Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames (2015)
‘For, O, the water’s deep and clear
That flows by Marlow town!’
J. Ashby-Sterry, ‘A Marlow Madrigal’, 1886
In Victorian times there was ‘no more fascinating spot’ on the River Thames than Marlow, declared Dickens’s Dictionary of the Thames. It was the perfect place for boating, camping holidays or ‘sketching purposes’, and the water teemed with fish. Jerome K. Jerome found Marlow ‘one of the pleasantest river centres I know of’, where people ‘bathe before breakfast’. Yet while the town, eight miles downstream from Henley along the Thames Path, had tennis, cricket and football clubs, as well as a river regatta, as with Lechlade I can find few archival references to swimming.
In the summer of 1866 a one-mile race was held on the Marlow Reach, as well as ‘several other swimming and diving matches from the Suspension Bridge’, although the Annual Regatta and Aquatic Sports in the 1890s included only one swimming event, ‘the Canadian Canoe Race’, in which competitors had to stand and ‘paddle to the ryepeck’, and then swim back with their canoe. Other mentions of the Thames at Marlow tend to concern drownings, such as the family tragedy that occurred in July 1906 when a father and his two sons, all accomplished swimmers, went down to the river. One of the sons sank suddenly ‘while attempting to swim the river a second time’ and his brother and father perished while trying to rescue him.
Marlow is the modern setting for a mass-participation swim organised by Human Race, whose founder John Lunt says the Thames is ‘the cleanest metropolitan river in Europe’.
In more modern times, however, Marlow is notable for two reasons: an official ban on swimming in the Thames, and more recently the launch of a mass swimming event. In June 1960 the Daily Mirror reported, ‘Education chiefs last night BANNED school bathing at a Thames beauty spot. The order went to head teachers of schools at Marlow, the picture-postcard Buckinghamshire market town.’ Samples of river water had been ‘analyzed and found to be POLLUTED’. The Education Authority had acted on the advice of the Medical Officer of Health; parents were urged to stop their children swimming in the Thames, which was ‘filthy’, and where they risked ‘dreadful diseases from sewage’. While schoolchildren had long been taught to swim in the Thames - at Tumbling Bay in Oxford, King’s Meadow in Reading and Solomon’s Hatch in Henley - and although Marlow residents once bathed before breakfast, now they were being actively warned to stay away from the river or risk dreadful consequences.
But we never seem to stay away for too long and thanks to the rise in triathlons today Marlow is the setting for a swim organised by Human Race, the largest mass participation events company in the UK, who promise that ‘taking to the water from the grassy banks [will be] an unforgettable experience’. Human Race runs triathlon and cycling events, as well as six open-water swims, three of which are held on the Thames - at Marlow, Windsor and Hampton Court. ‘We chose the Thames because of a whole raft of reasons,’ explains John Lunt, who founded the company in 1990, including the fact the river was on his doorstep and he knew it well. An experienced triathlete who has raced ‘all over the world’, he’s originally from Lancashire but moved to Kingston in 1983. ‘The Thames is the cleanest metropolitan river in Europe,’ he says, ‘we knew salmon had been seen, and there is less industry now, and we thought, let’s go for it … And now we’ve been doing it for twenty-four years.’
In the early days, ‘people thought swimmers were a bit mad, the running boom had just started and when the London Marathon was first held in 1981 triathlon was in its infancy, people thought you were crazy even if you jogged on a street. River users had learnt to swim in the Thames when people couldn’t afford pools, and they weren’t surprised by our swims, but now there is a more risk-averse culture.’
Around 2,000 people take part annually in Human Race’s swims on the Thames. Competitors vary: ‘the madcap open-water swimmers do it for the hell of it, anywhere, any time, any place’, then there are general swimmers who want a new challenge, as well as novice open-water people. Human Race’s official charity is Cancer Research UK and entrants are invited to make a donation and offered a charity fundraising pack. While most people do raise money, ‘they are not compelled to, it’s secondary to the challenge’. Ninety-nine per cent finish the set course and he says it’s rare that anyone drops out, because ‘if people are not happy then they don’t start’. Ten to 20 per cent are no-show, usually because they ‘haven’t trained enough’, but once they start they finish. There have been no heart attacks, ‘touch wood, and no near-death experiences’. John believes one reason for this may be that ‘our database is more the hardcore swimmers’ whereas in other mass events entrants ‘may be less well conditioned and possibly less prepared’.
