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I am fortunate enough to live near the new White Water Centre in Lee Valley, Herts that was built for the 2012 Olympics. As part of the legacy policy of the Games the course is open to the public. You can learn and practice canoeing and kayaking here, as well as try white-water rafting. I had tried rafting elsewhere and loved it, so was very keen to have a go. Some friends went in September, but I was booked to go with some other friends in October, so went along to watch them to see what it was like and then took the plunge myself.
The Centre is approximately 10 minutes walk from Waltham Cross rail station (trains from Liverpool St in London) or if you drive, there is a car parking on site (as well as overflow parking when events are on) and the centre is close to the M25/A10 junction. I made the initial booking on-line with my credit card, but when we wanted to add extra people to our party I booked by phone to make sure our booking was linked and we could share a raft (they can't guarantee this unless you have nine people). I didn't find it easy to get hold of anyone by phone having to leave messages, so I recommend booking on-line if you can. The seven of us were booked for a 4pm slot on a cold and wet Saturday in October, and were advised to get there for 3.30pm. There is a café on site selling snacks, hot drinks and alcohol. You are not allowed to drink alcohol before going rafting/kayaking.
At 3.45pm we were all called together and giving basic tips about wearing wetsuits and equipment that we needed (all provided). The wetsuits come in various sizes and you are also provided with boots, a helmet and a life vest. As it was particularly cold we also got a cagoule and gloves, which the friends who went a month before didn't have. We got changed as quickly as we could, and helped each other into the wetsuits, as they are hard to do up by yourself. I would also advise going to the loo before putting the wetsuit on! They have lavatories and communal changing rooms (two female, three male) with showers. They can get quite busy though. Under my wetsuit I wore my swimming costume, they advise against wearing T-shirts as they just get wet and make you colder, and don't insulate you like the wetsuit does. The lockers are free and are set by a code of your choice. You just have to remember the code and your locker number; otherwise you are in for a cold wait in the corridor.
Wet -suited up we then headed outside to meet our raft guide Jorge, who ensured out helmets and life vests were all tightened correctly and gave us a short briefing. If you can swim and have no health problems you wear a blue helmet. Non-swimmers and those with health problems (one of our party had asthma) wear a yellow one, so if you should end up in the water, the guide and the marshals know who to pull out first. The raft was outside the centre on concrete, when my friends did it previously they did the training on the water, but as it was cold, we stayed on dry land, and Jorge went through the strokes and instructions, as well as the drill for pulling someone out of the water correctly. We then put the raft on the water and paddled around the corner towards the course. Here we got out the boat and Jorge went through the drill again if you fall into the water. We then had a swim test where you have to jump into the water and float down the course before swimming out. Getting out was quite a challenge as the current meant I was staying still, no matter how hard I swam against it! In reality you would float until you caught a rope from a marshal or got to calm waters, if you were too far from the boat.
From here we paddled to the uphill conveyor belt that took us to the top of the course, and we commenced the first of our practice runs. We didn't paddle much for the practice runs, Jorge steered the boat from the back and we went with the flow of the water. The early rapids aren't too vicious, but the later ones mean those at the front do get a face-full of water. They swap the seat positions on the raft around on the conveyor belt so everyone can have a chance of being at the front if they want. Some didn't want to, but I found it quite exhilarating. When we went down properly, we paddled through the rapids and Jorge attempted to get us to turn and surf the rapids more, with varying levels of success. We did seem to spend quite a bit of time paddling in circles. There are several sets of rapids to go down - the course is man-made, so there are plastic blocks to generate the rapids, and it all seems very clean. At points around the course are marshals with ropes that keep an eye on the safety aspect and may ask a raft to wait, if a raft ahead is having difficulty. I felt completely safe at all times. No one in our raft actually fell out, but I have seen it happen when my friends were doing it previously. Sometimes the bemused person is drifting off with the force of the water unable to hear the marshals, but as they followed their training no harm came to them, and the marshals pulled others out of the water. To be honest it looked most fun just to 'ride' the rapids, but I guess that isn't great for health & safety. In our two hour slot (which included training) we managed to get round six times, but I know at busier (warmer!) times it would normally be less than that. There were about four other rafts going round the 160m course at the same time as us. Naturally you get wet, and the the swell can be powerful and hard to row against, but I loved the challenge and we had lots of laughs as we went round. Back at the centre there are buckets for your boots, gloves and wet suits. The changing rooms are still busy but showers are hot. Afterwards we all met in the café for a warm drink or a beer and some chips. They also do wine, sandwiches and crisps. The cost was the activity was £49 per person. You must be over 14, and under 18s need a parent or guardian to sign. It you book a raft for nine people, and then you get a drinks voucher to the value of £50.00. Do I recommend it - absolutely! I had a brilliant time and there were lots of laughs. Yes, I got wet and cold, but that is to be expected. I will definitely go again in the spring when the weather turns warmer again. The facility seems very well run, and is clean and efficient, and this can be enjoyed by experienced rafter as well as being a great introduction for the beginner.