Where’s the most adventurous setting you’ve ever had for a maths lesson? For pupils of Oak Hill School based in Barnet, it is on top of a bell boat on the Welsh Harp reservoir. White board at the front, and surrounded by the calm blue water and thick woodland, the secondary school pupils enjoyed a very different maths lesson on top of the stable blue boat on the largest body of water in North London.
The man behind the idea – Phil Atkinson – explains it was a fantastic way to give back to the local community and make use of the boat, which resembles a double canoe with a deck in the middle, during its off-season. As centre development director at Phoenix Outdoor Centre and Phoenix Canoe Club, Phil is dedicated to providing as many opportunities as possible to the local community to get involved with watersports.
A grant of £5,000 from Active Thames has supported the club’s continual delivery of sports sessions to the local community and provided disability training for staff. The initiative, led by Port of London Authority, aims to encourage groups that are less likely to engage in physical activity on the river, to tackle inequalities within watersports and increase participation.
“Active Thames has helped with getting more disadvantaged people, including those adults and children with disabilities and lower socio-economic groups, coming through our doors, which has been very good for us,” Phil says. He first got involved with the club because of his daughter’s love of kayaking.
Established in 2004, Phoenix Canoe Club is a flatwater kayaking club that meets once a week for adults and children over 9. With close connections to Lee Valley White Water Centre, they also offer advancement from flatwater to whitewater paddling. The outdoor centre opened its doors in 2011 and offers a range of activities including sailing, windsurfing, stand up paddleboarding, kayaking, canoeing, bell boating, raft building and orienteering, seven days a week.
There are no other watersports centres for six miles. “In London, that’s quite an area we have to cover,” Phil says. The mile-long reservoir, owned by the Canal & River Trust, is on the border of the boroughs of Brent and Barnet. It is a 68.6 hectare biological Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) due to its diversity of breeding waterbirds and woodlands that attract foxes, badgers, rabbits and other insects and mammals.
“It’s a little oasis in the middle of an urban sprawl,” Phil adds. “It’s completely hidden from the road. It’s certainly a great place to work.”
From local schools to charities supporting cancer patients, rehabilitation organisations to refugee charities, Phoenix Outdoor Centre has made watersports accessible for many groups. The Barnet Mencap Society visit the centre on a regular basis. The charity, who work with people with learning disabilities, often bring with them 14 to 16 young people, most who have never been on the water before and can’t swim. The impact to their wellbeing has been invaluable. “I’m really impressed with the leadership of these groups. They really do work hard,” Phil adds.
Primary school children from Leopold School were another group this summer who were able to experience the vast benefits of being on the water. The fifty students enjoyed kayaking and orienteering in a safe and controlled environment.
“As a club and a centre, we have always strived to keep it as cheap as possible to make it accessible. All you need to turn up with is some clothes you don’t mind getting wet and we supply the rest: boats, paddles, buoyancy aids, waterproof jackets, wetsuits. Often one person going kayaking is wearing about £600 to £700 worth of kit.
“Generally, those that attend don’t have watersports experience and a lot of them cannot swim. We ask them if they’re happy to fall in the water wearing a buoyancy aid which will make them float and they usually say yes, and off we go.” The club and centre have a one to eight coach to participant ratio for kayaking and one to six for sailing. “We do think more people need to learn to swim. It’s a fundamental life skill people should have.”
In recent years, the club have suffered from a coaching shortage due to Covid-19 interrupting training, but they are slowing bringing their coaches back up to pre Covid-19 numbers. “We’ve had two train up for kayaking and one train up for sailing this year. That’s quite low, normally we would look for four or five at least. It’s been a difficult time because of Covid-19,” Phil adds.
Despite a shortage of coaches, however, this has been a year of growth for the club. They have had over 10,000 people come through the sessions dedicated to those less likely to get on the water.
“One minute participants are wobbling around and the next they are burning down the river,” Phil smiles. “Seeing people progress is wonderful.”
Thanks to Active Thames for providing this story and Emma Blackmore for writing it.