At Marlow there are three events, 750 metres, 1,500 metres and three kilometres, all starting and finishing upstream from the bridge. There are minimum age requirements, as well as cut-off times, and entrants must sign a declaration that they are aware of ‘a risk to health associated with swimming in open water and that there is a chance that participants may contract illness from competing in such water’. They need to be ‘aware of the physically strenuous nature’ of the event and fit and healthy enough to take part.
‘When we started there were hardly any mass swims in the Thames,’ says John, ‘there’s been an explosion in the last two years. Other race organisers thought it would be easy, but there is a wide range of safety cover levels.’
F3 Events also run mass swims at Marlow. The company was established in 2006 and the Thames was chosen because ‘all our staff are born and raised in the Thames Valley with an interest in triathlon,’ explains a spokesperson. He says safety is ‘one of the main items on the agenda’ and ‘we go overboard with safety boats when swimmers are in the water’.
In 2012, when the Thames was ‘red boarded’ (with warning signs placed on locks to advise boat users against using the river), they ‘held off till the last moment as it was the day of our Olympic/standard triathlon in Marlow. We waited thirty minutes prior to the race start to get the last official word from the EA before proceeding; we also shortened the course on safety grounds’. F33 hold swims at Henley-on-Thames and Windsor and on average 350-500 people compete in each event. ‘We get a mixed bag, from total amateurs to the most experienced elite athletes and celebs; in the build-up to David Walliams’ swim he attended many of our river swims as training.’
Downstream from Marlow, the village of Cookham is another favourite spot for swimmers. This was ‘earthly paradise’ for artist Stanley Spencer who painted numerous river scenes and wrote in 1917, ‘we all go down to Odney Weir for a bathe and a swim … I feel fresh, awake and alive; that is the time for visitations.’ Ella Foote, who recently moved to Cookham from Maidenhead, says there are lots of beaches where it’s easy to walk into the river. She used to go canoeing on the Thames, but as a child she was told it was a dirty place and didn’t think of swimming in it. When she first started outdoor swimming around 2007 there were few mass swims open to people of different abilities; ‘it’s gone a bit mental in the last three years, before that there were elite swims and you needed wetsuits’. Her love of Thames swimming came from a desire to raise money for charity. ‘I did a Race for Life run and hated it. I thought there must be another way to have a challenge and do something that’s actually enjoyable. The British Heart Foundation were doing a swim in Brighton, it was the only charity offering a swim then, but the tide changed, I was inexperienced and doing breaststroke and I was told by security to get out! So then I really started looking for other ways to swim.’
‘Swimming in the Thames was a thrilling experience’: Ella Foote pictured at Pinewood Studios during her 30 Memorable Swims Project.
About two years ago Ella joined the OSS and took part in a swim upstream on the Thames at Sonning. ‘I thought, why haven’t I done this sooner? It was just lovely. I was really surprised how clear the water was. It looks very still, it’s only when you get in you realise there are strong currents underneath. I was a little frightened by boats. We wore bright swim hats, but when a long narrow boat is coming at you, they don’t know you’re there.’ But over all she found it ‘a thrilling experience and I was hooked. I was nervous about weeds but apart from the shallow area, it was fine. I have to say I am a nervous Thames swimmer when the river is high and fast - I prefer it a bit calmer.’
Ella joined the Henley Open Water Swimming Club, which helped with her training for a Channel relay swim in 2012. The following year she completed thirty swims to celebrate her thirtieth birthday, including some in the Thames such as the Henley Classic. ‘I’ve made so many friends through random swimming. It is slightly risky, the water is cold, there’s a fast flow, and, let’s face it, it’s taken a few people’s lives, and you’re doing it with people you don’t know. But it’s comforting; it’s a community of swimmers.’
A couple of miles downriver is Maidenhead, which, unlike Marlow, has a long river-racing tradition and a club that was formed in Victorian times. This was once ‘the haunt of the river swell and his overdressed female companion’, according to Jerome K. Jerome, and ‘the witch’s kitchen from which go forth those demons of the river - steam-launches’. Boulter’s Lock, just east of Maidenhead, first built in 1772 and then rebuilt in 1828, was certainly a busy place in Victorian times and the press reported several ‘Alarming Accidents’. On one Whit Monday, 1,200 boats and punts and 106 launches passed through the lock and several holidaymakers ended up in the river when their canoes capsized or were ‘run into’ by a steam launch. The artist Edward Gregory spent several years painting the spot in the late 1880s and his Boulter’s Lock, Sunday Afternoon shows a traffic jam of boating parties passing through the narrow lock, a scene of happy mayhem with oars, punts and sails, and everyone decked out in their Sunday best.
