Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames (2015)
Trewsbury Mead-Lechlade-Grafton Lock
‘There’s a little cup in the Cotswold hills
Which a spring in a meadow bubbles and fills’
Bret Harte, ‘The Birds of Cirencester’, 1898
My journey begins at Thames Head, at Trewsbury Mead, near the village of Kemble. This has been known since Victorian times as the ‘lovely birth-place’ of the River Thames, but it can be a difficult place to find. ‘The exact spot is quested for with difficulty,’ noted Charles G. Harper in his 1910 book Thames Valley Villages, ‘and when the traveler has found it, he is, after all, not sure of his find … and even the road-men and the infrequent wayfarers … appear uncertain. That it is “over there, somewhere” is the most exact information the enquirer is likely, at a venture, to obtain.’ While picturesque old histories of the Thames had painted ‘dainty vignettes’ of Thames Head ‘with a little country-girl in homely pinafore dipping a foot in the water as it gushes forth’, Harper found a buried well under ‘fallen masses of the dull, ochre-coloured earth’. Nearby pumping stations had ‘greedily sucked up all the water in summer’ when the place was parched, although in winter the spring could still burst out three feet high and the meadow was a water-logged morass and often a lake.
Today Thames Head remains the river’s official source, according to the Environment Agency and Ordnance Survey, and it’s still not easy to find. After a three-hour drive from London I park at the Thames Head Inn, around half a mile away, where the barman responds to my request for directions by telling me I can’t miss it. So I rush recklessly down a busy section of the A433, with no footpath for pedestrians, and turn on to a path, then it’s over a stile and across the railway line, looking nervously right and left for trains.
I stand on a small hill looking down at a patchwork of fields, green and burnished brown, the undulating line of a drystone wall, two cows in the far distance. I can’t see any signposts; which way is the source? I head down the hill and wade in shin-high water through a gate, the beige clay giving way beneath me like quicksand. By the time I see the Thames Head stone in the distance my legs are sodden from the knees down and my partner is muttering ‘this is the most stupid thing you’ve ever asked me to do’.
In front of me the grass is a luminous green, the landscape laid with stretches of water like stepping stones; a clump of shiny white snowdrops are tucked away behind a fence. The mud around the stone is pitted with boot marks; I’m not the first person here this morning.
Until a few years ago this was also home to a statue of Father Thames, but it was removed downstream to St John’s Lock after visitors started chipping pieces off as mementos. Retracing my steps I meet a woman and a man walking a dog. They live seven miles away but it’s their first time here. ‘It’s just one of those things I’ve always wanted to see,’ says the woman. The man is clutching a map and asks, ‘Where is it then?’ I tell him they are just opposite the stone that marks the source; it’s a few hundred metres away. ‘What?’ he asks, ‘that lake? That’s it?’ he laughs. ‘No gift shop?’
Back at the Thames Head Inn the source of the Thames is said to be the most common topic of conversation around the bar. While the pub is around 250 years old, it only adopted its new name a couple of decades ago. ‘People come in and ask where the source is on a daily basis,’ says Nichola King, who has run the pub for the past eight years. ‘And they come from all over the world. Last year we had two Japanese TV crews filming here. This is the source, I’m not going to argue with that, it brings me trade! And you can see how it becomes a river, it looks like a river. But for years there can be no water and, yes, people can be disappointed; they say, “is that it?”’
Thames Head also featured in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics, filmed by Danny Boyle. ‘It was supposed to be Thames Head, but it was too dry so they built a “replica” and then used some real footage,’ explains Nichola. ‘Four days after the crew left, there was water! But the place hasn’t really been wet for years. People don’t swim here, they cheat a bit and start at other places.’ However, during a freezing cold winter a few years ago the pub’s chefs decided to go for a splash: ‘there was some significant water so they went in in their clothes, they’re a hardy bunch, then they walked back. They haven’t had the opportunity since then.’
