Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames (2015)
‘O, COME down to Henley, for London is horrid’
J. Ashby-Sterry, ‘Henley in July’, 1886
It’s a sunny morning in early spring and the smooth, wide waters of Henley-on-Thames, three miles north of Shiplake, are empty but for a group of rowers just pulling off near the town’s famous five-arched bridge. Henley Reach, north of the bridge, is the longest naturally straight stretch of the Thames (although it has been artificially extended) and at almost a mile long it’s perfect for all sorts of races.
At the water’s edge families feed ducks, a sign advertises twelve-seater ‘Edwardian style chauffeured launches’ for hire, and a weather-beaten boat called the Aquaholic is up for sale for £2,000. The water looks quite inviting in the sun; I could easily just step in, and at first it’s hard to believe how packed this river used to be back in its Victorian heyday. But then comes a sound like wooden wings flapping, a loud shout of ‘OK, guys!’ and five men row past, followed by the roars from those on another boat, and then another.
I head along the river towards Mill Meadows where large boats rest at a line of piers offering one-hour boat trips; among them is Hobbs of Henley, established in 1870. The trips are year-round, but the piers are deserted today. As I walk on towards Rod Ait, with the headquarters of Henley Rowing Club on the opposite bank, I see boats of all shapes and sizes, a clear indication of the town’s glorious boating tradition.
Henley dates back to medieval settlements of 1179, and its riverside position meant that trade developed rapidly, with glass and malt manufacturers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and a port supplying London with timber and grain. In the 1880s, with easy access by railway, Henley became a holiday destination where wealthy city folk moored their weekend houseboats. The town was only an hour’s journey from Paddington and in the summer there were daily trips to Henley by train for a guinea. But it was the royal regatta, ‘the most important gathering of amateur oarsmen in England’, according to Dickens’s Dictionary of the Thames, that made the town famous and the event ranked with Ascot as ‘among the favourite fashionable meetings of the season’. The regatta started in 1839 - considerably later than the first formal Thames regatta held in London in 1775 - and received royal patronage in 1851, running from Regatta Island to Henley Bridge. Soon everyone it seemed wanted to come to Henley so that eventually the river was ‘so inconveniently crowded with steam launches, house boats, skiffs, gigs, punts, dinghys, canoes and every other conceivable and inconceivable variety of craft, that the racing boats have sometimes the greatest difficulty in threading a way through the crowd’. The regatta was heavily dependent on the weather, however, and in 1869 the Illustrated London News reported that the two days’ aquatic amusements were ‘rather dull’ and ‘No steam-boats were this year allowed on the river’. The steam launches were no laughing matter to some visitors, among them the narrator of Three Men in a Boat: ‘I hate steam-launches; I suppose every rowing man does. I never see a steam-launch but I feel I should like to lure it to a lonely part of the river, and there, in the silence and the solitude, strangle it.’
After the Second World War Henley was still a place of play and pleasure. John Betjeman’s 1948 poem ‘Henley-on-Thames’ is a mournful work, yet as the speaker stands ‘house-boat high’ surveying the upper Thames there are still dives and shouts, boats for hire, the sounds of ‘cheerioh’ and ‘cheeri-bye’.
Today the introduction to the town’s website resembles Victorian descriptions of the place: ‘Henley-on-Thames is a pretty riverside market town on one of the most beautiful stretches of the River Thames … making it ideal for a day trip or for a long weekend away from the madding crowd.’ Travellers from London still leave from Paddington, and with only a handful of direct evening trains the journey means a change at Twyford, so it still takes around an hour.
