Here are the finest 20 England rivers for you to explore, from the grandeur of the River Thames to the peaceful upland rivers of Yorkshire (and more).
Each of them has something special to offer. The rivers (and canals) of England play an important role in England’s history as a means of transport, and are an important part of many people’s recreation.
Here, then, are our choices of the best 20 English rivers:
The Top 20 Rivers of England
1. The River Thames
This is the classic, yet you might be surprised to learn that the Great British public once voted the Thames their least favourite river. We disagree – it is a river you just have to visit.
The Thames is far longer than the part that flows through London, though London is the most convenient access point for this river of historical and cultural value.
Stroll along the Victoria Embankment or South Bank for a unique view of many of London’s major attractions. Alternatively, you could take to the water.
Get the adrenaline pumping with a high speed dash in a RIB, enjoy a sedate dinner cruise or hop on board a Thames Clipper to travel on the river like a local.
2. East Lyn River
The East Lyn River rises inland on Exmoor before winding its way towards the coast at pretty Lynmouth. This is undoubtedly one of the best rivers anywhere in the West Country.
It’s ideal for people who like outdoor activities. A beautiful hiking path, the Two Moors Way, follows the river for a while but if you are a bit more adventurous, you could sign up for a whitewater kayaking tour as the river has some challenging rapids.
There is also salmon and trout fishing along the river during certain times of the year.
3. River Wye
Only four rivers in the whole of the UK are longer than the River Wye, which follows a route which takes it close to the border with Wales. In fact, it actually forms part of the border as a natural obstacle.
The Wye Valley is an area of outstanding natural beauty, drawing plenty of visitors.
Begin at the charming Old Wye Bridge in Chepstow with its five graceful curved iron arches or delightful Ross-on-Wye. Join the literati at the Hay-on-Wye festival or hike to Symonds Yat to take in the extraordinary view.
4. River Trent
This river is the third longest river in the UK. Rising on Biddulph Moor in Staffordshire, it meanders through the Midlands before emptying out between Hull and Immingham on the North Sea coast.
Once, its propensity to flood shifted its course with the seasons. These days, though snow melt and heavy rain take their toll, the river is more actively managed.
At the National Watersports Centre near Nottingham, you can try rowing, sailing, whitewater canoeing. If that sounds a bit too full on, the Trent is also very popular with anglers.
5. River Itchen
The River Itchen in Hampshire enchants visitors with its lovely landscape. The reflection of the green trees on the water invites you to relax and leave your everyday troubles behind.
The water of this river could be crystal clear if it was not for the pollution from farms. Yet, you will find this a very beautiful area with a wide variety of wildlife and a good selection of outdoor activities to keep you busy. T
he Itchen is one of England’s premier spots for fly fishing.
6. River Severn
The River Severn is the longest river in the UK. It’s also the river that has the second highest tidal range in the world (beaten only by one in Canada) which leads to a curious phenomenon called the Severn Bore.
During spring tides, the water is forced up through a narrow gap and, thanks to the increased volume, creates a wave that’s pushed inland. You’ll see surfers on it if you time your visit right.
Year round, the most popular visitor attractions on the Severn include Shrewsbury Castle, Ironbridge Gorge, Worcester Cathedral and Gloucester Docks.
7. River Tyne
Photo by Jimmy McIntyre – Editor HDR One Magazine
The North Tyne and South Tyne meet to form the River Tyne at a place called “The Meeting of the Waters” near Hexham. The River Tyne flows through Newcastle, in the North East, which is a great city to use as your base for exploring the river.
The river is of great cultural and historical importance as it connects some big cities and towns. You can learn a lot about its history in the museums in Newcastle and visit the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead.
Watersports are very popular on this river, but you can also embark on a relaxing cruise.
8. River Dart
This river flows through Dartmoor in Devon (again, in the West Country). Navigable as far inland as Totnes, sections of the river upstream are popular with canoeists and kayakers.
Further downstream Dartmouth Harbour is crammed with fishing boats, yachts and vessels of all kinds. The Port of Dartmouth Royal Regatta takes place annually in August.
Fish ladders can be seen, such as those built to enable salmon to migrate upstream. The valleys that surround the river are a great place to explore, not least for the ancient oaks which grow beside the river’s banks.
9. River Wharfe
This river flows through Yorkshire and the valley surrounding it is known as Wharfedale.
If you would like to visit the source of the river, you need to make your way to the beautiful Yorkshire Dales National Park.
The park offers a variety of hiking options for walkers of all abilities, but arguably the best spot in Wharfedale can be found in Ilkley.
