Try these fun river activities

Activity, Nature, The Great British Outdoors

Posted by Kate A on 22nd April 2021

River activities

“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats”  - Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

Spending time by water, enjoying nature, and taking part in creative river activities can make us feel happier and healthier. The beautiful rivers of the UK provide us with a tranquil setting to disconnect from the hustle and bustle, take life at a slower pace and spend quality time with loved ones. And with over 2,000 miles of rivers and canals meandering through our towns, cities and countryside, there are plenty of opportunities to make the most of them.

Whether you’d like to spot wildlife, play games in the sunshine or discover a new, exciting water sport, we’ve put together a list of some of the best river challenges and activities you can try next time you’re out in the great outdoors. Some are educational, while others are designed for those with nerves of steel! And if you’d like to have all of these fun riverside experiences right on your doorstep, why not have a browse of our self-catering cottages with waterside views? Just click the button below to have a browse.

Cottages with waterside views

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Fun river activities for families

Riverside Bingo

Riverside Bingo

Where there's water, there's wildlife! Some of the best areas to spot nature in the UK are along our riverbanks. An important habitat for birds, you can expect to see ducks like mallards, tufted ducks and shovelers, as well as mute swans, kingfishers, moorhens and coots.

Small mammals like otters, water voles, water shrews and brown rats can be glimpsed dipping in and out of the reed beds, while in the water itself, you might spot fish such as brown trout, eel, stickleback, minnow, pike and perch – look out for the tell-tale rings on the surface of the water after a fish has leapt into the air before plopping back in.

For a fun way to discover a host of curious creatures with your kids on your next river walk, download our Riverside Bingo game by clicking the button below, and see who can cross off a line or get a full house first!

Riverside Bingo

River crafts

River craft activities

It doesn’t matter where you go on a family walk, kids always return home with a pocket or two full of natural treasure. So why not make the most of their bounty and create some colourful artwork? There are all sorts of arts and crafts you can make using items you’ve found beside the river like stones, flower petals and feathers.

You could assemble little twig rafts using feathers or leaves as sails and race them down the river, make fairy crowns from fallen leaves, or collect and press flowers to make pretty pictures. Gnarled tree stumps are great for making rubbings on recycled paper with crayons, and smooth river-worn pebbles make perfect bases for painting on – you could even transform sticks, leaves and foliage into the paintbrushes!

River dipping

River dipping

There’s a hidden world of amazing wildlife living beneath the surface of our rivers, so grab a tray and a net and get dipping to see what you can find! Not only is river dipping super fun, but it is also one of the most educational river activities on our list. It’s a chance for kids to study the river in detail, learn about its biodiversity and discover how important it is environmentally.

Imagine the excitement on their faces when they catch a great diving beetle, an alien-like dragonfly nymph or a wriggly flatworm. The RSPB has put together a brilliant step-by-step guide to help you with your watery adventures, and for added fun, little ones can practice drawing their identified critters before they release them back into the river.

Poohsticks“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.” – Winnie-the-Pooh


Young or old, we all love Winnie-the-Pooh. Originally invented by the lovable bear himself in A.A. Milne’s book The House at Pooh Corner, the traditional game of Poohsticks has kept children entertained for generations and is widely regarded as one of the simplest and best river activities for kids.

So, how do you play Poohsticks? First things first, find a bridge over a river and hunt out some good-sized sticks. To tell each other’s sticks apart, you could decorate them with natural materials such as flowers or leaves. Determine which way the river’s current is flowing and stand on the side of the bridge that has the water running towards you. Line up, side-by-side, hold your sticks over the edge of the bridge at arm’s length and on the count of three drop your sticks into the water. Then, run over to the other side of the bridge to see whose Poohstick emerges first, the fastest wins.

A good spot to play Poohsticks would be the original bridge in East Sussex’s Ashdown Forest where the game was invented by Winnie-the-Pooh. But to be crowned World Poohsticks Champion, you need to head to Witney in Oxfordshire, which hosts the annual championships!

Eeyore’s top-secret tip: “You just have to let your stick drop in a twitchy sort of way”. 

Feeding the ducks

Feed the ducks

One of the top riverside traditions when visiting as a family is to fill a bag with some bread and feed the ducks. But did you know that bread – especially white bread – is BAD for them? For starters, bread is not very nutritious for waterfowl like ducks, swans and geese, too much of it can lead to weight gain and malnutrition. So, what can you feed the ducks with instead on your next river walk?

