Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames (2015)
‘Of exercises, swimming’s best,
Strengthens the muscles and the chest’
Dr E. Baynard, Health, 1764
It’s a Monday lunchtime in early August and when I look out of the window of the train from London there are low black clouds most of the way to Swindon. I’m anxious about a few things: mainly if I will be able to cover the whole five miles. I’m a fair-weather swimmer; for me it’s a solitary activity done for pleasure. I’ve always swum outdoors, starting as a toddler at the unheated lido on Hampstead Heath in north London and then as a teenager in the Heath’s bathing ponds. But cold water has become more of a challenge as I’ve grown older and I only venture to the lido or ponds on warm days. While I don’t mind swimming with weeds and fish, I’ve never been competitive and I’ve never swum any set distance.
In February, shortly after I visited Thames Head and the source, I started my ‘training’, aiming first to swim twice a week at an indoor pool. I knew I’d have to be able to swim for at least an hour at a time for this trip, and it was a couple of weeks before I managed a mile, with quite a bit of stopping and starting and a growing sense of lane rage. Then I decided, for the first time in my life, to wear a wetsuit, optional for SwimTrek but providing protection against the cold. The label on mine said it was inspired by the killer whale and when I tried it on I immediately felt encased; it was like wearing a thick rubbery inner tube. I tried it out at the Gospel Oak lido; the water was just 15 degrees, which would normally be too chilly for me, but with the wetsuit on I was able to swim straight away. I was oddly bouncy as I started doing front crawl, travelling on the surface of the water as if held up by some invisible force. Then I tried breaststroke. My feet popped up out of the water as if they were made of cork; I couldn’t kick; I had no power in my legs at all. I did two lengths and gave up. As the weeks went by I managed to swim further, then I moved to the Heath’s mixed bathing pond, deciding this would more resemble the experience I would have in the River Thames, but I still didn’t know if I could do five miles.
As the train reaches Reading I see the river from the window again: it looks very wide, empty and cold. I have other worries apart from the distance, especially swans. I’ve heard many tales of having to escape hissing swans, or what it feels like to be at water level faced with a 6-foot wingspan. I was scared enough of swans to begin with; now I’m just praying I won’t see any.
For weeks I’ve been telling everyone I meet that I’m going to swim in the Thames, partly because I can’t believe I’m going to but also because I enjoy their reaction, which seems to be a mixture of admiration and disgust. But I soon find that swimming in the Thames seems perfectly normal in the Cotswolds. At the bus stop in Swindon a woman says ‘fair play’ when I tell her about my upcoming swimming holiday.
I get off the bus at Lechlade and walk down Thames Street to Halfpenny Bridge where David Walliams began his swim from Riverside Park. I pass low stone cottages and the Cotswold Canal Trust, then the road leads up to the small hump of a bridge - Halfpenny Bridge - named after the toll pedestrians were required to pay until 1839 and where there is still a small, square toll house. To the right the view is all but obscured by a huge weeping willow,beyond which I can see swans and moored canal boats. To my left the land looks as if it’s been cut with dressmaker’s scissors, leaving the banks a little frayed around the edges. Andy Nation began his 2005 swim around a mile upstream from here, while the Walsh brothers started just downstream at St John’s Lock. I’m trying to imagine what it would have been like to set off, knowing there are some 147 miles to go, when there’s a roll of thunder and so I rush back to the town centre, reaching the porch of the Lechlade library just as it begins to rain. I shelter from the downpour; behind me is the spire of St Lawrence church and the paved path amid the gravestones named after Shelley. Eventually the rain stops, a rainbow appears in the sky over Thames Street and the pavements shimmer.
‘It’s not a competition,’ advises Clive the local cab man as he drives me to Kelmscott and I tell him about my swim; ‘go with the flow, get your stroke right and get the right rhythm and you’ll be fine.’ I arrive at the seventeenth-century Plough Inn where I’m staying for two nights. A man at the bar says they get a lot of SwimTrek people in here and I ask if they are super-serious swimmers. ‘No!’ he laughs, as if this is the funniest thing he’s ever heard, ‘they only do fifty yards.’ I walk through Kelmscott and past the manor, the old summer home of the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Morris who called this part of the river ‘the Baby Thames’ and whose ‘Willow Boughs’ wallpaper was inspired by the trees surrounding Buscot Pool. There are doves in the air; the emerald fields shine in the sun. I head down a lane and see a sign for the Thames Path, a small landing stage and the river. It’s utterly silent, the river a milky white. It would be easy enough to jump in, I think, but where do you get out? I throw in a stick and watch for evidence of a current, just as Lewis Pugh did in 2006. The stick moves, ever so slightly, downstream.
