The 10 longest rivers in the UK

Drone shot of the River Severn winding through the Bristol countryside
The River Severn travels through four different counties and two countries before ending up in the Bristol Channel | Shutterstock

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Rivers are vital life sources that have supported human civilisations across the planet for thousands of years. They are also an incredibly pretty part of nature, peacefully meandering through the countryside and providing an ecosystem for countless species of flora and fauna.

The UK is blessed with a network of approximately 1,500 rivers that flow through every corner of the country. They come in all different shapes and sizes, but the longest can often be the most impressive.

Here we count down the top 10 longest rivers in the UK.

River Nene

None of our chart-topping rivers are under 100 miles (161 km) long, but the River Nene only just crosses the threshold. At approximately 100 miles in length, it forms the border between Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. The River Nene is home to several watermills, one of which, Hardwater, was used as a hiding place by the ill-fated Thomas A Becket in 1164.

River Spey

The first Scottish river to grace this page, the River Spey, is 106 miles (170 km) long and, from its source to its destination, drops 380 metres, making it the fastest flowing river in Scotland as well. Interestingly, polymath Claudius Ptolemy made a map of the river (which he called 'Tuesis') in 150 AD. However, whisky lovers will prefer the fact that more Scotch is produced along the banks of the Spey, than anywhere else in Scotland. Slàinte Mhath!

River Clyde

The second of three Scottish Rivers and the eighth longest at 109 miles (175 km) is the River Clyde, which famously runs through Glasgow. Renowned for its shipbuilding (the QE2 was built here for example) the river also has a long history of human settlement dating back to Palaeolithic times. In more recent years the first of the Clyde’s fifteen bridges was built in Glasgow in 1285. Formerly a wooden structure, it’s now the site of Victoria Bridge, located at the end of Stockwell Street in the city centre.

River Tay

Scotland’s longest river at 117 miles (284 km) is, by volume of discharge, the largest river in the United Kingdom. Sadly, it’s become synonymous with the Tay Bridge Disaster of 1879. As many as 75 passengers onboard a steam locomotive perished when high winds brought down the girder bridge. To add insult to injury, the author of The Tay Disaster, William McGonagall was notorious for awful poetry.

River Ouse/Ure

A bit of a controversial entry at the fifth largest river in the UK, because technically it’s two rivers that are joined together to make 129 miles (207 km) of one single river. Either way, the length of the Ouse is about 52 miles (83 km) so we can assume the Ure is in the region of 77 miles (123 km). But…

River Great Ouse

…please note the addition of ‘Great’ to separate this Ouse from the one(s?) above. Confusingly four rivers go by the name of Ouse because ‘ouse’ derives from the Anglo Saxon ‘usa’, meaning 'water'. For clarity, the namesakes are River Little Ouse (Norfolk and Suffolk), River Ouse (East and West Sussex), and River Ouse (Yorkshire), and the one connected to the River Ure. The River Great Ouse earned the adjective because it’s 143 miles long (230 km) and crosses five counties in the eastern part of the UK.

River Wye

With that out the way, we can focus on the relatively straightforward River Wye, which is 155 miles (249 km) long and has a sizable portion tracing the border between England and Wales. Unfortunately, it’s arguably the most polluted river on this list as well: once it was one of the best salmon fishing rivers in the UK. It’s also home to Tintern Abbey, built in 1131. It still stands as a ruin and has inspired countless artists, notably 18th century heavyweights like JMW Turner and Thomas Gainsborough.

River Trent

Into the top three now and the metaphorical medal positions. The River Trent is 185 miles (297 km) long and runs through no less than six counties. It has many familiar tributaries - River Derwent, River Idle, River Leen, River Sow, and the River Tame - and is also joined by an old friend, the Yorkshire branch of the River Ouse at Trent Falls, to form the Humber Estuary that flows into the North Sea. Over 80 bridges cross the Trent including the Swarkestone Bridge, the longest stone bridge in the UK, and the lovely Trent Bridge, which is also the given name of Nottingham’s cricket ground. Howzat!

River Thames

Old Father Thames - to coin the title of Gracie Fields’ 1938 song - began life in the Jurassic Period between 170 and 140 million years ago. The source of the Thames lies in Trewsbury Mead, Gloucestershire, and it ends between Whitstable, Kent, and Foulness Point, Essex.

At 220 miles long (354 km) crossed by over 200 bridges, the River Thames is the longest river in England and was once home to King Henry III and his polar bear. Henry was given the unusual present by Haakon IV Haakonsson the King of Norway and on hot days, when it wasn’t residing in the Tower of London, the bear would take a cooling dip in the Thames. Of course, this was many years before 1858 when the Thames was called 'The Big Stink' such were the levels of raw sewage in the water.

River Severn

It’s 224 miles (360 km) long, making it the longest river in the UK and, while we’re at it, the most voluminous. The River Severn begins in the Cambrian Mountains in mid-Wales and is fed by twenty-one tributaries before winding up in the Bristol Channel. Along the way it has its very own waterfall in Hafren Forest, charmingly named ‘Severn Break its Neck’, and it passes through four counties, Powys in Wales, as well as Shropshire, Worcestershire, and Gloucester in England.

The Severn Bridge, opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1966, is the second-longest bridge in the UK (the Bromford Viaduct in Birmingham is the first) and it links Severn Beach in England with Newport in Wales. Quick note, we have the Anglo Saxons to blame for the name ‘Severn'. The Romans called it ‘River Sabrina’, which sounds a lot more enchanting.

Finally, it would be remiss to not acknowledge the shortest three rivers in the UK, though there does seem some debate about this. As it stands (and don’t write in) it’s the Cuckmere River in Sussex at 5 miles (8 km) the River Bain in Lincolnshire at 4 miles (6.4 km) and, last but by no means least, the River Morar on the West Coast of Scotland at barely a kilometre long. Bless it.