James Sweetman is just like any other London commuter. Almost. These days, every morning at 7:15, James wakes up, gets dressed at his flat in the West London suburb of Ealing, has breakfast, checks his phone, packs his work bags, walks up the road, takes the train to nearby Paddington, opens up his bag, pumps up the inflatable kayak within, throws it in a canal, grabs his foldable paddle, and begins his four mile journey into work.
Canoe Dig It?
While the rest of the folk who remain on the inbound Paddington train fold themselves into the few remaining airlocks of spare space, hiding their misery behind their mobile phones, James’s only congestion problems are sharing his watery highway with the odd canal barge and an occasional duck, as he floats his way down the secret oasis of greenery that is London’s Victorian canal system.
The idea of kayaking to work started as a passing notion, a joke almost. “We were sitting in the pub on a really hot day, and talking about how rubbish it was going to be to get back on the Tube. We were near the canal, so we were wondering, idly, whether it would be possible to float home on the canals.”
A quick scan through on Google Maps confirmed it was possible. Regent’s Canal popped out not more than a few miles from his home. He spent the better part of a week glued to eBay, bidding on potential rafts.
Eventually, he won his £150 float on the third attempt. Add to that another £30 for a canal licence, and he was finally on his way.
Now, he spends every morning peering through the back windows of Victorian terraced houses in Paddington, round former Georgian mills in Maida Vale, through the waterside markets at Camden Town, up into the sooty former industrial zones of King’s Cross, to his offices at his internet startup company, Stickyboard.co.uk. “End to end, the whole journey takes about two hours, including a shower. So it's not the fastest way in, but for me, the way I figure it, it’s replaced my gym routine. In the past, it was taking me an hour to get in anyway, and I used to spend an hour in the gym most days. So the way I work it is that the time I now lose is time I save elsewhere.”
Not only is he making up on his gym-time, re-shaping his routine has given James a chance to get some good quality thinking done that can take with him to work. No one can properly ready themselves for the day while crushed into the 8:15 from Paddington – you just bury yourself in a newspaper and hope for the best. James’s newspaper may be getting wet, but his thoughts are being wrung into clarity. “At a practical level, it gives me head-space,” he suggests. “If there is a work problem or a personal issue going on, I settle into the rhythm of paddling and either work it out or learn to let it go. It turns the dead time of the commute into a way of bookending the working day with a bit of adventure.”
Meanwhile, as he’s sat in his kayak, the real London pond life are floating past him on the towpaths: the general public – who can be relied upon to shout their wise words of advice, or abuse, as he crawls past their feet. Gangs of feral schoolkids, drunks waiting for their benefits to come in, dozy pensioners and jogging nuts, all curious about what exactly he thinks he’s doing. “Yeah,” he relates. “People do talk to me from time to time. It’s generally quite positive, though. I’ve had a lot of people just smiling at me. One guy said: ‘That looks a lot like hard work’, and offered to buy me beer. You do also get schoolkids coming along the canal too, but touch wood I’ve had no major mockery-incidents. Well, there was one kid who shouted out ‘Even I’m faster than you!’ As you can imagine, that cut pretty deep…”
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