That’s life. C’est la vie. So das ist das leben. It amounts to the same thing, which Scottish poet Robert Burns summarised as “the best laid plans of mice and men..” This was to have been the last of my 65 swims at 65 years of age, in the Thames as it becomes majestic – the royal Thames in full flow. There were to have been many people, especially those who wanted to add to the length of the Thames they had swum already, with the original Swim the Thames group. From source to Teddington, then on to Richmond, then Kew, and now Hammersmith. The best laid plans had gone astray this summer because of the forces of the universe, in the form of Covid-19, that swept aside all careful plans including swimming projects. Lock down in March symbolised exceptional times. Life became strange (I heard so many people refer to it as ‘a strange time’) - the economy almost ground to a halt, people stopped commuting, zoom became a verb (as in ‘I’ll zoom you’), toilet paper, tinned tomatoes and pasta were hoarded in a food shopping frenzy that rivalled Christmas (I was imagining what kind of Christmas Day could be had with these three items). So embracing strangeness I took an executive decision about my birthday and locked it down. If Covid-19 lock down was to get in the way of swimming my 65 at 65, then I should stay 65 years of age for the length of lock down. There is fictional precedent – Peter Pan stopped growing up, and the Serpentine Swimming Club has its Peter Pan Race every year on Christmas Day in Hyde Park, London – a very tenuous link to swimming.
I moved my birthday to October 3rd from July 3rd, allowing for lock down, when it wasn’t reasonable to swim in groups or for a period even at all. This allowed for a lawful completion of 65 swims in my 65th year. The present swim was to have taken place on June 20th, when time and tide married auspiciously for an awesome swim. After The Big Interruption (Covid-19), the next auspicious marriage of time and tide (on a weekend) post lock down was towards the end of August. So it took place on the last public holiday of summer.
Who was swimming today? Hywel, Chris, Mike and Leslie, as well as myself. Rod was on paddle board giving us support. Hywel and Chris have swum the length of Thames, and I have in very most part. Mike, Rod and Leslie are members of the Serpentine Swimming Club, as am I. Leslie and Rod are more importantly for today’s swim frequent swimmers in the Thames at Hammersmith. We were going to swim a magnificent swim, 5.5 kilometers downstream from Kew Bridge, not something to be done lightly. Leslie and Rod know these often fierce tidal waters well, and it is not for the inexperienced. In fact, if you have only swum in a pool, however good you are, this is not a place to come for your first outdoor swim. Rod passed over the monthly summer swim to NOWCA a c few years ago, so there is a way of doing the Hammersmith end of the swim in a tightly regulated way, if you think it might be for you. Leslie has swum this stretch of the river so frequently, I think he can claim this stretch of the river as his, along with Rod. We timed the swim to coincide with the out-going tide - there is no other way of doing it. We waited at Kew Bridge for both Leslie to arrive and for the tide to turn. With little more to do, fully prepared, Chris and I compared our leg injuries - his wasp-sting, and my knee surgery scar. Both were red, both were seeking cold water to ease the hotness.
The tide began to turn as Leslie arrived – we could see it against the wall of the bridge, a level wet mark some two or three centimeters above the level of the water. Swimmers cannot possibly swim against the tide here and expect to make any progress, indeed quite the opposite. The tide is predicted and there are charts for this, but predictions and real life do not coincide precisely. Today there was about ten minutes ‘delay’ relative to the prediction. If going with the tide is the only way to go, swimming with it not an easy ride either – there are whirlpools and any debris in the river can move toward you at alarming speed. I watched a green buoy move towards me so fast I had to swim sideways to avoid it. That is, I was moving towards it so fast, and all I could do was steer my body away from it. It was a humbling experience to be in water that is so powerful, so connected to the ocean, moving so quickly as though it knew it was urban, slick, responding to being in fast-moving London. You had to keep your wits about you, like you would on the streets of London, making the swim all the more interesting, different from other swims.