The next morning it’s a cloudy 13 degrees when Josie Arnold from the Plough drives me to Buscot Lock, close to where Lewis Pugh and Charlie Wittmack began their record-breaking swims. During the recent heatwave Josie jumped in the Thames one night to cool off, as many people do, but she says she’d only ever do it with a friend, never alone. The first thing I see at Buscot Lock is a big sign reading: ‘Welcome to the lock. Please stay safe during your visit. Warning deep water. No swimming’.
There’s a boat moored on the side of the river, and a tarpaulin spread on the grass where a woman is sitting massaging her legs. Dawn Howard is an Associate Fellow at Sussex University; this is her second day swimming and she’s not wearing a wetsuit. Others arrive and there is a general feeling of anticipation. Our swim guides are Yolande Joubert, an Australian, and former beach lifeguard Eleanor Selby who has been a competitive pool swimmer. They offer us tea, coffee, juice, biscuits and nuts, and ask, ‘you have all eaten, haven’t you?’ Then our pre-tour briefing begins and we go round and introduce ourselves. Sandra Simpson says her swimming style is steady, not strong. She did a short triathlon five years ago and was afraid of the swimming part so she did a SwimTrek swim in Majorca to get tips. She’s annoyed that, as she’s over sixty, she had to provide a letter from her doctor, who basically said ‘she seems fine to me’.
I’ve been told I must have insurance for this Thames trip and have to produce evidence of it at the start or I won’t be able to swim. So a few months ago I’d contacted the Post Office who said they couldn’t provide cover if it was for a professional, tournament or competition swim. They also said I’d need a minimum of two nights’ pre-booked accommodation - which is why I’m staying at the Plough Inn. But the Post Office doesn’t seem sure about wild swimming and they ring their underwriters before calling back. The final answer is that, as long as the Thames trip is ‘professionally organised, supervised and supported’, I have cover. But now we’re here at the Thames, and I’m told insurance isn’t necessary after all.
Aside from Sandra and me, there are ten others in the group. Ian Rees, the only man, is going to do a triathlon and he wants to try the whole way using front crawl. Many have done organised swims and races, often raising money for charity, and I’m getting a bit worried until two women, Kate Beevers and Lisa Romanczuk, announce that this will be the first time they’ve ever swum in a river. When Kate adds that the maximum she can do in a pool is a mile, I want to hug her. We’re then all given a laminated card explaining Weil’s disease: ‘This card is for your protection. Whenever you go to your doctor or to a hospital on account of illness show this card and make sure they know you have been river swimming’. The other side of the card explains that diagnosis is based on lab investigations and in the early stages it may resemble influenza. We’re also encouraged to use antibacterial wash after removing our wetsuits and before eating. A final suggestion is to drink Coca-Cola, as there is a theory that it kills Thames bugs. But boats are the main concern and we are to ‘stay river right’. We are also not to upset the locals, and this includes swans. We’re then told the various communication signals: stop, go left, come to the boat and ‘are you OK?’, which means putting your fingers on top of your head as Mo Farah does after he has won a race. The next topic is chafing and Yolande offers to apply Vaseline to our necks. Chafing has never occurred to me: we’re not exactly going to be swimming the Channel, are we?
A group photo at Buscot Lock, Oxfordshire, where a sign reads, ‘No Swimming’. I’m second from left and nervous about whether I can cover the full five miles.
‘It’s fun,’ says Eleanor, ‘pace yourself and you can always get out.’ Four of us then go to the toilet and I’m so revved up about the fact I’m about to swim five miles in the River Thames that, instead of pulling the toilet chain, I pull the emergency cord and the alarm goes off.
