River Wye

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River Wye
River Wye at Hay-on-Wye.jpg
The Wye at Hay-on-Wye
Native nameAfon Gwy (Welsh)
CountryWales, England
Physical characteristics
 • locationPlynlimon
 • coordinates52°28′5.170″N 3°45′56.282″W / 52.46810278°N 3.76563389°W / 52.46810278; -3.76563389
 • elevation690 m (2,260 ft)
 • location
Chepstow, Severn Estuary
 • coordinates
51°36′36.086″N 2°39′42.423″W / 51.61002389°N 2.66178417°W / 51.61002389; -2.66178417Coordinates: 51°36′36.086″N 2°39′42.423″W / 51.61002389°N 2.66178417°W / 51.61002389; -2.66178417
 • elevation
0 m (0 ft)
Length250 km (155 mi)
Basin size4,136 km2 (1,597 sq mi)
Basin features
 • leftRiver Lugg, Afon Edw, Afon Elan, more
 • rightRiver Trothy, River Monnow, Dulas Brook, more
Map showing the River Wye from source to sea, excluding tributaries

The River Wye (/w/; Welsh: Afon Gwy [ɡʊɨ̯]) is the fourth-longest river in the UK, stretching some 250 kilometres (155 miles) from its source on Plynlimon in mid Wales to the Severn estuary.[1] For much of its length the river forms part of the border between England and Wales. The Wye Valley (lower part) is designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.[2][3] The Wye is important for nature conservation and recreation, but is severely affected by pollution.[4][5]


The meaning of the river's name is not clear. Possibly the earliest reference to the name is Guoy in Nennius' early 9th Century Historia Brittonum and the modern Welsh name is Gwy. The Wye was much later given a Latin name, Vaga, an adjective meaning 'wandering'.[6][7][8] The Tithe map references a Vagas Field in both Whitchurch and Chepstow.[9] Philologists such as Edward Lye and Joseph Bosworth in the 18th and early 19th centuries[10] suggested an Old English derivation from wæg, "wave".


The source of the Wye is in the Welsh mountains at Plynlimon. It flows through or past several towns and villages, including Rhayader, Builth Wells, Hay-on-Wye, Hereford (the only city on the River Wye), Ross-on-Wye, Symonds Yat, Monmouth and Tintern, meeting the Severn estuary just below Chepstow. The lower 16 miles (26 km) of the river from Redbrook to Chepstow forms the border between England and Wales.


River Wye (Lower Wye)
Site of Special Scientific Interest
Grid referenceST544912 to SO230429
AreaEngland: 1,159.6 ha (2,865 acres)
Wales: 245.2 ha (606 acres)
Total: 1,404.8 ha (3,471 acres)
Natural England website

The River Wye is protected by two Sites of Special Scientific Interest, one covering the Upper Wye (Gwy Uchaf) above Hay-on-Wye,[11] and one covering the Lower Wye (Gwy Isaf) downstream to Chepstow.[12] The criteria for inclusion of the river as an SSSI include geology, topography, flora, mammals, invertebrates, fish and birdlife, as the river and its tributaries constitute a large linear ecosystem. The Lower Wye SSSI is itself divided into seven units of assessment set by Natural England, and administrative responsibilities are shared between the councils of Powys, Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, and Monmouthshire.[12] The Wye abuts a range of other SSSIs in England and Wales, including the Upper Wye Gorge and Lower Wye Gorge.

It is also a Special Area of Conservation[13][14] and one of the most important rivers in the UK for nature conservation. It is an important migration route and wildlife corridor, as well as a key breeding area for many nationally and internationally important species. The river supports a range of species and habitats covered by European Directives and those listed under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.[12] In Powys the river lies within the Radnorshire Environmentally Sensitive Area. Much of the lower valley is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.


The Lower Wye has been designated as a salmonid fishery under the EC Freshwater Fish Directive.[12]

The Wye was particularly famous for its large "spring" salmon that had spent three or more years at sea before returning to spawn. They used to enter the river between January and June and sometimes reached weights of over 50 pounds (23 kg), the largest recorded being 59 lb 8 oz (27.0 kg) landed after a long fight by Miss Doreen Davey from the Cowpond Pool at Winforton on 13 March 1923. The last recorded 50 lb (23 kg) rod-caught salmon from the Wye was taken in 1963 by Donald Parrish and weighed 51 lb 8 oz (23.4 kg). Since the early 2000s the spring catch has been steadily recovering and salmon of over 35 lb (16 kg) have been reported every year since 2011.


