Most good ideas start with a conversation. This particular idea started with Sef and Jeremy mulling over swimming into the River Thames. “We could swim all of it” said Sef to Jeremy. Jeremy nodded. “And so we did” said Sef. People who knew each other by association, from random swims at different locations, grew in number as the Thames was swum, from top to tail, like the big fish that she is, swam with purpose. Most did not finish. Some, like Adam, who has been determined to swim it all in the order that it came in, have yet to finish, but finish he will. Sharon, who came into it a few swims in, created the category of catch-up swim, for those many, like me, who came in several swims or more downstream and could not swim Old Father Thames all in sequence, from top to toe. And who were to return to the Upper Thames later, on a catch-up swim to pay respects to the statue of Father Thames, in reclining pose at St John’s Lock just downstream of Lechlade.
May 2011 is when it started, with a ten kilometre-or-so walk from the Source of the River to Cricklade. The location of the source it itself debateable. Leslie Ducane, in Hammersmith, has pitched in with his view that the stone in the field that marks the source is wrongly placed. He thinks that the source of the River Thames should be the most remote source of its longest tributary, the River Churn. This reckoning places the source at Ullenwood, in Gloucestershire. Others place it at a place not-distant from Ullenwood, an aptly-named Seven Springs. Whether Seven Springs or Ullenwood, this would add a further 30 kilometers or so onto the 250 kilometers or so to the Thames from source to Teddington and the start of the tidal river as it comes into London. Five of the original Swim the Thames group crossed the main street of Cricklade in the manner of the Beatles crossing Abbey Road, showing the clear ambition back in 2011 that it was ‘London or Bust’.
This first walk, from stone monument to Cricklade is not down officially as Swim One on the So-You-Want-To-Swim-The-Thames website, but it Must Be Done to be able to make the claim that one has swum the Thames. Thus it becomes Swim Zero, swimming as walking. Then paddling. Then wading. Then waddling. Then Cricklade, and Swim One.
This first Swim the Thames project is very nicely laid out in the website, with accounts of swims, where to get in, where to get out, how the swim was swum and when in the year it was swum, ending in Teddington in September 2013. In all, 56 swims plus Swim Zero, a guide to those that want to do it, or do it again, which some have – Kristie, Judy, Juliet, there are two versions of Swim the Thames happening right now. There may be more, of course, and if there are, I hope to hear of them. There may even be Swim the Thames groups starting at Ullenwood, or Seven Springs, each contesting greater authenticity than the other, and both claiming greater authenticity than the first Swim the Thames represented in this podcast. But truth be told, they did it first and mapped it out for others to do. As the swims proceeded, the sense of mission and solidarity grew, learning to swim greater distances, pushing into winter, as Sef puts it “we became better people”. Catch-up swims were swum, tallies of swims were kept, and certificates awarded at the end of any particular individuals completed Swim the Thames. Swimmers who swam different stretches of the Thames were joined up when they came to swim when Swim the Thames came through their stretch – Oxford, Henley, Marlow, Windsor, some of the great towns and cities on this great river upstream of London - and a sense of coherence around swimming this great river established.
There were rules, norms and practices; it grew its own culture. One rule was that one should swim butterfly under every bridge in case the spirits of the river be stirred. There was cake. There was tea. There were tea and cake breaks halfway with swims of five kilometers or more. Local knowledge was harnessed when a local knew the water better than the originators, and the originators did their own surveillance prior to swims to make sure it all worked out. The idea was crazy, but safety was paramount; fun was had and danger was averted. There were meals in pubs and stories told; conversations had and lives made better. Many stopped using wetsuits; many took to winter swimming before it became fashionable.
In my 65@65 swims, the Thames features most strongly as the many swims in one, so varied is the river. I met my tribe emerging from the Thames at Donnington Bridge, in wetsuits, in December 2011, more trembling than shivering. Bex was the first to emerge, the first soul I set eyes on and the first to ask of “how can I join?”. I had dropped my son at rowing on that day at exactly the place where seal-like souls were emerging from the Thames, an auspicious sign. I asked Bex for her email address, which she scrawled shiver-handedly on a scrap of paper, an abstract evocation of an email address. I couldn’t read it, and it could have ended there. But she said “see Jeremy over there”. He gave a more steady version of his email address, and so I started swimming Swim the Thames at Oxford, and the rest became history. The Thames was Swum, in stretches, every two weeks, or sometimes twice on a weekend, or just once a month across winter. Only a handful finished the entire distance, and I am just 13 kilometers short. But I brought the inflatable green crocodile I found, homeless, upstream of Lechlade, to swim the final stretch to Teddington.
My 65@65 includes various stretches of the Thames – Oxford at Long Bridges (#3); Lechlade to Buscot (#5); Dorchester on Thames (#6); Eynsham to Port Meadow (#16 ); Runnymede to Truss’s Island (#20); Truss’s Island to Chertsey (#21); Dodo Swim at Port Meadow (#33); Iffley Lock (#35); Days Lock (#52); Wallingford (#55); Hampton Court (#60); Cookham (#63). This podcast gives a sense of the first Swim the Thames project. It is a conversation with Sefryn Penrose, Jeremy Wellingham, Chris Dalton and Sharon Curtis, four founders of Swim the Thames, with apologies to those who were not in the podcast. They had fun; they wandered and wondered; they swam, longer and longer and deeper into winter. They ate cake. Do listen and enjoy this podcast; you don’t have to swim the length of the Thames to enjoy its natural beauty, but sometimes getting a sense of the whole thing allows you to appreciate the local within it even more. And if you don’t know the Thames for swimming, there is much swimming pleasure to be discovered there.