Kenwood Ladies take a swim on the wild side

Picture: Sarah Saunders

Picture: Sarah Saunders - Credit: Archant

Bridget Galton dips into two new books that extol the joys of al fresco bathing.

With a film about Britain’s first cross channel swimmer due out, and two books celebrating the joys of al fresco bathing, 2015 is set to be the year of wild swimming.

The resurgence of pond and river swimming is an international phenomenon gaining traction in New York, Copenhagen and London – where a Thames bathing platform and freshwater pool at King’s Cross are planned.

But for the Kenwood Ladies Pond Association it’s not a trend but a lifelong passion. No longer treated as mildly eccentric for breaking the ice for their winter dips, they are now urging others to take the plunge with a book detailing the dozen best walks and wild swims in and around the capital.

Margaret Dickinson, KLPA member and editor of Wild Swimming Walks (Wild Things Publishing, £14.99) says: “Until recently swimming purely for pleasure in natural waters had such a low profile it was nearly invisible and opportunities were shrinking, but there’s a growing community who like us enjoy swimming past banks of reeds and sharing the water with ducks, kingfishers and the occasional heron.

“There’s the sensuous appeal; the silky touch of the water, the cold shock and warm afterglow, and the aesthetic pleasure of being literally immersed in the landscape, and instead of breathing chlorine, smelling the scent from the flowers.”

Caitlin Davies, the Archway-based author of Downstream, A History and Celebration of Thames Swimming, (Aurum Press £16.99) says this return to nature is simply recovering an activity we used to do before pollution and health and safety stopped us.

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“Wild swimming isn’t new, it’s been a great British tradition for hundreds of years.

“We are using the Thames in the way we used it in Victorian times having lost the knowledge that’s what we used to do.

“Eighteen months ago the floating baths planned off the Embankment was just an idea, now they are raising the money to build it in almost in the same spot we had one in 1875.”

Growing up in Dartmouth Park, Davies has swum in the Heath ponds since she was little and wryly remarks “we never called it wild swimming in the 70s”.

“That was when huge warnings went out to parents and schools ‘don’t let your children swim in the Thames or they will get dreadful diseases’. Sports complexes were being built, we were actively encouraged to move away from the river into what were seen as safe indoor pools. Anyone around my age has been indoctrinated with that idea. The rivers became progressively cleaner – the Thames is now considered one of the cleanest metropolitan waterways – but we still think if you swim in the Thames you will get ill. I interviewed 150 regular Thames swimmers and the only thing I heard contracting Weil’s disease was a dog.”

Davies says the Romans enjoyed military training swims in the Thames, Edward II took dips in the 12th Century, and King Charles II was nearly assassinated while bathing near Battersea.

Byron boasted of swimming three miles from Lambeth to London Bridge in 1807, while the pupils of Eton and Westminster regularly bathed in the Thames.

“It was usually a dip rather than a swim, only unusual cases like Benjamin Franklin or Byron actually knew how to swim.”

It was the “indecency” of people bathing naked that led to the first regulation of Thames swimming when men were issued fines, and screens were put up to protect sensibilities.

The 1846 Baths and Washhouses Act kick-started the building of indoor pools at a time when increased industrialisation led to the Thames being polluted.

But nevertheless races like the one mile amateur championships from Putney to Hammersmith began in the 1840s and by the 1890s there were men-only clubs and societies all along the river, many holding races.

Captain Matthew Webb, the first man to swim unaided across the Channel in 1875 and the subject of a movie out this year, used the Thames for training. But Davies also discovered a wealth of Victorian women who won numerous medals; teenage champions such as Agnes Beckwith and Emily Parker who attracted huge crowds, and later Annette Kellerman who swam 13 miles from Putney to Blackwellin 1905, and Mercedes Gleitze, who became the first British woman across the channel, and set a record in 1923 for a swim between Putney and Silvertown.

“We imagine that Victorian women didn’t swim but 14-year-olds were racing each other in record times and women lined up with men to swim 20 miles of the Thames,” she says.

“It’s amazing how we have lost knowledge of these women who were once incredibly well known and did incredible things for the time but were never inducted into any hall of fame.”

By 1908 women swimmers were taking part in the Olympic Games and forming their own clubs – the ladies pond at Kenwood opened in 1926. Floating baths, bathing islands, pontoons, temporary lidos and beaches opened along the Thames, but by 1957 the river was biologically dead. Bombing had damaged infrastructure, sewage leaked in, and no oxygen meant no life. By the 70s many local authorities had banned swimming.

Dickinson, who was part of a 2005 test case where Heath swimmers campaigned to swim in the winter without lifeguards, believes landlords also feared liability for injuries.

“The trend of suing people created problems for landlords and local authorities, but the test case said landlords are not liable. If they had been it would have had a terrible effect on everyone having to put massive fences around every bit of swimmable water.”

“That judgement was important in acknowledging we have the right to take risks,” agrees Davies.

Books like Roger Deakin’s Waterlog and Kate Rew’s Wild Swim, stimulated a revived interest that led to the the formation of the River and Lake Swimming Association and the Outdoor Swimming Society and the resurgence of competitive swimming that sees thousands of triathletes in wetsuits reclaiming the Thames at Chiswick Pier or the London Docks.

“People thought it was mad at first but the open water component of triathlons needed a big body of water for mass swims,” says Davies who contends that social media has also played its part.

“Through facebook, people who don’t know each other arrange to meet in car parks and river banks for the joy of having a dip in the Thames.”

Dickinson, a writer and film maker who grew up in Bristol and began outdoor swimming “as soon as I could learn to swim” cites the physical and psychological benefits of wild swimming.

“I have always liked swimming in rivers and ponds. It’s wonderful living near the Heath being able to go regularly, it’s a lovely way to start the day.

“We all think it’s got us through difficult patches in our lives. To some the social network around the ponds are important, and there’s revived interest in the theory that cold water is good for circulation and inflammatory conditions such as arthritis.”

As a keen walker who regularly strikes out with a group on a circuit that includes a wild swim, Dickinson knew some of the walks in the book already – her own favourite is one from Farnham to Bentley which takes in a pond and a river swim.

Divided into lakes and ponds, rivers and sea, each includes detailed directions, are accessible from London on public transport and feature a swim in decent quality water.

There’s a chapter on safety (see box) but Dickinson advises: “If you feel like swimming, whatever the weather have a go. If the water’s not hot don’t stay in long, just go for a quick dip – in October the sea will stay quite warm, but on warm days in April the water will still be quite cold.

“I hope people who are keen on swimming but haven’t done much walking will be tempted to do both - they go together so wonderfully, walking gets you warm then swimming cools you down and refreshes you.”

Having only once dipped in the Thames before researching the book, Davies has now swum stretcjes along its 215 mile length from the lush meadows of Oxfordshire to Milwall dock and the salty Essex estuary.

“Now when I swim it takes me back to all those people from the past who used to swim in it.”

Ham&High readers can get 30 per cent off Wild Swimming Walks at and enter ‘Wild Swimming Walks’ as their coupon code.