The pub boldly declares its link with the Thames, with a frieze of Father Thames on the outside wall, photos and maps in the entranceway, a 50p postcard of the source on 1 January 2000, and inside a stone bust of Father Thames on top of an old sewing machine. But Thames Head’s claim to fame as the source has been under dispute for at least 200 years. ‘Like the source of the Nile, the position of the original fountain of the Thames has been variously assigned, and its birth place has been almost as much contested as that of Homer,’ wrote the Scottish poet and author Tobias Smollett in 1801. In Victorian times some attributed the head of the Thames to a ‘clear fountain’ in the vicinity of Cricklade; others preferred the ‘rivulets which advance from Swindon and Highworth in Wiltshire’, or Seven Springs, a hamlet near Cheltenham and the source of the River Churn. ‘What is the source of a river?’ asked Smollett. ‘There is no obvious one, right answer. In the end we are not dealing with a scientific issue but in the broadest sense a spiritual issue.’ In 1937 there was a lively discussion in the House of Commons when Mr Perkins, MP for Stroud, which included Seven Springs, objected to the Ordnance Survey Map showing the source of the Thames as Thames Head. The Minister for Agriculture, Mr W.S. Morrison, who also happened to be MP for Cirencester and thus Thames Head, insisted this was correct. When a peeved Mr Perkins asked if the Minister was ‘aware that the source known as “Thames Head” periodically dries up’, an Honourable Member interjected to ask, ‘Why don’t you?’ Today, however, there are plaques on the walls above the springs at Seven Springs with the inscription: ‘HIC TUUS O TAMESINE PATER SEPTEMGEMINUS FONS’ - ‘Here, O Father Thames, is your sevenfold source’.
Whether or not Thames Head is the source, it’s near impossible to swim from here. Instead it is downstream near the town of Lechlade where the Thames meets the Severn Canal and the River Coln that it becomes a navigable river. ‘Where Lechlade sees thy current strong,/First waft the unlaboring bark along,’ wrote Thomas Love Peacock in 1810. Five years later he accompanied Percy Bysshe Shelley on a journey to Lechlade by boat, having set out from Old Windsor with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and her stepbrother Charles Clairmont. The plan was to travel to the river’s source, but they failed to ‘draw our boat up to the very spring of the Thames,’ wrote Clairmont, and by the time they got three miles above Lechlade ‘the weeds became so enormously thick & high, that all three of us tugging could not stir the empty boat an inch’.
The shallow water didn’t even cover the hoofs of cows standing in the middle to drink, while at Inglesham Weir, remembered Peacock, ‘a solitary sluice was hanging by a chain, swinging in the wind and creaking dismally’. So the boating party turned around and spent two nights at Lechlade, where Shelley wrote the poem ‘A Summer Evening Churchyard’ in St Lawrence’s churchyard, where ‘Silence and Twilight, unbeloved of men,/Creep hand in hand from yon obscurest glen’. The path through the graveyard today bears his name - Shelley’s Walk. Perhaps it was this Thames trip that inspired him to write, ‘rivers are not like roads, the work of the hands of man; they imitate mind, which wanders at will over pathless deserts, and flows through nature’s loveliest recesses’.
In the sixteenth century Lechlade had been a flourishing port, shipping goods to London, and it continued as an important inland trade route with the introduction of the Thames and Severn Canal in 1789. Docks were built and Lechlade became a loading place for cargo. But by the mid-1860s barges were now ‘almost unknown’ noted the press, part of a general ‘decay and desuetude of the river’. In London the Thames was filthy; at Lechlade there were navigation problems.
In the coming decade leisure traffic replaced the barges, and rowing and punting became popular. Victorian Lechlade was a pretty little town, where boats could be hired and the river ran in ‘a goodly stream’ under the bridge. Yet I can find very few reports of any swimming in the period. In 1855 a man named Samuel Hope, who was ‘in the service of the Vicar of Lechlade’, drowned while bathing with some friends. He got ‘put out of his depth into a large hole in the river, although cautioned by his companions not to do so’. Like most people, neither Hope nor his friends could swim.
Then, in 1905, the town launched an annual water carnival on the Thames on August bank holiday, and the following year the Lechlade Swimming Club took control of events. It’s not clear when the club was formed, but like other Thames clubs they organised river races and fêtes. In 1909 the press reported fine weather, good attendance and a programme which started at two o’clock and ‘kept the majority interested until well after dark’. There were boat races, including a ‘mirth-provoking’ tub race, and a 300 yards team swimming handicap in which five teams competed, four from Swindon and one from Bristol.