It’s after 11 a.m. when we cross over the lock to wait for the boat. We’re split into two groups - breaststroke and front crawl - and I choose the former. How anyone is going to swim the whole way breaststroke in a wetsuit I have no idea, but I assume they will be slower. I walk backwards down a short, thin ladder. The water is 20 degrees and feels amazingly clean; there is no smell at all. We’re told not to stretch before getting in, but to do so for a few minutes once we are in the water. Then off we go. The river is lush and lined with trees and foxgloves; a bright blue dragonfly hovers over my head. I float on my back, hearing nothing but the plop of a fish from a nearby clump of water lilies. I’m in a world of green, from the vivid grassy banks to the water itself. The great thing about a river is that you don’t know what you will see next, but as I turn a corner I am face to face with my worst nightmare: two big swans with a group of cygnets. We’re told to keep to the left now and my heart is pounding. I feel so vulnerable down at water level, but we swim past the swans without any problem and carry on. The front-crawl people have caught up now and soon they overtake us. I relax again, enjoying the scenery and the blueness of the sky, even the thick, sticky reeds that wrap themselves around me in big fluttery wads. Then Ian calls out in surprise: he’s standing up in the middle of the river. I put down my feet and feel silt squeezing between my toes. Cautiously I stand up as well and the water doesn’t even reach my waist.
The front-crawlers are way ahead now and even though this is supposed to be fun I feel pressure to keep up with them. Someone is beside me and I don’t recognise her because everyone is wearing hats and goggles. There is something odd about her face, as if her skin has been spattered with mud, and it takes me a while to realise that, if she looks like this, then I must, too. It’s tricky keeping to where I’m supposed to be - to stay right and follow the curve of the river - and I frequently find myself in the middle. Ahead of me a woman is doing backstroke straight into a bunch of reeds. Then along comes another swan, the small support boat is in front of me and I can’t remember what hand signal to use. I try a full wave, then I shout, ‘help! Swan!’ The boat turns and comes back but the swan has decided it’s in charge and so it leads us majestically, carrying twelve swimmers and two boats in its wake until eventually it glides off to the right. Now we’re at a bridge and a mooring point. I approach the smaller support boat and ask for some water, only to be told there are just 500 metres to go. I’m ecstatic. I can’t think how long this will take but, incredibly, our first and longest swim of the day is nearly over.
We get out near the Kelmscott landing stage and as we walk to the inn for lunch I ask the others what they most feared. ‘I was worried about death,’ says Kate May, ‘and drowning. But it was an amazing experience, it was so relaxing. The river carries you and the scenery is lovely.’ Kate Beevers, who has never swum in a river before, says she had a moment of panic: she didn’t want to put her head in the water, so she did side stroke for a while until she managed to overcome her fear. We talk about our families and our jobs: our group includes a civil servant, a local authority public heath official, a clinical psychologist and an adult education tutor. We chat about what other people think of our swim and one woman explains that her friends generally say, ‘you’re doing what? The Thames? Ugh!’
Our Australian guide says the English like organised adventure holidays - stressing the word ‘organised’ - and that we like rules and we’re obsessed with Health & Safety. I ask about the training programme and everyone says they did no training at all; you just need to be someone who swims regularly. As we walk back to the landing stage two women drive past. ‘Are you going to William Morris’ manor?’ asks the driver. ‘No!’ I say, ‘we’re going to swim.’ ‘Well, the manor is closed,’ says the driver, not reacting to what I’ve said at all.
Swim number two starts well. I’ve had lunch and I’m warmed up, but I also feel a little lazy and that quickly turns to feeling very tired. I trail at the back, my shoulders seem to be made of metal and urgently need oiling. In the first swim I was somewhere in the middle, now I’m second from last. ‘Try some side stroke,’ says Kate Beevers kindly. Then I see another group of swans and cygnets almost hidden from sight, nestled on the bank. Our guide thinks she recognises one of the swans from the day before and she instructs us all to group together and swim to one side of the boat. This doesn’t deter the swans; they are both in the river now, and they’re following us round the boat. At this point I put my head down and swim as fast as I can.
Travelling down the Thames with SwimTrek, where the river is lush and the water is clean.
But soon I’m exhausted again, my arms and shoulders ache and I can’t swim breaststroke because of my wetsuit. The river seems to just go on and on. Unlike in a pond or a pool, there is no end point, no markers to swim towards, and I don’t know where we’re heading because every view is new.
I feel cocooned in the water, but at the same time oddly exposed. There is a huge gap between me and the swimmer in front and, behind, just a wide expanse of river. I try to swim on my back, then on my front; I feel as if I’m on a long plane journey and I can’t get comfortable and I can’t get out. I want to relax and enjoy where I am, to remember this journey down the upper Thames. I think of Charlie Wittmack explaining how he tried to enter a meditative state and spent much of the first day of his world triathlon just floating. But, more importantly, I remember how he said he regretted he didn’t have time to appreciate where he was.
