If you think that going for a swim in the Thames might not warrant a whole book you are not alone.

Author Caitlin Davies says: " Pretty much what I thought before I started [researching] the book! However I soon realised it would be nearly three times the length originally agreed with the publishers...the stories are never ending."

And it is those stories, the cast of characters, and familiar places along the river that make Downstream: A History and Celebration of swimming in the River Thames (Aurum Press) a good read if you’ve never thought of dipping even a toe in the Thames.

Caitlin Davies blends an account of that history with coverage of the resurgence of swimming in recent times, taking a journey from the source to the sea and swimming sections herself.

The characters abound: from Roman times when the river was used for military training swims, Edward II and Charles II to Jonathan Swift and Lord Byron all of whom swam in the river.

A more modern cast list includes David Walliams, who swam the Thames for charity, John Prescott who took his dip as a protest against dumping nuclear waste at sea, and Times columnist and former MP Matthew Parris who fancied the challenge of swimming across the Tideway to Wapping but admits he misread the tide tables so ended further upstream than he intended.

Others are less well-known: Lewis Pugh the first person to swim the length of the Thames, Eileen Lee who set a record by swimming 36 miles downstream from Teddington, Captain Matthew Webb the first person to swim the Channel who trained in the river.

In Victorian times 'swimming professors' taught people how to swim and gave displays.

Boom and decline

Swimming clubs and organised races abounded during the 19th century and there was a surge of interest after the 1908 Olympics held in London. But it tailed off between the wars and particularly after World War II because of pollution and the construction of modern municipal swimming pools.
The railways enabled easy access to stretches of the Thames for  people from the cities as well as local residents - resulting many places like Tumbling Bay in Oxford and King’s Meadow at Reading becoming extremely popular for swimming.

Ladles were asked to avert their gaze when passing Parson’s Pleasure, a favourite bathing spot at Oxford where men swam naked; and a favoured spot at Windsor was moved further away from the castle after Queen Victoria was aghast to see naked flesh down by the Thames.

Tower Beach near the Tower of London was once popular as the seaside in the heart of the city with deck chairs, imported sand from Essex and even a sandcastle competition.


Now with a huge interest in open water and wild swimming the number of people swimming in the Thames has increased again with events like the Henley Mile, the revived Boulters to Bray swim plus professionally promoted events by organisers like F3 and Human Race.

In Docklands open-water swimming returned with the launch of the Great River Swim in Royal Victoria Dock in 2009.

But what about reasons some people just would not venture into the Thames – water quality and danger from passing boats?

Many people quoted in the book say they have been swimming in the Thames for years and never suffered ill effects although David Walliams was ill during  his charity swim. And the Environment Agency warn the water does not meet modern bathing water quality standards.

Downstream the Port of London Authority think currents and eddies plus increasing number of vessels using the river pose such a hazard it introduced a byelaw banning swimming altogether from Putney to Crossness near the Thames Barrier.

Or rather permission is needed from the PLA before taking to the water.

And if you thought a current plan for a lido on the Tideway near Temple was a new concept you’d be wrong. The 19th century saw floating baths near Hungerford Bridge with filtered “clear and green” water.

In short: a fascinating look at an often forgotten leisure use of our river – one that boomed, died out and has now been revived

More Thames books HERE