Pollution has severely affected the river; the Wye does not meet European and national standards on river health.[4][5] This has been happening for some time; a Nutrient Management Board (NMB) was established in 2014 to address the issues.[15] Pollution from chicken and dairy farms has become so bad the Wye has been used as an example of river pollution in the UK on Countryfile and in several national newspapers.[4][16][5][17]

The Wye is dying at astonishing, heartbreaking speed. When I canoed it 10 years ago, the stones were clean. Now they are so slimy that you can scarcely stand up. In hot weather, the entire river stinks of chicken sh**, from the 10 million birds being reared in the catchment..

This pollution causes algal blooms several times a year with increasing frequency and length, depleting the oxygen in the water causing fish such as brown trout, chubb and barbel as well as aquatic invertebrates and plants to suffocate to death.[16] Fish and aquatic invertebrates are the main food source for otters, kingfishers, herons, eels and other protected species.

If this goes on, we will lose everything that we treasure about the Wye. It will turn a horrible, ugly green every time it gets sunny. The fish will go, and they will be followed by our kingfishers, our dippers and our herons.

— Simon Evans, Wye and Usk Foundation[16]

Along with many other rivers the Wye is being heavily polluted by manure from the 10 million free range chickens for eggs and meat in intensive poultry units (IPUs) in Powys and Herefordshire, contaminating the Wye's tributaries.[16][17][19] As of April 2020, there were over 110 registered IPUs in Powys, each with over 40,000 birds (smaller IPUs need not be registered).[20]

In addition, runoff from dairy farms, farm slurry and silage liquor are entering the Wye. A study by the Welsh Government found that only 1% of farm slurry stores in Wales met regulations and that farms were purposely spreading slurry on fields before high rainfall, leading to increased run off into waterways.[21] An investigation by Greenpeace found that Environment Agency staff cuts from austerity had reduced pollution inspections by up to one third.[5] An internal report by the Environment Agency showed that the use of a “voluntary approach” by government was leading to increased levels of river pollution across the UK.[22] Powys County Council approved the construction of 20 new free-range chicken sheds in 2019 and as of February 2022 continues to license new chicken farms. In addition to problems with the riverine environment, this is causing air quality issues.[4][16][20] Pollution from the chicken factory farms is estimated to have killed 90% to 97% of the river’s water crowfoot beds, and 3,000 tonnes more phosphate than plants can absorb is released in the River Wye's catchment every year.[23]

In February 2022, it was declared at a meeting of the River Wye Nutrient Management Board[15] that

The River Wye will be in irreversibly worse condition within two years unless swift action is taken

— Simon Evans, Wye and Usk Foundation[24]

In March 2023, a High Court claim was brought against the Environment Agency by environmental charity River Action for failing to take action to protect the Wye from environmental pollution, after a Lancaster University study found that 60-70% of phosphates in the river come from agriculture.[25]


The Wye at Chepstow, showing the castle and the road bridge linking Monmouthshire (on the left) with Gloucestershire

The Romans constructed a bridge of wood and stone just upstream of present-day Chepstow, some remains of which were found in the river bed during an archaeological dig in 1911.[26] The River Wye is tidal from its junction with the River Severn for about 15 miles (24 km) to Bigsweir,[27] where a band of hard rock forms a natural weir across the river.[28] The tidal range on this lower section is huge, with water levels rising by up to 50 feet (15 m) on some spring tides, but despite the risks of navigating such a river, it has been used since Roman times to transport coal from the Forest of Dean, cider from Hereford, together with Italian wine, iron, stone and timber.[27]

