Taking the Thames plunge
PUBLISHED: 10:33 10 April 2018 | UPDATED: 13:03 10 April 2018
Open water swimming has seen something of a surge in recent years. Here Caitlin Davies, author of Downstream: a history and celebration of swimming the River Thames, explains some of its appeal
In the summer of 2013 I joined the Chalkwell Redcaps, the largest open-water swimming club of its kind in the country, for a swim to the Crowstone off Chalkwell Beach. This was the final leg of my 215-mile journey from source to sea to research Downstream: a history and celebration of swimming the River Thames.
People have been swimming in the Thames for centuries and Essex bathers have always joined in. During my journey, I discovered a fascinating history of estuary swimming, from Victorian clubs and Edwardian family beaches to record-breaking Channel champions and modern day swimmers…
Southend on Sea Pier
Southend Pier was a popular spot for summer regattas in Victorian times. In 1873 the annual aquatic festival was, ‘conducted with even more than the usual spirit,’ reported the press, ‘the swimming, considering the state of the water, was most excellent’ and there was, ‘the usual laughter splitting walking the greasy bowspit for a pig in a box’.
When the Southend Swimming Club was formed in May 1894, naturally they chose the pier to show off their skills, running an annual swim from the pier head. Today participants in the Great Pier Swim travel under the pier, thus resurrecting a great Essex tradition.
Grays Beach was one of several family resorts created along the Thames. Plans started in 1902 when the suitably named Councillor AW Boatman suggested a permanent memorial to mark Edward VII’s coronation, complete with public baths. The ‘pond’ (as it was known) was dug by teams of local unemployed men and barge loads of sand were brought from Great Yarmouth. The formal opening on July 30, 1906, was greeted with, ‘tremendous crowds and unbounded enthusiasm’. Roads were decorated with flags and fairy lamps; there were fireworks, music and a display of ‘ornamental and scientific swimming’.
In 1926 the News of the World offered £1,000 to any English person who could cross the Channel and beat the time set by American Gertrude Ederle. Norman Derham, a member of the Southend Swimming Club, rose to the challenge. He had set his sights on the Channel as a boy and had been busy training in the Thames. On June 4, 1925, he made his first attempt to cross the estuary, giving up after four hours because of cramp, but earning the name Sinbad the Sailor when a large porpoise lifted him out of the water.
It wasn’t until a year later, in September 16, 1926, that Norman finally made it across the Channel, becoming the first Briton to swim from France to England. He’d beaten the American record, the British press was ecstatic and Southend had its very own national hero.
In modern times there is only one person who has swum across the estuary with official permission and that is Peter Rae. An experienced open-water swimmer, it took him five months to plan the trip. On September 14, 2003, he started next to the Westcliff on Sea casino in two feet of water that was just enough to swim in. After landing on the beach at All Hallows, having avoided a large tanker in the main shipping channel, he had a chicken sandwich and a cup of tea. Then he struck off back to the Essex coast, making the crossing all within one tide.
The Chalkwell Redcaps was founded five years ago by Iain Keenan, who started open-water swimming with friends and his two daughters, Olivia and Maria. ‘My reasons were personal,’ says Iain, who is a full-time nursing lecturer at Essex University. ‘There are very few things we can do as a family and the Thames is on our doorstep.’
A group of 12 people first met up on a Bank Holiday in May 2010 and decided to use the Crowstone, erected in the 1830s, as a marker to swim around. The club now runs a busy timetable of events for open water lovers of all ages, with 240 members aged between seven and 82. n