This issue we’re talking water sports. For a magical get-away-from-it all – without going too far – head to the brilliant Islington Boat Club.
Nearly 30 over 50s are clad in lifejackets standing in a circle, armed with an upright paddle warming up before kayaking. This is Chris’s Tuesday Upperdeckers group for 50+ to learn the basics of boats.
Islington Boat Club is an atmospheric place. There is a dog in a life jacket, a narrow boat used for yoga and trips, plus outdoor wooden tables where anyone can yarn about all things boat or just munch a sandwich staring at an old row boat planted with colourful flowers or the wind patterns on the water.
Upperdeckers was set up by boat-mad Amanda Corcoran when she worked on the River Thames in Pimlico because, “Water sports shouldn’t just be for young people. It’s good for any age, improves mental health and gets people chatting.”
The 39 free sessions at Islington Boat Club started in April and will run until December, with a summer break. “It’s been a tremendous success,” says Amanda who reckons there have already been 150 new faces trying out different water sports on the canal, many of whom have offered to volunteer at the boat club.
Boat club manager Becca Wolff, 34, who grew up in Islington and now lives nearby on a boat, is a welcoming face at Upperdeckers. “Kayaking might feel like a young man’s game but one of our regulars says that having a go makes ‘you want to wake up and come down to the canal to feel like a kid again’. And we have Ros, an 80-year-old, who kayaks every week. She is determined to get her Paddlepower award. Others are working on their Powerboating level 2 or learning how to be an inland helmsman on our narrow boat.”
The two-hour kayaking session whizzes by. Newbies are taught how to hold the paddle, move forward, backwards and turn an elegant 360 degree circle. All the teaching is interspersed with games including forming a huge class raft to British Bulldog across the canal. It’s lovely to see the cygnets riding the backs of their parent swan, and to take an exploratory paddle down the magical Pike Alley, lined by yellow flag iris, which can only be reached by boat. Seeing a police diver gets everyone puzzling about what’s actually in the canal besides old bikes and shopping trolleys.
All sorts turn up – from mums who used to know each other long ago on school PTAs to six men from the EC1 Men’s Shed run at St Luke’s Community Centre. Graham Reeves, who runs that project, says: “It gets the chaps socialising and doing something physical. Our least able member is 89 and he went on the narrow boat. Another is 62 and turns up on his bike to go kayaking. It’s also good for men with dementia – it gets them out. But you can just sit and chat over a cup of tea. I say to all men ‘go do it’. It’s fun, really inclusive and very well supervised. The Boat Club staff make it as accessible as possible, whatever your needs.”
There’s something about going on the water,” adds Becca. “This is one of the biggest open spaces in the inner city – it’s three acres – and a place where people find a sense of calm. You can also watch the birds with their babies and the cormorant drying its wings. It’s relaxing. Whatever is going on in your life and even though you may be doing something that challenges you, people leave with a smile.”
On Tuesday, 11am-1pm. Upperdeckers is free (no need to book). Bring a change of clothes (don sunscreen or waterproofs depending on the weather). Free tea and snacks. The last summer class is Tuesday 19 July, with sessions starting up again on 6 Sep until xmas.
All On Board starts Friday 9 Sep, and on nine Sundays, offering free boating for people with mental health issues (including Alzheimer and dementia) and learning disabilities.
Islington Boat Club, 16-35 Graham St, N1. islingtonboatclub.com