When compared to many of the long rivers in Britain, the Wye is quite steep, with a rise of 1.93 feet per mile (0.365 m per km) between its junction with the River Severn and Monmouth, and a rise of 2.4 feet per mile (0.455 m per km) between there and Hereford. In the summer months, the river level at Hereford is 152 feet (46 m) above ordnance datum (AOD), and Hereford is about 70 miles (110 km) from the river mouth. For navigation to occur, some form of management of river levels was required. Early records are fragmentary, but it appears that the river was used to transport iron from the Forest of Dean for Edward the Confessor's ships in the 11th century, and in 1171 and 1172, iron was supplied to Henry II for his invasion of Ireland. From the 13th century, the records are clearer, and iron from forges at Bicknor, Lydbrook, Monmouth and Carey Mills was transported by river. During the reign of Edward I, a common right of navigation on the Wye was recorded, with the channel to be kept free of weirs and other obstructions. Where these already existed, they were to be demolished at the owner's expense.[29] Documents from 1561 and 1571 concerning water mills and weirs show that the river was used for navigation at the time.[30]

In 1622, a petition was raised by the counties of Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Monmouthshire, together with the city of Hereford, that the river should be cleared of obstructions that made fishing and navigation difficult. A Commission of Sewers was appointed, but seems to have done very little, since most of the weirs belonged to the king. There were seven weirs on the river in 1641, to provide water power for mills and forges. During Cromwell's Commonwealth period, proposals were made to improve the river for navigation by building flash locks at the weirs, and dredging the channel to make it deeper. Although there were arguments for and against the proposals, Sir William Sandys was appointed in 1662 to oversee making the Wye and the River Lugg navigable. He had previously worked on the Warwickshire Avon to make that navigable. Some £1,300 had already been raised in the country, but it is unclear what he did with the money.[31] He was assisted by Henry and Windsor Sandys, and they were given powers to construct a towing path, 4 feet (1.2 m) wide on both sides of the river, to allow boats to be hauled upstream. Although tolls could be charged, they also had to maintain the right of free passage which was long established on the river. Twenty Commissioners were appointed, ten from Hereford, five from Gloucester and five from Hereford. All weirs were to include an opening, so that salmon and other fish could migrate along the river.[32]

The scheme involved the construction of flash locks in channels cut to bypass the weirs, a system which Sandys had used with success on the Avon, but the Wye was a much faster flowing river, which meant that the solution was impracticable and very costly. It had been abandoned by 1668, as maintenance costs made the operation of boats unprofitable, and a new scheme, proposed by Lord Coningsby of Hampton Court, Herefordshire was to be implemented.[33] All fishing weirs and mill weirs would be bought and demolished, while Sandys locks would be abandoned. The river bed would also be deepened where necessary. The cost of buying the weirs would be raised by a tax on the county, and it was estimated that the river would be navigable for about 200 days per year. At the time there were weirs supplying six fulling mills and three corn mills at Hereford, and another nine elsewhere, at Fownhope, Hancox, Carey, Foy and Wilton. There were another nine derelict weirs above Monmouth, and five below the town.[34]

Lord Coningsby's proposals were enshrined in an Act of Parliament obtained in 1695, which authorised the County of Hereford to buy up and demolish the mills on the Wye and Lugg. All locks and weirs were to be removed, except that at New Weir forge below Goodrich, which survived until about 1815. By 1727, around £18,000 had been raised to carry out the work, and thirteen weirs in Herefordshire had been bought and removed. Some work had also been carried out on the Lugg, but much of it was damaged by flooding soon afterwards. One unexpected consequence of removing the weirs was that water levels dropped, resulting in there being a number of shoals that boats now had to negotiate.[35] Another Act of Parliament was obtained in 1727, which appointed new trustees, and allowed them to authorise the construction of mills and weirs at locations which would assist navigation.[36] In 1763, James Taylor proposed the construction of 22 weirs, each with an associated pound lock, to make the river fully navigable, but the scheme was not implemented.[37] When it looked likely that the Herefordshire and Gloucestershire Canal would not reach Hereford, there were calls to further improve the Wye. At the time, boats were hauled by gangs of ten or eleven men, but men were in short supply, and a towing path for horses was suggested. William Jessop carried out a survey, and the towing path was authorised by an Act of Parliament obtained in 1809. A company was formed to build 37 miles (60 km) of path from Lydbrook to Hereford, and to maintain ferries at five points where the path crossed from one side of the river to the other.[38]