Hike uphill beyond the town to the Cow and Calf Rocks and enjoy a splendid view over the valley.
10. River Stour
This East Anglian river can be found on the Essex-Suffolk border in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Along it lies the charming town of Dedham, with its tea room and imposing church.
A stroll away you’ll find Flatford Mill, where the artist John Constable painted The Haywain and Willy Lott’s Cottage, now managed by the National Trust.
Historically speaking, the river is interesting, too, because it was one of the first improved rivers in England, granted public navigation rights from Manningtree to Sudbury in 1705.
The Stour valley still sees a lot of smaller boats passing through and passenger craft operate between April and October.
11. River Avon
To distinguish this river from others of the same name, it’s often referred to as Shakespeare’s Avon or the Warwickshire Avon.
Beginning in Northamptonshire and travelling through the Vale of Evesham, it finishes up at the River Severn at Tewkesbury.
It’s most famous as the river that passes through Stratford-upon-Avon, home of the Bard himself. The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, base of the RSC, sits right on the riverbank.
12. River Ouse
Located in North Yorkshire, the Ouse is the river that bisects the centre of the historic city of York.
It’s actually a continuation of the River Ure. When the Ure and the Ouse are combined, they form the sixth-longest river in the UK and the longest whose course flows entirely within a single county.
Eventually, it empties into the River Trent at Trent Falls and creates the mighty Humber Estuary.
The Ouse has many tributaries, among them the Aire, Don, Wharfe, Swale, Nidd and Foss, draining a large area of upland and therefore making it prone to severe flooding.
13. River Colne
Another of the East of England’s key waterways is the River Colne, which snakes its way through England’s oldest recorded town, Colchester. From there it traverses industrial Hythe to reach charming Wivenhoe, finishing up at Brightlingsea, itself a limb of the Cinque Port of Sandwich. Inland, for a while, it follows the course of the Colne Valley Railway, maintained by volunteers.
14. River Mersey
The river that divides Liverpool from Birkenhead on the Wirral is the most famous in the north west.
Immortalised in the famous song from Gerry and The Pacemakers “Ferry Across the Mersey”, it spawned Merseybeat, most closely associated with The Beatles.
Catch the ferry – it still runs – and check out the Royal Liver building, perhaps the most famous on the Liverpool skyline. The two stone Liver birds have names: Bertie looks towards the city, while Bella gazes out to sea.
15. River Eden
Finding the source of the River Eden is quite a challenge: it rises on the limestone fells high above Mallerstang Common.
Further along its course, it’s a completely different scenario as the river hugs the famous Settle to Carlisle Railway on its way to Carlisle and the Solway Firth. Interestingly, the Eden is one of the few large rivers in England that flows northwards.
16. River Aire
Yorkshire’s full of waterways, but this one is hard to miss as it winds its way through the beautiful city of Leeds.
It begins at Malham Tarn in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales but soon disappears underground thanks to the permeable limestone that covers the area.
Once, as its course took it through some of the Yorkshire industrial towns, the Aire was heavily polluted. That’s no longer the case as you’ll see for yourself if you get the chance to visit.
17. River Blackwater
England’s River Blackwater, not to be confused with the Northern Irish river of the same name, crosses the county of Essex.
One on side of its mouth you’ll find Bradwell, home to a decommissioned nuclear power station and a 7th century chapel.
Across the water lies the historic port town of Maldon and beyond, the characterful marina and salt marsh at Tollesbury.
18. River Derwent
There are four rivers in England called the Derwent, but our pick is the Derbyshire Derwent, a 66-mile long tributary that empties into the River Trent.
The river passes through the delightful Peak District National Park, one of England’s most scenic rural areas, and also finds itself in the old spa town of Matlock Bath.
19. River Tees
The river that empties out into the North Sea between Hartlepool and Redcar bears little relation to the trickling brook that begins its journey in the Pennines. The Tees is home to England’s biggest waterfall when in spate, High Force, though those who dub it the country’s highest are mistaken. At 21 metres tall, it’s not in the same league as Angel, Victoria or Niagara Falls, but it’s pretty nevertheless and a popular walking destination for day-trippers.
20. River Tweed
Forming the border between Scotland and England, our final pick is the River Tweed.
Quite by accident, the river lent its name to one of the most iconic British fabrics, which was previously known as tweel. A clerk misinterpreted a handwritten note and from then on, the cloth was advertised as tweed.
The River Tweed is also well-known for its salmon. It’s the only English river where you can fish with a rod without needing to first acquire a licence from the Environment Agency.