Whitewater rafting isn’t usually the kind of day out you get when you live near London, but thanks to the Olympics it’s now on the cards for under £50. The new Lee Valley White Water Centre has opened on the outskirts of north London, just outside the M25, and offers an amazing chance for amateurs to ride Grade 4 white water after only a brief tutorial.
When you see it, the course looks a little like a combination of Los Angeles storm drain and a Bond Villain’s futuristic lair. A 300m concrete channel that weaves around the site with a 5.5m drop from start to finish, the course takes canoeists and rafters through several gates and waterfalls created with movable blocks. The blocks are switched around to engineer peak performance from the water and give you the most thrilling ride you can think of.
Paskell Blackwell, the captain of the GB rafting team, describes the course as “Exhilarating. It’s constantly hitting you, and there’s no time to build up for the next section. Just to pass on the experience to everyone is incredible.”
Each session begins with a safety tutorial from the instructor, who’ll be steering the craft and shouting commands from the back as you surge through the water. Confidence in the water is essential, as falling in is a regular occurrence. It feels a bit like going through a washing machine, but even though you’re disoriented, you need to flip on your back with feet out forwards to brace against the impacts you can expect as your body is driven on to the many blocks hidden beneath the foam.
“We’ve had to up the safety training here because it’s such a dynamic course,” says centre manager Simon Ricketts. “Most UK rapids are grade 3, and we’re grade 4 – with 15,000 cubic litres of water flowing down every second, it’s the same grade and feel as we’ll have for the Olympics.”
Rafting technique sounds simpler on paper than it is in practice. You sit on the very edge of the raft with one leg tucked underneath you and the other wedged into a fold of the raft. This is all the stability you can expect. Both hands are on the paddle at all times – taking a paddle in the chops is the most common cause of injury.
We enjoyed four runs on the course in our session, with the final one being the most catastrophic as the raft flipped nose-first into the falls known as ‘Jaws Drop’. As soon as it did, the water sucked the raft down and all seven crew got to know the course intimately. When you’re under, it’s a dizzying maelstrom of limbs, oars and the worrying fact that you have no idea if the raft is right above you or not as you try and get to the surface. It’s probably the most fun you’ll get on a wet day in Britain, and it’s a snip at the price. Even though the centre will be closed for the Olympics, book your tickets now: once they reopen in September, they’ll be rammed.
Half-day sessions of up to four runs cost £49 per person. Lee Valley White Water Centre, Station Road, Waltham Cross, Hertfordshire EN9 1AB. Rafting tickets start from £49 from www.gowhitewater.co.uk or 08456 770 606.