29 March 2017 | 14 °C

A Guide To Open Water Swimming In London

A Guide To Open Water Swimming In London
People enjoying the beach by Gabriel's Wharf. Photo: Andy Worthington

The Thames may not be the first place that springs to mind when you fancy a swim, but with London’s most famous waterway now cleaner than it’s been for 150 years, wild swimming is on the up. Here’s how you can get involved.

A history of swimming in the Thames

In her book, Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames, Caitlin Davies explores how the Thames has been a favourite swimming and bathing spot through the years. Romans, noblemen, school children and athletes have made the most of the waterway.

In the Victorian era, casual and competitive swimming became very popular and families would visit beaches at the Tower of London, Greenwich and Grays. But why did our relationship with the capital's river change?

Due to pollution levels, the Thames was declared biologically dead by the Natural History Museum in 1957, and swimming in the river was deemed too dangerous.

Thankfully, an improved sewage system and efforts to clean up the river over the past 50 years have resulted in a revival. Regular swimming events now take place, and moments such as David Walliams's 140-mile swim for Comic Relief have increased interest in swimming in the Thames again.

David Walliams during his Thames swim. Photo: Nick Atkins

The dos and don'ts of swimming in the Thames

Keen to give open water swimming a go? Hold on – it's not a case of putting on your costume/trunks and diving straight in.

The Amateur Swimming Association (ASA) offers these tips to get started:

  • You need to be a competent swimmer. Become a strong pool swimmer first then it’s a fairly simple transition into open water.
  • If you are competent, then practise for open water swimming in the pool.
  • Be honest with yourself about how fond you are of fish, slimy vegetation, and insects. Yes, you can see and feel them all. This is not a chlorine-controlled pool environment.
  • Get into open water swimming with a friend. Swimming alone in open water is not recommended. The temperature and choppiness of the water can make things difficult.
  • Open water is cold — buy a wetsuit. They help insulate against the cold and keep you buoyant in open water. They are also great fun to wear.

Check out the ASA's top tips for preparing in the pool for open water swimming here.

If you're at the level where you're considering open water swimming, you may want to think about joining a swimming club. They're a great way to meet fellow open water swimmers, and they'll help you develop your swimming in a supportive environment.

Serpentine Swimmers on Christmas Day. Photo: Dan_W8

In July 2012, the Port of London Authority (PLA) enforced a bylaw that requires prior permission for swimming between Putney Bridge and Crossness in Thamesmead. The PLA states that this is a "dangerous stretch of the river, with strong tides and eddies that can drag a person underwater without warning".

You need to be very careful about where you swim. Make sure you read up, fully prepare and apply some common sense.

Where to go outdoor swimming in London

The Outdoor Swimming Society provides a wealth of information and advice about outdoor swimming. Swimming in most parts of the Thames may be off limits, but the wild swim map will direct you to a suitable location. Membership is free.

Royal London Docks. Photo: London Swimming Club.

The London Swimming Club (LSC) is the official club of London's Royal Docks open water swimming venue. Established in 1859, LSC is one of the oldest swimming clubs in London and welcomes both beginners and pros to join the swim sessions.

Before you embrace the Thames, you may opt to join a lido club to accustom yourself to swimming outdoors. A few options are Brockwell Swimmers at Brockwell Lido, Serpentine Swimming Club in Hyde Park, or South London Swimming Club at Tooting Bec Lido.

For competitive types, there are several organised swim events during the summer. Look out for the Totally Thames swim, the Thames Marathon at Henley, and the annual Dock to Dock event.

Why swim in the Thames?

Now we know there are options are out there we have one last question. Why?! Why would you choose a chilly river over a heated indoor pool?

Join our club? Photo courtesy of the London Swimming Club.

Emma J Hardy, President of the London Swimming Club, explains,

There is a heart and soul to open water swimming that becomes obvious when you talk to anyone involved in the activity. London is a place where we often block each other out, but like those swimming pool walls, the walls of our swimmers fall away as they delight in finding a group of like-minded people.

It (almost) sounds tempting... Are you brave enough to take the plunge?

See also:

Last Updated 24 October 2016