The Lechlade Swimming Club was still running the carnival in 1920, with gold medals now on offer, and it had a bathing hut near the Round House, a late eighteenth-century building that had probably once been a canal and lock keeper’s house. In 1907 a Diving Championship was also launched at Lechlade, and although this created ‘very little interest’ the press accurately predicted the sport would become popular, for ‘as a spectacular display there is nothing to equal diving’. In 1913 the Western Counties Diving Championships were held at Lechlade where now ‘a large crowd’ witnessed the Thames swimming and diving events, including a ‘50 Yards Ladies’ race. The town continued to host diving galas until at least 1935. That year Cecily Cousens, a seventeen-year-old from Swindon who had recently won the women’s high diving championship of England and a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games, ‘received injuries at Lechlade while practising from a temporary platform erected for a gala at which she was to give an exhibition. During her dive she struck a boulder and she was in a dazed condition when assisted out.’ However, she recovered sufficiently to resume swimming.
Others weren’t so lucky. In 1929 a student in Cirencester and a ‘lady friend’ had hired a rowing boat and when they reached the Round House they changed into bathing clothes. They then walked along the bank in the direction of Inglesham where the man dived in, immediately got into difficulties and drowned. The inquest found that although it looked like the bank shelved gradually, in fact there was a sudden drop. The student couldn’t swim, and when his friend tried to help him, believing the water was shallow enough to stand up in, she ran down the bank, got stuck in the mud and couldn’t move.
In the early twentieth century, with the closure of the canal, trade through the town dried up and Lechlade soon became a popular place for retirement. The broadcaster Piers Plowright used to come here in the 1940s, after the war, for family holidays: ‘It was where I played and imagined and began to write.’ In a recent radio programme Piers retraced the course of his beloved river along with the different stages of his life. In the process he wrote his own Thames-side stomp:
From the Head of the River
To Lechlade Town
Nothing goes up and nothing goes down
Till the water gathers from out of the hills
Where childhood ends and history spills.
London children were also taken here for countryside holidays in the 1960s. One remembers, ‘we were sent on holiday by the Country Holiday Fund. We were inner-city kids. The place was so beautiful and everyone so kind. I remember swimming in the Thames and there being a bridge. It was a world apart from our life in London. I have never forgotten it.’
While early records of swimming at Lechlade may be scarce, it’s clear that people have bathed here since at least Victorian times, and while it could be a dangerous pastime by the early 1900s it had evolved into more organised displays of entertainment and sporting prowess, particularly diving. This then gave way to a more leisurely use of the Thames as an escape into the country for city dwellers who were free to enjoy the river.
Today Lechlade’s website describes the place as ‘a small attractive riverside town’, with ‘a healthy tourist trade, particularly in the summer when the Thames is busy with cruisers, narrowboats and small boats’. However, it warns: ‘Swimmers beware; the depth of water is variable with many undertows along the reach above Halfpenny Bridge.’ But this is a favourite place for modern river swimmers. ‘Swims of up to two miles are possible if you plan your entry and exit points,’ advises Wildswim.com, while Michael Worthington in his swimming logbook I Love the Thames promises ‘proper swimming, a current that whisks you along and amazingly little human presence to spoil things’.
So loved is this stretch of the river that in 2003 the newly formed adventure company SwimTrek started a four-day swimming holiday from Lechlade. The following year veteran river swimmer Frank Chalmers signed up, swimming during the day and sleeping on the accompanying barge at night. ‘Rivers define their people,’ he says, ‘every river has a character, with different industries and cultures, and I thought the River Thames was great. It’s quite narrow going down from Lechlade and there are lots of swans. The adult swans are really protective of their cygnets, and when you see their wings raised in anger six feet above you, you think: “Oh my God, this is dangerous.” But the support canoe would block you in so the swans didn’t feel threatened. A swimmer’s view is completely different from a walker’s view. Early on in the Thames, the river is cocooned and you don’t see the horizon - it’s like a flume that you swim down. When you’re walking, the river seems to punctuate the countryside. When you are in the river you might see nothing except the water and the bank, and then suddenly you are jolted upright by the blue of a kingfisher flashing across your vision.’
