Dock Swim - Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames (2015)

Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames (2015)


Dock Swim

‘The charity element of swimming the Thames is huge’

Alex Jackson, Great Swim operations manager

The PLA galas in the London Docks presumably ended around the outbreak of the Second World War, and were never resumed. Today, however, there’s a new opportunity to swim here with the launch in 2009 of the Great London Swim, an annual one-mile event in the Royal Victoria Dock. The Great Swim series started in 2008 with one mile in Lake Windermere. That was a good year for British open-water swimmers at the Beijing Olympics, with Keri-Anne Payne’s silver and Cassandra Patten’s bronze in the women’s marathon ten-kilometre open-water event, and David Davies’ silver in the men’s. The Windermere swim was such a success that the series was expanded and now there are five events. The Royal Victoria Dock was chosen because of its location, with its backdrop of the O2, plenty of transport links, space for medics, changing areas and a charity village, and the opportunity for swimmers to cover a mile.

I’ve signed up to do the swim for several reasons; it will be my first experience of a mass-participation event and I’ll be in the water with hundreds of others, many of them determined racers, when I don’t like the idea of crowds and hate the notion of competing. It will also be a very different experience from my lush upper Thames swim through the Oxfordshire countryside from Buscot Lock to Radcot Bridge. This will be a city swim, and I want to get a sense of what it might have been like swimming in London’s dockland seventy years ago, and to understand who does it now and why.

But then on the evening of Thursday 29 August I get an unexpected email. Forty hours from now I’ll be arriving at the Royal Victoria Dock for ‘the UK’s biggest mass-participation open-water swimming series’, only something’s gone wrong. The email informs me that ‘Following recent tests … the water has been found to be unsafe for immersion sports, such as swimming.’ So the venue has been changed to Millwall Dock. This puts me in a bit of a panic; I’ve visited the Royal Victoria Dock, interviewed people who’ve swum there, and watched numerous YouTube videos. I felt I was well prepared for my first mass-participation swim, and now I’m not. The email explains: ‘despite multiple clear test results in recent months … activity related to construction work in the immediate area has resulted in the reduction in water quality’. The organisers assure me that my ‘safety and comfort’ is their number one priority. None of the Great London Swim literature has mentioned Millwall, but now we’re told it ‘has always been on standby as a suitable alternative’.

Then I realise what a gift this is, because it was Millwall Cutting where a gala was held in 1906 and where the PLA hosted their swimming events in the 1930s. So, rather than swimming at the Royal Victoria Dock, I’m actually going to be further upstream on the Isle of Dogs, right next to the West India Docks where Kathleen Ralphs won her silver cups.

First opened in 1868, Millwall Dock was mainly used for timber and grain. It’s an L-shaped construction with an outer dock, where the swim is held, and an inner dock at the end of which is Millwall Cutting. Today the area is a commercial business district, its office towers home to technological, publishing, legal and financial companies. The three West India Docks, meanwhile, were closed to commercial traffic in 1980 and are now the site of Canary Wharf.


The Royal Victoria Dock was chosen as the original venue for the first Great London Swim, a one-mile course that attracts thousands of swimmers every year.

The new venue for the swim is Docklands Sailing & Watersports Centre, at the west end of the outer Millwall Dock where it used to be connected to the Thames by a channel that was filled in during the 1920s. But although I’m keen to swim near where Kathleen Ralphs once raced, I’m still a little anxious that I haven’t seen the venue and that I’m going to be in the water with thousands of others. That night I dream I’ve lost my designated swimmer’s hat, then I have my hat but there is no number on it and I’m walking down an urban road in the dark in my wetsuit insisting it’s too cold to swim.

The next morning I get to Millwall Dock to find a mass of people crossing back and forth on Westferry Road, with volunteers holding up ropes to stop traffic. It all feels a bit haphazard; I’m not sure where to go and all I really want is to see the course. The dock looks big to me, although it’s smaller than the Royal Victoria. The water is calm and sprinkled with sunshine; there is barely a ripple. There’s no bunting as there was in the 1930s, but there is a carnival atmosphere. I can hear music in the distance and smell frying onions from a nearby food tent. People stand in front of brightly coloured flags and banners advertising the event sponsors, holding up cameras and jostling for the best view.

I’ve been told by one swimmer that in the early days of the London Triathlon, which held swims in the Royal Victoria Dock in the mid-1980s, it was a grim place, a barren wasteland with dead dogs and cats in the water. The docks have certainly improved since then, the landscape no longer a scene of Depression-era warehouses with a section of the West India Dock skimmed off with a boom to stop anything floating in.

