Swimming in the Thames is possible, but you need to know what you're doing. We asked John Weller and Lola Culsán, authors of new guidebook Outdoor Swimming London, to give us the skinny(dip).
The Thames in London is a tidal river, with many hazards. According to the Port of London Authority (PLA), "Strong tides and eddies... can drag a person underwater without warning". Factor in the clippers, ferries and working boats, and you have a treacherous stretch of water. For these reasons, you must not swim in the Thames between Putney and Thamesmead without permission from the PLA. Just don't do it.
That doesn't rule out the whole Thames as a place to swim, however. Many upstream stretches of the river are perfect for a paddle, dip or full-on swim. Here we list a few favourites, both in the river itself and in adjacent waters... starting far upstream.
Pangbourne Meadows (NW of Reading)
Cycling along the Thames path, we arrive at Pangbourne Meadows. The sun is shining and the river sings a siren song, but Lola has forgotten her bikini. Luckily, the riverside path is deserted and there’s not a boat in sight. Without hesitation, we take a midsummer skinny dip, the water cool and silky against our skin. Seconds later, a
pleasure boat appears… as if it’s been waiting around the corner. "Nice bottom", comments a brandied gentleman from the top deck, confirming the clarity of the waters on this stretch of the river. It is a pleasure boat after all.
Pangbourne Meadows is an exquisite stretch of the Thames Path, flanked by purple loosestrife and towering bulrushes. You’ll find a number of river beaches and places to access the Thames between Pangbourne and Purley-on-Thames, as well as grassy banks on which to rest and picnic. Always check your exit point before committing yourself and look out for boats, swans and geese. We have enjoyed many pleasurable swims here on
dreamy sunny afternoons and, like Mole of Wind in the Willows, "entered into the joy of running water".
Author Kenneth Grahame lived in Pangbourne and it is said that the band Led Zeppelin was conceived here (creatively, not biologically) after Jimmy Page bought a boathouse on the river. Dine at the 'quaint little' Swan Inn (Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome), a 17th-century pub which overlooks the river. If you fancy joining
up with a wild-swimming group, look up ‘West Berkshire Open Water Swimmers’ on Facebook.
Transport: Trains from London Paddington (45 minutes) then short walk.
Thames Lido, Reading (private heated open-air pool)
Thames Lido is an Edwardian water palace a length or two from the river. The pool has an interesting history. When it opened in 1902 as the Ladies' Swimming Bath, it provided Edwardian women a place to bathe in privacy. The lido was originally fed from the Thames, but converted to a mains water supply in the 1950s.
The pool was closed to the public in 1974 and lay derelict for many years. Following a public campaign, the outdoor pool and surrounding buildings were given Grade II-listed status. A careful restoration project took place, and in October 2017 the pool reopened.
As we sat in the hot tub, soaking up the local history, the style of the architecture reminded us of Shakespeare’s Globe, another unique Thameside venue. The lido is open seven days a week to members and non-members for
swimming, sauna and hot tub. Children are welcome between 2pm and 4pm. Please check the website for times and bookings. Spas, massages and lido packages are available. The poolside restaurant and tapas bar have an authentic Spanish and Mediterranean flavour. The pool, saunas, hot tub and restaurant are all on ground level, as well as an accessible changing room for people with disabilities.
Transport: Paddington to Reading (25 mins) + 10 mins walk, or use King's Meadow Car Par (RG1 8BN)
Runnymede Pleasure Grounds
'Where was the Magna Carta signed?' 'At the bottom.'
The Great Charter of Freedoms was drafted and sealed here at Runnymede in 1215. A statue and a plaque commemorate the event. We'd like to assume that, charter-stamping done, King John and the Archbishop went for a swim in the Thames to lick their wounds and mourn their injured authority. Maybe they sat by the riverside and watched the world float by.
The best place to swim is about 100m downstream of the memorial at a large, sweeping meander near the weeping willows. It's perfect for meditative swimming, but please be mindful of the boats and wear a bright hat or tow float to be seen. The obvious entry and exit point is from the sandy river beaches to the north of the
Kids will have hours of fun in the playground or just running around the huge grassy open space. The Pleasure Grounds get busy in summer and at weekends. Runnymede Café, near the entrance, has a selection of food, snacks and drinks.
Transport: Waterloo to Egham (40 mins) + one-mile walk (20 mins). Or on-site parking.
Penton Hook Island
Staines-upon-Thames puts itself indelibly on our swimming map, with a pleasing dip at Penton Hook Island. On one of those English summer afternoons when the sun slips in and out of clouds, we walked the mile or so along the Thames Path from Staines to Penton Lock, crossing the lock to reach Penton Hook Island.
