A few weeks ago Ellie & I went canoeing on the Basingstoke Canal near London with Colin from Go London. The experience takes about 4 hours, including 3 hours on the water. It costs a very reasonable £40. We were joined by two friends of ours and about 10 other outdoor enthusiasts. The train from Waterloo to Ash Vale takes 50 minutes. From there it’s another 30 minutes’ walk to the Canal Café in Mytchett.
Colin and his partner had already off-loaded the canoes, prepared the swim vests, dry bags, and paddles. Only a couple of people in our group had done some proper canoeing before. Most had never done any paddling. Luckily our instructor made everyone feel at ease right away, cracking a few jokes here and there. We learned a bit about safety, canal etiquette, the equipment, and paddling technique.
Getting the canoes to the canal
Less than 15 minutes later we were grouped into pairs. Many of us, like Ellie and me, our two friends, and others, had arrived in pairs of two anyway. Because the canoes are rather heavy, two groups of two paired up in order to get the canoes from the trailer to the nearby canal. It is much easier for four people to carry those boats than it would be for two. As soon as one canoe had been placed on the embankment next to the canal, the group returned to pick up the other canoe.
Getting onto the water
Next, Colin gave a few more instructions on do’s and don’ts. Then we put the canoes onto the water, one after another, and slid onto our seats from the concrete edge of the embankment. I’ll be frank. After my white water kayaking experience where my dip in 4C/39F cold water had left me with a mild cold shock, I was a bit anxious. This water was much warmer, probably around 11C/52F, but once again we were not wearing wet or dry suits, just our regular personal waterproofs and buoyancy aids.
30 years is a long time
It had been a long time since I’d done some Canadian style canoeing. More than 30 years, to be precise. My dad had taken the family out on about two dozen canoeing trips when my sister and I were kids, and it was always fun. In my memory, canoes were extremely sturdy on the water, almost impossible to tip over. When we had sat down on the seats and started to paddle away from the embankment, I realised that the canoe felt quite shaky. Not in a way that was too worrying, just a lot more shaky than I had remembered from my childhood days.
Getting comfortable on the water
Ellie, who had never done any canoeing, was a bit nervous, too, at first. She did of course know about my recent track record of falling into the water at every opportunity. However, after just five minutes or so we both started feeling quite comfortable on the water. We did press our legs against the sides of the canoe or the seats we were sitting on in order to keep ourselves stable in our positions, but really more to be doubly safe rather than as a matter of necessity.
On our way to Ash Vale
When everyone had hopped into their canoes without major incidents, our instructor gave us a few more pointers. One pair in our group was struggling a little bit at the beginning, so for the following ten minutes, Colin spent his time assisting them and getting them up to speed. His partner was leading the pack towards Ash Vale. Just like Colin, she was riding a two-seater canoe by herself.
The scenery is very beautiful and changes quickly. You pass under bridge arches, by a pub with large outdoor seating area, then you arrive at Mytchett Lake. Despite the fact that you’re in a densely populated area, most of the time you don’t see any buildings, or maybe one or two. The whole experience feels very much like being out in the wild, even though the next gas station or supermarket might be just 200 metres away from where you are.
Lunch at Ash Wharf
When we arrived at Ash Wharf in Ash Vale, we got off our canoes and purchased some fish and chips. In hindsight, it would have been better to bring our own food or buy a sandwich at the local supermarket, as the fish and chips were so bad, we threw most of it away. Obviously not Go London’s or Colin’s fault. It was nice getting to know the group a bit better while we were sitting on the embankment next to our boats and gobbling down our food.
It’s not rocket science, or is it
As always with Go London, everyone had an interesting story to tell. One guy I got to talk with, said he was from French Guiana. So I said, isn’t that where they shoot rockets into the sky. He goes, yeah, that’s where I work.
Mixing it up
About half an hour after we had disembarked, we jumped back onto our canoes and started to make our way back to the Canal Café. In order to be able to properly catch up with at least one of our two friends, we decided to switch positions. Ellie joined her girlfriend on the one canoe, while I was pairing up with my mate.
The waterway had gotten a whole lot busier and at times it felt almost crowded. At some stage, a group of twenty kayakers, who seemed to be rather serious about their business, passed by us. We also encountered plenty of stand-up paddlers and other canoeists.
On a number of occasions Colin told us about the wildlife around us and we did some bird spotting. We were able to see a few cygnets, moorhens, ducks, and geese. The lampreys, which are some of my favourite creatures and known to inhabit these dark waters, avoided detection on this occasion.
Choose your friends wisely
Towards the end, my buddy got a bit overly excited and over-confident and stood up in the canoe doing funky dance moves. For some reason I got reminded of my swim in the Derwent a few weeks earlier and pleaded with my friend to keep it cool and sit down. Luckily no major disasters happened and he did sit down again eventually. As a matter of fact, we’ve decided to stand-up paddle the River Thames from its source (well, as close as it gets if you don’t want to walk around the shallows half the time: Lechlade) to London in mid-July. Fingers crossed he doesn’t come up with more shenanigans. I’ll keep you posted.
Ellie and I both greatly enjoyed our canoeing session. 4.25 out of 5 in our book.
Looking for more fun things to do in and around London? Check out our reviews of the Thames Rocket, the London Helicopter, Lock’d Escape Rooms, Aquatic Jetpacks (near Poole), North London Skydiving (near Cambridge), and the French baking course at Bread Ahead.