Try these alternatives for a healthier lunch:

  • Duck feed pellets
  • Grain and birdseed
  • Chopped vegetable peelings
  • Porridge oats
  • Defrosted peas
  • Chopped lettuce

We also recommend avoiding the crowds and spreading the love by visiting another family of ducks who may need some new friends.

Romantic river pursuits for couples

Punting along the River Cam

Hire a rowboat or a punt

There’s nothing quite like hiring a rowing boat and lazily making your way down the river on a bright sunny day. Pack a picnic and find yourself a peaceful spot along the riverbank to lay out a blanket or stop at a riverside pub for a tasty lunch by the water.

Or if rowing sounds like too much hard work, why not treat your loved one to a punt, a vessel built for lovers? Punting is a timeless tradition where couples glide along the river in a long, narrow flat-bottomed boat, propelled by a person balanced on the back with a long pole. One of the most romantic river activities in the UK, this slow, relaxing journey allows you to enjoy quality time together on the water and see the local sights from a different perspective. Some of the most popular rivers for punting include the River Avon in Bath, Salisbury, and Stratford-upon-Avon, the River Cam in Cambridge, and the River Cherwell in Oxford.

Wild swimming

Wild swimming

Wild swimming in the UK’s rivers is a skin-tingling way to wash away stress and find freedom in nature. Said to boost our levels of ‘happy’ hormones, as well as improve our circulation and immune system, taking a dip in a river is a wonderful activity to share with your partner.

Many rivers across the UK are great spots for a little wild swimming. The River Dart in Devon has tempted swimmers for decades with its clear waters, particularly outside the village of Staverton. The unspoiled Grantchester Meadows in Cambridgeshire offer a multitude of relaxing places to dive into the River Cam surrounded by greenery, or if you fancy joining the kingfishers on the River Thames, the Pangbourne banks are a bucolic setting. Other celebrated swimming spots include Claverton Weir in the River Avon, the entirety of the River Stour in Kent, the River Ouse in the Sussex Downs, and the River Usk in Wales.

Read our blog on the best wild swimming spots in the UK for more top places to bathe in the wild, and always keep in mind that rivers do pose hazards – be sure to check the current, gauge the depth and watch out for reeds before you jump in.



Fishing in UK rivers is one of the top ways to relax in the great outdoors. Whether you are new to the sport or a seasoned professional, it’s a chance to unplug from the distractions of daily life and enjoy the sights and sounds of nature. It’s also said to reduce stress, improve concentration, and increase your vitamin D intake, even when the skies are grey.

Before you set out on a fishing trip, you just need to check whether it Is legal to fish in your chosen river and whether you need a licence or a day-ticket. Some of our favourite fishing rivers in the UK include the River Wye in Wales, River Don in Aberdeenshire, the Rivers Burn and Ure in North Yorkshire and the River Camel in Cornwall.

Browse our guide to the Great British fishing lakes and rivers for more super fishing spots and tips for keen anglers.

Kingfisher and heron

Bird watching

It’s not just fishermen who come out to play when the sun shines, our rivers are home to a myriad of different bird species. From shimmering flocks of wading birds to the dazzling flash of the blue and orange feathers of a darting kingfisher, there is plenty to see on a stroll along the river.

Come spring, reedbeds and riverbanks come alive with the chattering songs of warblers, and little fluffy ducklings, cygnets and tiny coot chicks are a common sight. Look out for herons diving into the water for fish, listen for the honking of Canadian geese, and marvel at the dippers seemingly walking on water with their unmistakable big white bibs. And when autumn rolls around, thousands of migrating ducks, geese and swans arrive from Europe and beyond, so there is always something worth bringing along your binoculars for.

Discover the best times of year to birdwatch with our guide and if there’s a bird you’d like to put a name to, check out the RSPB’s handy online species identifier.

Litter picking along the river

Source to Sea Litter Quest

You might be surprised to learn that nearly 80% of the litter on beaches around the UK has travelled there from our towns, parks and rivers. Each year an estimated 14 million pieces of plastic rubbish end up in and around our canals and rivers, with around 500,000 pieces flowing out into our oceans. So, if you’re looking for things to do by the river that make a huge difference to our environment and help to stop pollution in its tracks, then why not take part in the Marine Conservation Society’s Source to Sea Litter Quest?

Held every September during the annual Great British Beach Clean, this important event encourages people who live near rivers to round up rubbish right where it starts. By simply signing up and downloading a Litter Quest Form, you can cross off items you find and then recycle or bin them before they get washed away to the sea.

