Tales of the River

People have swum in lakes and rivers for centuries. In the early 19th century, Lord Byron swam across the Hellespont in Turkey, thus bridging the gap between Europe and Asia. A century ago outdoor swimming clubs were to be found across the country sporting exciting names such as ‘The New Town Water Rats’.  It’s only really with full industrialisation and urbanisation that we have foregone open water for the sanitized and chlorinated water of indoors. Pollution may take some of the blame, but perhaps it’s because we’re just lazier and more accustomed to our home comforts that we grimace of the prospect of entering water that might be below 20 degrees Celsius.  

Yet reasons to be afraid of outdoor swimming are decreasing. Our waterways are cleaner than they once were. The Thames of the 1950s only supported eels due to pollution levels. Now it’s teeming with all kinds of aquatic life, thanks to stricter environmental regulations. We may imagine that only pristine mountain springs are clean enough to bathe in, but indeed many of the rivers that flow through our biggest cities are now clean enough. The Thames, the Tyne and Salford Quays (near Manchester) all attract their fair share of swimmers. It’s also far easier to swim in open waters thanks to breakthroughs in equipment and technology. Just glancing around at the Great North Swim reveals the variety of purchases that the budding swimmer can make. These include specially designed wetsuits, along with open water goggles (tinted in case of bright sunlight and with a wider lens to enable you to see what’s going on around you). Then you get the just plain bizarre items- waxes to prevent wetsuits from chaffing, and even special sprays to prevent goggles from misting up in cold water conditions. There’s also so much more to motivate us to get out into the wild and swim. The sport has a number of role models- take Cassie Patten who represented Team GB at the Olympics in the sport (a new event in 2008), at both Beijing and London. There’s also TV stars such as Robson Green and David Walliams who have made documentaries about the sport- with David Walliams swimming the length of the Thames. 

You can even make a holiday of it. SwimTrek offer swimming holidays in the UK and across the world. I myself have done two such tours in the Isles of Scilly and the Hebrides. Often these holidays take place amid island groups and you swim from island to island (accompanied by support boat). The truly stunning locations are worth   it. In the Hebrides I successfully braved the gulf of Corryvreckan- the second largest whirlpool in the world. Cross it at the wrong time and you will be swept under by the current, never to be seen again; George Orwell had a close encounter with death here. It was an eventful trip, carried out in both the sea and lochs, at the time supported by a boat driven by a grumpy man who constantly complained of the weight of our bags. One of the guys in my party even experienced a playful nip on the foot by seal pup. 

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So back to the Great North Swim. It is the biggest such event in the UK, and has been going strong for 5 years now. It takes place every June, in front of the picturesque Low Wood hotel on the shores of Lake Windermere.  You can choose to enter the 1/2 mile, 1 and 2 mile or 5km swims.  Like the London marathon and the Great North Run it attracts celebrities, and two of the starters were team GB athletes. It’s very safe- you are monitored by a small flotilla of rescue boats and kayaks. Should you get into difficulty you will be picked up very quickly. Wetsuits are more or less compulsory, and in addition to that you wear a coloured swimming hat .The swim also operates a sophisticated timing-chip system, allowing you to see your time online.  

The moments before the swim itself are full of apprehension. As you run down the slipway you have to jostle for space alongside fellow swimmers, which continues in the water. As you enter the water you ‘fwaw fwaw’- the technical term to describe your tentative first strokes as you react to the water temperature, and get the shock of your life. As you are hemmed in by others space is at a premium, and thus the lake resembles a pool of piranhas. The upshot is that in swimming behind someone you don’t have to cope with as much water resistance, and you don’t have to look up out of the water to see where you are going, as you are just following the people in front. Then again, looking in the water is somewhat disconcerting, as here you can’t see the bottom, so your main thoughts are ‘WHAT IS DOWN THERE??’ It doesn’t help that every so often dead bodies are found in the lakes of the Lake District, or for that matter rumours of lake monsters.  

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But on with the swim I press, and I focus on technique. It helps to keep your elbows relatively high, and to let your arms do the work (instead of your legs), and if you can breathe on both sides it helps also. As I swim further into the lake I begin to look around, and I really get a sense of the beauty of the surrounding landscape. Here the term ‘wild swimming’ is most applicable, as I gaze from the lake up to the Langdale mountains. In terms of surroundings, wild swimming is a hundred times better than your local swimming pool- no matter how attractive the tile work happens to be there. And as for the cold, you begin to adjust very rapidly. After a while you end up preferring the exhilarating freshness of cold water to the heated and chlorinated stuff in the pool. Mineral rich fresh water (or salty sea water) are bound to do far more good for your skin than the chlorine is. 

I’m now approaching the end of the course. I’m guided all the time by luminous coloured buoys which mark the route across the lake. As I get out onto the slipway a team of lifeguards help me out. Then I make it to the finish line to pick up a bag of free goodies (which includes a bag of pistachios, a bottle of Powerade, water, and some shower gel, as well as a t-shirt and medal. Not bad.). This is followed by a quick dry off and then the drive home (broken halfway with the promise of well-deserved fish and chips). Even though I’ll be far from the majestic beauty of the Lake District or the coast in Oxford, there are plenty of good sites nearby. Port Meadow and the Cherwell are popular (as anyone who has fallen off a punt knows). Oxford dons established a naked bathing site at Parsons Pleasure in 1852. Legend has it a number of students came past the sunbathing dons in a punt. The dons, startled, covered their modesty, all except one who placed a flannel over his head stating “My students know me by my face”.