In 2005 property developer Andy Nation, the first person to swim the length of the non-tidal Thames, started his journey about a mile upstream from Lechlade at the Round House, ‘because that’s the first place you don’t scrape your knuckles on the ground when you try to swim’. Born in Ilford, Essex, in 1949, his first charity swim was in 1970 when he completed 240 lengths of Barkingside swimming pool to raise £400 for a cancer charity, with his sponsors offering 1d per length. He went on to raise money in a variety of ways, such as flying on the wings of a Tiger Moth biplane, and when it came to the Thames, he says, ‘I did it because no one had done it before. People’s reactions were, “you’re mad, it’s never been done and it’s too long”.’ But Andy covered over seventeen miles on his first day, and in the end swam 147 miles in twelve days to Teddington, where the Port of London Authority told him to stop, despite his initial aim of going all the way to Southend. In the process he raised £20,000 for the Anthony Nolan Trust.
Andy says the non-tidal Thames is very clean; the only problem was boat discharge and at one point ‘there was a boat coming towards me and I got a slap in the face, I went high but not high enough and got two mouthfuls, luckily it went to my stomach not my lungs. It didn’t taste very nice. I burped and spluttered and carried on. Then I went to that night’s accommodation, ran a hot bath, and threw up in it. I was ill the rest of that day, it was suggested I take a day’s rest.’
And what did he think about while swimming?
‘Absolutely everything, the mind wanders. When I trained I counted the lengths but when doing a continuous swim I thought about my overnight accommodation, whether I’m pacing myself too fast or too slow, whether the escort boat is doing what it should be doing. You think and you swim, that’s all you’re doing, though you can come under a bridge and think, I wonder which bridge this is?
‘You don’t hear much in the water except for propellers and you don’t know if it’s a boat coming towards you or if it’s behind you. There are signs. As a boat gets close you wait for a bow wave. The first little wave will tell you where the boat is coming from; if it rolls over your shoulder you don’t worry because although the next one will be bigger, if it’s from behind you, you will float, so you can maintain your normal breathing pattern. If the boat is coming from in front of you then you will get a slap on the forehead with the first little bow wave and then you have to raise yourself up or you will breathe in a mouthful of Thames from the next wave!’ For sustenance on his trip, Andy ate Mars Bars, sandwiches, and ‘a supplement in a squeezy sachet, it was like strawberry jam, it was so thick that I had to rinse my mouth out in the Thames it was so horrible. I was eating about 10,000 calories a day and still losing weight.’
The year after Andy’s swim Lewis Pugh also started near Lechlade, in order to swim the length of the river, without a wetsuit. Then thirty-six, Lewis was already a noted endurance and cold-water swimmer. Born in Plymouth, his family emigrated to South Africa when he was ten. He returned to England in his mid-twenties, and after reading International Law at Cambridge worked as a maritime lawyer in the City of London, at the same time serving as a Reservist in the British Special Air Service. He then gave up his job to campaign for the protection of the environment. The year of his Thames swim Lewis had already completed an expedition to Antarctica, and the year before he’d been to Spitsbergen in the Arctic. Returning to England he was shocked that the threat to the wildlife environment he’d seen on his travels wasn’t being taken more seriously, so in conjunction with the World Wide Fund for Nature he came up with the idea of swimming the Thames.
England was then in the middle of a major drought, water rationing had started in London, and Lewis hoped his swim would draw attention to climate change and show that people didn’t have to travel far to see what was happening in their own environment. ‘It was the toughest swim I’d ever done,’ he says today. ‘I was hugely unprepared. A couple of months before I did a recce looking at the flow with Nic Marshall [a friend from South Africa who was to accompany him on his swim]. We threw sticks into the water near Lechlade, Nic ran a hundred metres and we timed how long it took for the sticks to get to him.’
They calculated the river flow was three kilometres an hour and ‘estimated it would take around a week for me to swim the Thames, possibly ten days. So my entire team took fourteen days’ leave and we hired a barge. I was working in London at the time, I could only train for forty-five minutes three times a week, but because it was flowing nicely I thought, go for it! Then, on 7 July, I got to the source and saw it was dry and thought, this will be a slog.’
The Thames Head stone was surrounded with parched grass, so along with another friend, Alex Wales, he ran for twenty-five miles until they found the river deep enough to swim. Finally, Lewis entered the water near Buscot Lock, a couple of miles downstream from the Round House, and what struck him was the stillness of the river: after weeks without rain it was ‘like a millpond’. There was no chance of being carried along; instead, a week’s swim turned into a twenty-one-day odyssey.
