Andy, Ness and the OSS - Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames (2015)

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


Andy, Ness and the OSS

‘There is absolutely no reason why women can’t swim the length of the Thames’

Ness Knight, adventurer, 2013

The Thames has always been regarded as a challenge. That’s why Captain Webb and Mercedes Gleitze used it as their training ground before crossing the Channel, and why Jules Gautier and Agnes Beckwith dived into the river when they wanted to show Londoners feats never seen before. For over a hundred years it’s been the site of human endeavour and this is a tradition that continues today. In the summer of 2013, when two endurance swimmers decided to set new world records, they launched themselves into the Thames. Andy Nation, the first person to swim the length of the non-tidal river, would this time swim from Teddington all the way to Calais, while Ness Knight would attempt to become the first woman ever recorded to swim from source to sea.

I meet Andy at his home in Knebworth a few months before his trip starts where he explains he got the idea from a neighbour who commented after his 2005 swim: ‘why not carry on to France?’ The only problems the sixty-three-year-old foresees this time around are boat discharge, tides and bigger waves. ‘Endurance events are about a state of mind rather than your body,’ he says. ‘You just keep putting one arm in front of the other for six hours a day.’ However, once again he had a battle with the PLA. ‘I wanted to go through London but they said stop at Vauxhall and get in at Barrier Gardens, after the Thames Barrier. I suggested getting out at Westminster and then in again at the Tower but in the end I decided to comply, as the new by-law gave them the whip hand.’


In 2005 Andy Nation was the first person to swim the length of the non-tidal Thames. Here he’s pictured at Barkingside Pool during his first charity swim in 1970.

This time his 147-mile swim is to raise £1,000,000 for Herts Air Ambulance and Hertford MS Therapy Centre, and he shows me his Autograph Book of ‘People of Our Time’, to be auctioned at the end of the swim. The plan is to gather hundreds of autographs from around the world, including those of royalty, presidents and prime ministers, stars from stage and screen, ‘real-life heroes’ and corporate leaders. Andy’s wife, Lieva, appears with tea and I ask what she thought about his first Thames swim. ‘I felt the distance was too much,’ she says, ‘it was the worry of it all. As a family it was a risk. When he got unwell I said, “that’s it, get out”. But he bucked up.’ Lieva, who ‘hates water’, is similarly concerned about this swim. ‘I’m worried about the dangers and I resent the amount of time it takes up in our lives. The first swim took two years to organise. This one has taken three years, and then because of Andy’s accident it will be five years. So I said, “you get on with it, I’m not prepared to do as much admin and preparation”. But of course at the actual swim I’ll be there.’

The accident she refers to happened in June 2012, shortly before Andy originally planned to start his swim to Calais. He went down the garden one afternoon to talk to Lieva, who keeps bees, picked up a bit of honeycomb and was stung on the forehead. He then ran across the lawn to escape ‘a particularly persistent bee’, fell over and ended up paralysed from the neck down. Andy had surgery, with his vertebrae realigned and fixed with a graft of bone from his hip, as well as a titanium plate and screws. Incredibly, he recovered and, although very weak, started training again. His previous average time for a mile was thirty-two minutes, now it was fifty, but eventually, despite extreme pain, he got that down to 33.5 minutes, and then he set a new date for the Thames. He takes me on a quick tour of the pool house he’s built (which as yet doesn’t have a pool), pointing out the lane rope he will use so he won’t zigzag too much, and a Jacuzzi he’s installed that he bought off eBay and which ‘used to belong to Hugh Grant’. Then, after wishing him good luck, it’s time to say goodbye.

