THE SECOND GREAT STINK? SWIMMING RIVERS IN A MESS

‘I can feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes’ – ‘The water’s all around me, and so the feeling grows…’ Waking up from a dream, me swimming at Port Meadow, Oxford, with The Troggs song ‘Love is all Around’ as sound-track, looping in my head. Sure, I changed one crucial word – ‘love’ became ‘water’ – but the two are synonymous. I Love (Heart) Water. The river of my dream was flowing sparkling clean and safe. I Love (Heart) Clean River Water. I woke up feeling positive about clean river water.


It’s a big turnaround since Christmas Day, when I got truly outraged at an email from Thames Water, the Company That Just Keeps Giving (see the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ carol reworded and repurposed by swimmer Teresa Kay on the Poems page of this website). This is what I wrote on Boxing Day (I put my anger in a box for Christmas Day; I wasn’t going to let it pollute a beautiful day with my family).


“At Christmas time I like a nice present – who doesn’t? This year, Santa got to Oxfordshire in double quick time, because I was notified by email, just one hour and a bit into Christmas Day, in the way that Amazon announces it, that “Your purchase has arrived”, that my present had arrived. It wasn’t what I had expected though. It was an unwanted gift, and I really struggle to know what to do with unwanted gifts. More than unwanted, it was deeply unpleasant, not something I could hand on to someone else, or quietly take to the charity shop after the festive season. Nor was it something I could eat, although it was something that was easily shared among winter swimmers in Oxford and Oxfordshire. No, it was truly unwanted – Santa had taken a dump in the river and was inviting me to swallow this gift downstream. Maybe it wasn’t a gift at all, I thought, maybe Santa just needed to poo. Maybe one of those mince pies at the base of a chimney had been a bit iff-y, and made Santa a bit squiffy. Maybe Santa just needed a great big poo in a hurry – couldn’t help it, just had to do it, couldn’t find a public toilet in West Oxfordshire, and pooed in the nearest place he could. Imagine! Santa pooing in the river on Christmas Day.


No, I can’t either. I can’t imagine Santa pooing in a river anywhere. He has far too big a reputation to do that. The email, it turns out, wasn’t from Santa, nor from Amazon, the gift provider of choice in our affluent inter-networked society. No, it was from Thames Water, my water provider, letting me know about an ongoing sewage release at Witney Sewage Treatment Works, Oxfordshire. It started by stating that the release started at 01:15 on 25/12/2021. It went on to say that ‘We’ll notify you at 06:00 tomorrow morning if the release is still happening’. It was. Going on, it helpfully stated that ‘If you’re thinking of entering the river, please remember that it can take up to four days for the sewage to clear’. Thanks, Thames Water, for giving me plenty of advance notice. On it went - ‘Putting untreated sewage into rivers is unacceptable to us, but after heavy rain it’s sometimes necessary and permitted. This prevents it flooding homes, gardens, streets, and open spaces’. I took a pause at the ‘heavy rain’ part – I could not think of a single time of heavy rain across the previous week. So I took a look at the local rainfall for the previous couple of weeks – nothing that the Met Office would call heavy rain. Maybe Thames Water have different criteria to the national agency that sets the standard? The email continued - ‘With the help of the government, Ofwat and the Environment Agency, we're working hard to make these releases unnecessary’. The positive, proactive tone of the email was to my mind at odds with the act perpetrated. Discharging raw sewage just after midnight on Christmas Day is like the government burying bad news on a day when something big happens. Maybe they just had unprecedented demand for their services across the Christmas period. After all, people eat a lot more over this period than at any other time of year, and if they eat more, they must poo more too. The email concluded by saying they didn’t need to tell me about this. But if they hadn’t, finding out about it later would be a bit like finding a turd wrapped in Christmas paper under the Christmas tree, the last present to be opened.


Maybe it was just a dream; maybe my dream-Santa just needed a poo – a big poo it would turn out to be in retrospect, across the whole Christmas period. Really, though, imagine discharging raw human sewage into the river early on Christmas Day. No, I can’t imagine it either, but I don’t have to. It really happened.”


Since then, I have written more words, trying to make sense of it, the continuous discharge of raw sewage into the Thames waters in and around Oxford. I have talked to many people, swimmers all, all as equally outraged as me. Reflecting on this sewage discharge and on the many, many similar acts documented across the UK by the Rivers Trust, I can’t but think that rather than this being a time of despair and outrage, it is an historic moment. How so? I see it right now as a second Great Stink. The first was in 1858, when the filth and contamination of the River Thames was brought home to Parliament. When the smell of human and industrial waste sickening those in Parliament, making them viscerally aware on a daily basis that death and disease were close-by and in the river. Across the century or so before 1858, London had grown in population, had industrialised, and there was no major system of management of pollution and sewage beyond putting it in the river and letting it flow out to into the ocean. It took a crisis of disease and death in 1858 to bring home the message that new water infrastructure for new times was required. Much changed in the decades that followed The Great Stink – with huge capital investment in sewage disposal and water management, London moved to becoming a clean and healthy city.


The Second Great Stink, is I believe, right now. People are not dying of water-borne diseases as in the nineteenth century, but the COVID-19 pandemic has led people in droves to take to the rivers to swim, for solace and companionship, but especially for physical and mental health. This pandemic will hopefully recede, but there is now a global crisis in mental health, in large part related to the pandemic. The Second Great Stink has mental health at stake, as outdoor swimming has become a national phenomenon. This should be a good thing, but again the rivers are being used for sewage disposal as existing, often Victorian, infrastructure cannot cope with all the demands placed upon it, putting river users at risk of infectious disease. Open water swimmers are the recipients of this ‘bounty’.


It is reasonable to put rivers to greater use – everybody benefits from this common good – but the rivers need to be fit for purpose. To learn now that the rivers are again being used as open sewers, that they are not fit for human use, for health, physical and mental – well, it is time for change. So that we can come to live the dream of clean rivers.


Trying to make sense of it all, I have written a short piece about the disconnects between legislation, regulation, provision, and use, that have gotten us here to this watery mess. No-one wants to be in this situation – raw sewage in the rivers stinks the same to everyone. You can find my short piece it in the Publications section of this website. Now we know it is happening - the dumping of raw sewage in the rivers - it is impossible to unknow it. We swimmers know it, the water corporations know it, and the government knows it.

Ultimately, I think, the government has to lead, and it pleases me to know that at least Parliament (if not yet the government of the day) is in favour of clean rivers. The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee has just published a report entitled ‘Water Quality in Rivers’, which is also on the Publications page of this website. You are probably not as nerdy as me in the pleasure I can get from reading government documents, but give at least part of it a try. At least Section 2, which is entitled ‘Rivers Fit to Swim In’. At least Section 68, which states that ‘Every community in the country should have access to waters—whether coastal or inland—that are safe for people to swim in without running the risk of falling ill’.


As a river swimming casualty, falling ill to leptospirosis in August 2021, I would say that is progress – we as swimmers are recognised by Parliament (if not yet the government of the day) as an important constituency. It might not be good, having Christmas swimming spoiled (literally) by raw sewage, but we know where we are – The Second Great Stink. Now, here’s to turning the dream of clean river water into a reality – let’s toast it with tea and cake.


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