The year of the dragon: a new adventure starts here

London's medal-winning "Thames Dragons" dragon boating team
Photo by Rosanna Lau

It seems that maybe a new adventure sometimes comes along when you’re not looking for one.

Since before I even went to deepest, darkest Norway on my Arctic Adventure, I was thinking about what would be next.  The idea of a desert motorcycle race came up, and I did some research into the Paris – Dakar Rally, but while not yet being able to ride a motorcycle would have added an extra element to the challenge, the whole thing was impractical.

After the Arctic, a coast to coast trek in Cuba was considered — it would be another fundraising expedition for Macmillan Cancer Support, but the total being a much more modest £4,500 (rather than the £6k I raised this year) and I considered it would be possible to raise the entire total solely with full-day collections in railway stations or outside supermarkets.

This idea, too, was regrettably dismissed — I don’t want my adventures to be defined by charity fundraising, and I didn’t want friends and family to feel they had to support me financially.

I wasn’t even thinking about a new adventure when I got an email asking if I wanted to go to a Dragon Boat racing event.  I’d heard about dragon boats and dragon boat festivals before, but never seen one — though it had sounded interesting.  So I gladly signed up for this one, once I’d established I could actually join in and race.

One event does not an adventure make.

It was a good day, a fun day of racing in a dragon boat against other teams.  My team came second out of four taking part, which was a good result.  We were tired and sore but happy at the end of the day. But I think what might separate me from others on the day is that I went straight home and looked up London’s teams.

I found several teams, found the team nearest to me (although the 2012 Olympic Games in London have meant they have been evicted temporarily from their home in the docks) and contacted them to ask if I could come along to train with them.

Their answer was enthusiastic, explained to me what days they train, and that I would be welcome.

You know when you’re onto something special when it requires forsaking a Sunday morning lie-in and cooked breakfast, followed by a lazy morning listening to the radio.  Instead, I was out of bed shortly after 7am and pushing through Olympic crowds to catch a train out to Hackney and the River Lea to join the Thames Dragons for their Sunday morning training.

The team this morning were reportedly a little light on numbers — but if that made the paddling harder, it didn’t worry me.

Training with a dragon boat team is obviously different to a corporate fun day. Where last week was a few short races, with breaks in between while other teams competed, today was serious training for a serious sport.  It wasn’t altogether unlike Run Dem Crew — whom I regretfully left for a variety of reasons, but the most serious being the pain in my knees — something tough, but also enjoyable.

It was less social than Run Dem Crew, there you got good conversation while you ran, but in my dragon boat you couldn’t even really enjoy the scenery while paddling as you had to be watching the front people to make sure you kept time.  Occasional distractions on river banks or other boats would be quickly met with stern shouts to keep our eyes in the boat.  It stands to reason: this isn’t just a fun day on the river and conversation would be hard while concentrating on strokes — even though there was plenty of good humour in the quieter moments.

It being my first time with a dragon boat team, there was lots I didn’t understand — but wasn’t expected to.  I was warned of it in advance, that there would be terms used and directions shouted, but the most important thing for me was to just keep the pace — otherwise you end up being an anchor to the rest of the team.

That tired, sore but happy feeling is back — though this time I also have blisters on one hand, and can barely left my right arm above my head.  And let this blog post be a record: a new adventure starts here.

I am joining the Thames Dragons, and by the end of the summer of 2013, I want to have taken part in at least one competition. This is the year of the dragon.

I like my corner of London

Royal Victoria Docks, Silvertown
Royal Victoria Docks, in London’s Silvertown

I like my corner of London.

It might not be very exciting, and sometimes I feel like it lacks character of other places in the east end — and it is like a foreign country compared to west and south west London. Just the same, I like it here.

I live in London’s Docklands — the more recent incarnation of the docklands.  It was one of the world’s most thriving docks at one time, and probably important for a very long time given the right combination of tides and places to unload.

Due to its importance, the area was heavily bombed during the second world war — while wealthier parts of the city in places like Kensington were left almost untouched by the war.  The inevitable march of technology all but killed the docks — bigger ships could no longer reach this part of the river, and the rise of shipping containers meant that fewer people were necessary to unload ships; the job could be done by cranes instead.

Docks closed and the area all but died out, until it became a new financial district in the later decades of the twentieth century.  But this isn’t intended to be a history lesson: to learn about the Wapping dispute (newspapers moving from Fleet Street to Wapping) and the Docklands Light Railway, you can visit the excellent Museum of London Docklands.

Some say that multiculturalism in Britain has failed.  I expect the people that say this are the people that want it to fail, the people that say that “immigrants” will never successfully integrate into the society’s where they settle, and everything is a powder keg of unrest and distrust.

I don’t see that here.

While you don’t exactly have large multicultural groups all holding hands in a circle and singing “Kumbaya” like Joan Baez, it is also one of the most diverse places I have ever known.  On a sunny day in Thames Barrier Park, you will see people of all creed, colours, races and religions sharing the space in friendship — and there’s no clear line where any one group of people starts and another ends.  Sunny and warm evenings around here encourage everyone to open their windows and doors, and what you get is a fantastic combination of cultures — music, televisions, even calls to prayer — all mixing together in the air.  You might call it noise pollution, but we reserve that term for the nearby airport.

Romantic visions of cultural melting pots where everyone mixes together to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts may not have ever quite proved true — after all, most people tend to stay close to friends and family and the things they know — it does happen.

I’d like to see Docklands mature, beyond what is currently either big media companies and large financial institutions or islands of housing. They’re trying — whoever they are.  London Pleasure Gardens has recently opened in Silvertown — an area that has been largely forgotten since the decline of the docks, but still has so much of the history that I love, including old cranes by the water, vast warehouses and monolithic grain silos.  I’d like to see more community though, the things I like in other parts of the east end — where every third or fourth shop is a local grocer, old theatres (even if they are now cinemas), reminders of what places once were written in the brickwork above the buildings.

You can’t manufacture something like that, it has to come on its own.  While you can’t just make a place’s history or character (and it looks terrible when new buildings try to copy the style of older existing ones), maybe you can sometimes do something to encourage one.