Can you swim in the River Thames?

Be wary when swimming in the River Thames, especially in London. Photo credit: Metro Centric / Flickr

Paris has one. Berlin too. So does Oxford. Even the residents of Lochgoilhead are participating.  Sunday 10 July was the day of the Big Jump. At 3pm thousands of screaming half-naked Europeans, Brits and bemused tourists took a running jump into their local river. One name is conspicuous in its absence: London. People are getting wet and wild either side of the Channel and, quite naturally, Londoners are eyeing the Thames. But could it be a fatal attraction?

The short and the long answer from the Port of London Authority is: stay away. Once the pulse beat of the British Empire, the River Thames running through London these days is largely travelled by rubbish barges. Moored traps scoop up beer cans and plastic milk bottles. Swimmers can contract a fatal disease colloquially known as Rat Catcher’s Yellows, or Weil’s Syndrome. This summer, 450,000 tonnes of raw sewage overflowed into the river, turning fish belly-up and leaving condoms, faeces and pollution on the riverbanks.

Since 1957 the river has been deemed biologically extinct.

The aphorism goes that you can’t step into the same river twice. In the case of the Thames the sage advice is an urgent warning: once you step in, you won’t step out again.

The times are changing

The River Thames has improved somewhat in the last decade or so, health-wise. Photo credit: Des Runyan / Flickr

Recent years have seen an improvement in water quality. More than 125 species including salmon and trout have returned. Seals and dolphins have been spotted as far upstream as London Bridge. The river is said to be at its cleanest in 200 years. Last year it was awarded the world’s biggest prize for environmental conservation, the Theiss International Riverprize.

Unsurprisingly, the first human species to return were charity swimmers. Swim safari companies are now operating. A book dividing the river into 77 sections (Michael Worthington, I ♥ the Thames) has inspired a new generation of ‘wild swimmers’. The Outdoor Swimming Society is on a mission to free swimmers from ‘chlorinated captivity’.

But different rules apply for the Thames. Heavy river traffic and strong tidal currents (the Thames rises and falls 7 metres with each tide) makes the river unsafe downstream of Teddington Lock. A recent exception is the annual one-mile Chiswick Pier swim. Proposals for swimmers include a ‘bathing ship’ modelled on a facility in Berlin, a sandy beach (proposed by Mayor of London Boris Johnson), and throwing open the gates to the rejuvenated Docklands facilities which host the popular annual British Gas Great Swim.

Dip a toe in history

Despite all, the Thames is indeed flowing history. Photo credit: William Warby / Flickr

Once these problems are solved, the not-quite-pristine waters of the Thames may prove an attraction. “The Thames is liquid history,” turn-of-the-century English politician John Burns wrote. This is the river through which the Industrial Revolution flowed. Where prison-hulks rotted at anchor. Where convicts left for the antipodes. Year by year artefacts are being filtered and combed from its mud. Fish are returning. A proposed ‘Super-Sewer’ will take care of sewage-overflows.

But for the moment the river’s history is all too palpable.