Evidence given in Parliament during the passage of the bill stated that some 10,000 tons of coal were moved along the river to Hereford each year, with 3,000 tons of other commodities. Another 4,000 tons of lime and other goods were delivered to various points along the river. Progress on the project was rapid, and local newspapers announced the arrival of two barges in Hereford on 23 January 1811, each towed by two horses. Carriage of coal to Hereford became easier following the opening of the Severn and Wye Tramroad in 1813, which brought coal to the river bank at Bishop's Wood.[39] A steam tug was trialled on the river in 1825, but although it proved to be successful, it was sold due to the difficulty of finding suitable barges for it to tow. Passenger services became a feature of the river from 1835, with boats running between Ross, Monmouth and Chepstow, later extended to include Goodrich and Tintern.[40] The river was also navigable above Hereford, as far as Hay-on-Wye, although only when there was sufficient water, and a system of ropes and pulleys were used to allow boats to negotiate the rapids at Monnington.[41]

Money was spent several times improving the River Lugg from Leominster to its confluence with the Wye at Mordiford, but its navigation is likely to have been difficult. The Herefordshire and Gloucestershire Canal reached Hereford in 1845, providing an alternative way to supply the town with coal, and trade tailed off with the opening of the Newport, Abergavenny and Hereford Railway in 1854, and the Hereford, Ross and Gloucester Railway in the following year. After the Wye Valley Railway opened in 1876, the river ceased to be navigable above Brockweir, and as the river silted up, Tintern became the normal upper limit for navigation.[42] The river is still used by pleasure craft.

The river was unusual in that it was a Free Navigation from its source to Hay-on-Wye, a distance of 82 miles (132 km).[43] It ceased to be free after the modifications by Sandys in the 17th century, but this right was re-established by the 1695 Act, which stated:

Therefore be it enacted that the rivers Wye and Lugg may be henceforth accounted, deemed and taken to be free and common rivers for all to make use of for carrying and conveying of all passenger goods, wares and commodities by boats, barges, lighters and other vessels whatsoever.[44]

The National Rivers Authority brought a case before the High Court in 1995, to enable them to impose bylaws on the river. Shortly afterwards, they were replaced by the Environment Agency, and in 2002, the Wye Navigation Order was enacted. This confirmed the right of navigation on both the Wye and the Lugg, but established the Environment Agency as the navigation authority for the rivers. It also banned the construction of locks and weirs, so neither river is likely to be navigable by motor boats under normal circumstances.[27] Despite this, in 1989, Frank Barton and Pat Hucket successfully navigated a 124-foot (38 m) 230-ton barge up the river to Hereford.[45] Travelling time on the river was 20 hours, but this was spread over six months, as they had to wait for just the right water levels. The vessel was renamed Wye Invader during the journey.[46] In March 2019, Barton returned to the river, navigating a narrowboat called Wye Invader Two from Sharpness to Monmouth Rowing Club and back again. The trip was possible because there was about 7 feet (2.1 m) of flood water in the river, enabling the boat to pass over the weirs and obstructions.[47]

Navigation and sport[edit]

The Environment Agency is the navigation authority for the river. The normal tidal limit (NTL) of the river is Bigsweir and navigation below this point is under the control of the Gloucester Harbour Trustees as Competent Harbour Authority. There is a public right of navigation up to Hay-on-Wye,[48] and canoes are generally permitted on the next 5.5 miles (8.9 km) up to Glasbury, so long as they do not disturb anglers.[49]

A railway poster advertising the Wye Valley as a tourist destination. Date is before 1942.

The River Wye provides for canoeing and kayaking as it has sections suitable for all ranges of skills and free access all the way downstream from Hay to Hereford and Monmouth, and the tidal Wye to Chepstow and the Severn Estuary.[50] There are a wide range of canoe hire and supervised trips, as well as campsites at key points on the river. Symonds Yat has a particularly popular series of rapids that was purchased by the British Canoe Union in 2003 to preserve the rapids for recreational use, canoe trips through the rapids stop next at Monmouth.[51] There are three rowing clubs on the river at Hereford, Ross-on-Wye and Monmouth. Annual regattas are held at Ross-on-Wye and Monmouth for rowers and scullers of all abilities, next to the local rowing club. In 2017 more than 600 people took to the River Wye in inflatables ranging from dinghies to paddling pools during the event WYE FLOAT, opened by former Olympic ski jumper Eddie the Eagle.[52]

Walkers can take the Wye Valley Walk which follows the route of the River Wye from Coed Hafren, near Plynlimon, to Chepstow along a series of well-maintained way-marked paths. A viewpoint near The Biblins on the Wye is known as 'Three Counties View', the meeting place of the counties of Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Monmouthshire.