Such is Henley’s renown for rowing that it has its own museum, one of only two devoted to the River Thames. It’s also home to the Thiess International River Prize, administered by the International River Foundation, and awarded to the Thames in 2010 as one of the most improved rivers in the world. The River and Rowing Museum is a large, bright riverside building with famous boats, tales of sporting prowess, sections on wildlife and weapons offered to the sacred river in ancient times. But a 1930 photograph of a family in smart Jantzen bathing costumes is the only sign of any swimming on the main floor. While the museum holds around 20,000 objects, there are just a handful of photos and artefacts related to bathing. ‘Swimming is a bit of a side mention, our focus is rowing,’ explains assistant curator Lindsay Moreton; ‘perhaps swimming history has been buried because Henley is famous as a rowing town.’ She takes me to the Thomas Keller Library, a small, sunlit room on the second floor where the shelves are lined with Thames books, many of which are hundreds of years old. But even among these, Lindsay warns, there is little to be found on swimming. The first book in my pile is Walker’s Manly Exercises, published in 1847, in which swimming is described as a beneficial exercise for muscular weakness, with the added benefit of ‘tranquillizing’ the nervous system. Like other books and pamphlets of the time a good deal of space is taken up with the correct actions of the hands and feet, and the author bemoans the fact that when Athenians wanted to ‘designate a man as fit for nothing’ they would say ‘he cannot even swim’ or ‘he can neither read nor swim’.
The best time to bathe is between May and August, before breakfast, and, as with Steedman’s manual, evening swims were frowned upon - ‘the hair is not perfectly dried, and coryza [a head cold] is sometimes the consequence’. Swimmers also risked catching a cold if they bathed while it was raining, and were advised not to swim ‘before digestion is finished’. As for clothes, bathers ‘should use short drawers’, but it was also of ‘great importance to be able to swim in jacket and trousers’. No mention is made of what women should wear, because in 1847 they were not expected to be able to swim. When it came to recording swimming feats, Walker’s Manly Exercises found very little of note. Men had been ‘known to swim in their clothes a distance of 4000 feet’ (around three-quarters of a mile), while ‘others have performed 2200 feet in 29-minutes’. It concludes that ‘this art … has made little if any progress from the earliest records that we possess of it’.
Next in the pile is The Encyclopaedia of Sport, volume II, 1898, which provides an explanation of the strokes alongside photographs. I’m beginning to think there is little here related to Henley, when I lift another book to find a copy of an old sepia postcard of the Henley Baths. They were established on the Thames in the early 1870s next to Wargrave Road, on an area of land known as Solomon’s Hatch. Like the King’s Meadow pool at Reading which existed some thirty-six years earlier, the Baths were ‘open to the public’ (in other words men), from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., although in Henley there were two hours set aside for ‘ladies’.
The Oarsman’s and Angler’s Map cited ‘good bathing at all hours at Solomon’s Hatch’ as did George Leslie in his 1881 book Our River. But as to its name, ‘I never could find out who the particular Solomon was that the place is named after, and I know of no hatches or little sluices about here, but the bathing-place is a capital institution for Henley; the water is clear and the bottom sandy. Between the hours of 11 and 1 in the morning it is reserved for ladies only, and I am glad to say a good many avail themselves of this opportunity of learning the art of swimming; the bathing-place is in a backwater, separated from the main stream by a long eyot, and I believe during the ladies’ hours quite safe from intrusion.’ Intrusion was an important concern when it came to women swimming outdoors: ‘there are not many lady swimmers who bathe in open fresh water,’ explained author Archibald Sinclair in 1893, ‘privacy being somewhat difficult to obtain.’ The Henley Baths consisted of two large blocks of changing rooms between Hobbs Boathouse and Rod Ait, the island in the Thames opposite the Baths.
There was a diving board, deckchairs and a series of steps into the water. The postcard dates from around 1910 and it shows swimmers sitting on a boom; the pool appears to be segregated, with women in one area and men in another. The river is busy with people splashing and the water looks relatively shallow; some bathers appear to be standing up, while in the foreground a man is doing front crawl right next to a punt. In the early days the Henley Swimming Club, formed in 1894 ‘to encourage the most necessary accomplishment for all who love boating and fishing’, swam and competed at the Baths. Their first president was Mr R. Ovey, who lent his name to the Ovey Challenge Cup, a monthly 100 yards race starting at 7 p.m.