This is not to say there wasn’t time to talk, smile, enjoy the moment, look up as well as down and across. The bridges we swam under marked our rapid progress. We started at Kew Bridge (which opened in 1903), and went under Kew Railway Bridge (a beautiful iron-work construction opened in 1869) at about 700 meters. Chris at the front disturbed the swans and they came flying overhead, low, enforcing their ownership of the river. Chiswick Bridge (opened in 1933 and built of stone and reinforced concrete to look like a bridge from a much earlier era) came to us a further 1.4 kilometers on. Barnes Railway Bridge (a beautiful truss-arch bridge of 1895) descended upon us 1.2 kilometers beyond that. The final run, 2.2 kilometers was bridge-free, but full of interest. The river was flowing fast and free, and the urban landscape revealed houses of earlier eras switching position with much more recent builds. The end, at the steps of Black Lion Lane, seemed far too soon, Rod’s positioning of himself and his paddleboard at Black Lion made it easy to see where to get out a hundred meters or more ahead, easy to position yourself in the right place to stop and get out, and not overshoot. Hammersmith Bridge, a magnificent suspension bridge of 1887 was a further 800 meters or so down-stream. Changing here at Black Lion, on the Upper Mall overlooking the Thames, Sunday afternoon activity – cafes, children playing, people taking a gentle walk by the river - no-one bothered to look at this odd-looking assortment of middle-aged (and older) men. This is London, no-one looks, no-one judges... I brought my new bathing kimono (yukata) with me – I had been inspired by both the kimono exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and seeing Takahashi Hiroko’s magnificent kimono designs at Japan House, London. My yukata - it is modest and easy to pack into a swim tow bag, easy to change in, in public.
After the swim, Rod very kindly and generously invited us for a drink and some snacks at his house not far away downstream. Downstream is also where Leslie lives, and where the Red House of William Morris is – the latter a direct link of this stretch of the Thames with the Upper Thames, at Kelmscott Manor. I have been to Kelmscott Manor but not to the Red House, which is currently Covid-19 closed. At Rod’s, Leslie talked with passion and enthusiasm of William Morris and how he rowed (or more likely was rowed) from Hammersmith to Kelmscott Manor, which he owned and designed according to his Arts and Crafts Movement. His revolution was a renewal of artisanal artistic design and production at a time of rapid industrialisation in the late nineteenth century. Rowing the Thames from Hammersmith to Kelmscott and back again must have been like like moving from industrial to rural, from present to past, and from mass-production to individual craftsmanship. We speculated that it might have taken Morris and his rower two weeks or so to travel to Kelmscott in their age and time. Here in the twenty first century, I can do it in a little over two hours in the comfortable modernity of my motor car. The very speed of transport now – physical and virtual - makes life schizophrenic, makes it possible for me to feel in the past and the present at the same time. In the late nineteenth century, I guess William Morris coped by retreating to Kelmscott Manor when he felt overwhelmed by the speed of everyday life in London.
Leslie asked about the 65 swims at 65 years of age, which swims were most interesting to me, which swims I found the best. This was difficult for me to say because all the swims carry something of importance and interest to me. I ventured swims in Lake Zurich, the Upper Thames and Venice. The last of these fired him up – he loves the houses skirting the waterfront at Hammersmith, and one of note is the Byron house. Leslie was keen on swimming all the Byron swims in the world, big and small - from Hellespont in Turkey to the Cam at Cambridge, if you will. And of course to swim in Venice. I can see Leslie doing all the Byron swims – he is determined, resourceful and persistent, perhaps a kind of swimming bulldog. Now just short of his 500 kilometers of swimming outdoors this year, he is pleasant and good company too (some determined and persistent swimmers can be arseholes – not he, far, far from it). He did the swim we did twice over today, with just a snack in between - he got cold, warmed up, and swam back again.
Reflecting on life today, this particular day, la vie aujourd’hui, a beautiful day. Thank you Rod, for the support and hospitality. Thanks to Hywel for scoping the swim and being there from start to finish, from idea to bottle of wine. Mike is stalwart, kind and generous, impish in humour, totally dependable – thank you for sharing this swim. Chris - along with Hywel, part of the original Swim the Thames backbone, balances humour and seriousness in a way that pulls people together and along - someone I respect deeply and am glad could be here to swim today. Leslie – what more can I say? Deep respect for what you are doing.
Reflecting on this particular day, while driving home... Chris felt odd wearing a wetsuit, but was very pleased to have swum this stretch, being pleasantly surprised by it’s greenness and character. Leslie and Rod were very kind and generous in sharing their stretch of the Thames, where local knowledge is key to understanding how to swim this fierce and magnificent river here. Hywel and Mike - always kind, helpful, well-humoured. My mind drifted to swimming identities _ there are many of these in the world of outdoor swimming. Could there be one for Hammersmith swimmers? At Lake Bled, Slovenia, in February I met some wonderful people who answered to various animal identities – seadogs, sea-horses, bears. At Clevedon Marine Lake there are orcas and walruses. In Oxford we have the Dodos. “Bulldogs”, I thought. Those that swim here might be deemed Hammersmith Bulldogs – I don’t know how our local hosts today might see it, but right now it somehow captured the spirit of today’s swim. Feeling the glow of a great day out in great company, the later after-glow of having gotten cold in the water, having shivered then recovered, the to-be last swim of the 65@65 happened differently but beautifully.
In-water photographs courtesy of Mike Harris