Something about a canal boat implies a solitary sort of existence, cruising along quiet backwaters with only the coots and moorhens for company. You may have the family on board, and exchange friendly greetings with the occupants of the other vessels that you meet at locks, but essentially you are in a little waterborne space of your own.

That is why it's so incongruous to wander the towpath at the National Waterways Festival. Moored end-to-end for more than a mile are boats for sale and boats for hire, not to mention boats offering tea, garlanded with flowers or waiting to be built to your specifications.

More than 100,000 visitors are expected at this year's festival from 27 to 29 August. For the enthusiast it is the place to be, and for the non-initiate it is a fine spectacle: a porthole on to a different world with its own vocabulary and specialisations, its experts and its bores.

The 1994 festival is well-timed to celebrate the opening of the new Limehouse Basin Marina this weekend, and to form part of 'Canals 200', the bicentenary of the canal mania of 1793-94, when most of England's canals were built.

Hosting the IWA National Waterways Festival again (the last time was in 1989) is typical of the high-profile work of the Lea Valley Park Authority. This body looks after a slice of countryside that starts improbably in the East End of London and stretches 23 miles into Hertfordshire. It is an area almost three times the size of London Docklands, and contains more water than the Norfolk Broads.

The valley is an odd jumble of bits and pieces, but it works. Formerly derelict areas have been reclaimed, and biodiversity encouraged. Abandoned gravel pits have become attractive lakes. The 1443 Rye House Gatehouse has been beautifully restored and has a permanent exhibition detailing the history of Rye House and the failed plot to assassinate Charles II. The area has three campsites, including one at the delightful Dobbs Weir, and the range of sporting activities is quite astonishing. The town of Waltham Abbey is at the heart of the area, geographically and spiritually.

The church, which King Harold founded in 1060, dates mainly from the 12th century, and has many distinguished features, including attractive candy-stripe, carved stone columns and Norman arches. Look up from the nave and you will see Sir Edward Poynter's Signs of the Zodiac paintings decorating the ceiling - unusual in a Christian church.

Waltham Abbey was Henry's favourite, and consequently the last to go; but outside you can see the former extent of the building, and remnants of the cloisters and the moat, as well as the supposed grave of Harold, his body returned here after Hastings.

The Abbey Gardens is a lovely grassy area between old walls, with the feel of a little French town. The town centre has the excellent Epping Forest District Museum. Through the rose garden is the Lea Valley Park's information office. The staff here organise nature days for children, with pond dipping, bug identification, and lots of swishing around hedgerows with nets.

There are endless streamside walks here, but my favourite area is to the north of the Waterways Festival site, where a vast tract of land and water is set aside for birdwatching and angling. There are 11 hides (the wetland habitats of the Lea Valley are home to many rare species), and it is criss-crossed by cycle paths.

Serious cycling is one of the many sports catered for by the Lea Valley Authority. At the cycle track in Stratford there is a 1.6km road circuit, a 3km mountain bike course and a BMX track. Across the road, the Lea Valley Sports centre has tennis, soccer, indoor sports and squash facilities. Horse riding is available further up the valley, and there are now 18 holes for golfers at the Lea Valley Leisure Centre.

The biggest sporting challenge (for me, anyway) is in Leyton at the Lea Valley Ice Centre. The tiny children pirouetting with aplomb make a great site; this is the home of the Lea Valley Lions ice hockey team. I am sure they are even more impressive. The only sight to avoid is of people like me: amateurs edging gingerly around the rink's edge.

Obviously, water lies at the centre of the Lea Valley: waterskiing, windsurfing and dinghy sailing jostle for attention with skiboats and powerboats at Banbury Reservoir, Chingford. For swimmers, the Broxbourne Leisure Pool is a modern stride-in-through-the-shallows pools with surf-and-splash sessions and a giant inflatable slide.

If you like the proximity of the water without getting wet, you can dine on it in the Hazlemere Cruising restaurant at Waltham Abbey, which doubles as a folk club on Monday nights. Or you could hire a narrow boat, motorboat or rowing boat from the Broxbourne Boat Centre.

It may not be quite the same as owning your own canal boat, but at least you won't find yourself stuck in a mile-long queue. The National Waterways Festival 1994, Waltham Town Lock, Highbridge Street, Waltham Abbey. By car: M25 junctions 25 or 26, or via A10 or A112 (free parking). By train: Waltham Cross Station (Liverpool St line). By bus: routes 211, 213, 250, 251, 317, 505 or Lea Valley Leisurebus 333. Festival site open 10am to 6pm on 27, 28 and 29 August, admission pounds 5 adults, pounds 3 children (five-16) and senior citizens, pounds 13 family ticket (two adults and three children). Festival inquiries 0203 407070 or 0992 713838.

Waltham Abbey Church, open daily from 10am (11am Wed, noon Sun) until 4pm (6pm during BST).

Waltham Abbey Tourist Information Centre, 54 Sun Street, Waltham Abbey, Essex (0992 652295). Open 9.30am-4.30pm except Sun 10am-4pm, Market Days (Sat and Tues), until 5pm.

Epping Forest District Museum, 39/41 Sun Street, Waltham Abbey. Admission free. Open Fri-Mon 2pm-5pm, Tues noon-5pm, Wed/Thu party bookings by appointment (0992 716882).

Lea Valley Park Countryside Centre, Abbey Gardens, Waltham Abbey, Essex (0992 713838) LeaValley Information Line (0992 700766).

Lea Valley Cycle Circuit, Temple Mills Lane, Stratford E15 (081-534 6085).

Lea Valley Sports Centre (Eastway), Quarter Mile Lane, Leyton E10 (081-519 0017). Open: weekdays and Sundays 9am-10.30pm, Saturday 9am-7.30pm.

Lea Valley Leisure Centre, Picketts Lock Lane, Edmonton N9. Open every day (081-345 6666).

Lea Valley Ice Centre, Lea Bridge Road, Leyton E10 (081-533 3154). Open every day, phone for session times.

Lea Valley Watersports Centre, Banbury Reservoir, Greaves Pumping Station, North Circular Road, Chingford E4 (081-531 1129).

Hazlemere Cruising Restaurant, rear of Old English Gentleman pub, Highbridge Street, Waltham Abbey (0992 768013).

Broxbourne Boat Centre, Old Nazeing Road, Broxbourne, Herts (bookings: 0992 462085; information: 0992 440235). Open daily, 9am-5pm.

(Photograph omitted)