You don’t have to wait until September though, litter picking is something you can do all year round. Next time you’re by the river, keep your eyes peeled for items including plastic bottles, drink cans, straws and face masks and pop them in the nearest bin.

Extreme river challenges for groups

Surfers on the Severn BoreSurfers on the Severn Bore | Copyright Instagram @a_bristow2001

Tidal bore surfing

A distant rumble, deep like thunder, followed by a rushing, tumbling wave flooding the river with a wash of water; a tidal bore is one of the most astonishing spectacles to witness. This natural phenomenon occurs when there is a surge in a river, travelling in the opposite direction of its current, created by an extra-strong, large tide. The river needs to be relatively shallow, funnelling through a narrow outlet to the sea. Also known as spring tides, they usually coincide with a full moon.

There are approximately 60 tidal bores around the globe and the Severn Bore which plunges down the River Severn when the Atlantic surges into the Bristol Channel, is the second largest in the world. This tide of around 2 metres in height travels inland at more than 12mph for approximately 20 miles to Gloucester and is a huge draw for surfers seeking a thrilling alternative to ocean waves.

Surfing tidal bores is no mean feat, so if you want to join in the fun you need to have good stamina – where a typical ocean wave lasts seconds, catching a wave on tidal bores can last hours! If this one sounds a little overwhelming for your first attempt, there are several smaller river bores elsewhere in the UK, including at the Rivers Trent, Dee, Ouse, Ribble and Parrett.

White water rafting

White water rafting

If surfing doesn’t get your heart pumping, why not try white water rafting? There are some awesome natural rapids to be found on our rivers where you can enjoy stunning scenery and rub shoulders with local wildlife. With different classes of white-water rivers in the UK, anyone from a completely inexperienced rafter to an extreme adventurer can find their own shot of adrenaline.

Pure thrill-seekers should head for the rapids in early spring or after heavy rainfall when some of our UK rivers are graded a challenging 4 or 5, while those looking for something gentler could try rafting in the height of summer when many rivers are graded 2 and 3, with slower flowing water. If you’re eager to grab a paddle, some of the best rivers to make a splash on are the River Tay or Dee in Scotland, the River Wye, Usk or Rhondda in Wales, or the River Allen in Northumberland.

River tubing

River tubing

Splash, float and jump your way down the rapids with river tubing. One of the most hilarious water sports you can do on a river, grab your pals and descend a river rafting run, whilst sitting within a specially designed tube with your bottom in the water. As you navigate the many twists and turns of the river, you’ll very much resemble a group of turtles on their backs but it’s a lot of fun – be prepared to get wet and possibly fall out mid-rapid!

River tubing is available across the UK, provided by outdoor activity centres like Hard Days Knight in the Peak District, Cardigan Bay Active in West Wales, Keswick Extreme in the Lake District, and G2 Outdoor in Scotland. Or if you’d like to discover more exciting river activities for groups, read our guide to Great British water sports.

River safety

Family by the river

There are so many fun ways to enjoy our rivers, but it’s important to stay safe while doing so. Here are our top tips for river safety:

  • Keep children away from the water’s edge and stick to the footpaths.
  • Don’t jump or dive in as the depth may vary and there can be unseen hazards.
  • Don’t swim near weirs, locks, pipes and sluices. These and some other water features are often linked with strong currents.
  • Be sure that the river is safe. Give yourself an easy route in and out of the water, look for currents, fast-moving water and make sure it's not too deep.
  • Inland waters can be very cold, no matter how warm the weather is. Those going into cold water can get cramp and experience breathing difficulties very quickly.
  • Keep a look out for boat traffic. Boaters, especially on larger vessels, can find it very hard to spot swimmers.
  • Beware of weeds – you can get tangled and trapped in weeds growing at the bottom of the river.
  • Never boat or swim alone.
  • Leave things as you find them – take your rubbish away with you and don’t take any creatures home as they need the river to survive and thrive.

Holiday by the river

For the ultimate riverside experience, why not treat yourself to one of our holiday cottages with waterside views? Not only will you wake to tranquil scenes of glistening water, but you’ll find a wealth of walks from the front door which you can relish as a couple, a family, a group, or with your dogs. Just click the button below to browse our full collection.

Cottages with waterside views

Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information at the time of writing, please ensure you check carefully before making any decisions based on the contents within this article.