The first of today’s swimmers started at 9 a.m.; we’re split into ‘waves’ and I’m in the 11 a.m. ‘white wave’, which means I wear a white hat with my number on it. I watch a group of people in wetsuits walking down a jetty; they look like upright beetles as one by one they go in. I can see the course runs down the right-hand side of the dock, past a series of yellow buoys resembling bouncy castles, then the swimmers seem to disappear before returning along the left-hand side. Unlike in Ralphs’ time, there’s no floating platform in the middle of the dock for people to dive off.

I’ve been warned about dehydration, so I drink a bottle of water before going to change; there are no tugs to undress in as there were in the 1930s, instead there are large canvas tents across Westferry Road. But I’m stopped at the entrance to the women’s tent and asked to produce my hat. I’ve left it in another bag with my daughter, and now they won’t let me in. This is my bad dream coming true. I sit on a small stone wall by the toilets and put on my wetsuit, then return to the starting area. ‘Look, Mum,’ says my daughter as she hands me my hat, ‘look at the faces of everyone getting out, they’re smiling!’

I chat to a woman behind me who has just done the Great Swim in Windermere. She seems seasoned and sympathetic and I must look worried because she asks, ‘Have you ever swum outdoors before?’ It’s now 10.30 a.m. and time to check in for the white wave. I fix the timing chip provided around my ankle, secure the Velcro strap, give my name to someone with a clipboard and am told to rest my ankle against a block. This is nothing like my upper river swim; the challenge here seems not so much to swim in the Thames but to do it as speedily as possible. We all mill around near the start, helping ourselves to water. I drink two bottles, so now that’s three I’ve drunk and I really need the toilet. We’ve been advised not to drink any alcohol the night before, but I overhear a woman saying she had three beers and a curry.

We’re let into the acclimatisation area, a roped-off section of the dock next to the starting pontoon. This is a chance to get used to the water, and we’re told to swim clockwise. I walk down what appears to be an underwater ramp. ‘When you get to me,’ says a man in a red t-shirt, ‘you can swim.’ I get to him and throw myself in, hoping I’ve cleared the ramp. The water isn’t too bad, it’s 19.5 degrees, just half a degree colder than Gospel Oak lido has been this week, but I hear a man behind me say, ‘Shit, it’s cold.’ I start to swim leisurely, not wanting to use up any energy. Then I feel a sharp pain in my side as someone overtakes and when I look round someone else kicks me in the foot.

We’re herded out of the water and a man takes a microphone to welcome us. The fastest time so far has been just under twenty minutes but for some it could take two hours. ‘In twenty minutes,’ he says, ‘you’ll wonder what all those sleepless nights were about. An hour from now, you’ll be in the pub.’ He asks the newbies to put up their hands; nearly everyone in this wave of around 200 people is doing it for the first time. But one or two have done all the Great Swims this year; this is their last and the warmest. The man expertly mixes jokes with information and reassurance. He tells us about the people in kayaks, the lifeguards and volunteers. If we have any problem at all, we just stop and put our hand up. Then he passes the mike to a woman who launches into a manic group exercise routine.

I wonder how the dock events would have started in the 1930s, whether a gun was fired before the swimmers in their one-piece knitted costumes leapt in. There would have been no safety canoes back then, and probably no written warnings about the state of the water either. My ‘on the day guide’ advises that all cuts or abrasions should be covered, to try not to swallow any water, to take ‘a full shower at the earliest opportunity’ and ‘if you feel unwell for a period of up to three weeks after your swim, visit your GP and advise them you have been swimming in open water’. Unlike my SwimTrek trip, however, there is no specific mention of Weil’s disease.


Lining up to enter the Millwall Dock. I’m fourth from right and about to start my first mass-participation swim.

Thankfully, there isn’t a scrum to get into the dock. In previous years, I’ve been told, people ran in and smashed into each other and so I’ve been advised to stay right at the back. As the hooter sounds we’re let in, one small group at a time, with everyone walking politely. But why is the PA system playing an Olly Murs song, ‘Troublemaker’, with the refrain ‘I swear you’re giving me a heart attack’?

I’m in the last six as we head towards the waters of Millwall Dock. Then off we go, and I think, it’s easy after all, it’s just swimming. It feels a little like being in a pond, the water is dark and smells of bracken and when I open my eyes underneath I can’t see a thing. I wonder how deep it is; there’s no chance I could put my feet down here and feel mud between my toes as I did near Buscot Lock. I swallow some water by accident and it tastes like metal, but it’s clear enough for me to see my hands in the water, with a faintly yellow tinge.

All around me the dock is being churned up by swimmers, arms and legs thrashing, and I can’t quite get the right rhythm, unable to decide which stroke to use. In the upper Thames I tried to follow the curves of the river; here there’s a set course I have to follow. The warm-up man has told us that after the first buoy at 200 metres we will be fine but it’s not until I reach the second one that I calm down. I seem to be veering near the wall where people are standing cheering and waving. It’s strange being watched while I’m swimming, it makes me feel self-conscious and so I tread water and take in the views: a tree-lined walkway on my right, ahead a single chimney rising up over a small park with bushes like giant bunches of broccoli, on my left the sun bounces off the reflective windows of shiny office blocks. I want to take in this city swim experience, to lie and float and think about things, but I have to keep an eye out for everyone else. A woman is doing a strong backstroke seriously off course; she’s heading my way and she can’t see me and I stop as a man on a kayak puts her back on track.