As for swimmers, during a ‘Volunteer Encampment’ in 1863, 500 men pitched their tents at Maidenhead and ‘owing to the close proximity of the river Thames, it is expected a cold bath will be the order of the morning’. Weeds had ‘been cut for some distance, and a portion of the water roped off for those who cannot swim, added to which men will be in attendance each morning with boats’.
But far more organised was the ‘River Race’ or ‘Long Swim’, run by the Maidenhead Amateur Swimming Club. The club appears to have been formed in the early 1890s, around the same time as Reading’s, first holding swimming entertainments at the Grand Hall Swimming Bath. By 1894 it was running an annual sports day in Kidwells Park to raise funds, where 1,200 spectators watched a one-mile handicap and a ‘consolation race’. Then in 1897 the club decided to switch venues, agreeing at its annual meeting that ‘members should leave the Grand Hall Bath, and bathe and swim in the river instead’. They were now negotiating with the Rowing Club ‘for the use of their boathouse’ in the early mornings, and a few months later the club held its annual event, called the Swimming Competition, Carnival, and Cycle Gymkhana, in the grounds of ‘The Fishery’. Events included a tortoise race, swimming handicaps, diving, a clothes race and ‘a splendid exhibition of swimming by Mr. W. Jenkins, formerly of Maidenhead, including imitation of torpedo, swimming on chest feet first, and many different styles of swimming’. This was followed by dancing and an open-air concert on the riverfront.
The club’s move to the Thames was highly successful and their river races were held every year until the late 1960s, except in wartime. It began with a two-mile course for men and then a one-mile course for women, both usually held in the evening in late summer to mark the end of the season. The original course for the men’s race, up until 1914, was from Cookham to Boulter’s Lock, there was then a break until 1923 when the course was changed to run from Boulter’s Lock to Bray, while the women’s race ran from Boulter’s Lock to Maidenhead Bridge. Now women weren’t just swimming in the Thames during segregated hours at official bathing spots - they were racing against each other, too, with competitors diving in from the Boulter’s pontoon, each accompanied by a safety boat.
In 1923 L. Badcock, Superintendent at the Maidenhead outdoor pool, completed the two-mile men’s course in forty minutes and won the Dunkels Cup, named after Ernest Dunkels, a wealthy local resident and former president of Maidenhead Football Club. After the war it was the turn of Badcock’s sons, George, Eddie and Derek, to dominate the event. They were also members of the Maidenhead Swimming Club, and used to train by swimming against the flow from the Sounding Arch to Boulter’s Lock. In 1950, at the age of fifteen, Cynthia Brooks won the women’s event, having first taken part when she was eleven. She was a member of the Hammersmith Ladies Swimming Club and in 1948 travelled to Belgium to take part in a sports event aimed at restoring friendly relations after the war. ‘It was a great experience,’ she later recalled, ‘and the first time I’d seen either ham or iced cakes.’ She went on to win numerous swimming events at both county and national level and was presented with Maidenhead’s ‘Woman of the Year’ award.
River traffic was still an issue on the Thames at Maidenhead, however, as the Jackson family discovered one sunny bank holiday in 1954 when Margaret and Ken and their five children hired a rowing boat. When a 60-ton steamer appeared, Ken, who was rowing, pulled their boat over to the side, but they were sucked back by the current right into the path of the steamer, which ploughed straight into them and cut their boat in half. ‘My husband and the older kids went one way and I went the other,’ Margaret, who couldn’t swim, later told the Bucks Free Newspaper. Then a fifteen-year-old ‘schoolboy swimming champion’ heard her screams and dived in. ‘He came for the baby. I can remember grabbing hold of him and I can remember him saying, “I can’t take you both. I’ll take the baby”.’ But in the end everyone was rescued and their story made national news.
