kingfishers, herons, otters and grass snakes.

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The Route

Kempston Mill is a beautiful location to start your days paddle. 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 Whitewater 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 batpized 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 and 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, icecream or a sandwich.

As you portage here, walk down the right hand side of the black, wooden rowing boathouse onto the gravel path to the grassy bank, next to the back of the boathouse. You will now see the site of the Victorian Boat Slide, now converted into a water turbine for generating green electricity. Once on the water, your journey will take you downstream on the lower river, passing a little island (you can pass it on either side), before passing under the road and pedestrian bridge, about 500 metres from the start. On warm days people often report seeing turtles sunbathing in the trailing branches of the Willows on this stretch of water.

As you pass under the old railway bridge you will see the ‘Pyramids of Bedford’, which houses the Oasis Swimming Pool. 400 metres later you will see the New Cut (waterway) branch off the main river on your left. The access to this bit of water is restricted. As you round a bend in the river you will see 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. You are now paddling on a loop around the Priory Country Park, which is a popular green space and lake.

As you make your way around the bend on your right there are large 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 which marks the Cardington Artificial Slalom Course, a white water feature. Continuing down the river a few hundred yards is a river lock and sluices. You will see large green buoys across the river, paddle up to them and there is a portage area on your left (with an upturned canoe sign). Once you have lifted your boats out of the water the ‘put in’ point is directly across the grass (20 metres) to a smaller part of the river. To your right is Cardington Lock and some picnic benches.

As you paddle out from the lock area you will be engulfed by countryside again, with heavily reeded riverbanks and a narrow river channel. This is a great area for wildlife as you are paddling around Priory Park, and bordering its extensive nature reserves. 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. As before, 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 canoe or kayak 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 will paddle under the road bridge for the main Bedford bypass 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. If you are staying at Matchstick Wood, our wilderness campsite you will paddle up Elstow Brook.

If not, then continue on and in 300 m you will reach the Danish Camp Café on the right, which is another river location to reward your paddling efforts with tea, cake or even a quick alcohol beverage. Just downstream is Willington Lock, (700m downstream) with a portage on the right, with a specifically lower bank to help you remove the boats. As before carry your boats down past the weir and down onto the pontoon. You are now beginning the final stretch of your journey. If you are very lucky, you may spot wildlife on the river here. Keep your eyes peeled for grass snakes taking a swim, which look for moving twigs in the water but be quick as they are very shy and are quick to hide. This part of the river, along with others, 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. We will then pick up the drivers and space permitting the other members of your group.

Trip Info

Kempston Mill (MK42  to Great Barford (MK44 3LF): Hard Full Day

11 miles, approx. 6 hrs in canoes and SUP’s (slightly less in kayaks) and 4 portages