Some twenty years after the Baths were built a new weekly magazine, Lock-to-Lock Times: The Journal of the Thames, was launched. It included profiles and sporting news, a regular ‘Fashion on the river’ section - the text fully illustrated and often covering an entire page - and advice on ‘house-boat etiquette’. I pick up its very first edition, dated 9 June 1888, which has an ‘In the Swim’ section, though this was later dropped. It includes a report on Madame Darnley Mitchell, ‘accomplished swimming mistress of Kingston baths’ who on 14 June ‘took her first swim in the river this year’, all the way from Ravens Ait in Kingston upon Thames to the Henley Baths. The distance itself is impressive (Kingston to Henley is twenty-seven miles as the crow flies), but Madame Mitchell also performed tricks on the way, eating and drinking underwater, sinking to the bottom and passing through a hoop. Despite the continuing need for privacy for ‘ladies’ bathing outdoors, by now several women were earning a living as swimmers, demonstrating their skills in indoor pools, diving from seaside piers, immersed in music hall tanks, and in the Thames. While I can’t find any other reference to Madame Mitchell, if she had swum any distance over twenty miles she would have set a new world record for women.
Next in my pile of books is The Field, the Country Gentleman’s Newspaper, which has swimming reports tucked away amid articles on polo, shooting and golf, the habits of tigers, and a performance of chess with living pieces.
While swimming races were mainly held in indoor baths, in 1891 the Ilex Swimming Club’s annual handicap was ‘150 yards straight away from opposite Solomon’s Hatch bathing place’ and twenty-one people took part. Ilex was founded in 1861, with members from amateur rowing, yachting, canoe, cruising, athletic and football clubs. Its headquarters were at the Lambeth Baths in London and the position of club captain was annually swum for in the Thames.
The Henley Swimming Baths were established in the early 1870s on an area of land known as Solomon’s Hatch where there was ‘good bathing at all hours’. This postcard dates from around 1910.
Some thirty years later and Solomon’s Hatch was still well used, this time by the boys of Henley Royal Grammar School. The school magazine, The Periam, reports ‘a good entry of 9 for the long swim’ in the summer of 1921, although there was ‘no current and plenty of weed’. The course was across from the Baths to Hobbs lower boathouse, and, aside from the long swim, there was also an Old Boys’ Cup, a Phyllis Cup and a House Competition. But senior boys had proved themselves ‘not very keen’, and the school authorities strongly urged that all boys should master the ‘science’ of swimming.
The following year seven boys took part in the long swim; it was ‘accomplished in good time’ and for the third year in a row everybody who entered ‘passed the test’. In 1923 the Old Boys’ Cup was difficult as ‘weeds on the course were rather bad’, but nine boys took part in the ‘long test’ on 23 July which is now described as being from the Baths to New Street - further downstream past Henley Bridge. Eight finished the course; it’s not recorded what happened to the ninth.
Bad weather the next year meant there were very few senior boys ‘who would pluck up the courage to go down to the Baths’, as well as ‘very few competitors for the Old Boys’ Cup’. Only five took part in the long swim, suggesting the tradition was already beginning to die out. It’s not clear when people stopped using the Baths; like the King’s Meadow pools at Reading they appear to have lasted into the 1950s and by the 1980s were derelict.
It is this loss of a swimming heritage that, until recent years, has been the story of the Thames in Henley, both the closure of Solomon’s Hatch and awareness of the Victorian club that once raced here.
Lindsay takes me on to the museum’s indoor walkway and points through large windows to the island of Rod Ait, now with houses on it. Behind the Ait is where the Baths used to be, only now it’s the home of the Henley Rowing Club. ‘Swimming was replaced by rowing,’ Lindsay says, ‘that’s how it is in Henley.’ And unlike swimming, rowing has an almost unbroken tradition: ‘the regatta has never been missed except during war. Perhaps we lost our swimming history because of Health & Safety? Swimming died out, but now it’s coming back and soon we’re hosting a small exhibition on the Henley swims.’ Inside the Henley Gallery is the original wrought-iron entranceway to the Henley Baths, a selection of swimming postcards and two impressive Victorian silver challenge cups. It’s here that I’m meeting Tom Kean, who, along with Jeremy Laming, is the founder of the modern Henley swims. A lean man wearing a Henley Swim t-shirt, with cropped hair and a pair of sunglasses on his forehead, he’s crouching in front of the cabinet, admiring the cups. ‘We’ve adopted them,’ he explains, ‘they’re beautiful, solid silver and we asked the museum if we could name our races after them because we wanted to create a culture of swimming in the Thames again. We thought, blimey, Henley used to have a swimming club, they had boomed off areas to swim in, they had competitions and trophies, and we’re resurrecting that. People have never stopped swimming in the Thames, but now we’re doing it properly again.’
