‘Lean left! Left! Hard left!’ shouted our guide. Our raft, it seemed, had other ideas, and in a flash the boat had flipped and I was plunging through rapids. Just dodging some sharp-looking rocks and body-surfing a raging torrent I found my footing and dragged myself to the side. I’d swallowed about half the river but was laughing hard. It was the absurdity that got me. I wasn’t on the Zambezi at Victoria Falls, or New Zealand’s Karawau River, but in Waltham Cross, right in the middle of London’s commuter belt. And it is here that the Canoe Slalom events for the 2012 Olympic Games will be held. Best of all, it’s one of the few Olympic venues mere mortals like you and I can have a go in, too.
Located north of London proper, the Lee (or Lea, no-one’s really sure) Valley doesn’t tend to attract too many tourists. A trickle may come to admire the nearby town of Waltham Cross’ Eleanor Cross, one of three surviving from the original twelve monuments erected by Edward I along the funeral procession of his Queen in 1291. Otherwise there’s just leafy, green scenery around the waterways of Hertfordshire to stroll around, popular with families, runners and dog-walkers.
The newly opened Lee Valley White Water Centre looks set to change all that. It’s easy to reach – journey time is 40 minutes by train from London’s Liverpool Street station. The first and only Olympic venue to open before the games, and home to the Great Britain Canoe Slalom team, it is as visually striking as it is thrilling to ride. The Olympic course runs for 300m and has a 5.5m descent over the length of the route. I was excited to have the chance to have a go.
Before the soaking, the briefing. There were to be eight of us in a raft, and each was given a wetsuit, that most flattering of garments, and a full safety briefing. Then, after an initial dunking masquerading as a man overboard-type drill we paddled into position onto the ramp up to the head of the course. This felt a little like the start of a rollercoaster, and we were soon off, flying through rapids and, as you might expect, getting utterly drenched.
After one run I was thinking future ones could feel samey, but one of my team decided to liven things up by leaning the wrong way at a crucial moment, sending us all tipping out of the boat. After that four of our team decided they’d had enough, leaving the rest of us on the final two runs to surf, scoot and crash around the course. At one point the British rafting team, testing the course out, also went flying, which made us all feel reasonably hardcore.
If London is short on one thing, it’s a waterpark with slides and chutes. You won’t find that here, but it’s definitely the most fun you can have in a wetsuit close to the capital. Best of all, you’ll be smashing through waves made by 2012’s Olympic heroes.
Lee Valley White Water Centre is now open to the public. Advance bookings are necessary. A raft adventure lasts around two hours, including getting kitted out with a wetsuit, buoyancy jacket and helmet, a safety briefing and four runs on the Olympic course. www.gowhitewater.co.uk
Here are some shots of the Eleanor Cross: