Herts pumping

ROCKY ravines in remote mountain regions where the water thunders thrillingly, whirlpooling between the rapids. The London area is a little short of places like that.

What we have instead is the �31million Lee Valley White Water Centre, which will host next year’s Olympic canoe slalom events.

It lies in the commuter heartland of Broxbourne, just outside the M25 ring where it crosses the Herts-Essex border.

Billed as the only brand new London 2012 venue you can enjoy before the Games, it is an ideal place for beginners to learn the basics of paddle sports.

So new, indeed, that Google Earth still shows it as a building-site, it boasts a 300-metre course with architect-designed drops, holes, eddies and rapids.

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Yet it is safe enough for teenagers with no previous experience to take to the water on rubber rafts in teams led by the centre’s own expert instructors.

Spectators can get close to every part of the course and can walk easily from one end to the other in under three minutes.

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In fact, the word “wild” in the centre’s promotional literature seems seriously out of place. This is more Crown Pools than Snowdonia.

The 13,000 litres of water pumped round the course every second is swimming-pool clean rather than mountain-stream crystal.

And as if to emphasise the commercial element which seems central to every aspect of the modern Games, the website recommends white-water rafting as “perfect” for stag or hen parties and corporate outings.

That will have to wait until the New Year now, though, because the centre – home base for the British canoe slalom squad – has shut its doors for the time being to all except those preparing for the Olympics.

I got in just in time to watch a coach-load of University Campus Suffolk students from Otley College try it out.

They began with some instruction, a few dips to get used to being in the water, then a gentle first run down the course.

Within an hour or so they were getting the full bumps-and-splashes treatment, including one crew who capsized completely and put the ever-waiting rescuers to the test.

The students were unanimous afterwards that it had been great fun – “fantastic”, “brilliant”, “awesome”.

Perhaps the most telling comment was: “The water slide at Colchester will seem a bit tame after this.”

Most said they would like to do it again, though many felt the cost of doing so other than with a college party (�49 per person) would put them off.

Tom Harvey of Mendlesham (top left), a mature arboriculture student, is an experienced walker and climber and has done some sea kayaking. For him, this was an opportunity to try out another outdoor pursuit. He said: “I’ve never done anything like it before. It was really good. I’d go back and do it again.”

The trip from Otley was arranged by outdoor education lecturer Dan Playford, a watersports specialist and true Olympics enthusiast.

“I was at university when London’s bid to host the Games was accepted,” he said, “and my first thought was, ‘How can I get involved?’

“It’s great to see sports like sailing and kayaking up there on the big stage, getting the attention.”

He believes that without the Olympics it would have been a lot harder, if not impossible, for him to take a party white-water rafting. And that but for the Olympics, half the students who came would not have been interested.

If so, those I spoke to were all in the other half. None will be attending any Olympic events, and most confessed to being “not that bothered”.

An obvious question to ask was: “Will you watch out for the canoe slalom now you’ve experienced the course?”

Answers ranged from a polite “probably” to a dismissive “I doubt it”, with several “maybes” in between.

Nevertheless, the college has applied for a number of students to act as volunteer helpers at the Olympic sailing and kayaking venues.

Dan Playford has also set up a Watersports Club, open to UCS staff and students, which will feature sailing, kayaking and windsurfing.

“The main aim is to introduce people to watersports and allow their development,” he said.

“We also aim to develop instructors and provide a progression route for them.”

The club will participate in the RYA (Royal Yachting Association) Sail For Gold programme. Other than that the main driving force seems to be Dan’s own enthusiasm, not the Olympic flame.

Student Rosey Morris from Wivenhoe (facing page, lower left) admits to having been “pessimistic” about the Games.

“It’s not something that really floats my boat,” she said. “I’m not interested in big crowds and the whole thing is too commercial.

“It will be interesting to see what happens afterwards to all the Olympic venues, the athletes’ village and so on.”

But she was in no doubt about how much she had enjoyed the Lee Valley rafting experience – despite being tipped into the water three times and coming out with a few minor scrapes and bruises. “It was a real eye-opener,” she said, “and a really good opportunity for team-building.

“The staff were professional, highly skilled but friendly. I felt very safe with them. It wasn’t as frightening as I thought it might be.”

Maybe not frightening enough, in fact, for a woman who gets a greater buzz from dinghy-sailing.

“I’d definitely go rafting or canoeing again, but I’d like to try it in the real outdoors, not in a controlled concrete channel. I’d go away into the wild somewhere rather than coming here again.

“It’s a good thing to experience and learn, but without rocks and ravines there’s no real adrenalin rush.”

Those who hurtle down the Lee Valley course next summer, knowing fractions of a second could make the difference between a gold and no medal, may feel differently.

l Anyone interested in outdoor education at Otley College, or the watersports club, can contact daniel.playford@otleycollege.ac.uk

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