Open-air swimming continued to be a popular pastime in Maidenhead, with the annual river races held from about 6 p.m., after the boat traffic had finished for the day. By 1966, however, increasing costs meant there were only a couple of safety boats for the entire race. ‘We swam in costumes only,’ remembers Derek Harris, ‘no wetsuit, goggles, earplugs, swim hat. The speed of the river’s flow had a major effect on race times. I seem to remember winning one year in less than thirty minutes. As for preparation and training, there really was none for me, other than being in the swimming pool all summer with friends and playing water polo.’
But as with Reading, in 1969 the river races came to an end; numbers were down and the great tradition was abandoned. However, in a similar way to Henley, and again thanks to a group of rowers, things have now been resurrected, with a new Boulter’s to Bray Swim, run by the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead.
The idea came from three members of Maidenhead Rowing Club, Tom Jost, Rob Davies and Keith Dixon, who wanted to swim on the Saturday morning of the annual Henley Regatta, just ‘as a bit of fun’ from the Rowing Club to the Waterside Inn in Bray. Tom mentioned the idea to fellow rowers and one said, ‘hang on, I think it used to be a regular thing’, explaining she’d spotted an old trophy for a swim from Boulter’s Lock to Bray in an antiques shop. Just like Tom Kean and Jeremy Laming in Henley, they’d discovered a lost tradition.
Tom Jost decided to investigate and placed a small article in the Maidenhead Advertiser and soon people who had competed in the ‘Long Swim’ got in touch. The three men then decided to organise it as an official event, but first they did the swim themselves, with fifteen participants following the Boulter’s to Bray course. ‘One of the swimmers worked for the council,’ explains Ben Collins, an ex-army officer who used to row for Maidenhead, ‘and she said “why not make it a council event? Then you’d be covered through their insurance.” The council have been great.’ Ben has also been doing triathlons since 2009 - ‘old rowers don’t die, we become triathletes’ - and with the Long Swim ‘I suddenly realised we were taking the lid off something massive and historical and significant. Once the swim was announced and word got out we discovered all this history. The Babcock family got in touch and people remembered it fondly; it was a significant community event and we wanted to retain that ethos by forming a charity.’
The first official event was held in 2012, starting at 6.15 in the morning before river traffic commenced, and 120 swimmers completed the course, including seventy-four-year-old Mike Hughes who had won the men’s Long Swim in 1967 and 1968. Cynthia Lockie (née Brooke), who won the women’s race in 1950, brought her family along to watch. ‘She told us there used to be a big house near the river and they would open up their garden and people got changed there,’ explains Ben. ‘It may have belonged to Ernest Dunkels. She was thrilled to see the swim and she presented one of the trophies.’
Today the distance is 2.8 kilometres and there are three categories: Open, Masters 49+ and Junior 15-18. ‘Lots of people who enter are rowers but I try to get anyone to enter,’ says Ben. ‘People ask “is that safe?” They are worried about pollution and the cleanliness of the water and there was a bit of a worry in 2013 when river treatment works upstream overflowed a couple of months before our swim. But I used to work for the EA; we know the river is cleaner because of the wildlife.’ As for wetsuits, if swimmers sign a disclaimer and prove they are competent they don’t have to wear one.
The Boulter’s to Bray Swim Trust is now a registered charity with five trustees, including Ben, with the objective of promoting local sporting projects. ‘For triathlon you need expensive kit, so it becomes exclusive,’ he says. ‘I’d love to see open-water swims more accessible. Lots of commercial outfits do Thames swims, but newbies can be put off, and we’re community-centric, the money we make goes back into local amateur sports projects.’ This means that for a £33 entrance fee Maidenhead residents can enjoy the river just as they did some 120 years ago, and with the full backing of the council.
But what puzzles me is not so much how we lost the tradition of swimming in the Thames, but how we lost the knowledge of this tradition. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there were well-organised river races at Oxford, Reading and Henley. They were regularly covered in the press; there were medals, prizes and certificates. Champions were created, records were broken. How could all of this have been so easily forgotten? Perhaps because people left the river in favour of warm indoor pools, old bathing places closed, other sports such as rowing replaced swimming, and bathers were put off by fears of pollution or by outright bans. If an old trophy for a swim from Boulter’s Lock to Bray hadn’t been spotted in an antiques shop, would hundreds of people now be swimming the very same course that existed in the 1920s? Time and again we are drawn back to the Thames where we discover our lost heritage, re-enacting history and finding out a simple truth: we swim in the river because we belong there.