I swam the Thames

‘Lost your boat?’ quips a fluoro-jacketed workman as we file past, barefoot, in our swimwear. He and his colleagues lean on their spades emitting wheezy laughs.  We chuckle politely and continue along the path, sandwiched between the river on our left, poppy -strewn fields on our right.

It’s a typical British summer’s day – warm enough to bring to mind the thwack of tennis balls but threatening rain nonetheless. We’re heading upstream along the Thames path towards Goring Lock, where we will begin our 1.6-mile return journey to where we’ve stowed our bags in a thicket of nettles. But this time, we’ll be swimming it.

This, my companion Michael Worthington tells me, is how river swimming works – you begin at the end point, and then make your way to the start. ‘That way, you don’t have to walk back to your clothes and shoes in cold, wet swimming gear. It’s incredibly obvious once you’ve done it, but not necessarily beforehand.’ More importantly, he says, walking the route first gives you a chance to determine where you’re going to get out the water and check for any unforeseen dangers. ‘You don’t want to jump in and then find there’s a weir 200m around the corner.’ Worthington, an architect by trade, is something of a voice of authority on the subject, having just published a book on swimming the Thames, so I’m happy to follow his lead.

He grew up swimming in rivers, lakes and oceans. A Hong Kong childhood and summers in Suffolk when the entire family – siblings, parents, great aunts and grandparents - would troop off for a swim in the local river, have made excursions such as ours feel like the most natural thing in the world. This must be why, when I ask him if researching the book has put him in any absurd situations, such as having to walk through a town in his swimming trunks, he looks a little mystified. ‘Is that so absurd?’

Presently, grass and dusty trail underfoot give way to concrete, and as we round a sharp bend, we spy the lock and road bridge up ahead. This is where, in 1674, 60 people drowned when the ferryman rowed his boat too close to Goring lock and capsized. This is also where, according to Worthington, we’re getting in. We wait while a canal barge and pleasure boat pass through the lock, then Worthington leaps in from the towpath. I pull down my goggles, descend the metal rungs on the bank and slide into the water.

The temperature is perfect - cool, not cold, and the current nudges us gently downstream, away from the drone of traffic and the unnerving rush of water over the weir. A grebe surfaces a few metres from us, stares intently before ducking back under and emerging at what he considers a safer distance. A coot hurries her chicks into the bank as we approach.

It’s not just the wildlife that is surprised to see us. The faces of those at the helm of the numerous boats that pass us register reactions ranging from shock and amusement to slight irritation – the latter coupled with an unnecessarily wide arc around us, as if we are a huge obstruction.  While our bright red swimming hats help with visibility, it’s very much our prerogative to keep out of the way on this bustling stretch of water. At one point, two craft approach simultaneously, sending us close to the bank. Light streams through the overhanging branches of a horse chestnut tree, a sapphire-bodied dragonfly hovers over the dappled water as we bob about in the boats’ wake.

The river here is green, not brown, and the banks are lined with trees and reeds rather than grand buildings, but it still feels ever so slightly subversive and thrilling to be swimming along the Thames, London’s main artery. What motivated Worthington to write the book? ‘I knew some stretches of the river really well and others not at all, so I decided it would be fun to swim the entire non-tidal segment (147.6 miles, from its source in Gloucestershire to Teddington Lock), breaking it down into swimmable chunks, rather like you might tackle a long-distance footpath over a number of weeks, months or years,’ he says. The book started life as Worthington’s own preparatory notes for the task but the more he researched it, the more he realised it could be useful for other swimmers, too. 

The result, I Love the Thames, is a logbook of sorts, giving the essential information about each swim - there are 75, in all - along with OS map references. There is space to write when you swam it, who accompanied you and what it was like. It would be misleading to call it a ‘guide’ to swimming the river because the sections he hasn’t yet swum heavily outnumber those that he has. ‘I see it as a kind of ‘collect all the stickers’ project, rather than some Herculean feat to be attempted all at once,’ says Worthington.

When we pass the workmen again, they have a new joke for us but their punch line and laughter blow away on the summer breeze. ‘So how many times have you swum this stretch?’ I ask idly, as we float on our backs to take a breather. ‘Never done this bit,’ Worthington replies, much to my surprise. Why here, then? ‘This is where the river cuts through the Chilterns, so the surrounding countryside is much hillier, more scenic than most of Oxfordshire.’ He’s right. The beech-clad slopes make a stunning backdrop to the river’s snaking path. A buzzard circles hopefully above us, so we press on.

By the time we pass under the stone arches of Gatehampton Bridge – built by Brunel in 1838 to accommodate the Great Western Railway -we’ve been in the water for around three-quarters of an hour.  ‘The nice thing about rivers is that you can swim a really long way without ever losing the security of the bank,’ comments Worthington. ‘If you swim across a lake, there’s always a point where you are a long way from land in both directions - but in a river, you are never far from the edge.’ There’s also a strong sense of going somewhere, of travelling from A to B, rather than just splashing around, which brings with it a feeling of achievement when we spot Ferryman’s Cottage nestled on the riverbank. This is the cue to search for our pre-determined exit point – a corrugated iron ramp hidden among the bullrushes. (It’s very easy to swim straight past landmarks that seemed quite obvious from land when you’ve only got a duck’s eye view, says Worthington.)

I haul myself out of the water and Worthington pads off to retrieve our towels and clothes from the nettles. An intercity train thunders past on Brunel’s bridge at the same moment as an elderly gentleman rides past on his bicycle, trousers neatly clipped and it’s as if the river has transcended the passage of time. ‘How is the water?’ he enquires. ‘The water’s lovely,’ I reply.

I Love the Thames by Michael Worthington costs £15 and is available from the Outdoor Swimming Society