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London: Introducing the adventure capital

Kayaking, zip-lining and freerunning through the bustling heart of London offers three very different and illuminating perspectives of the city

By Zane Henry
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:20 BST, Updated 14 Jul 2021, 16:28 BST
Kayaking on the Thames

Kayaking on the Thames

Photograph by Getty Images

On water

I'm not at my most noble during the first half of my Big Ben by Twilight tour on the Thames with Kayaking London.

The water is warm and dark brown and I don't really want to think about why. My paddling technique is terrible, and I'm quickly developing a blister between my thumb and forefinger. My kayaking partner is meant to be steering but insists that our rudder isn't working; we drift alternately to the centre traffic of the river, or off to the tide-washed walls.

Our guides gamely offer encouragement and instruction, clucking gently over us like mother geese dealing with errant goslings, but boy does it feel like hard work.

Then, suddenly, things change. Or, rather, our position changes. We turn around under the London Eye at the mid-point of our tour and start paddling with the tide, back towards Chelsea. Sure, my partner still occasionally tries to kill us by steering belligerently at buoys, but everything feels much more relaxed and manageable as the current carries us along. Iconic landmarks slide by in the still evening air, and we're gently rocked by the wake from passing river buses.

We slip between barges and listen to trains rattle overhead as we splash under Battersea Bridge. We duck beneath Vauxhall Bridge and I watch the sunset turn MI6's windows into an emerald kaleidoscope.

Our guide throws facts about the river across the water, but they drift over my head as I lean back and breathe in deeply. I feel content, happily listening to London noisily happening on either side of the river.

Then we crash into a buoy.

Details: Kayaking London, Cremorne Riverside, London SW10 0QH.

In air

The tower doesn't look that high from the ground. It's only 115ft high. But after I've climbed the 184 steps to the launch platform, my brain's panic centre joins my thighs in protest. This is Zip Now London, touted as the world's longest, fastest city-centre zip-line.

Before I can admire the view — I get a brief glimpse over the tops of the trees, all the way to Battersea Power Station and Big Ben — I'm counted down, step forward, and shoot off. It's exhilarating.

There's a slight downward dip then I accelerate quickly, my screams trailing behind me. I'm told afterwards that I hit 30mph across the 740ft zip-line, but it's all a joyous blur of light and motion that's over far too soon.

Thankfully, there's also the option of taking the Mega Drop from the landing platform: a 50ft freefall jump onto a cushioned surface. My stomach lurches as I step off before the wires slow me down for a relatively comfortable landing. As I land, a kid zooms by on the zip-line overhead, screaming with joy. I know the feeling.

Details: Zip Now London, Archbishops Park SE1 7LF.

On land

"I have a two-year-old daughter and wanted to experience the world with the same sense of discovery she does," says a fellow newbie, a young woman from Argentina, as we jog on to the third section of our training session. For the uninitiated, parkour is the discipline of freerunning through urban environments, dealing with obstacles by climbing or jumping over them.

We've already done our rather gruelling warm-ups, tried balancing along a railing outside a block of flats, and learned how to land correctly when leaping from low heights. Our next step is to practise jumping at a wall abutting a football pitch. Soon, there are 20 adults gleefully throwing themselves at walls. The city opens up as we run through it, and I feel like an excited two-year-old. Walls become ramps, pillars become slaloms, bollards become gymnastic pommels.

I walk away with some scrapes, and a roving eye, scanning the high streets for something — anything — to jump off.

Details: Parkour Generations, 64 Orchard Place, London E14 0JY.

More London adventures

Bungee jumping at the O2
Jump from a 160ft crane next to the O2 Arena, and enjoy fab views across London as you hurtle down.

Thames Rockets
Race along the Thames at 53mph in a RIB as iconic landmarks such as Big Ben and Tower Bridge blur past.

Go Ape Battersea Park
Traverse swingy bridges and scale rope ladders high up in the trees of Battersea Park. There's also a 160ft zip-line for speed demons.

Follow @zanehenry

Published in the Adventure guide, distributed with the September 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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