River Wye - Builth Wells - 11 years ago...

For those interested in what the Builth Wells trip (Move to the 3rd March 2012) is going to be like, here's a 2000 trip report, when I was a wee nipper...


This describes our first ever white water trip, down the river Wye, Wales, from Builth Wells to Llyswen. It describes where we got in, some hazards we encountered, and where we got out. It also tries to capture our feeling during our first ever white water run, especially our encounter with Hell’s Hole.

Note… all sides of the river are referred to as if you were looking downstream.


Destination - River Wye, mid-Wales

Entry point - Builth Wells, by the car park, upstream of the main bridge, right hand side of river

Exit point - Steps, 100 yards upstream of Llyswen’s bridge, right side of river (well hidden!)

Distance - 12 miles approximately

Duration - 2 ½ hours, but it could easily take longer

Water Levels - High, but not “in-spate”

Water grade - Mostly grade 1 with fast flow rate

- Several stretches of grade 2 (2-3 foot wave-trains, mini-haystacks, the odd big hole)

- Hell’s hole, grade 3-4

Paddlers - Two experienced white water paddlers (instructors, in a Redline and a Whiplash)

- Brian (three star, experience limited to Nene White Water Centre), in a Dancer

- Paul (two star, experience limited to Nene White Water Centre), in a Dancer


This was it! Paul and my first ever “white water-ish” river trip. Forget those weirs at good old Leamington Spa. Forget those namby-pamby waves at the Nene white water centre. This was the real McCoy.

We stood dressed in full winter kayak gear by the river, watching three white water rafts, and several kayakers rapidly disappear round the river bend. Boy, the river was flowing quite fast! The adrenaline was flowing, heart racing. First off, a seal launch into the river… phew! … didn’t capsize – we’re cool, we’re cool! OK, another quick warm-up. Done that. Well, we’re here. Nows the last chance to bottle it. No! I’m the man! I am NOT going to bottle it.

OK, our colleague told us to follow him downstream. That’s opposite of upstream – right? I was really this wound up! A quick low brace turn and off we go. First hazard - the bridge uprights. The waters fast, so give them lots of room. OK missed them. What the… Whaaaa!… that’s a big wave, and another! Whaaaa! Not seen the like of these before. We’re cool, just follow the others and RELAX! Our fellow paddlers (Paul excluded!) are experienced. They know what they’re doing. Break-in, break-out, a quick surf. Hey, maybe it’s not all that bad! We’re doing it. All the months of practice kicked in and soon Paul and I were cruising, nerves lightly tingling, but at least not jangling.

A lot of the trip was just fast flowing river, with the odd ripple and boil. Ever mile or two there would be what I’d call “wavetrains” of 2-3 foot waves (Paul swears they were a lot bigger). These “wavetrains” lasted a few hundred yards, with wave after wave pounding the hull. Occasionally they got very confused, so waves would hit you from different directions. Mid-river, there were odd hazards like mini-islands with slack water behind (great for those break-ins), and holes created by the fast water which would magically appear in front of you. Generally as long as we kept the speed up, we were fine. Every so often we’d pluck up our courage, and have a quick play, ferry gliding a little, or trying a little surfing.

The river’s major hazards were

  1. Trees at the sides of the river (the river was 50 yards-ish wide, so these were easy to miss!)

  2. One island with a horizon line (the water disappeared!) on the left, and “wavetrains” on the right. We went right!

  3. The odd bridge with uprights, generally strewn with dangerous flotsam.

  4. Oh yes, and Hell’s Hole!

Our colleagues had mentioned Hell’s hole before the trip, and assured us we would port it, if they thought it was unsafe. We approached Hell’s Hole and noticed the tell-tale horizon line on the left and right hand side of the river, indicating a significant water level drop. Actually that a lie – I DIDN’T notice the horizon lines, but I was relieved that the others did! Apparently at lower water levels, the water only flows down the right hand side into Hell’s Hole, with the left just being rocky. Consult Welsh river guide books for more details. The weir on the left did look a bit awesome when we looked at it from the road later, so I guess Hell’s Hole was the better of the two options.

Anyway back to Hell’s hole… we were told to moor at the right hand bank, while our colleague disembarked and checked it out. One minute passed. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Blimey, if it takes that long to discuss it, then I’m all for porting it! I think Paul agreed!!! After an eternity the message was relayed, “Its on! Experienced paddlers front and back, with us novices in-between. Keep ten feet away from the bank and you should hit the right line. Just remember to paddle fast through the hole!”

OK this is it! We’ve practiced! We can do this! GULP!

Our experienced colleague went through first and stopped upright, like a pro. I’m next. Downstream I hurtled, precisely 10 feet from the bank. Suddenly I see this BIG rock the size of a house sticking out into the river, and realised they meant ten feet from the edge of that! Oh, bugger! At this point I can’t exactly say what strokes I used as it all happened pretty fast. Somehow I dragged or turned the boat away from the bank (probably a draw stroke), was immediately on the top of the biggest hole I had ever seen (OK, that’s not hard with my experience), paddled down-hill with all my might (yee-har!), and popped up the other side. Straight into a really confused patch of water. Water hits you right, then left, a quick low brace support as I started tipping, and I’m through! YES! What a buzz. My smile spreads from ear to ear, suddenly wiped from my face I hear “Pauls’ capsized, get to the bank”. No worries, I thought, my colleague will sort him out. I’ll get myself safe. Next I hear “They’ve both capsized”. Ah! Now what? Do I try and help, or keep out of the way? Fortunately fate sorted it out. My colleague threw Pauls paddle to the bank (tut, tut, never let go of your paddle), with both swimmers drifting into shallow water using eddies, etc.

After a quick review it turns out Paul and the last paddler went too close to the big rock, probably following my line, and got tipped in as the water kicked them around the corner. The last paddlers roll failed him. Paul just swam! The result - no cuts, the odd bruise maybe, but we were all OK. A hell of an experience though.

After emptying the boats, we pottered downstream, playing some more. Before long we reached the exit point and disembarked.

Wow! What a trip! In hindsight Paul and I felt that everything was within our capabilities, except Hell’s Hole, which was worth shooting for the adrenaline rush. Exhilarating trip on the whole. I’d certainly do it again, but I’d definitely keep my Dag Scandal playboat at home till I’m more experienced.

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