Trail of the unexpected: Making waves in Herts

Hertfordshire's Lee Valley White Water Centre is open to novices as well as professionals.

"Rivers know this," wrote A A Milne, "there is no hurry." All very well, but what if you're the organisers of the London Olympic Games and are in need of some turbulence on which to contest the white water canoeing events? The Thames is an iconic, often beautifulwaterway, but it's not known for its rapids.

This partly explains my arrival at Waltham Abbey – where the A10 meets the M25 – home to Hertfordshire's Lee Valley White Water Centre. The freshly built lake complex cost £31m and comes with downhill waterways capable of producing some terrific, bubbling whirlpools, including the 300m-long Olympic Standard Course, which is 100 per cent artificial (and entirely controllable). It's an engineering masterpiece and – if you're a canoeing expert– great fun at the same time.

Those who like the idea of splashing down the whitewater, but don't have therequired canoeing skills(assistant manager Paskell Blackwell told me it would take "years of practice" to be able to negotiate the Olympic-standard rapids in your own canoe) can still experience the thrill of the run in an eight-man inflatable raft, helmed by a professional. It's the equivalent of going around Brand's Hatch in a minibus driven by Nigel Mansell. Sort of.

I pulled on a state-of-the-art O'Neill wetsuit and met Pete Young, my instructor for the day. "The nearest natural whitewater river to London?" pondered Pete, as we went through some rudimentary moves on the calm of the practice lake. "It's probably somewhere in South Wales. But it's difficult to run a top-level competition in the wild, because you can't control how much water is coming downhill."

The biggest danger –naturally – is falling out of the raft, and so Pete suggested I get a sense of the moving water, which even at the bottom of the course was impressive. Each raft must have six paddlers. My cobbled-together group was made up of good swimmers, so we wore blue helmets (yellow helmets alert the lifeguards to less proficient swimmers). Ready as we'd ever be, we paddled toward the "travelator" a raft-sized conveyer-belt that whisks canoeists from the calm of the lake to the start of the Olympic course.

The travelator is one of a long line of impressive gizmos at the centre, the most obvious of which are the five pumps – each the size of a grown elephant – that lift a swimming pool's worth of water every three minutes, while at the same time filtering and pH-balancing every drop. On a sunny day, the water looks as inviting as a Pacific island reef. Accidentally drink some, and it's as clean as your average swimming pool.

Circling the holding pool at the top, we waited for a green light then paddledfuriously to the first section of rapids, bouncing around in the boat while at the same time attempting to follow Pete's commands. Every 40 metres or so, the course widens to create a safe eddy; here we readied ourselves for the nextonslaught. We even tried to "surf" a few of the rapids, paddling upstream to trap ourselves in the swirling vortex of water.

During our first run, we watched as a group of students capsized their raft upstream and hurtled down the course one by one. "Looks like they completely emptied the boat," said Pete. Oars whizzed past on their own, arms waved frantically, and even those wearing blue helmets were yelling for help. Lifeguards threw ropes and the group was rescued in no time at all.

Each run lasts 20 minutes or so, and on our third and final go down the course we too capsized the raft. The process was only mildly alarming; if you lie flat on your back, keep your mouth shut and ride the rapids, it's over in no time. But fight the flow of the water (or fall in right at the top of the course), and it's easy to see how a panic might set in.

"It was his fault," said one of the students, pointing at his friend in the café area afterwards. "When they said lean left he leant right and the boat flipped."

Refueling on Olympic-themed burgers (the Beijing with relish was the chef's recommendation), we chatted about how the day had been. "It was scary," said one fellow-diner, "but it was cool as well. I'm definitely going to watch it with more respect on the TV."

Lee Valley White Water Centre is the only 2012 venue that is open to the general public ahead of the games – meaning the half-drowned raftersof today could feasibly become the canoeing gold-medal winners of tomorrow. That's the hope, anyway.

Once our rafts were cleared from the water, training for the real medal hopefuls began, and the hi-tech carbon fibre canoes made their way up the travelator. Watching from the impressive spectator gallery, I got a glimpse of what the estimated Olympic crowd of 60,000 will experience for four days starting on 29 July 2012.

The primary aim of the centre is to add gold medals to Team GB's tally. Already, the cream of UK canoeing has relocated to North London to take advantage of the year-long practice available for British athletes only, which gives them an impressive head-start.

And to help keep things afloat – as it were – the centre is open to the public until October. Turn up with £49 and you'll get wetsuit hire, instruction and several runs down the Olympic run in an inflatable raft, those very same rapids and eddies on which the medals will be contested.

Travel essentials

* Lee Valley White Water Centre (08456 770 606; www.gowhitewater.co.uk) Station Road, Waltham Cross, Hertfordshire, EN9 1AB. Rafting sessions down the Olympic Standard Course cost £49 per person (£441 if you book the entire raft for nine people, including £50-worth of food and drink in the café).

* The centre is open now until 16 October when it closes in preparation for the 2012 games. Entry for spectators is free for all training, but will be by ticket only for the Olympic dates.

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