Andy and Lewis are not the only long-distance swimmers to set their sights on the Thames, for a waterway that stretches over 200 miles is ideal for anyone who either wants a challenge or simply to experience what it’s like to swim in the same river day after day.
The Walsh brothers (Mark on the left and Richard on the right) share a laugh at Boveney Lock in the summer of 2009, after four days swimming along the Thames.
In 2009 brothers Richard and Mark Walsh similarly started near Lechlade when they decided to swim the non-tidal Thames to raise money for leukaemia research, following the death of one of Mark’s teaching colleagues. Two years earlier the pair had swum the length of all the lakes in the Lake District - fifty miles in forty-eight hours to raise money for Guide Dogs for the Blind. ‘We were looking for something bigger and better,’ says Richard, ‘we both grew up in and around Windsor so we had swum in the Thames, it had always been there as a backdrop and I knew of Lewis Pugh’s swim and thought we could give it a go. It was just me and my brother swimming next to each other in the Thames, and Dad in a canoe.’
The idea was to begin at Cricklade Bridge, upstream from Lechlade, but ‘there was just enough water to cover the top of our feet, I could see the river meandering off, but we didn’t want to walk the whole of the first day dragging a canoe’. Even when they started swimming from St John’s Lock on 24 August ‘there was no flow at all. But we knew it was relatively clean, in some parts it was crystal clear, in others there was dead tree matter but it’s all organic. I didn’t get sick, my brother did afterwards but I kept my mouth shut. The Thames is a safe environment to do long distance, rather than swimming forty miles out to sea; if you get into trouble you can put your feet down and find a place to get out. It’s a unique environment.’
The brothers’ equipment was minimal. ‘I later saw David Walliams on the TV, he had four people drying his wetsuit with hairdryers while he ate his lunch, whereas we camped by the river and put on the same cold wetsuit that we’d taken off six hours before. Every morning at four o’clock was difficult, especially the second day, but by the third day your body gets conditioned to it.’ Richard found himself mentally drifting off while swimming and humming songs to himself: ‘an hour would pass and I couldn’t remember what I’d been thinking about.’ While they succeeded in their challenge and finished the swim after five days, they only raised around half of their intended £2,500, but he would like to try it again: ‘swimming is such a tonic, isn’t it? It makes you full of life, especially in open water.’
The following year it was the turn of American Charlie Wittmack. His plan was to undertake an eleven-month 10,000-mile world triathlon, swimming the Thames and the Channel, cycling from France to Nepal and then climbing Mount Everest. ‘Originally my idea was to connect Captain Webb’s Channel swim and Edmund Hillary’s ascent of Everest,’ he explains, ‘then I decided to make it a world triathlon.’ Charlie tested things out by climbing Everest in 2003, where he learned about mother and child mortality in Nepal, and decided to raise money to improve basic health care by supporting community health workers. Charlie and his wife Cate withdrew their life savings, sold their house and car and took out a hefty loan, and Charlie also insured himself for $2.5 million - in case the journey killed him. ‘I had read a lot about Pugh’s swim, and as I researched further I got even more excited when I realised the environmental success story that the Thames presented. It was a dead river, now there were 320 types of aquatic life. I even heard on the BBC there were little seahorses swimming around London.’
Charlie was then thirty-three and working as an attorney and college professor, and, while he’d been to London a few times, he’d never swum in the Thames. He was aware of the Channel Association people who trained in the river, as well as SwimTrek, and he’d followed the progress of the Walsh brothers, ‘but most people in the US don’t know much about the Thames, people are not that intelligent about geography around the world and certainly not Britain or the Thames, so I would tell them its history, where it starts and goes’.
The reaction to his intended swim ‘wasn’t that great, it was more than people could imagine. A 250-mile swim is not something most Americans would ever think about, marathon swimming is not a very popular sport in the US, we don’t have that rich history that you all have with the Channel Swimming Association. In the US people don’t really understand exploration and adventurers, the public are more interested in traditional sports, like American football and basketball. If you want to go climb a mountain that’s even offensive to a lot of people, they see it as sort of selfish and egomaniacal and grandiose. So as an adventurer it’s always fun being in the UK because you really understand why it is that people want to go out and push the limits of human endurance.’ And that’s why he chose the Thames, a testing ground for human endeavour for hundreds of years and where his hero Captain Webb once trained.
