No.105 Hop In for a Swim at London’s Royal Docks on the Thames

In 1726, a young Benjamin Franklin spent time working as an apprentice in London. One day, while out with his friends walking along the banks of the Thames in Chelsea, he decided to jump into the river. Charming onlookers with his breaststrokes, backstrokes, and overarm skills, he swam all the way to Blackfriars some three-and-a-half miles downriver.

The ability to swim in that era was a novelty. So, gauging his friends’ enthusiastic response, the ever-industrious Franklin toyed with the idea of opening a swimming school to teach Londoners how to do it. Prudently, he abandoned the idea, prioritizing some of his other projects that have proved, with hindsight, to be more beneficial.

So Clean You Could Swim In It

The Thames river stretches over 215 miles from its source in Gloucestershire through England’s capital and out to the North Sea. It is not only a waterway: Through its winding path the story of England can be told. It has been a source of power both sacred and secular, as evidenced by the numerous abbeys, monasteries, castles, palaces, and even Parliament itself, built on its bank.

While the story of Ben Franklin’s Thames swim found its way into Franklin lore because of its sheer novelty, by the late 18th-century Victorian royalty, followed by the rich and famous, had vigorously embraced the practice. Swimming competitions became popular events and by the 1930s, the swimming fad had spread to the masses.

Soon, bathhouses sprung up along the riverbanks. At Kingston, schoolchildren were known to forge across to islands in that stretch of the river. Locals everywhere took advantage of the river as the Thames strong tidal movement periodically exposed sandbanks, creating something akin to beaches at Tower Hill, Greenwich, and Grays.

Never a clean river, by the end of World War II, the Thames was declared biologically dead. The government was finally forced to take action, embarking on a long-term plan to tighten rules for the disposal of chemicals and fertilizer and to prevent household water from reaching the river. The environmental agency also recreated natural habitats, removed concrete barriers and built up mud banks, which allowed reed beds to take hold once again. It generated over 400 new natural habitat areas to slowly coax native wildlife back into the river.

The effort has been a wild success, with the river now at its cleanest in 150 years. One hundred and twenty-five species once again make their home in the river. Salmon return each year to spawn, and seals relax on the sandbanks at low tide. Even sea trout, a species notoriously intolerant of polluted water, have returned.

All signs would indicate that the Thames is once again ready to receive bathers! With its 2010 designation, the “cleanest city river,” it entered a period of environmental balance that will hopefully be sustained. It depends to a great degree on good ecological governance. So, as long as London and England see the environment as a priority, the Thames will remain habitable—and swimmable!

With good water quality established—check—where should one hop into the Thames for a dip? It’s still a busy waterway. Striking out impromptu as Ben Franklin did might not be as safe as it was a century and a half ago. With a bit of research, I came across the perfect place to dip your toes into Thames waters.

A group of urban open water swimmers have set up shop at the London Royal Victoria Docks in East London. Between early March and late October all levels of swimmers are welcome to take the plunge for play or serious exercise.

This long-neglected London district where old shipyards unloaded goods from remote outposts of the former British empire, went through significant redevelopment for the 2016 London Summer Olympics. Former warehouses were converted into apartment buildings, and the tube extended from Central London. Now where those ships once docked, you can waterski, swim or take a cable car over the river enjoying sweeping views of the city along the way.

We booked into the GOOD Hotel, accommodation on a floating barge central to all the activities in and around the Royal Docks. The temperature was mild for a winter’s day when we met London Swimming Club operator Rick Kiddle, one of Britain’s first triathletes, and now local swim coach for all levels of outdoor swimming athletes.

At the Edge

Standing at the edge of the London Dock’s vast expanse of water, a bit of apprehension crept over me. Since the moment I had the idea to swim in the Thames I had anticipated this moment with excitement. But now, with toes hanging precariously over the edge of the dock’s old industrial containment wall, bracingly cool water below, I’m having a bit of a “what did I get myself into?” moment.

Rick’s warmth and encouragement quickly take the chill out of the moment. Pointing out the different routes to swim, he gives me a quick rundown on the local etiquette for open water swimming and what to do if I feel like I am in trouble.

If you’re like me, most of your swimming experiences have occurred in a pool. And when in the sea, I have never strayed far from shore. So as Rick pointed out the buoy that marked the turnaround point for my swim, it seemed a LONG way away. And once on the way, there are no edges to retreat to for a rest. For me, embarking on this swim would be a small adventure, and most true adventures come with some sense of risk.

I filled out a few required forms and received an official NOWCA (National Open Water Coaching Association) wrist band, inducting me into the largest community of outdoor swimmers, about 20,000 and counting. The band is both a safety device, letting the NOWCA team know who is in the water, and keeps tabs on your open swimming activity so you can track your performance over time and connect with other swimmers. Indicative of NOWCA’s worldwide popularity, one of our fellow swimmers was a Japanese businessman in London for a visit who arrived in business attire, changed into his wetsuit, and took the plunge.

Rick has laid out two routes: a longer one for the advanced swimmers, or you can take the shorter course if you are just getting your feet wet. I swam the short route, and then with my confidence building, set out to conquer the longer loop. I took my time. Some of the seasoned swimmers zipped past me twice, lapping me with ease. Though a novice, it still felt exhilarating to swim out in open water; you really get the feeling you are braving the elements. With my second loop conquered, it’s out of the water to warm up with a hot cup of tea and biscuits—after all, this IS England.

Chatting with some of the regulars, most swimmers make it several times a week after work as part of their regular exercise regime. But visitors are welcome. In search of a London micro-adventure? Take the plunge!

In the meantime, treat yourself to two amazing books about the Thames river. Check out “Thames“, a biography of the Thames by Peter Ackroyd. And “Downstream” by Caitlin Davies, which tells extraordinary stories and offers a rich history of the river.


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Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger

Planning a swim at the Royal Docks? Here is the current weather and what to expect for the next few days.