His swim begins well; on 19 July he started from Teddington Lock and swam to Vauxhall Bridge. Day two was a non-swimming day, as he and his six-member team walked fifteen kilometres to Thames Barrier Gardens, but then a ‘dodgy pie’ meant he spent the night throwing up, putting a stop to the day three swim. Back in the river once more, Andy set off swimming from the Thames Barrier and under the QEII Bridge, with a PLA boat accompanying him to Gravesend. He then reached the mouth of the Medway. ‘Tomorrow,’ said his Facebook page, in language reminiscent of Victorian newspaper reports, ‘he’ll be attacking a 23 mile stretch to reach Herne Bay. He’s in very good spirits and looking forward to getting back in the water tomorrow!’ At Herne Bay he ‘mud-walked to shore’ to meet Lieva; here he was hosted by the local 41 Club from the Round Table. On day six he swam to Ramsgate and then came day seven, ‘the LAST day of this epic swim taking him to Dover. After that he’ll be heading home for some well-deserved recuperation in preparation for the Channel crossing.’ But then on 9 August I turn on my computer to see a newspaper headline: ‘KNEBWORTH man Andy Nation has been forced to pull out of a 147-mile charity swim just 10 miles from the end.’

I can barely bring myself to ring him, imagining how crushed he must feel, but when I do he simply says, ‘The swim was good, it went according to plan.’ That is except for the meat pie he ate at the O2, which he is certain is what made him ill. As he’d expected, the main difference compared with his earlier swim was the size of the waves, which he found crashing over him, especially from Herne Bay to Ramsgate, but ‘there was very little wash from boats in the tidal Thames, whereas there had been a lot in the non-tidal river. The Thames was bigger than in 2005, and I stopped for feeds more often. In the non-tidal river I would stop at the locks, whereas in the tidal I had to stop for prescribed pain medication.’

The water wasn’t always nice, however. ‘There were a couple of places where it was really nasty; there were huge bands of seaweed with an inch of brown froth on top and I had to swim through twenty to thirty feet of it a number of times. I thought, “my God, what is this?”’ His highlight was going under the QEII Bridge: ‘that was especially gratifying. I later drove over it and looked down at that vast expanse of water either side, and I thought “yeah, I’ve swum that, brilliant!”’ While he wore a wetsuit for the Thames part of the swim, ‘I decided to dump it to go across the Channel’, so the swim would be recorded by the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation, and wore just trunks, cap and goggles. ‘I began at Shakespeare Beach and for the first five hours it was looking to be a twelve-hour swim, but at seven hours my pace had slowed. I was told my position in the water had changed and I was now looking at a twenty-four-hour crossing. My legs were dropping and I had pain in my spine and my neck. I thought, “that’s not good news, but I’ll carry on”. However, my spine got even more sore and with my pace not improving I decided at seven and a half hours my health was more important than raising money for charity. It was a painful decision and I was bitterly disappointed. But, yes,’ he laughs, ‘my wife was very pleased.’ As for the future, he says he’s set a new world record by being the first person to have swum the entire length of the River Thames, because his 2005 swim started higher upstream than anyone else, but ‘now my wife has my feet nailed firmly to the ground, although I’m still swimming and training’. I think back to what I saw in his autograph book, where someone wrote, ‘why stop at France? Why not New York?’ and think perhaps this could be his next swim.

Nearly a month after Andy began his Thames journey, Ness Knight was getting ready for hers. I first speak to her around ten days before her swim is scheduled to start. Born in Johannesburg, she moved to the UK when she was fifteen and has never swum in the Thames before. She did, however, accompany adventurer Dave Cornthwaite on his 1,001-mile paddleboard trek down the lower Missouri the year before. ‘As an adventurer and endurance athlete, people think you need to go to the ends of the earth,’ she says, ‘but that’s not true, because we have epic terrain on our doorstep. When you think of Great Britain you think of the Thames. My mum always told me London was the centre of the world, as a child I read books with awesome tales about London and the Thames.’ So she decided to come up with a unique round-Britain triathlon, first swimming the Thames, then running 400 miles from Big Ben to Land’s End, and finally a 1,000-mile cycle to John O’Groats. ‘I’ve had mixed reactions,’ she says. ‘Open-water swimmers understand it’s a beautiful river, others, and unfortunately the media, don’t.’


‘When you think of Great Britain you think of the Thames.’ Adventurer and endurance athlete Ness Knight.