A triumphant Charlie Wittmack on the escort boat just off the coast of Cap Griz Nez, having swum the Thames and then the Channel as part of his 2010 world triathlon.
Like others before him, Charlie initially wanted to swim through London, but he couldn’t get permission from the PLA. American press reports say he ‘started at the source’; swimming 275 miles ‘up’ river, but in fact, like Lewis Pugh, he too began around Buscot Lock. ‘The first day was really tough, it was eight to ten miles and every few strokes I would get stuck on something and have to stand up and walk again, about twenty per cent of the first day was spent walking and a lot of it was just spent floating and doing breaststroke and trying to get through shallow water.’
Charlie was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the water: ‘in the upper Thames it tasted great, it was very clear, and most of the time I could see the bottom.’ However, like other long-distance Thames swimmers, he did get sick. ‘I went to hospital twice, the doctors weren’t really willing to say what exactly was wrong, some people thought it was some sort of amoebic dysentery, but your medical system is different from the US and folks in the UK don’t worry about that sort of thing too much. In the US I would have gone through days and days of medical tests and evaluations at great expense. In the UK I was just told I was foolish for swimming in the Thames and I should go home and not do that any more.’ Charlie also lost ‘about four toenails’ during his swim, cut his feet on wire and glass and one day, because he was so tired, accidentally dropped the kayak he was carrying on his foot.
‘There was no real euphoric time, it’s just hard, you’re in water up to sixteen hours a day, you just take half an hour at a time. I knew I had ten months left of the rest of the expedition, swimming the Thames was only a small part. I tried to enter a meditative state because if you allow yourself the indulgence of thinking about things aside from the swim it really becomes such a distraction that it makes it hard to complete the challenge you have in front of you.’
Getting started each day was the most difficult thing and he ‘ate everything I could find, sandwiches, bread, fruit’, as well as consuming a litre of high-carbohydrate drink every half-hour. He had one person paddling in a canoe next to him, whereas for the Channel part of his swim he had a support crew of twelve.
Charlie says it’s hard to say how much money he raised, but ‘at the end of the day the programme in Nepal was fully funded through Save the Children. You need to be careful that the money goes to the charity and not to fund the expedition.’ As for the future, ‘I would absolutely love to swim the Thames again, without all the pressure of a world triathlon on the other end and the financial pressure of funding it. The Thames is such an extraordinary place, it’s absolutely beautiful and the swim was so serene, but oftentimes I didn’t have the opportunity to really appreciate it. I really regret that. It’s difficult on a year-long expedition to stay in the moment and I struggled with that. My advice to others is absolutely do it, particularly the upper portion, wherever you can get in.’
In 2011, when David Walliams started his Thames swim he began upstream from Buscot Lock at Riverside Park near Halfpenny Bridge, striding into the water at 8.22 a.m. and ‘walking into a bath of ice’. He’d assumed the river might be warm in September, but it was 15 degrees, colder than when he’d swum the Channel five years before. It was when ‘a blue tinge’ began creeping up his back, one of the first signs of hypothermia, that he was advised to put on a wetsuit.
David, already well known as a TV comedian and for his Channel swim that had raised a million pounds for Sport Relief, has a family tradition of Thames swimming. ‘My mum swam in the Thames, she was a keen swimmer and in a swimming club and she did races in south London,’ he explains. ‘She always liked open water and lidos. Most people don’t like swimming outdoors, they like swimming pools, they’re clean and they like the temperature.’ But his only experience in the Thames had been a dip on a summer’s day in his twenties near Henley. ‘When I told people that I was going to do it their eyes lit up because it was for Sport Relief and they were pleased and excited because it was something dramatic. For us, the thing was working out how to do it and make it interesting and make it work as entertainment on TV. That was the challenge, otherwise it might be boring.
‘When I began my swim it was unseasonably cold after a bad summer, and it’s tough. The cold really tires you out, you expend so much energy fighting the cold, just being in it is tough, you need to keep moving. My mind was focused but in the Thames there is so much to look at, the banks were lined with hundreds of people, you go through villages and towns, people come out to have a look. There’s a lot to see and react to. But you don’t hear so well in the water and it all gets a bit dreamy. You get glimpses, as you lift your head out to breathe, you get snaps and snatches, it doesn’t feel like reality. Swimming the Thames is just very iconic, there are so many landmarks on the banks and it gives you a new perspective doing it at water level, it feels very special.’
