Canoe: River Nene, Northamptonshire

The wending Nene Way follows much of this Northamptonshire river – but its fledged grey herons, emperor dragonflies and idyllic riverside pubs are best discovered by canoe

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As the River Nene flows through Northamptonshire on its journey to the Wash, it glides past wildlife-rich wetlands, historic mills and a string of fudge-coloured market towns. 

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In summer, the stretch of water between the small towns of Thrapston and Oundle is abuzz with brightly coloured dragonflies and butterflies and singing birds.

Two swans drifting along a misty River Nene at dawn at Woodford Lock in Northamptonshire, England as the sun rises.
Sunrise over the River Nene ©Getty

I grew up here and spent my summers swimming in the Nene, picnicking on the grassy banks and enjoying this gentle downstream section by paddle board, canoe and homemade raft. 

Haven for herons

Push off from the riverbank beneath Thrapston’s Nine Arches Bridge and let the river guide you towards Titchmarsh Nature Reserve. This mosaic of lakes, streams and scrub nurtures one of Britain’s largest colonies of grey herons – look for fledged youngsters learning to fish and trailing their legs as they fly overhead.

Photo Taken In United Kingdom, Liverpool
Grey heron ©Getty

This is prime habitat for terns, egrets, hobbies and red kites, with large flocks of swallows and martins arriving from April. At canoe-level, you’ll also spy butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies resting in the reeds, fluttering over nettlebeds and patrolling the water’s surface. 

Perfect pub lunch

The Northamptonshire countryside is peppered with grand estates and ancient churches, earning its nickname the ‘county of spires and squires’. From your boat you can see these spires rising proudly over open fields and hay-cut meadows en route to the Kings Head in the pretty village of Wadenhoe. The pub’s huge garden reaches right down to the water’s edge, making it the perfect halfway pit stop for re-energising tiring arms.

Barn Swallow Perching On Wooden Pole
Swallow ©Getty
Secret sites

My favourite section is where the river narrows near Achurch and Lilford. Here, it reveals hidden secrets that are hard to find on foot: the crumbling folly arch at Lilford Park; an idyllic humpback bridge; and mighty Lilford Hall. A few miles on, the old watermill on the edge of Oundle offers a good place to step ashore, with its handy portage platform and grassy banks for a post-paddle picnic.

Hire a boat and take to the Nene with canoe2.co.uk.

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Main image ©Alamy