Under the shadow of the Orbit: paddling your way through East London

Safely prepare on dry land before embarking down the Hackney canals. Pic: Ed Taylor

Safely prepare on dry land before embarking down the Hackney canals. Pic: Ed Taylor

Secret Adventures is a non-profit organisation offering Londoners the chance to escape city life. Kyra Hanson joined founder Madoc Threipland on a kayaking trip along Hackney canal to find out more.

“Look out for floating fridges and fallen branches” a Secret Adventures coordinator tells our group of 22, as we huddle under the railway arches of Limehouse station on a cold November evening, “the strangest things end up in Hackney canal after a storm.”

I have just struggled into a pair of waterproof trousers and signed a health check form, which essentially says “kayak at your own risk”.

Tonight we are embarking on a 6km paddle along the River Lea. Our final destination: Crate Brewery in Hackney, where we will order pizza and warm our hands on cups of hot apple whisky.

I ask Mark, a regular Secret Adventurer what wildlife we are likely to spot on our kayak along the canal. He says he once saw a dog in the Thames, I imagine an excitable Labrador paddling beside us but it turns out he meant a dead one.

Walking to the canal

Meeting under the arches at the Limehouse Basin. Pic: Ed Taylor

It is a wobbly clamber into the kayak, but I am in safe hands as I am sharing with Madoc Threipland, who set up Secret Adventures in 2014. From a secret concert in London’s catacombs to wild camping on an island you have to swim to, Threipland’s events are designed for Londoners itching for a momentary escape from the pressures of city living.

As we set off from Limehouse Basin, Canary Wharf beams in the distance, a welcome reminder that we are the lucky ones. We have swapped the stifling confines of an office and the glare of a screen for an evening of urban exploration along East London’s waterways.

Aside from the ducks and a couple of bemused swans our kayaks are the only thing disturbing the calm of the river as we glide through patches of algae.

Electric lights from encroaching buildings bounce off the water and it is easy to see the appeal of Secret Adventures, which spots the potential in a patch of neglected land for making memories not profit margins.

Threipland tells me East London has plenty of “surprising opportunities” for adventure: “Victoria park, London Fields, the canals in the dark. Even cycling home at night along the towpath feels exciting.”

You do not have to be a pro at paddling to join the adventure. There was the odd couple who had mastered the art of synchronised rowing but the majority of our group were first timers looking for an alternative way to spend a Thursday evening – involving friends and new faces, away from TVs, laptops, and mobiles or the pressure of an expectant to-do list.

For Threipland: “It’s the people that come on the adventures that make them special. When people arrive for an event in the depths of winter, in the drizzle for wild camping, in a public park or swimming under a full moon I feel like I’ve found my people.”


Getting ready to set off for Hackney. Pic: Ed Taylor

After emerging from under a bridge we were greeted with a stunning riverside view of the Olympic Stadium and the red glow of ArcelorMittal Orbit.

I wondered if Madoc has set himself up to fail by prefacing his company with the word ‘secret’ but, he tells me “as long as the events remain interesting” he isn’t too concerned whether five people turn up or fifty.

As our group dissipates into the night with promises to meet again on another Secret Adventure my head is giddy with whiskey and my legs and arms are thankful we do not have to kayak back again.

With London perpetually in the grip of development and impatiently awaiting the arrival of the 24 hour tube, a Secret Adventure – whether it is a night kayak or a moonlit swim offers respite from a life dictated by routine and mediated through a screen.

I imagine that Threipland’s knack for bringing people from all walks of life together to share an evening out of the ordinary won’t stay secret for long.

Adventures run throughout the year and are individually priced. For more information and booking see the Secret Adventures website.

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