Yes, I know everyone’s going on about wild swimming at the moment. I’ve always liked the idea of being a wild swimmer—but I wasn’t one really. I was an ‘outdoor swimmer’ in Hampton Pool, an ‘open water swimmer’ at Shepperton Lake, an occasional paddleboard dipper—but I wasn’t a wild swimmer.
I should’ve been—a long time ago. I live a five-minute walk away from the Thames. I’ve swum from Hampton Court to Kingston in the river twice, in organised open water swimming events. But outside of these strictly controlled conditions, I have been waiting for someone to give me permission to get into the river. It took lockdown and the closure of swimming pools for me to finally make the leap.
I began swimming twice weekly at Shepperton Lake at the beginning of June, as soon as it reopened after lockdown, but the river was calling to me. I’d been a lurker in the Surrey Outdoor Swimmers Facebook group for a year, but I’d never actually joined them for a swim. But then Rebekah, my swim buddy (who had always been extremely reluctant to swim in the river), began swimming in the river on Tuesday mornings with the SOS crew and invited me along. My first swim was on a cloudy day at Sunbury. Rebekah’s friend Sue had organised it, and we were joined by Judith and Diana. I had all the gear: goggles, hat, tow float, swim booties, and I was excited. The water was cold at first, but I didn’t feel cold while we swam. It was a relaxed, sociable meander upriver, and then back down again. It was free from chlorine, lane-rage, timekeeping and entrance fees. I was hooked.
The Downside of Wild Swimming:
I have discovered something called duck mites (alternatively called ‘swimmer’s itch’ which sounds like a venereal disease). This is an allergic reaction which causes itchy welts on your arms and legs, like mosquito bites. You are more likely to get these from swimming through weeds, like the thick tangle of waterweeds we swam though in the River Wey for a beautiful view of the ruined Newark Priory. It was an (itchy) sacrifice I was willing to make.
And yes, there are things in the river. There is a lot of plastic litter—particularly after a sunny day when people have been picnicking on the shore. On a swim from Teddington to Twickenham we encountered a children’s solid-plastic sandpit in the shape of a turtle floating in the middle of the river. There are also grumpy fishermen, flotillas of SUPs, drunken Go Boat pilots, and sometimes there are aggressive swans with cygnets who will hiss at you in warning and then give chase. There are also fish in the river. The intrepid women I’ve swum with (no names mentioned) are not immune to the occasional acrobatic ‘what just touched my leg’ leap—which is always highly entertaining to everyone else.
I did not swim the Hampton Court to Kingston race the notorious year when everyone got sick, but many people’s first question is whether the river is clean enough to swim in. Fifty years ago, the Thames was declared biologically dead, but it is now apparently the ‘cleanest river in the world that flows through a major city’. But it still doesn’t have the ‘bathing status’ protection that many rivers in Europe have been given. Swimming in the Thames is a calculated risk. With heavy rain, contaminants can wash into the river and sewage is occasionally released—although it seems unbelievable that Thames Water is allowed to do this. There are campaigners working to prevent this—or at least to force the water companies to provide information about when and where this is happening. I try not to swallow the river water, of course, but when you’re swimming the water does go in your mouth. I have been swimming in the river all summer and I haven’t been ill. Fingers crossed.
The Upside of Wild Swimming:
The positive effects of wild swimming on mental health have been widely documented. In the early days of lockdown, many people felt anxious and claustrophobic. The outside world was out of bounds—or at least any part of the outside world that required a car journey to get to. But when I gave myself permission to get in the river, new vistas opened up. I began to feel guilty that I was feeling so positive and cheerful during a global pandemic.
And I have never felt so confident wandering around in a swimming costume. The online wild swimming community is a powerful advocate for body positivity. It is all about celebrating and enjoying the outdoors, rather than worrying about what we look like while we’re doing it. It’s brilliant to see the way that swimming costume advertising and sizing have changed over the last few years to incorporate different body types.
Wild swimming is also an extremely sociable activity—the Surrey Outdoor Swimmers are a friendly, inclusive bunch who embraced me with open (socially distanced) arms. I’ve been part of a regular swimming group who have become friends, but I have also turned up to swims organised by people I’ve never met before and been welcomed and included—our common passion giving a group of strangers something to talk about while we swim.
I finally felt like a true Wild Swimmer on the day I organised my own swim. It was a night swim from Canbury Gardens to the Hawker Centre—with an exit point known only to me. Fortunately, I did manage to find it in the dark. As we all walked back along the Thames path in our robes and headtorches, I know we must have looked like members of some strange cult. But then again, that’s probably what we are.
But within the wild swimming community exists an even more niche subculture—tail-swimming. AKA mermaids and mermen. Yes, really. Did you know that you can buy a mermaid tail on Amazon—a monofin with a tail covering that you can actually swim in? My inner ten-year-old freaked out and immediately put it on my birthday wishlist. As a joke. Sort of. Of course, then my sister actually bought me the mermaid tail for my birthday, and I participated in my first mermaid pod swim in the Thames near Hampton Court, in front of a disbelieving crowd of onlookers. It was deeply embarrassing but also kind of awesome. As the world begins to look increasingly dystopian—a little whimsy makes life a lot more enjoyable.
The next challenge is whether I will continue to swim in the river into the chilly winter months with the hardest of hardcore SOS-ers, to experience that cold-water buzz I’ve heard so much about. We’ll see.