Lifestyle & Belief

In London, you can take a canoe to work — it's just not easy


A swan swims past graffiti on the Regent's Canal in east London March 19, 2012. Two years after this picture was taken, Guardian Reporter Peter Kimpton paddled past the same graffiti on his way to work.


REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

London has a number of canals that crisscross the city. These canals were once a main form of transportation for industrial goods in the British capital. But how about for commuting in a crowded city?

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Guardian reporter Peter Kimpton decided to find out what that would be like.

He dragged an inflatable canoe into a nearby river and embarked on an eight-mile trip through London's canal system. He says it's a new concept: canoe-commuting, or, as Kimpton calls it, canuting.

His trip started outside his home in Hackney. He pumped up his kayak and dragged it into the Lee River. Kimpton says barges surrounded him, as well as geese, swans and water lilies. If it sounds beautiful, it is, like a scene from some iconic Rick Steves travel documentary.

But that beauty ends quickly.

Soon Kimpton found himself paddling past plastic bags and floating tin cans. And while he didn't see any sewage, it sometimes flows into the canals, especially when rainstorms overwhelm the sewage pipes.

"It's not directly people's fault," he says. "It's just Victorian plumbing that's outdated and it can be quite unpleasant."

On this trip, he was saved from that sight. It was a beautiful summer's day. He even saw some fish.

The trip wasn't entirely by water, though. He had to portage his canoe a couple times at various locks. And the sound of rats caused him to abort a trip down the half-mile Islington tunnel. But that left another issue: walking around London with an inflatable canoe.

He says people found it hard to ignore him. Some made jokes in his direction, asking him if he expected rain. "It's like having a cute dog with you or something," he says. "You can make friends pretty quickly by having an inflatable canoe with you."

Eventually, he made it to work. It took him about three hours to travel almost eight miles. It's not something he'll do every day. But he did say it is something he'll do again, if he can start work later in the day. And he learned something from the voyage.

"I've traveled before — many times, walking or cycling — along the waterways," he says. "But when you get in the water, it's an entirely different experience. You see things from a very different angle. And the particularly profound effect was that as soon as you get on the water, you feel instantly relaxed."

That's something you don't get in a car, bus, subway or possibly even on a bike.

So while it's slow. It's worth it.