So I tell myself: this is the Thames, this beautiful, clear, empty river, lined with weeping willows. I’m part of a tradition; I’m swimming in a place where for more than a hundred years women and men have bathed and paddled and raced. Then I see the nose of a crocodile peeping just above the water, disguised as a log. I tell myself I’m in the Thames, I must be going mad.
I come to a white house on the right bank; we’ve been told this means we’re about three-quarters of the way. Yet still our swim goes on and on. I can hear a boat behind me but when I turn round there is nothing; instead it’s a helicopter in the sky. The few times a boat does pass, it is carrying day trippers, meandering downriver, just as in Victorian times. I call out, ‘which way is London?’ and a woman on board gives a tight smile.
Then we arrive at Grafton Lock, a working lock since 1896, and I’m looking forward to having a rest; with two swims down there is just a kilometre and a half to go. This time when I’m offered tea I take it, with lots of sugar, then I accept a piece of chocolate, too. To make it worse I then drink some Coke. Now I’m not only tired but also feeling a bit sick. And I’m so dazed and disorientated that I’ve washed my hands with antibacterial gel, removed the top of my wetsuit, eaten the chocolate and then used the hand gel again.
We walk to an iron jetty on the other side of the lock to wait for the boat. I look at the woman next to me: she seems a bit jittery. ‘Why am I doing this?’ she asks. At lunch she was one of several women who said they had young children and wanted the chance to do something for themselves, to have a challenge. I say I feel sick, and the guides ask if I want to get on the boat. I say no, because I’m expecting us all to have a nice lie-down. But several of the group are laughing and taking off their wetsuits for the final swim. That was my intention, to swim in the Thames as naturally as possible, but I think the wetsuit is the only thing that will keep me going. A man on the bank comes up to the fence and asks, ‘are you doing this for charity?’ ‘No!’ we shout in unison.
Someone suggests I wear flippers but I haven’t worn flippers since I was a little kid and I’m feeling hysterical as I step backwards down a ladder and put on the fins, which takes me a long while. And then surprise! I’m as speedy as anything. I whip through the water. For one glorious moment I’m even leading the pack, a family of pink-hatted otters down the River Thames. I turn on my back and realise that with flippers on I can fold my arms over my stomach, lift my head up out of the water and just comfortably speed along. I see a pillbox left over from the Second World War, a concrete lookout post on the bank of the river, built to halt an anticipated German advance through the English countryside. As we approach Radcot Bridge, often said to be the oldest on the Thames and built in the thirteenth century, we’re told to swim together because there are lots of boats. I swim underneath the stone arch and then look up; there is a hotel to my left and people having a drink outside look at us as if we’re crazy.
I don’t want to get out now. I peel off half my wetsuit, take off my hat and flippers, and have one final splash. Then Cliff, the boat driver, puts a long ladder into the water and one by one we haul ourselves up as he watches us, expressionless, not even a flicker of a smile. Sandra looks at her watch: ‘the total we’ve swum is less than four hours. Think how many days Walliams did.’
I’m feeling triumphant, but there is no way I would do a two-day swimming trip, although two of the group will be swimming all day tomorrow and others are already saying that’s exactly what they’re going to do next year.
The following morning during breakfast at the inn a couple ask, ‘were you one of the swimmers in the Thames? We saw you, people were talking about you. Were you doing it for charity?’ I say we were doing it just for pleasure, and expect them to look surprised and ask if I feel ill. But instead the man says thoughtfully, ‘I’ve got a wetsuit in the attic; I haven’t put it on for years. I used to love open-water swimming when I was younger. I wonder why I don’t do it any more.’
I wonder this as well; perhaps somewhere along the line I lost my love of open-water swimming, too, influenced by fears of dirty, dangerous rivers and having grown far too used to indoor pools. If I hadn’t spent months talking to other Thames swimmers and researching archive swims I would never have set myself this challenge. But the fact I succeeded is nothing compared to the beauty of the experience. I’m beginning to look at the Thames in a new way; why has it never occurred to me to swim here, ever since that dip when I was ten years old, when this morning I feel more refreshed and exhilarated than I have for years?