150 years ago, the cast of Gilbert & Sullivan's hit comic opera HMS Pinafore held their annual summer picnic on the island. We arrived with only a bar of melting chocolate. The Hook was lush and overgrown, pathways wandering off into a tangle of blackberry bushes and brambles. After retracing our steps several times we found
a beaten path that followed the banks of the island. Downstream from a weir we came across an angler's wooden platform, our route into the water.
As the sun reappeared, we submerged ourselves in this most splendid of rivers. Flipping onto our backs for a rest, we found ourselves pushed downstream by the current of the nearby weir – it took some effort to stay in one place. Back on the platform, we licked warm chocolate from our fingers and watched the river flow past. A walk further round the island brought us to a river beach in a meander by the marina. The current was much gentler here and we swam to the opposite bank and back.
A 'leap' has been installed by the weir to help salmon and eels migrate upstream where shallow streams provide predator-free spawning. Kingfishers nest in the mud banks. Don't forget to say hello to the lock keeper.
Transport: Waterloo to Staines (35 mins) + two-mile walk (40 mins). The Runnymede to Hampton Court boat service stops at Penton Hook Lock.
Desborough Island, Shepperton (river swim)
Desborough Island is a 112-acre artificial island in the River Thames, on the reach above Sunbury Lock. The island was formed in the 1930s by the digging of a channel — the Desborough Cut. Enjoy a riverside walk along a shaded path lined with trees and wildflowers.
There are a number of spots where you could enter the water, but the best is a small river beach opposite the white manor house. A 90-degree meander creates a wide swimming spot with very little current. We swam from one side of the river and back again and kept an eye open for boats and other craft.
In 1983, the video for Culture Club's Karma Chameleon was filmed on the island.
Transport: Waterloo to Weybridge (35 mins) + two-mile walk (40 mins). Or park on Walton Lane just after
Albany Reach, Hampton (river swim)
A quiet riverside beach with a gentle slope into the water. Please be careful as the current can be strong here. Also keep an eye out for passing boats and surf hydrofoils. The meadow overlooks Hampton Court Palace across the river and is a fine place to spend a family afternoon: the kids will love splashing about in the shallows.
Walk a bit further along Albany Reach to discover Palace Beach, which is also great for swimming. Please keep the local residents happy and dispose of your rubbish responsibly. Paddle Up lists Albany Reach as one of the top-10 places on the Thames to launch your paddle-board. If you arrive by boat at Hampton Court Landing Stage, you'll see another narrow beach from which you can swim.
Transport: Waterloo to Thames Ditton (35 mins) + 0.5-mile walk (10 mins). Regular boat services between Westminster and Hampton Court Landing Stage. Or park where you legally can on surrounding streets.
Royal Docks, London Docklands (lifeguarded open-water swim)
The poster child for London urban swimming, the Royal Docks do not disappoint. Dive into what was the largest enclosed docks system in the world and you have the unique pleasure of a swim surrounded by the disused cranes and warehouses of London's industrial past alongside sleek modern buildings, while, overhead, planes
take off at ridiculously steep angles from the next-door London City Airport.
With 400m, 750m and (sometimes) 1,500m routes marked out, it's a good place to put in some distance, plus there's plenty of room to swim unfettered by fellow splashers. The water quality is good, and it’s checked every two weeks. Facilities may be minimal but the venue is run on a safe (lifeguards in canoes) but relaxed and friendly basis. To fully appreciate the grandeur of the place, arrive by the cable car from North Greenwich. This is surely the most spectacular way to travel to a swim anywhere in the UK.
From up on high you get a real sense of the sheer scale of the old docks, as well as just how inviting it all now looks. Post-swim sustenance can be found on the floating bar (they do pizzas), or at the other restaurants and cafés surrounding this glorious stretch of water.
Transport: Royal Victoria DLR Station. Or London cable car from North Greenwich Station.
How to keep safe in the river
When swimming in the Thames, or any river, it is important to follow some basic rules:
- Maintain a good lookout
- Make yourself as visible as possible to other river users, by wearing a hi-vis swimming cap and/or ensuring that you have a hi-vis towable buoyancy aid with you
- Never swim across the river
- Don't swim more than a few metres from the water's edge and keep as far inshore as possible
- Try to remain in water shallow enough to stand up in, so you can more readily return to a place of safety should you get into difficulty
- Let someone know where you are going and for how long
About the authors and book
John Weller and Lola Culsán and are authors of Outdoor Swimming London: 140 best wild swims and lidos within easy reach of the capital. Available now from Wild Things Publishing RRP £18.99 (or Amazon). Also available as an ebook and app for Android and iOS/Apple iPhone. Also from John Weller and Lola Culsán: Wild Swimming Spain and Hidden Beaches Spain. Follow their adventures on Instagram @wildswimminglondon
All images (c) John Weller.