As for where she will begin her swim, ‘I have an enormous map of the Thames on my living-room wall; I will possibly start at Cricklade, it’s hard to say because of things like rainfall. When I started to plan this, I started to hear stories about other swimmers and the history of swimming the Thames and it brings a richness to the journey. I don’t know any woman who has done this. A lot of women email me and say “thank you, I’m inspired, I didn’t think it was possible because it’s all men out there.” There is absolutely no reason why women can’t do it. It’s part of the whole issue of women in sport, such as the Tour de France. We’re making progress but we need to get more women out there. The hardest part of something like this is making the decision to do it. Sometimes I tell people what I’m doing and they blank me and move on, they think it’s a joke. I do get dopy questions. It’s such a male-dominated scene, but the support from women has blown me away.’ Her motivation, just as with Agnes Beckwith, Annette Kellerman and Lily Smith before her - champion swimmers she’s never heard of - is to ‘encourage more women to do it’. Beckwith in the 1870s and Kellerman in the early 1900s both felt swimming was an ideal sport for women and one of the few in which they were allowed to compete, while Smith - an outspoken believer in women’s suffrage - believed her swims would ‘put a stop forever to all this twaddle about the weaker sex’. Similarly, over a hundred years later, Ness sees herself as a possible role model; if she can swim the Thames then other women can too.

The main challenges she foresees are loneliness and river traffic. ‘It will get quite busy; the paddle person will guide me through. I will be doing crawl pretty much the whole way, but I’ve been told when I get to London to do breaststroke, and keep my head out of water!’ Her initial aim was to be the first woman to swim from source to sea, then she found out about the by-law. ‘I was only aware of it after I’d decided on my triathlon journey. I knew years ago people could swim the Thames and it’s incredibly frustrating.’ In the end she decided to stop at Putney.

Ness started as scheduled on 10 August, running from the official source at Thames Head, and for the next few days all went well. But then on 20 August she was struck by a bout of ‘Thames tummy’. A couple of weeks later I read that she successfully ended her 155-mile swim at Putney Bridge on 7 September. That makes her the first woman ever recorded to have swum this far, but, unlike the champion women who came before her, the press coverage has been virtually non-existent and I haven’t found a single report except in the online triathlon world. While Andy was interviewed by the press and appeared on local TV, Ness was not.

I finally speak to her again after she’s completed the running section of her triathlon. ‘The first few days of the swim were OK,’ she says, ‘but in the long term it was a funny old journey. I had a struggle to find the source, my GPS wasn’t working. We asked the locals and they gave us different directions and we got there late afternoon, it was heading to dusk. We ran from there, but you can lose the trail and it’s hard to follow the river. I got chased by a bull, stung by nettles, and my partner stood in cowpats. It was an adventure.’ On day one she ran seventeen miles to Castle Eaton, near Cricklade, and the next day she started her swim. ‘We assumed it would quickly get deep enough to swim and so did the locals, but, boy, were we wrong.’ She then waded to Lechlade; ‘the weather had been bad, there were lots of fallen trees, my wetsuit really suffered’, and so day two meant six miles of reeds, sludge and water ‘like an ice bath’.

As with other Thames endurance swimmers, Ness had to battle with sensory deprivation. ‘There was the issue of boredom. I can deal with time alone, I loved cycling across America alone in 2012, but in the Thames there was no stimulation. Fifty per cent of the time you’re looking at brown muddy water, and the other 50 per cent you’re looking to the side and seeing the edge of the paddleboard. My goggles were all fogged up, I had earplugs in so I couldn’t hear anything, I couldn’t talk to anyone … I don’t mind going solo but this was tough. Sometimes I deliberately swam to the side of the river just to feel the reeds, anything to find stimulation! You get a different perspective of a river when you’re swimming, you feel it, smell it, you are immersed in it and every sense is alive, but in terms of communication you are in lockdown.

‘I set myself short-term goals, and at least the Thames is not the ocean so every few miles there is a lock and that was a chance to break it up. I’m very food-driven so I’d look forward to getting out, taking off my goggles, having something to eat, seeing the world and interacting and having a treat. If you think about the end goal and how long it is before you get there that’s when your mind goes to a very dark place.’

