Beyond the bright lights of London lies a city ripe for adventure

Your genitals might go numb and you may have to skip a fence or two, but wild adventures abound in London. Gavin Haines finds out more on the River Lea.

There’s been a pile-up on the River Lea, and I’m in the thick of it. A collision with another canoe has sent me spinning across the water and into the path of other paddlers – there’s a dull thud as fibreglass hits fibreglass. In the distance I hear the perpetrators giggling. There will be revenge.

Of all the places you might expect to have a wild adventure, a canalised river in East London probably isn’t one of them – and that’s precisely why I’m here. 

“It’s about finding adventure in unexpected places,” explains Madoc Threipland, founder of Secret Adventures, a London-based travel company that organised tonight’s escapade. “People always assume they have to get away from the city to find adventure, or get on a plane, but they don’t.”

“It might mean skipping over a fence.”

To prove his point Madoc has spent the last 12 months arranging adventures like these in and around London, organising anything from winter skinny-dipping in Regent’s Park (no thanks) to camping on deserted islands in an Essex lake. Most of the trips are kosher, but as Madoc says: “sometimes it might mean skipping over a fence.”

Tonight’s trip from Limehouse Basin to the Crate Brewery in Hackney Wick is all above board though, and there are 36 canoeists of varying abilities tackling the 6km (3.7-mile) paddle. Eugene Lim, a Malaysian techie living London, has the misfortune of being paired with me in a two-man canoe. It’s his first adventure and, if I keep steering us into others, possibly his last.

Bracing dips and skipping fences are par for the courseBracing dips and skipping over fences are par for the course
Secret Adventures

It’s not all carnage, though. In fact, it’s mostly relaxing. On the water, the stresses of London life slowly disappear, like ripples in the limpid Lea. It also offers the chance to reconnect with nature: under the starlight sky we spot moorhens, ducks and sleepy swans, which disappear into reeds as we glide by.

You never quite escape the city. Tubes rattle over bridges, joggers pound the bridle path and Canary Wharf glows in the distance. And along Limehouse Cut the illuminated sign of a Lidl supermarket reflects in the water, along with the silhouettes of two men swigging cans of lager: wildlife, of a different variety. 

As well as causing trouble on the water, Eugene and I also make friends. We paddle alongside Matt Simmons and Rasa Jusionyte, an adventurous couple here for a belated Valentine’s Day present, given to the former by the latter.

"The stresses of London slowly disappear."

“I was going to sign him up to the skinny-dip in Richmond Park, but I thought that was a bit harsh so we did this,” laughs Rasa, who edits Portfolio Magazine and lives in Camden. “It’s great. When you’ve lived in London for a while you might think ‘oh I have seen it all’, but when you do something like this you fall in love with the city all over again.”

“It gives you a completely different perspective on the city,” adds Matt, clearly enjoying his present.

Participants in tonight’s paddle are a motley crew – writers, photographers, techies and office workers – but they are bound together by a sense of adventure. Scattered across London are another 5,000 signed-up members of Secret Adventures, which celebrates its first birthday next week – not bad for a company that started life as a New Year’s resolution.

Canoeing through London offers a fresh perspective on the cityCanoeing through London offers a fresh perspective on the city
Secret Adventures

“I had just returned from working on international expeditions and I asked myself: ‘how can I find adventure here in London?’” says Madoc, who conceived his first adventure by scouring Google Maps and looking for “the nearest blue space with islands”.

He found what he was looking for and led an expedition to what turned out to be a group of islets in an Essex lake.

“We cycled along the canals, under the North Circular and under the M25 – it was a beautiful day and we picked blackberries on the way,” he says. “At the lake we hid our bikes in the bushes, put our stuff in waterproof bags and swam out to the islands. We made a camp, lit a fire and slept there – and that sort of sums up the spirit of Secret Adventures.”

But here’s the really cool bit: money raised through Secret Adventures helps fund activities for children at Kids Company, a charity providing emotional and educational support to vulnerable, inner-city children and their families.

"We made a camp, lit a fire and slept there."

It feels virtuous that our folly is for a good cause, but 90 minutes into the paddle, Eugene and I have other things on our mind: beating the others. We scythe through the water, past the Olympic Park and cram into Old Ford Lock (of Big Breakfast fame) leading the rest of the gang. Expedition coordinator, Natalie Ward, opens the sluice gate and fills the lock.

“You’re in a prime spot there,” she shouts from the towpath. I frown bemusedly and then it hits me; the water, that is, as a mini whirlpool splashes the kayak and soaks my leg.

Undeterred, Eugene and I come out the lock all guns blazing and paddle furiously to the riverside Crate Brewery and Pizzaria, which marks the end of our adventure. Behind us we can hear our troublesome rivals catching us up, but we make it to the pub first. It’s not a competition, but we won. It’s all just a bit of fun, but we won. And that’s revenge indeed.

Secret Adventures began with a swim to an island... in EssexSecret Adventures began with a swim to an island... in Essex
Secret Adventures


The Secret Adventures team are the go-to guys for urban escapades. They organise everything from skinny-dipping in lakes and camping on deserted islands to gigs in abandoned tunnels and canoe trips down London’s waterways. As of 2015 they are extending their programme to include international adventures such as Arctic swimming and wolf trekking in Sweden. Become a member here.

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