Want to See London the Socially Distant Way? Try Kayaking the Canals
(Bloomberg) -- It was around week five of lockdown, and I was perched on our London apartment’s canal-side balcony as a youngish couple, sun-kissed and laughing, floated past in what looked like an inflatable dinghy.
I pleaded with my wife.
All right, she said.
A few weeks and some $140 later, we were off in our very own two-person inflatable kayak, heading south on the River Lea toward the Thames. We had beer, crackers, and no real experience of paddling.
Our plan was to follow the river south from our neighborhood, Tottenham Hale (two stops from the northern end of the Victoria underground line) down to Hackney Wick, aka the heart of East London cool, a distance of some four miles. It was a warm, cloudy morning; after a momentary spell of clashing oars—and subsequently clashing opinions—we settled into the equivalent of a leisurely stroll.
The kayak itself was an Intex Challenger K2, chosen for its glowing reviews on Amazon, at which we obtained it with two clicks. Using any type of boat—even an inflatable kayak—on U.K. waterways requires a license, which we bought online through British Canoeing for about $55. (Lesson to the wise: Check your local policies before heading on the water, especially if a Covid-19 lockdown is in place.)
Kayaking on a little-known urban river isn’t what you might expect. First, there are the birds, including, in rough, ascending order of size: swifts, moorhens, coots, pigeons, mallards, seagulls, cormorants, Canada and Egyptian geese, swans (and their signets), and even herons.
Second, amid the city sprawl, there’s still a lot of green. The riverbank is lined with the likes of weeping willows and silver birches, and there are parks and marshlands in the distance.
We quickly leave Tottenham Hale’s boxy council flats behind and enter what feels like a much older section of the river; large stone slabs have appeared under the towpath and form part of a bridge, and there’s an 18th century waterworks on our left. Trees loom on either side, and the river’s surface is strewn with white blossoms.While it’s nowhere we haven’t been before, our new waterborne perspective somehow makes it seem a different place.
The Floating World
If trying to ogle apartments from sidewalks is a common pastime of city living, ogling other boats from our kayak quickly became our floating equivalent. The variety of vessels moored on the banks was like shoe section at Harrods, ranging widely in colors and styles and eccentricity.
One particularly striking specimen is decorated with luminous tires, psychedelic artwork, mannequins, and a Hellraiser-style mask on the back. Another’s roof features a jumbled row of plants, an upside-down wheelbarrow with a bright yellow wheel, and a little Buddha statue, complete with a beanie.
Others sport various chairs, dining tables, bikes, mini-gardens, solar panels, chopped wood, a clotheshorse—all the day-to-day of people’s private lives put out for the world to see. Painted on their sides are names that range from the cinematic Die Hard to the literary Dorian Gray to the eerie Isn’t This Pleasant to the jarringly normal James. An entire world easily glossed over from any other vantage, whether towpath or balcony.
And that’s just the narrow boats. There are also motorboats and a mini-ship with sails and a wheel for steering that look like something out of Pirates of the Caribbean. Every now and again, we encounter windowless, orange blob-like things that look as if the Martians have just landed and taken up residence. (It turns out these are old lifeboats from oil rigs).
London is certainly not the only city with a thriving water culture, and kayaking is not the only way to scratch the surface. In cities from Paris to New York and Amsterdam, it’s possible to rent houseboats on Airbnb—though, having contacted some of the owners, it’s not necessarily possible to sail them.
In some areas, it’s possible to rent canal boats or take them out on guided tours. In upstate New York, for instance, socially distanced ride-alongs on one of the last remaining U.S. Mail boats can be booked via Mid-Lakes Navigation, while the urban company Manhattan Kayaks has Covid-19-friendly policies for rentals and day trips.
In our kayak, the cityscape is changing again, this time into industrial Hackney. Vast, factory-like buildings rear up on either side, and part of London’s Olympic stadium appears further in the distance. The graffiti seems to have changed, too: It’s high up on buildings now, as well as on the walls and bridges. Giant artworks burst with color reflected on the river’s barely rippling surface.
Being so close to the surface changes your perspective. The river becomes its own landscape, rather than just one feature of some bigger view. Geese and swans are at eye-level; you’re very much in their world.
This, I think, was the best thing about our lockdown trip. Because when we got home, even though we’d traveled only a few miles from our front door, it felt as if we’d really been somewhere.
What You’ll Need to Be a Boater
The Apps to Download: British boaters shouldn’t leave home without Open Canal Map. This handy navigation tool, free for both iPhone and Android, points out fuel sellers, bridges, towpaths, and other useful info; it also helps identify the route with the fewest locks. With staycations allowed in England starting on July 4, the Canal River Trust’s website is also helpful for planning weekend-long explorations.
A Clutch Accessory: A waterproof pouch is essential for keeping phones (and wallets) dry. This PVC pouch by Travelon is functional and utilitarian, and comes in your choice of five colors. ($15)
Shoes to Match: If meandering down a quiet river sounds like luxury, dress the part with an impeccably constructed, non-slip boat shoe from John Lobb. The classic details and contrast stitching are as sophisticated as one can get. ($1420)
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