IT was a cold, clear evening when we turned into an unassuming car park, flats looming large on one side, Edinburgh’s Union Canal moving treacle-like in the low moonlight on the other.

After an intense discussion about just how many layers were needed for paddling on that crisp night, we followed the bewitching dance of a flaming torch around the containers that house the outdoor activity centre and social enterprise Bridge 8 Hub, into an unexpectedly dazzling dining area, fairy lights and all.

Situated canalside in Wester Hailes and, unsurprisingly, close to bridge number eight on the canal, Bridge 8 Hub was founded more than a decade ago by Sean Barry, a man whose passion for using practical outdoor experiences to educate and encourage young people from all walks of life is central to the Hub’s work.

Renowned for its activity courses, kids’ camps and equipment rental (think paddleboards and kayaks), it also has a seasonal alter ego that helps to fund its social projects.

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The transformation from a daytime activity centre to a swish and inviting open-air dining space that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a glossy magazine was remarkable.

Perfectly positioned baubles hung from the covered wooden pergola draped in fairy lights and foliage. Pine branches and blankets decorated the chairs and fresh rosemary sprigs adorned the napkins. It was my first hit of all things festive and I did not mind one bit.

Like so many, the centre was hit hard during the pandemic. Barry, ever the community-minded entrepreneur, saw the chance to unite locals in the Hub’s outdoor space and Nordic Twilight Experiences, a unique combination of night-time canoeing and feasting around fire pits, was born.

Barry said: “It all started during Covid when our darkest moment turned into our most successful time.”

These evenings proved so popular that the Hub resurrected them for winter 2021 and now again, further refined, for 2023 with added activities for children and adults.

Under the new guise of Flint & Steel Experiences (a nod to the lesson in lighting a fire), it’s the hint of hygge that makes them special – laidback, cosy and all about togetherness.

As our group assembled around a roaring firepit, we were handed warming mulled cranberry juice and given a short safety briefing.

Then it was time to gear up in buoyancy aids and listen to a quick lesson in the basics of paddling for the uninitiated. Scott Gibbons, our enthusiastic instructor, pointed out that: “We do have to get the canoe moving, so use your paddle to pull the water from the front to the back. If we all do it together we’ll be absolutely racing along.”

We formed an orderly queue to cross the darkened towpath, navigating no doubt bemused cyclists and dog walkers as we climbed one by one into a large Voyager canoe, its gleaming blue hull testament to its recent refurbishment.

Following Gibbons’s instructions of “paddles up” and then “paddles in”, we were off and into the darkness. It didn’t take long for our eyes to adjust and form a group paddling rhythm at a reasonable pace.

What might have looked to curious passers-by like a midnight escape from a dystopian world was, in fact, a relaxing if somewhat surreal experience. Instructor Ben Wilson’s head torch illuminated the way from the bow while Gibbons enlightened us with local tidbits from the stern as we sailed across the Friday evening bypass traffic on the Scott Russell Aqueduct.

As we left the noise of the road behind, the landscape became instantly more rural. The darkness from the fields embraced us and we paddled on into the black and blue ahead with just the sounds of willows rustling, general wittering and the occasional collision of paddles.

In what felt like no time – around 25 minutes – we reached the turning circle and were making our way back, spurred on by the promise of a feast after our light exertion.

As we cruised closer, the unmistakable skirl of bagpipes caught our ears and an ethereal kilt-clad piper emerged by the towpath, which ensured we felt like a triumphant expeditionary force returning to a hero’s welcome.

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Having wriggled out of our life vests, we were soon seated, devouring roasted pepper and tomato soup, the culinary work of chef Ross McCulloch, to the tones of Highland Cathedral before more ambient tunes took over for the equally delicious main.

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Much like camping, there’s something inherently satisfying about eating outside, especially in the dark of winter with just candles and fairy lights to go by.

I’m sure we’d all have different highlights but the DIY hot chocolate station, complete with squirty cream and toppings, was evidently up there.

The evening drew to a close with giant marshmallows toasted over the firepit and promises that we’d all be back next winter, so Barry had better start planning for 2024.

Bridge 8 Hub’s Flint & Steel sessions will run from 1-3pm and 5-7pm on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from December 1-17.

Adults £25, family tickets (up to five people) £70; children from five years old welcome.

Vegetarian and vegan options are available. It can also be booked exclusively for up to 30 people HERE