The Wye's tributaries include the river Lugg, Elan, Dulas, Irfon, Marteg, Monnow, Trothy, Ithon, Llynfi, Letton Lake, Tarennig (the Wye's first tributary) and Bidno. A fuller list is available at the relevant section of the list of rivers of Wales

2020 floods[edit]

In February 2020, Wales and parts of England endured extremely heavy rainfall from Storm Dennis, following shortly after Storm Ciara. The central part of South Wales was particularly affected. The river over-topped its banks and caused flooding in several areas, including Hay-on-Wye, Hereford, Ross-on-Wye and Monmouth. Much of Hereford was flooded, with homes inundated. Churches and leisure centres were opened to accommodate evacuated residents. The river at Monmouth reached its highest level ever recorded.[53][54]

2021 floods[edit]

In January 2021, the Wye catchment suffered flooding as a result of Storm Christoph.[55]

Cultural references[edit]

The Romantic poet William Wordsworth includes an apostrophe to the Wye in his famous poem "Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey", published in 1798 in Lyrical Ballads:

How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,
O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro' the woods,
How often has my spirit turned to thee!

Nelson travelled down the Wye in 1802, along with Lady Hamilton and her husband, Sir William Hamilton.[56] They sailed from Ross-on-Wye to Monmouth, to be greeted by a cannonade and the band of the Monmouthshire Militia playing See, the Conquering Hero Comes.[56] Nelson expressed surprise that he was known at "such a little gut of a river as the Wye".[56]

Views of the river[edit]

Bridges on the river[edit]

See also[edit]