A more modern scene at ‘Henley’s Thames swimming pool’, which appears to have lasted into the 1950s.
Tom believes river swimming went out of fashion because ‘we live in centrally heated homes and we’ve been indoctrinated with Health & Safety. Cold-water swimming is a habit that we’ve lost. There were hundreds of swimming clubs in the past, now there are virtually none.’ But thanks to Tom and Jeremy this has now changed and a pre-dawn swim taken for fun some ten years ago has led to the birth of three major annual swims - the Henley Classic, the Henley Mile and the Bridge to Bridge - and the formation of the Henley Open Water Swimming Club.
As a young man Tom took up rowing like his father, but after suffering a back injury he had to give it up. By now he was familiar with the Henley regatta course, which he had rowed a dozen times, and along with Jeremy belonged to the Marlow Rowing Club. Then in 2004 Jeremy had an idea. ‘He wanted to get into triathlons’, explains Tom, ‘and he knew I used to swim, so one day he said, “do you fancy an open-water swim?” I’d never done it, so we both got wetsuits because I don’t like the cold.’ The two men decided to swim the regatta course, wanting to ‘get the unique perspective you get on a dead straight course, framed by booms’.
‘As oarsmen we knew what rowers are likely to do. I’ve never rowed before 6 a.m. so we knew to swim before this time would be low-risk, and we wanted to do the regatta course as it was all set out. Friday afternoon are the qualifiers, the next four days are training, and then the regatta begins on a Wednesday. So we knew 4.30 a.m. at first light on the Sunday would be relatively safe’, and they persuaded a friend to accompany them in a canoe. ‘It was pitch black. I thought, what the hell are we doing? We thought we were being so daring, and we thought that when we got out at the secure area where the boats are we’d be arrested. But the guards just looked at us and gave us a nod and a “morning”.’
It took the pair about an hour to swim the course. ‘We were faffing around, and stopping to chat with a fisherman’, and while their swim was covert to begin with, ‘early morning seems to appeal to people, it caught people’s imagination’. In the second year around twenty other swimmers, mainly friends, joined them, and the year after that it had risen to fifty. In 2008, with so many people taking part, they decided to formalise the event and to charge an entrance fee. Tom runs his own financial advice business, while Jeremy owns a business simulation company: ‘we both have fairly boring jobs, with the swim we’re building something we’re proud of.’ While it may have been ‘an accidental process’, the Henley Swim is now a proper events company, while the swimming club has around thirty to forty members. As for getting permission to hold the swims, ‘for the first couple of years of the Classic we didn’t seek permission from the EA but we certainly do now’, while ‘the regatta people are charming and helpful, they grudgingly accept our existence’.
At first they tried to ensure that swimmers wore wetsuits, of which Tom is a big fan. ‘There is a snobbish anti-wetsuit attitude, but it means you can swim in comfort, and you’re quicker and more buoyant.’ If entrants wear wetsuits then fewer safety canoes are needed, and even insurance is cheaper.
‘When it dawns on the masses how good wetsuits are people will want to do it, it’s a lovely bit of kit,’ says Tom, who believes the resurgence in open-water swimming is thanks to wetsuits: ‘if you wear one then if you get into trouble you will float.’ But many swimmers were horrified at the idea. ‘We tried making wetsuits compulsory but the venom and the vitriol! The “skins” wrote saying how pissed off they were; they said, “it’s ridiculous, we pay good money …” We got lots of emails.’ So now wetsuits are optional, unless the water is below 14 degrees.