While the Lechlade area is today known as a starting point for long-distance swims, and in David’s case marked the point when watching someone swim the Thames became mass entertainment, others like to bathe here, too. Roger Deakin of Waterlog fame swam at Buscot Pool, where he found the river a ‘modest affair’, the water clear enough to see tench weaving among the lily stalks, but he decried the ‘big, ugly notices proclaiming the danger of deep water’.
Grafton Lock, a couple of miles downstream, is another favourite spot for modern swimmers, such as Phil Tibenham. He first came to swimming after a back injury. ‘I always wanted to try outdoor swimming and I had always swum in the sea, but I started swimming in the Thames around six years ago whenever I could.’ He has taken part in a number of organised events, but also swims on his own. ‘It feels like I’ve done it for ever, swimming in the Thames. First I tried a little paddle and it escalated from there. It’s the most interesting way to swim. A couple of times I’ve swum at Grafton Lock alone, people are not happy about that, particularly Mum. Once I swam just before Christmas, it was chilly and I wore a wetsuit. Dusk was falling and the moon was just coming up, and I swam about half a kilometre. To be in water under a moon alone …!’ When his daughter was seven he took her for a dip atGrafton: ‘it was cold and there were a couple of grumpy swans nearby, but swimming in the Thames is definitely something that one can pass on to one’s children. It’s a gift for life. I’ve never got ill. Higher up in the Cotswolds it’s really clean. You get out and your hair feels like it’s got conditioner in it and your skin feels like silk, it’s like a mud treatment. I’ve swum other rivers and the Thames is cleaner. It’s a sanctuary for me. I did a two-day swim near Grafton Lock, we got out there at night and the lock keeper made us tea and we became friends.’ Phil usually straps a knife to his calf if he’s swimming alone, not to fend off anything but in case he gets caught in something. But the worst thing that’s ever happened is losing an earplug. He is a Shaw Method swimming instructor, a method that focuses on body awareness and a swimmer’s relationship with water. To him, swimming is ‘science crossed over with art and, for want of a better word, the spiritual side’.
It’s because of this rich recent heritage of Thames swimming around Lechlade that I’ve signed up for a one-day swim with SwimTrek, covering five miles from Buscot Lock to Radcot Bridge in Oxfordshire. SwimTrek has been running Thames swims since its inception in 2003 and founder Simon Murie says he enjoys ‘things that are iconic. I need something classical like the Greek islands, the Hellespont in Turkey, and the Thames; it’s a famous river.’ He has vivid memories of spending childhood summer holidays in Ham in south-west London in the late seventies. ‘My mother was a keen river swimmer and I remember sitting on the side of the Thames with my thermos flask, her listening to the radio and me with my comics. I was a young boy and conscious of what others would think and I sort of dreaded it. But my mum liked getting away from things, the stresses of everyday life, and we spent a lot of summer days swimming against the current and crossing over to the canoe club. In the evenings there were pleasure boats with disco lights flashing and there was me, a thirteen-year-old, and people looking out of the windows thinking, “what the hell is he doing?” As I grew older, I got more into it. When I was young I would think, “who’s looking at me?” By the time I was fifteen or sixteen it didn’t worry me. It was very important for my mum to be able to get away from it all, and when she died we scattered her ashes on the place she liked most.’
So perhaps it’s not surprising that he chose the Thames for SwimTrek’s first swimming holiday. ‘The reaction from people is different now, we used to be asked, “are you allowed to do it?” and “are you doing this for charity?” They couldn’t think why else we’d be doing it; we had to explain we were doing it for pleasure.’ With the first group of Thames swimmers many lived in London and wanted to immerse themselves in a river that flowed past their backyard. The company has continued to run Thames swims every year: ‘we get a lot of Germans. After the British, they’re into open-water swimming; it’s the Saxon heritage. But ten years ago open-water swimming was not nearly as popular or fashionable as it is now.’
As I set off for Lechlade I’m wondering what my experience will be like swimming in the upper Thames. Will it be as clean as people say, or will I get ill? Can I enjoy a proper swim, whisked along by the current, or will I only be wading in freezing cold water?