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I went for a cross-country swim in the Thames — here’s what happened - Liz Edwards: The Sunday Times





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Thursday July 20 2023, 12.01am, The Sunday Times

I went for a cross-country swim in the Thames — here’s what happened - Liz Edwards: The Sunday Times

‘Mellowed in the drowsy sunlight of a summer’s afternoon, Wargrave, nestling where the river bends, makes a sweet old picture as you pass it, and one that lingers long upon the retina of memory,” Jerome K Jerome wrote in Three Men in a Boat, of the Berkshire village, which remains big on black-and-white timbered buildings, well-tended gardens and grade II listed charm. When I arrive on a Saturday morning in July, it’s greyer in the sky department and a few drops of rain fall as I join the small group I’ll spend the morning with.But it doesn’t matter, we tell each other — we’ll all be much wetter in a minute. We’re going for a cross-country swim.

The joy of cross-country swimming, as with other outdoor pursuits, lies partly in the way you can press pause, get out in nature and leave your cares behind, except that in this case you’re encouraged to bring your baggage along for the ride. Physical baggage, that is, because the idea is that you swim while towing your gear safely waterproofed behind you, rather than leaving it in your car or under a bush. You do this courtesy of a RuckRaft, a dry bag that rolls up and straps on to a V-shaped inflatable attached to a lead that clips around your waist. In you get and off you go, barely noticing that your possessions are bobbing along in your wake.

“Cross-country swimming is a journey rather than a dip, combining walking and swimming,” says Paul Mackenzie, one of two guides leading our Thames trip. “You can be more adventurous and travel further from your starting point in more comfort.” So rather than the wallet and water bottle you might fit in a smaller tow-float, you can bring along hiking boots, a towel, a warm jumper, tea and cake — my kind of swim.

Paul and his fellow guide, Jude Palmer, tell me they have used their RuckRafts on a two-day, 30-mile, cross-Lake District odyssey complete with tents and stove (today they’re carrying first-aid kits and lemon drizzle cake). I’ve used mine on more moderately adventurous weekend retreats in Devon and Cumbria with Above Below, the company behind the RuckRaft.

But adventures can last just a morning, too, and Above Below’s website lists several day-trip routes around the UK with contact details for qualified guides if you want company. On the Hidden Thames route, Paul and Jude are taking seven of us on a loop, across the river from Wargrave, along the Thames path, then back across the river to follow a spur, St Patrick’s Stream, back to the Thames and the slipway where we begin. About five miles altogether, half of it in the water, swimming with the current (and the currant buns).

Our group of friends and strangers range in age from forties to sixties. Above Below suggests this is an intermediate route and everyone has done some open-water swimming before (at least enough to share a joke about “duck-poo beards”), but not so much they don’t appreciate a guide. The atmosphere is one of camaraderie, not competition — we’re here for a nice morning outdoors.

The first swim is a short one, across the Thames to a set of steps that make for an easy exit. Wetsuit tops rolled down, RuckRafts deflated (they pack back down to a towel-sized 1kg bundle), we set off upstream. Men strimming the banks ready for next month’s Wargrave and Shiplake regatta pause as we troop past wearing rather more Neoprene than your average bunch of weekend walkers.

Of course, the big brown elephant in the room is sewage and Paul and Jude explain the checks they make before going ahead with an outing — not just on discharges from treatment works, but on agricultural run-off too. It’s harder to account for rogue boat owners who don’t wait for an official disposal point, Jude says, but she recognises the evidence. “Sewage works use a filter so if it’s lumpy, it’s been dumped off a boat.”

Not round here, though. She points out a patch of yellow water lilies. “They only grow where the water’s nice,” she says.

Jude is a font of floral knowledge, showing us pinky vetch and willowherb among the head-height grasses, and we swap nature apps — she likes Seek for plants and I like Merlin for birds. I could do with the Rightmove app, too, because past some fields and under a railway bridge we’re following a riverside right of way along the bottom of some incredibly posh gardens — the entertainer Debbie McGee lives in Wargrave, in the riverside house she shared with her husband, Paul Daniels. Following a riverside right of way along the bottom of some incredibly posh gardens, we pass summerhouses, boathouses, outdoor bars and a dance studio. The route is great for a snoop, though I can imagine how much wealthy residents enjoy the great unwashed tramping through their properties — not a lot.

We’re reinflated, rewetsuited and ready to slide back into the water when David says he’s always wanted to swim in the rain. It’s like waving a wand and the ominous clouds let rip. But there really is a magic to it. As we swim across the Thames and start down the narrower and wilder St Patrick’s Stream, it’s hypnotic watching the fat drops plip and ripple at eye-level. A grumble of thunder adds a frisson, though Jude and Paul aren’t blasé about lightning (“We’re prepared to annoy you by making everyone get out,” they say). We stop to take stock after a couple of flashes — they’re comfortable carrying on but give us ample judgment-free opportunity to get out. No one does.

So on we go, sometimes swimming, sometimes walking in the shallows, sometimes taken by surprise by a sudden dip. The current keeps us moving and, with an occasional warming burst of front crawl, we fall into a relaxed, chatty breaststroke which is just as well because, tummy-tickling reeds aside, there’s more to see above the water: trees trailing their leaves in the flow, damselflies, cormorants, a flotilla of greylag geese maintaining an effortless distance ahead of us, and a heron flying thrillingly close overhead. We can almost imagine ourselves as explorers charting the Amazon until we pass under spindly bridges and find more Architectural Digest-worthy homes. We gawp at them as their residents, human and canine, appear to gawp back at us.

Too soon we’re swooshing out into the Thames and back to where we got in. The sun is out now but I’m glad of the warm layers I have with me in my bag. I’m even gladder of the Thermoses and home-baking that Paul and Jude produce from theirs. This is how you make wild swimming civilised.Liz Edwards was a guest of Run Surrey Hills (runsurreyhills.com), Adventure Swims and Above Below, which lists routes and contact details for swims including this one (£70; abovebelow.sc). In Wargrave, stay next to the slipway at Inverloddon (B&B doubles from £85; inverloddon.com) or at the Bull Inn (B&B doubles from £140; bullwargrave.co.uk)


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