I get to the end of the dock and swim alongside boats, some like old-fashioned tugs; on one a couple are sitting having their breakfast as hundreds of people swim past. I turn on to my back; there are no overhanging trees here, no bright blue dragonflies, instead I see a man high up at an office window, leaning out, smoking a cigarette. I feel like I’m part of some bizarre entertainment as still the people on the walkways cheer and shout. Then I reach a bridge, behind which is the inner dock and after that Millwall Cutting. Now I’m on the final stretch, swimming towards the finishing line through two large buoys. I’m enjoying it more now, because I can see the end and nothing has gone wrong except my bladder is ready to burst. I tread water as discreetly as possible and at once a man in a kayak zooms over and asks if I’m OK. ‘I’m fine!’ I tell him. But my daughter later says, ‘You didn’t look like it, Mum, you looked like you were drowning.’

I see a digital clock face ahead of me. It’s 11.50 a.m. So I’ve been a bit slower than I thought, although I have had quite a few stops and floats. But I can speed up now, I don’t have to worry about getting tired and suddenly it feels like the most brilliant day to be swimming round a dock.

A man helps me out of the water and on to the exit ramp. I’m a bit dazed; although I don’t feel the euphoria I had with my upper Thames swim.

I’m given a finisher’s bag and follow a sign to a shower. Then I start to cough, and soon I’m coughing so much I’m nearly retching. I think of Kathleen Ralphs’ mother, waiting at home with a dose of sennapods because of what her daughter may have swallowed while swimming in the dock. But I also think how proud she must have been to have won three silver cups, just as my daughter asks, ‘Have you got a medal?’

I walk back to the tent to get changed and it’s now I appreciate how well it’s all been organised, the venue was transformed in less than two days, thousands of people are being carefully supervised swimming round a dock in half-hour waves. An hour later I’m home and the first thing I want to do is have a bath; I have an urge to wash off the Thames. Then I look at my Just Giving page. Entrants to the Great Swims are encouraged to raise money, helped to create a Just Giving page and nominate a charity, so I’ve put down Solace Women’s Aid. I see that in five days I’ve raised £520. If the majority of people swimming today were doing it for charity, and if the average pledged is a few hundred pounds, then today’s event could have raised £100,000.

In Victorian times people made wagers on swimming races across and along the river, in the 1930s they competed for silver cups in the docks; now we actually pay to swim here (the London Great Swim fee is £39) and make money for charity in the process.

‘The charity element is huge,’ says Alex Jackson, Great Swim operations manager. Thirty per cent of swimmers today were raising money, although it’s not the main motivation. Twenty-six per cent want a challenge, a quarter are looking for a good time and/or to beat a personal best, while 12 per cent do it to raise money. Men make up 51 per cent of the swimmers, overall 32 per cent are aged 26-35; there are 20 per cent in my age group of 46-55, four per cent over 61 and 12 per cent under 25.

‘Initially some people did think, “hmm, a dock: do I want to swim where people throw their rubbish?”,’ says Alex, ‘but we’re very vigilant about testing the water.’ While the organisers were aware of a tradition of people swimming in the London Docks, ‘to be honest, it was more about having a good product and wanting to put it on and find a location; we’ve missed the history element a bit. But we’ve come full circle, from leisure use to industrial use and back to leisure.’

The morning of my swim, after I’ve had a bath, I check the comments on the Facebook page. People say the venue was excellent and want Millwall again next year; many boast they beat their personal best; others want to know when the results will be up. A few hours later I search for the timings; the category ‘Elite Men and Masses’ is topped by a man who did it in nineteen minutes and one second. But there are women listed here as well, and when I ask Alex if they are ‘the masses’ he assures me he’ll look into it.

I put in my name; I did the mile in forty-seven minutes fifty-two seconds. The quickest in my wave did it in twenty minutes thirty-eight seconds, the slowest in one hour ten minutes. My overall position is 1806. Now I’m tempted to come back next year and be a bit faster. How many minutes did I waste before actually starting to swim and what about all the times I stopped to take in the views? It’s only the next day that I open my finisher’s bag. Inside there is a snack bar, shampoo, a small tube of toothpaste, nuts, a t-shirt - and there it is, right at the bottom, my medal. Here is the proof that I swam in the London Docks, just as people have been doing since the 1930s when the oil was so thick that Kathleen Ralphs shot through the water during the PLA Swimming Club Ladies Championships at twice her normal speed.