The joy of canoeing: River Lee Navigation

Paddle through a fascinating blend of old industrial landscapes and nature-rich habitats, as this bustling stretch of water wends its way south towards the Thames.

London calling

 

It’s your new eye level that seduces you the most. Floating low down, almost at the water’s surface, gives you a moorhen’s perspective of the waterscape – it feels grander and more mysterious. Plus you get immediate and intimate encounters with skittering shoals of roach and dancing damselflies.

I’m talking about canoeing. Last year I bought a three-seat inflatable canoe so that my wife, my son and I could embark on adventures afloat. Our local canal – the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal, which has almost no locks – was the obvious place to enjoy our first voyages.

Inflatable canoes are very portable: ours folds into a backpack and can be inflated in about 10 minutes. It’s made of tough, reinforced synthetic rubbers and has separate chambers so if you get a puncture, you have plenty of time to get ashore safely.

We normally launch from beneath a bridge where the towpath creates a natural mini-quay. My son, who likes to be chief lookout at the bow, gets in first and then it’s a bit of a shuffle to get aboard without making the craft lurch wildly. But once the whole crew has embarked, the little boat feels solid. A picnic cool bag goes at the stern – and makes an extra backrest for me, and the Kelly Kettle and water bottle go at the front. I’d love to put a little tent aboard but we’re not quite at that stage yet.

And then we’re off, settling into a rhythm of paddling – usually after a few raised words about who is out of time and who exactly is doing the steering. We have now agreed that whoever is in the rear gets to steer – which is, apparently, how everyone else does it. In our first voyage, we tended to zig-zag along the canal but now we can move in a relatively straight line, water positively surging beneath the bow.

With trees arching above and the banks gliding by – towpath on one side, trees and wildness on the other – it is the gentlest of safaris. We ghost softly past waterfowl while a wren sings above us from a canalside oak and spotted flycatchers making darting flights over the water to snaffle insects. The boy reports shoals of fish making way before us. Occasionally a heron lifts itself unhappily from the water margins but we’ve yet to see a kingfisher.

The boy’s other main job is to keep an eye out for bigger boats. As soon as he hears or sees one, we pull in to the bank, in clear view and make sure we are seen. There’s plenty of space to pass and we never feel in danger. In the stern, I have to be aware of boats creeping up behind us.

Occasionally we stop paddling altogether and just drift, listening to birdsong and waving and saying hello to the very few walkers and cyclists who pass on the towpath. At this point, the lookout generally needs a sandwich or a hard-boiled egg to keep his wits sharp but the crew’s goal is to find a perfect landing spot for a picnic.

Finally we discover a little sheep-mown meadow running down to the canal and we moor, shuffling out sideways and tying up the canoe securely. All of us have a stretch and feel rather smug about the two miles we have paddled in the past 45 minutes. Then the lookout is sent to find twigs, dry grass and bracken so we can light the kettle – and the skipper and first mate have one more discussion about exactly who is skipper and who is first mate. Tea beside a canal after a voyage of discovery tastes quite perfect. As do our sandwiches.

After our leisurely picnic, the lookout catches a few sticklebacks in the shallows with the net we’ve brought and we return to the boat and gently paddle back to our home port beneath the bridge. Deflating and packing up the canoe is very quick and soon there is no trace of our waterborne adventure, save for beaming faces and some wet socks.

River Lee Navigation: Hackney Marshes to Tottenham
The River Lee Navigation carves a fascinating waterway through old industrial landscapes and joyfully wildlife-rich habitats as it wends its way south to the Thames. The Lee links the Thames with Hertford and Bishops Stortford (via the River Stort) and you can explore a serene lock-free stretch between Tottenham and Hackney Marsh and the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park – with herons, mallards and swans for company. The eastern bank is the wilder of the two and, after the endless football fields of Hackney Marsh, becomes something altogether wilder at the old sewage works (now the Waterworks Centre Nature Reserve) and the impressive Walthamstow Marshes and the Wetlands, London’s largest and newest nature reserve. This is a great place to spot wetland birds all year round but hums with warblers, dragonflies and kingfishers in spring and summer. Wildflowers abound. For tired paddlers there are excellent cafés and pubs along the route, especially in Springfield Park and at the Walthamstow Wetlands visitor centre.

Canoeing and kayaking on the Trust’s waterways
Exploring our canals and rivers by canoe can help you get fit, closer to nature and allows you to experience our waterways from a totally new angle. Head to our website for your guide to getting started. In order to use your boat on the canal network, you will also need to purchase a waterways licence, which you can buy directly from our website.

Safety on the water
A buoyancy aid is essential for small children, even strong swimmers. Keep alert at all times – the canal is often narrow and narrowboats, while not swift, are big and heavy. Make sure you are seen and move well out of the way. And don’t forget to look behind regularly. Keep a whistle and a torch on board to signal to other boats if needed. Never enter locks in a canoe.

Christine Rösch