What also struck her was the fact that ‘all the way people thought I was a man; even with a pink hat on, no one was expecting a woman. You should have seen the shock on their faces! It was a really big deal for them to see a female swimming the Thames. People weren’t shocked to see a person in the water, only that it was a woman - everyone said, “oh you’re doing a Walliams?” We used to bet how many people would say that every day. So the shock factor of doing the Thames has gone, except that I was female.’ I ask why, if people were so fascinated at seeing her, she had no media coverage. ‘With my previous journeys there had been lots of coverage,’ she explains, ‘and it’s easy to get bogged down with organising and contacting press and it can take over. I was doing this for me, a personal experience, I didn’t want the distraction of the PR side of it.’

She found the river ‘beautiful and winding and so clean’, but by the time she got to Reading she was feeling ill and from Marlow she had to swim one day and take the next off. Things improved at Teddington, however, where she was ‘literally swept out on the peak of the tide, I whizzed through London. There had been no flow up to then, when I’d stopped swimming I had basically stood still, then I felt the pace and the sweep of movement. But it was bittersweet, because then I didn’t want my swim to be over.’ She also came across quite a few unexpected sights on the way, such as a snake in the water just before Oxford, as well as eels and shopping trolleys, while one day she found her foot inside someone’s shoe. Sadly, Ness had to postpone the cycle part of her triathlon, because of a long-running hip injury, ‘but I have huge pride that I am the first female in history to swim the Thames. I just love telling people that. I’ve put it on my CV. It’s a challenge but I did it.’ For Ness the draw of the Thames was its epic terrain; it was a place she had read about in books as a child, and as she began to discover the history of other Thames swims it brought a richness to her journey, just as it has to mine.

Shortly after these two Thames adventurers finished their trips, a group of other swimmers completed what for them had been nearly a three-year journey along the non-tidal river. This was not to set any record but simply to enjoy the waterway and the sense of community that comes from swimming. The Outdoor Swimming Society’s Thames group, a loose-knit group of swimmers, started at the source at Kemble in Easter 2011. ‘We have walked, waded, crawled and, once deep water was reached at Lechlade, swum our way towards Teddington,’ explains Jeremy Wellingham. ‘We swim at least once each month, winter and summer, rain, hail, snow and, if lucky, sun, and twice a month in the summer.’ They have a core of around ten people and publish the swims on Facebook so others can join in. ‘We’ve had more than a hundred people come along at one time or another, sometimes just as we swim past their locality. It’s very much a social event, although some of us - not me - are quite fast. We meet up, swim a bit, stop for tea and cake - some of our partners walk along the bank with us and carry drinks - and finish off with a pub lunch. In the summer we also have swim weekends when we camp overnight on the riverbank.’

The idea started with a winter swim in December 2010 when a group met for a swim at Godstow when there was ice on the Thames. They vowed to swim at least each month of the year. ‘The idea of swimming the length of the Thames put some structure around deciding where to go each time - where we got out last time,’ explains Jeremy. ‘Sefryn, my co-organiser, and I were rather surprised at how many people it has attracted and although we keep it informal and pleasantly chaotic, there is a degree of coordination, if only to ensure the pub is expecting us for lunch. We don’t really have a finish date for everyone. Some people join us as we’re in their locality for a few swims, others have joined us later on and once in London we had another surge of interest. It feels like a travelling circus! We’ll just keep swimming the Thames once or twice a month. Our group is quite evenly balanced gender-wise and a lot of our “better” swimmers are female, which makes a nice change from the normal male-dominated sporting activities. We didn’t have any comments from passers-by about women swimming - we were all thought of as equally slightly mad.’ By October 2013 the group had completed fifty-six swims from Lechlade to Teddington, ‘so we have finished the route as a group but only seven of us have done all fifty-six sections. But there are plenty of others that have a few sections missing that they want to catch up on to complete their own Thames journey. We’re still swimming sections to keep company with the people doing the catch-ups and more importantly because we enjoy it and to try and keep together all the friends we’ve made along the way.’ The OSS group will continue their Thames journey and no doubt others will join them as they swim every month in sun or snow, fast or slow, savouring the social aspect, the camaraderie and the sensual pleasure of being immersed in one of England’s greatest rivers; a favourite bathing spot for centuries for everyone from royalty to East End children.