Abstract Although the public perception of landscape aesthetics should be considered in environmental management, previous studies of riverscapes have given insufficient attention to rivers in woodland areas. In such woodland areas it is desirable to know how the unmanaged river channels are regarded aesthetically, and whether the presence of coarse woody debris affects the perception of riverscape aesthetics. This study used carefully selected photographs of type sites representing different types of woodland channel, together with some channels affected by urbanization, all in south-central England. After an initial pilot study, a data set was obtained from a total of 199 largely student responses to a set of 20 photographic slides in three groups of geography undergraduates, psychology undergraduates and research students and staff. In addition to analysis of these responses, the slides were rated by two independent operators according to their natural character, and the content of each of the 20 photographs was analysed quantitatively so that a regression analysis could relate the quantitative variables established for each photograph to the reaction of the respondents. The most natural woodland channels containing debris are not the most highly rated, and, according to the regression equations, the assessment of channel colour, reflecting water quality and the percentage of channelized bank are the two best single predictors of overall scenic aesthetic preference. In woodland areas, the general preference is for channels which do not have in-channel debris, but the advantages of retaining such debris should be considered in channel management strategies and an improvement in the public appreciation of the significance of such debris in woodland river channels could preferably be made.