Henley today hosts a series of annual river races, thanks to ex-rowers Tom Kean and Jeremy Laming whose pre-dawn dip in 2004 led to the formation of an open-water events company.
The Classic is a 2.1-kilometre endurance upstream swim, held over the regatta course, and competitors have included multiple winner Greg Whyte, four times Iron Man legend Chrissie Wellington and Olympian Toby Garbett. The Henley Mile is an upstream swim, and more of a family day with children’s events, while the Bridge to Bridge is fourteen kilometres from Henley-on-Thames to Marlow. The Bridge to Bridge is now becoming as popular as the Classic; in 2012, 176 competitors took part, with finishing times ranging from two hours fifty minutes to just over six hours, but it’s ‘more about the personal challenge and team spirit, rather than a race’. Swimmers are organised into groups of approximately twenty, based on the speed with which they reach the first lock at Hambledon. The swims have various categories - elite, performance (men and women), then open men and then women. To begin with the elite was split into men and women, but the faster women were catching the slower men and weren’t getting a good race, ‘so we changed it, each year we’re learning something’. People declare their time beforehand, in order to get into the right category, but men often overestimate their time, while women tend to underestimate theirs.
While some are put off by weeds and mud - and the sensation of weeds underfoot can cause panic - it’s the possibility of drowning that is the real fear for the organisers. ‘What we expect is that someone will drown,’ says Tom, ‘what is likely is hypothermia. What may happen is a heart attack.’ They have already had people with hypothermia. ‘The Bridge to Bridge swim can be quite long and we had to nearly haul one woman out, and have the medics ready. You can get hypothermia even in warm water because the body is losing heat.’ One year a woman got knocked on the head during a scrum at the start. ‘She said she didn’t see the starting line, although it had a laser light on it, and she found herself at the front end of a wave of people. Someone swam on top of her, clouted her on the head and she went under and swallowed water. She came to the side and started throwing up. She was very close to being drowned. She recovered and said she was fine to carry on but the safety guys said no. She later collapsed in the shower with concussion, and was grateful we’d stopped her. Usually people drown because they’re doing something silly, then they panic and when you panic you’re done for. Panic is like temper, you have no control.’
But as for currents and streams, Tom says they are minimal; ‘there are myths and misunderstandings but if you’re not drunk and showing off then it’s fine. If you’re a sober and sensible swimmer then it’s not true about the currents, but if you’re cold and drunk …’ He has written to the press to challenge assertions from the PLA that the Thames has fast-running tides and eddies that can drag you under. ‘It would be very helpful to dispel some of these urban myths … we are seeing a massive increase in interest for “wild swimming”, and it is only a matter of time before someone gets injured or worse. If we can highlight good river etiquette, we may save the odd life. Joining a club is the first and easiest thing to do.’
As for the quality of the water, he is ‘a keen believer that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I’ve never had Thames belly and I swim all the time. In ten years I’ve never been ill because of the river. I don’t get cut, I’ve never swum into something dead, I’ve never seen major litter, but people have to realise it’s a living, breathing environment.’ The Henley Swim now pay a private company to test the water, ‘because people expect us to. There’s going to be stuff in there and people need to accept that. It’s a moderately organic tasting and smelling environment. It tastes and smells like it looks, a live habitat, it’s not chlorinated.’
Henley Swim was recently invited to join the Marlow Rowing Club and create a hub for water sports; ‘we have funding from Sports England and planning permission for a state of the art club by the bridge,’ says Tom. ‘It’s the dawn of a new era of swimming clubs.’
I leave him in the museum’s café and head back to the station along the river. While the old swimming spots have been closed down in Oxford, and river racing has died out in Reading, the story of the Thames is slightly different in Henley. This is the first place I’ve been where a club has been formed especially for swimming in the river and where a swim taken just for fun between two friends now attracts hundreds of people every year. Henley once again has a culture of swimming, and it hasn’t been replaced by rowing after all. Instead, two rowers have reintroduced people to the river and, with their annual swims, created a new ‘capital institution for Henley’.