Lee Valley

Alex Rubin came up with the idea first - a trip to Lee Valley just to get assessed for the Olympic course - and booked himself onto a course, and then pursuaded some others of us that it was a good idea. I wasn't convinced, a whole day just to get someone to tell you that you are competent to paddle down a man-made course, even if it is the Olympic slalom course.

Daniel on the conveyor


The problem is that for insurance reasons the Lee Valley management can't just let anyone throw themselves down the course, apart from the risk of injuring themselves they could easily injure someone else. The system they have adopted is that before anyone is allowed on the course they have to be assessed, they will not take bookings unless you have already been assessed. This means that you can't book an assessment in the morning, and then a session in the afternoon to make the most of the day, nor could you plan to do an assessment as part of a weekend's paddling.

Nevertheless I had nothing better to do that day, and I was quite looking forward to a day out with friends anyway, even if the paddling turned out to be a waste of time. The weather forecast was rotten though, with snow forecast for most of the country accompanied by a stiff freezing wind. So I elected to use my plastic boat rather than the slalom boat, on the basis I could wrap up warmer. So we all met at Andy Brooke's house, me, Loz Jay, Andy and Daniel Brookes, and Keira Davidson. We loaded up the van, and set off to pick Alex up on the way.

The assessments were booked for 1.00pm, but Daniel and Keira had booked onto the Legacy course for two hours from 12.00. The Legacy course is a second course that they built alongside the Olympic course to allow local paddlers to have a more accessible and easier graded course to develop on. Keira and Daniel had both raced on this last year, and as a consequence did not need to be assessed for this.

After watching the youngsters paddling the Legacy for a while it was time for the rest of us to get ready for our assessment, we had to meet the assessor outside the centre building at ten to one. He introduced himself as Giles. I had suspected that we may be assessed by Giles, not that I knew him apart from his posts on the UK Rivers Guidebook forum. There were three others on the assessment with us, one was a slalomist I knew, Danielle Johnson, who was doing the assessment in her slalom boat, and two lads in playboats. Giles started by asking us our names

"Dave Bradshaw"

"The Dave Bradshaw - Davebrads?"

"I'm afraid so, yes"

Giles had recognised me from my username on UK Rivers.

Giles explained how the assessment would work. The Olympic course was not running while we wer doing our assessment, so we would be assessed only on the Legacy course. However, if we wanted to be assessed on the Olympic course we could jump off before our hour was up and book on the Olympic course which was being turned on at 2.00pm. The assessment started with a paddle across the lake to the conveyor. This really was part of the assessment - Giles explained that he had people turn up who had obviously never sat in a kayak before, never mind paddled one! We then had to paddle down the Legacy course. We then had a second lap where we had to get as many eddies as we could. Finally we had to demonstrate a capsize and roll in the current. I was not looking forward to this - it was a very cold day and the water felt even colder, and the last thing I wanted to do was to deliberately capsize. All went well, apart from Loz whose roll failed him. I was a bit concerned that this would mean that he would not be allowed to go on the Olympic course, but as he demonstrated excellent self rescue skills getting himself, his boat and his paddle quickly to the side the failure of his roll was not an issue.

We had two or three more runs down the Legacy course before it was time to get off and book onto the Olympic course. The lads in the playboats had been having too much fun chucking themselves into the river, and now were feeling the effects of the cold and bailed out, but the rest of us were up for it. Giles asked us if we wanted to walk the course first, and that seemed a good idea since we hadn't seen it with the water switched on yet. The first part of the course was not too steep, though there were still plenty of features. Things hotted up with the first big drop, which was quite steep, but had a flushy wave at the bottom. We had to be able to demonstrate a minimum of six breakouts on the first section, including making at least one of the two eddies above the big drop. This was to show that we would be able to stop in the event of finding a raft playing on the wave. Things were definately harder now, with several sticky stoppers to negotiate before the second big drop. The hole at the bottom of this one was clearly more retentive than the first, and another part of the assessment was to make the cross over this wave. Below this things looked to ease off, though Giles informed us that one fairly inoccuous looking stopper was probably the most difficult on the course to get out of.

Now it was time to paddle the course, we had a first run down to familiarise ourselves with the water, then we had to perform. There were no problems with the six eddies, however when we got to the compulsory cross the wave looked significantly bigger than it had from the side. Andy was first to go, no problem. Next went Loz, and he got stuck at the far end of the wave and had to exit backwards and much the same happened to Alex.

When we all arrived at the bottom of the course Giles informed us that we had all passed, and we still had about half an hour of our session to go. I was keen to go, so headed straight off to the conveyor, not realising the others were taking a breather. When I got to the bottom of the course again they had all gone, so I set off to try to catch them up, which I didn't manage until we got to the bottom of the course again. By this time Loz had had enough, and Alex was feeling the effect of paddling in his slalom kit which wasn't protecting him from the biting wind. So this left Andy and I, and we had a couple more runs down the course before they switched off the conveyor. I was pursuaded by Andy and a couple of spectating paddlers to have a go in the sticky stopper, and I can say it is definately sticky. Andy would have had a go himself, but he just lost his bow paddling into it and missed his chance.

So what is the verdict? The facility is brilliant, the Legacy is a good course in itself, and the Olympic course is something else, being fast, powerful and intense. £5 for an hour's paddling on the Legacy and £10 on the Olympic course sounds like quite a lot, but because of the conveyors you spend a large proportion of that time actually paddling. We were lucky in that we were able to book an hour on the Olympic course following our initial assessment, so we got two hours paddling, you will have to check with the centre if this will be the case when you book, it is quite possible that they will have both courses running together and you will only get an hour on the water.

Once you have been assessed booking is essential, by all accounts the Legacy gets fully booked most of the time. We were there on a horrible day, and the Legacy was still full. The limit on the number of paddlers seems to be quite well judged too, it was busy, but you still had room to move. Any more and it would have been frustrating. We were really lucky on the Olympic course, there were probably less than ten other paddlers on the course with us, and no rafts, so we had loads of room to do want we wanted. I think this is unusual though, they often run six rafts, and they must get in the way, and I don't know how many kayaks. The changing facilities are excellent, with underfloor heating (bliss).

The main problem is the assessment. This is a real pain in the neck when you live as far away as we do up here, but there is no way around it so my advice is to get yourself assessed, either making a special trip, or combining it with a visit to the London area. It took us 3 hours 15 minutes to drive there, so a day trip is not out of the question at all, especially when the quality of the paddling is so good. All in all I had a great day out, and I would recommend it to anyone.

Additional information