Words by Sam Haddad
I’m in the centre of London. It’s evening rush hour on one of the first sunny days of the year but I can’t hear a thing. No traffic, no street beer din, no synched steps of business folk rushing for the train… I can breathe. The air here has rarely felt so clean; I’ve never seen the city with so much sky.
We’re paddling west with the tide from Limehouse to London Bridge. My musical earworm is the theme tune from Hawaii Five-O, the notes matching each paddle stroke. Not that this experience is vaguely tropical, though the weather is warm, but because a passing river cruiser sent a small set our way at the start.
It was nothing compared to the kind of waves you get in the ocean but we enjoyed the rise and the drop. A hint of chop on the Thames suggested adventure, a kind of out-of-the ordinary experience you rarely get on a Monday night in the city after work.
The Night Kayak is just one of many trips organised by Secret Adventures, a London-based company, which Madoc Threipland started last year. Threipland was back in London after working as a volunteer for Raleigh International in Africa and experiencing the usual life comedown you get after a big adventure.
As a New Year’s Resolution he bought a page on MeetUp and posted some adventures, the first of which was a moonlit cycle ride from Hackney to Hertfordshire. In just two weeks he had 300 members and events were selling out quicker than he could post them.
A year and a half on and the growth of Secret Adventures has been such that he’s given up his job. Trips have included narrowboat picnics, skinny dips, swimming to secret islands, wild camping in a forest, they even did their first trip abroad, an Arctic wilderness adventure.
I asked why he thought the response was so crazy? “I think people wanted real experiences and to meet real people. Facebook wasn’t enough…”
The cynic in me wonders whether filling a Facebook or Instagram feed with cool and original pictures isn’t the real growth driver of Secret Adventures. I suggest this to Threipland, who says: “Of course some of it is bragging rights, at first maybe, but on the trips you see people get really into it. They act like kids again. They get intimidate with a load of strangers, strangers they would have completely ignored if they’d been on the tube.”
“And they like the mystery. The idea of doing something new and exciting; getting an experience they’ve never had before.”
I know what he means. I’ve lived here most of my life but from the front of our two-man kayak, I’m seeing London as I’ve never seen it before. The split-skyline, the crazy amount of offices with river views, and flats (why aren’t you all on your balconies the whole time!?). How Canary Wharf actually looks quite small and insignificant from this low perspective, but the Shard still looks huge and scary…
As we paddle the curve we’re reminded the Thames doesn’t run straight. We see it splash under buildings. And when we’re under the magnificence of Tower Bridge or alongside the Tower of London or even passing an old wooden stanchion that appears to serve no purpose other than to make us think about history, I try to picture how the world would have looked when those things were being built.
We pass exclusive river-boat moorings and the largest floating squat in London, we see a semi-naked guy in a spa and get shouted at by a hobo. We are waved at and photographed many times by people who perhaps presume we’re an elite kayak squad until they see our slight ineptitude close up.
Not that kayaking is technical or difficult to pick up, even if you haven’t done it before, but some of the routes we take are narrow and the currents can pull you slightly off course leading to some comedy correcting manoeuvres. Our guide Alfie helpfully reassures us that none of his groups have ever capsized.
He also tells us the Thames is really clean, home to over 600 species, and it’s only the silt that makes it look dirty. This is good news as I seem to be scooping much of it into our kayak. Though he says you wouldn’t want to be in it after a storm, as it’s the run off from the drains, which is the problem. And the swirling currents I’d imagine.
We hardly see any rubbish at all, aside from a couple of shorelines that are a bit messy. Trashboats travel up and down the river taking out the debris. They must have missed the dead dog, which we pass though, that was a bit dark! Alfie looked genuinely surprised and apologetic about it. “I’ve never seen that before, look away!’ he says.
The most adrenaline-pumping part of the kayak comes at the midpoint where we have to cross the currents of the Thames to kayak back east with the tide. The light is getting dusk-like so we arm up with nightlights and time our run in between the cruisers, paddling with all our hearts towards an ‘Eat’ café on the other side. We’d been close to the bank the whole way, so being in the centre of the river feels quite exposed. It’s a relief when we make it.
We paddle past HMS Belfast under a peach-melba sky; by the time we reach the Mayflower pub we’re kayaking in the dark. It’s a mad experience, a little eerie but definitely in a good way. Though my arms are starting to feel like treacle so I’m glad when we stop for a break. One boat at a time, we park up under one of London’s oldest riverside pubs and climb up the wooden fire escape steps for our supper.
Even though we’ve been wearing waterproofs I’ve managed to soak myself right through so I’m glad to see the pub provides a box of blankets so we can sit outside and enjoy the river at night.
We drink ale while waiting for our pie and mash, and the group, a mix of locals, tourists and out-of-towners, is clearly frothing from the experience. Alfie tells us the winter versions of this trip include mulled wine and mince pies.
We inhale our food then get back in the boats for the final push home. It’s a short paddle, and when we cross the river this time it’s a lot more mellow. At the end we beach our kayaks and jump out into the night. Heading back to the DLR station, the group chats like old friends about how the city seems different now. How long that’ll last we don’t know.