Symonds Yat, Herefordshire

Follow in the wake of Britain’s first river cruises and take in the natural beauty of the Wye Valley, by canoe or on foot


My escapade on the River Wye was an altogether calmer affair than my Pembrokeshire soaking. Firstly, I was in a canoe. Secondly, the water levels weren’t too high and the splashes that hit my face were refreshing, not drenching. Thirdly, I wasn’t just on the Wye to quench my thirst for adventure. I was there investigating the birth of tourism.


It wasn’t Judith Chalmers who instigated our love of cruises; it was a man known as the Reverend William Gilpin (right). His book Observations on the River Wye, printed in 1782, was arguably the first guidebook published in Britain and he waxed lyrical about the beauty of the area.

The Wye Tour became immensely popular and by 1808 there were eight boats winding their way down the river. Gilipin saw the landscape as “expressive of that peculiar beauty which is agreeable in a picture.”

And how right he was. Symonds Yat and the Wye Valley are dazzling, and taking in the scenery from a canoe is ideal. Unlike many other rivers in England and Wales, the Wye has a right of navigation, which means canoeists can explore the river at will. And half a million a year do.

The name Symonds Yat is derived from a 17th-century local sheriff called Robert Symonds and the regional dialect for ‘gate’ or ‘pass’. The rapids are the river equivalent of The Bitches, but less intimidating. There is a knack to tackling them – people do fall in, often to the laughter and applauding of smug paddlers-by.

Dramatic scenery

The tiny village, tucked-in by lush woodland, is split in two by the Wye into Symonds Yat East in Gloucestershire and Symonds Yat West in Herefordshire. Both are connected by two hand-pulled ferries, which are tugged back forth throughout the day.

The giant limestone outcrops towering over the trees are an awesome sight that make you feel as though you’re journeying through the Amazon – it’s only when you turn a corner and see the riverside inns and cafes of the village that you know you’re back in the cosy heart of English civilisation. And thirsty for a proper cream tea.

Off-river pursuits

The area is a magnet for kayakers, birdwatchers, rock-climbers and walkers alike – there’s a trail to the top of Yat Rock with spectacular views towards Gloucestershire, Goodrich Castle and the sweet market town of Ross on Wye. Goshawks and buzzards are frequently sighted from the viewing point a-top the rock – you may even be lucky enough to see a peregrine falcon, which have bred in the area since the 1950s. Nearby, the Forest of Dean is an adventure playground for cyclists, with its network of graded trails under stunning canopies.

But it’s the beautiful river that’s my playground of choice. There are several canoe hire firms to choose from, all offering half- and full-day trips, some guided, solo or as a group. You’ll be kitted up with buoyancy aids, dry barrels, helmets (if you’re kayaking) and all the other paraphernalia that make for a fun, wet and wild day. I’d recommend you bring a bottle of water – paddling is thirsty work. Unless you’ve got a taste for river water, you’ll get a pretty dry tongue after an hour or two without a drink handy. And bring a spare change of clothes.

Gilpin once said,

“If you have not navigated the Wye you have seen nothing.”

There are two ways to take in this majestic scenery – on the river or beside the river. I just don’t recommend in the river, but that’s up to you!

Useful Information


From Gloucester, take the A40 in the direction of Ross-on-Wye, then Monmouth and follow signs for Symonds Yat (West) on the B4164.



Wyedean Canoe and Activity Centre
Symonds Yat, HR9 6JL
01594 890238


Saracen’s Head Inn
Symonds Yat East, HR9 6JL
01600 890435
Moor up and try the excellent Breconshire steak.

Rose Cottage Tea Garden
Symonds Yat East, HR9 6JL
01600 890514
Serves freshly baked baguettes and scones in the pretty garden overlooking the river.



Wyedean campsite
Symonds Yat, HR9 6JL
01600 890238
Quiet riverside campsite with clean toilets and showers.




Clearwell Caves
Nr Coleford, Forest of Dean, GL16 8JR
01594 832535
Explore eerie caverns in this underground natural wonder.