Map all coordinates using: OpenStreetMap 
Download coordinates as: KML


  1. ^ "SSSI Citation River Wye (upper Wye)" (PDF). Natural Resources Wales. Retrieved 14 November 2020.
  2. ^ "Natural England information on AONBs and map". Natural England. Retrieved 5 October 2012.
  3. ^ "Natural England information on Wye Valley AONB". Natural England. Archived from the original on 30 August 2014. Retrieved 5 October 2012.
  4. ^ a b c d Monbiot, George (12 August 2020). "The government is looking the other way while Britain's rivers die before our eyes | George Monbiot". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 15 August 2020.
  5. ^ a b c d "River Wye pollution linked to free-range poultry farming". Countryfile.com. Retrieved 15 August 2020.
  6. ^ Richard Lovell Edgeworth; Maria Edgeworth (1816). Readings on Poetry. R. Hunter. pp. 3.
  7. ^ Izaak Walton (1833). The Complete Angler ; Or, Contemplative Man's Recreation; Being a Discourse on Rivers, Ponds, Fish and Fishing. With Lives and Notes. Peter Pauper Press. p. 249.
  8. ^ J. Thompson (12 March 2015). John Thelwall: Selected Poetry and Poetics. Springer. p. 338. ISBN 978-1-137-34483-0.
  9. ^ The Tithe map (1844)
  10. ^ Bosworth, Joseph A Dictionary of the Anglo-saxon Language (1838)
  11. ^ "Countryside Council for Wales Landscape & wildlife statement for River Wye (Upper Wye) / Afon Gwy (Gwy Uchaf)". Countryside Council for Wales. Archived from the original on 12 November 2013. Retrieved 18 August 2012.
  12. ^ a b c d "Natural England SSSI information on River Wye (Lower Wye) or Afon Gwy (Gwy Isaf) SDdGA – citation, maps and unit details". Natural England. Retrieved 18 August 2012.
  13. ^ "Information on River Wye Special Area of Conservation designation". DEFRA. Retrieved 20 September 2012.
  14. ^ "Joint Nature Conservation Committee Listing of Special Areas of Conservation". DEFRA. Retrieved 20 September 2012.
  15. ^ a b "Guidance- Nutrient Management Plan: River Wye". www.gov.uk. 8 October 2014. Retrieved 10 February 2022.
  16. ^ a b c d e McKie, Robin (20 June 2020). "'It's like pea soup': poultry farms turn Wye into wildlife death trap". The Observer. ISSN 0029-7712. Retrieved 15 August 2020.
  17. ^ a b Ungoed-Thomas, Jon. "Free-range egg farms choking life out of the Wye". The Times. ISSN 0140-0460. Retrieved 15 August 2020.
  18. ^ "RIVERCIDE live documentary [LIVE VERSION] with George Monbiot, Charlotte Church, B Zephaniah". www.youtube.com. 14 July 2021. Retrieved 10 February 2022.
  19. ^ Ecotipus (22 September 2019). "Open Letter: Intensive Poultry Units Pose Serious Public Health Risk". Ecotipus. Retrieved 15 August 2020.
  20. ^ a b Colley, Claire (7 April 2020). "Life in the 'poultry capital' of Wales: enough is enough, say overwhelmed residents". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 15 August 2020.
  21. ^ "Welsh slurry contractors say regulation is required on spreading". Fly Fishing & Fly Tying. Retrieved 15 August 2020.
  22. ^ "Axe falls on dairy sector". Fly Fishing & Fly Tying. Retrieved 15 August 2020.
  23. ^ "Factory farming is turning this beautiful British river into an open sewer | George Monbiot". The Guardian. 10 June 2022. Retrieved 12 June 2022.
  24. ^ Gavin McEwan (8 February 2022). "Race against time to stop River Wye being 'a sewer ..." Retrieved 10 February 2022 – via pressreader.com.
  25. ^ Jones, Branwen (15 March 2023). "High Court review to look at River Wye pollution". WalesOnline. Retrieved 19 March 2023.
  26. ^ Waters 1977.
  27. ^ a b c Cumberlidge 2009, p. 340.
  28. ^ Cohen 1956, p. 83.
  29. ^ Cohen 1956, p. 86.
  30. ^ Cohen 1956, pp. 86–87.
  31. ^ Hadfield 1967, pp. 184–185.
  32. ^ Cohen 1956, p. 87.
  33. ^ Cohen 1956, pp. 88–89.
  34. ^ Cohen 1956, p. 89.
  35. ^ Hadfield 1967, pp. 185–186.
  36. ^ Cohen 1956, p. 94.
  37. ^ Cohen 1956, p. 95.
  38. ^ Hadfield 1967, p. 187.
  39. ^ Hadfield 1967, p. 188.
  40. ^ Hadfield 1967, pp. 188–189.
  41. ^ Hadfield 1967, p. 189.
  42. ^ Hadfield 1967, pp. 189–190.
  43. ^ Cumberlidge 2009, p. 339.
  44. ^ Cohen 1956, p. 90.
  45. ^ Wright 1990, pp. 78–79.
  46. ^ Barton 2019.
  47. ^ Barton 2019a.
  48. ^ "Wye canoe?" (PDF). Environment Agency. Upstream of Hay Bridge, the river can provide some good canoeing water but there is no established public right of navigation.
  49. ^ "Canoeing in the Area". Hay-on-Wye Tourist Information Bureau. Archived from the original on 24 January 2021. Retrieved 30 November 2013.
  50. ^ "Boating along the River Wye". Waterscape. Archived from the original on 17 April 2012. Retrieved 10 April 2012.
  51. ^ "River rapids sold to canoeists". BBC News. 15 March 2003. Retrieved 22 May 2010.
  52. ^ Phillips, Jessica (14 August 2017). "Photos: 2017 Wye Float". Hereford Times.
  53. ^ "Storm Dennis: Herefordshire flooding updates". Hereford Times. 18 February 2020.
  54. ^ "Storm Dennis: Flood warnings as River Wye reaches record high". BBC News. 18 February 2020.
  55. ^ "POTD: A comical corgi bloodbath and a miracle gas blast escape ...floodwater in Hereford..." www.telegraph.co.uk. 22 January 2021. Retrieved 10 February 2022.
  56. ^ a b c Kissack 1975, p. 251.


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]