The River Don is my local river. Its upper reaches run close to my home, but are rarely deep enough to paddle any distance. Below Sheffield, where the Tinsley flight brings the Sheffield arm of the South Yorkshire Navigations from Victoria Quay, the river is a more useful size, and my recent trips have been downstream again, where the Dearne meets the Don.
One such trip has teased my eye on the map for some time – a loop using the Kilnhurst Cut and the backwater of the Don which passes Swinton and Mexborough to rejoin the navigation below Mexborough Low Lock at the confluence with the River Dearne. I had scouted the lower end of the backwater on a previous upstream-and-back trip from Sprotborough, but otherwise the water was all new to me.
I could find no information about the backwater other than images from Google Earth, but these and the OS mapping looked promising. Starting from Mexborough Top Lock, the route headed up-lock to the top of Kilnhurst Cut, then down the backwater, returning to the start via a short stretch of canal at the end. In all it encompassed four locks, one weir portage, another passable weir at Kilnhurst Bridge and several smaller riffles and broken weirs over 15.4 km. It must have been paddled before, but there was nothing about it on the usual sources. An exploratory trip!
I arranged to meet Pete Starr, a veteran of my last exploration on the Calder, and Peter R, both of SOTP, at Ferry Boat Lane in Mexborough. This looked to give access direct to the canalside at Mexborough Top Lock, but on arrival I was disconcerted to see heavy locked security gates blocking the way. A quick scout showed an alternative, over the footbridge and onto the right bank, but a resident of the lockside cottages kindly opened the gates to let us through.
After a short period while Pete loaded his boat with every conceivable need (except his lunch!), we were underway. Pete and Peter were both in 16′ boats. I was in my Apache 15, thinking of the unknown river section. The weather was fairly kind – sun and cloud, pleasantly warm, but with a wind that was forecast to become an annoying headwind on our last leg back up the canal. For the time being though it was quite benign, and we made good time. Even the fishermen were in good humour as we passed by.
Sun glinted on the water and back-lighted the overhanging trees by the lock entrance.
We soon approached Waddington Lock, named after the commercial barge firm based here that still runs some 700 tonne barges on the navigation. These huge vessels dwarfed the narrowboats moored nearby.
In common with much of this navigation, the exit below the lock had sportingly high banks. Narrowboats occupied the more accessible areas, leaving a small gap through which Peter managed to exit. Pete and I, however, chose a short ladder to gain the bank about six foot above us, then hauled our boats up in a two-man lift, with ropes fore and aft. A trolley made the rest of the portage much easier!
Above the lock, the remains of the Dearne and Dove Canal, now disused, provides a boat yard for Waddington’s barges. The canal continued, wide and pleasant, with Swinton on the west side and Hooton Common rising beyond the River Don on the east.
Kilnhurst Flood Lock had a more amenable landing, and our way was clearly signposted – leftwards to the first weir. According to my googling research, this was a sizeable stepped weir with an Archimedes Screw hydro plant built into it. But the portage was straightforward, with an easy entry on river left below the weir.
The weir itself might be passable in a kayak, but none of us fancied bashing fibreglass canadians down it.
A by-pass channel immediately next to the Archimedes Screw looked like it would make an excellent canoe pass, but unfortunately the top was blocked by metal pipes…
Straight away the character of our trip changed from a modernised waterway to a rural river. Pete had a closer look at the weir, before we turned downstream to begin the river leg of our loop. Himalayan balsam lined the banks. It looks and smells lovely, even though it is an invasive species.
A gentle flow helped us on our way through verdant surroundings. A few fishermen sat along the right bank, enjoying the day as much as we were.
In places the view opened out. It felt a bit like paddling through a Constable painting, but without the wagon obstructing the waterway.
After about 1.5km, we came to the next major obstacle, the broken weir at Kilnhurst Bridge. I had been unsure if this would go, but we were pleased to see a fun line down river right.
The outwash provided a few minutes play before we passed the next small drop under the bridge itself. Nothing too taxing, just enough to add a spot of interest to an otherwise green-flowing river.
The banks became heavily wooded, and in a few places trees had partially blocked the channel. In the flow we had none of these were a problem, but could be quite a hazard in higher water.
A pair of swans preceded us downstream for while before looping round us at the end of their territory. Kingfishers flashed by us four or five times, but always too far off to try to photograph.
As we came back into Mexborough, factories began to appear on the left bank, and the air filled with the smell of baking. Thoughts began to turn towards lunch (sorry Pete!), but we decided to complete the river section before stopping. A limbo tree appeared, so we all had to have a go…
Shortly before we drew level with Mexborough Top Lock, and the start of the section I had previously paddled, an island split the flow. River right was closed in by bushes, but river left looked wide and clear – until the swan in front of us stood up in mid-channel! A quick change of plans and a sharp turn took us through the jungle.
Another small weir provided a moment of entertainment amidst the bushes downstream, and then the footbridge at the lock came into sight.
An easy sloping weir ran under the bridge, with just enough water to carry us over without snagging.
The final stretches of river were quite enclosed by greenery, and we paddled through welcome shade.
All too soon we had reached Mexborough Low Lock, and the left urn back up the cut. This was to be our lunch stop, but first there was another sporting exit to negotiate…
Lunch ensued, Pete catered for by spare supplies from his companions (SOTP never packs light!). The final 2 km along the canal were open, subject to that headwind the forecast had promised. Being in my Apache 15 now became a drawback, as its greater windage was soon apparent. I had to work much harder than the other two in their longer, lower boats. Next time I’ll bring the outlander! Hugging the bank gave us enough shelter though, and in reasonably short shrift we reached the get out below the lock. An easy footpath lead over the canal and back to the cars.
Another local exploration complete, and one I’ll do again.