Rob Fryer, who died on 26 September 2023 at the age of 84, led an extraordinary life as author of the original swim guide, co-founder of the River & Lake Swimming Association and longstanding chair of Farleigh & District Swimming Club – the oldest wild swimming club in the UK. The OSS talked to his friends and family.
I first met Rob in 2002 on the banks of the River Barle. He was stood on the bridge above this picturesque Exmoor scene and came over to ask if I happened to know the whereabouts of a river gate. Yes – I did! He impressed me further still when he then walked upstream IN the river to find this gate, before returning to ask if I’d be willing to photograph the crowds swimming here at the weekend as he was writing a book all about wild swimming. So I did just that, returning the camera filled with photographs. And we made plans to meet up again, and again …
I introduced Rob to my friends as The River Man, for such as he was to me. Rob filled my life with adventure and had a refreshing approach to everything. There was his impromptu conversations with total strangers. His unerring punctuality for catching trains with hair-raising connections – and always bringing too much fruit to eat en-route. And, I’m embarrassed to admit, Rob drove every millimetre of our long European car journeys. He was always glad to discover that places he’d researched the previous winter were even more rewarding in real life – and then to meet locals who knew of two or three more swims to add to that day’s itinerary. I thought Rob was very brace to swim in these uncharted waters, but happily he always returned to timid me, breathless with excitement at what he’d found beyond the river’s bend.
I first met Rob in the summer of 2007 while researching Wild Swim. I pitched up at Farleigh & District Swimming Club, which had a low and local profile at the time – the term ‘wild swimming’ had yet to be coined. Rob arrived with fairground music playing from his car stereo. ‘I get a guy at Warminster Fair to do me a new tape every year’, he told me.
Rob was an original: passionate about swimming but equally wondering whether this craze would really last, or whether wild ice skating – another passion of his – would gain supremacy at some point instead. But his passion for wild swimming did last – thanks in no small part to his dogged, practical and indefatigable support. As the following remembrances attest, very few have contributed so much to the grassroots.
His role at Farleigh is a good example. Collecting subs at the Club can be a thankless task. It used to cost £1 per day in 2007 – yet the subs collectors still faced abuse from large crowds with boxes of San Miguel and families who had no intention of contributing. Leaving litter and even setting fire to the shed used to happen all the time, but Rob refused to let this get him down.
During the pandemic, as the Club moved to annual memberships, Rob used to roll out a rug where he’d sit at a small desk, with his partner Sue knitting behind him in the shade of a tree. His presence at Farleigh will be sorely missed. His energy was so irrepressible that I assumed he’d be there forever – so it is with great sadness that I realise we won’t get the chance to have another chat.
On 26 September we lost one of our most beloved and dedicated advocates of wild swimming. Many people will know Rob as the author of 2000 Wild Swims – a copy of which I always keep in my car when visiting new places. I first met Rob in 1997 after listening to his exploits on Radio 4. With no internet, I phoned the local tourist office at Bath to see if they could give me his phone number. We later chatted and he invited me down to Farleigh Swimming Club where he was chairman of the only remaining river swimming club in England. He took me on some marvellous swims and told me I had been ‘wild swimming’ – the first time I heard the term! This was the start of a fightback against the anti-swimming culture. Since then, he has been a constant help to me and many others working to improve access. We have achieved so much since those dark days in the 1980s and 90s. I am so sad to have lost such a good friend and swimming enthusiast but his spirit lives on in 2000 Wild Swims.
When I rediscovered wild swimming in 2012, there were far fewer swim groups and much less information available. The OSS helped me understand how to swim safely and Rob’s website – the precursor of his book, 2000 Wild Swims – was an invaluable resource when looking for new places to go. It differed from other swim guides by including traditional swim spots which made it possible to explore places which had either gone out of favour or been closed to the public. While I’d read Roger Deakin’s Waterlog in which he rails against those who want to stop us swimming, I didn’t fully realise what a problem it can be to access these places inland. Over the next few years, I gradually became more involved in discussions and campaigns, before volunteering with the OSS where I joined others much more experienced than me, like Robert Aspey, and found myself inspired by younger campaigners, such as Owen Hayman, who empowered people to swim despite landowner bans. While I never met Rob in person, we exchanged emails and calls. He was always very generous with his time, experience, advice and support for new campaigns. All this made him a key player in a long line of campaigners who worked hard to improve access over the decades. Those of us now campaigning for places to swim freely can build on the tireless work which Rob and others did – for which we will be forever grateful.
It came as a blissful relief at the end of a hot summer day in 2002 to be swimming in the cool waters of the River Frome with a stranger in a sunhat. I was weary after a day spent driving around southern England, gathering information about the few places where one was officially allowed to swim, but as we swam up and down the Frome, Rob told me about many more unofficial spots. He had already started to compile his ever-expanding Cool Places which provided advice about swimming spots all over the UK and beyond. He also told me how he – along with the redoubtable Yakov Lev – were planning to found the River and Lakes Swimming Association (RALSA) to confront the many aspects of officialdom which denied us the joy of swimming in our rivers and lakes. In the early days, under Rob’s chairmanship, RALSA not only challenged the anti-swimming attitudes of official bodies with facts and reason, but also sought to change the widespread public view that one had to go to the seaside to find water in which to bathe. While RALSA’s work has long since been overtaken by the OSS, Rob’s infectious enthusiasm, good advice and extensive knowledge provided a powerful starting point.
I first met Rob in his Warminster press room, surrounded by stacks of boxes and pamphlets ready to be shipped. I had recently moved to the West Country and we busily shared swimming locations and updates at high speed. Nobody knew more about the breadth and diversity of UK swims. He was quick to criticise some of my suggestions as not good enough. ‘Why swim there when the weir pool downstream is much prettier and has steps?’ He always had an eye for the picturesque and Rob’s Cool Places – the first guidebook to wild swimming – was full of natural history, fascinating historical anecdotes and stories of the people he met along his way. (He was excellent at sparking up conversation with anyone!) In later years, we would bump into each other at Farleigh Swimming Club, local to us both, where he was the legendary chairman and quite a personality. Very few people did as much for wild swimming in the UK than Rob, with his groundbreaking research of traditional and lost river bathing sites, his founding of RALSA and resurrection of Farleigh. My first book was dedicated to both Rob and Roger Deakin as the joint forefathers of wild swimming in the UK. Rob was more of a local celebrity in Wiltshire but his legacy and enthusiasm will live on in the same way as Roger’s.
First founded in 1933, the Farleigh and District Swimming club has always inspired deep loyalty among its members. This was an ever-present feature of Rob’s relationship with the Club since the late 1960s when he first started to swim here. The Club has been very fortunate to have a series of inspiring chairs to guide it through difficult times and continue to grow the membership to a recent count of 5,000. There is no doubt that Rob was an inspiring leader in every aspect of his dealings with the Club – particularly during his time as Chair from 1998 up to his untimely death.
He accomplished much throughout his life. His quest to create the most comprehensive wild swimming directory in the world – Rob Fryer’s Wild Swimming Guide – was realised through a mixture of his effort and enthusiasm. These achievements were recognised when he was asked to speak about wild swimming earlier this year at the Royal Geographical Society in London. The publication of The Club – a history of the Farleigh & District Swimming Club – was another example of his enthusiasm and devotion. As he recalled, ‘It was a 25-year assignment’.
As Vice-Chair, I have shared many special club occasions at Rob’s side. I know his support made an important difference to so many people’s lives and helped ensure that the Club’s future is secure so that generations to come will continue to experience the freedom and joy of swimming in the natural environment. The protection of this legacy would be Rob’s most profound wish.