Thoughts of wild swimming usually conjure up images of the countryside. Part of the appeal of the swim is the connection to nature. Indeed, in Daniel Start’s excellent book Wild Swimming, he even suggests that you can swim pretty much anywhere, but not in cities.
And yet more than 80% of us in the UK live in cities. During lockdown when we weren’t allowed to travel anywhere, people began to swim in city rivers they previously stayed out of. At least, they did in Oxford where I live. Over the summers of 2020 and 2021, thousands of people started using the river as their place to cool off on a hot day. The river-side became like a beach, with inflatables, kayakers and swimmers all enjoying the water.
It turns out that Oxford is very suitable for river swimming, with swimmers taking to the waters for over 100 years. The ‘Gown’ folk (university) generally swam on the Cherwell River, and their favourite spots have become famous, like Parson’s Pleasure. The ‘Town’ folk (residents) on the other hand used the millstreams which come off the main Thames River. In several locations, the banks were given firm concrete walls and ladders to facilitate the swimming, such as Tumbling Bay and Longbridges.
In their hey-day, all of these places had extra facilities like diving boards, changing rooms and even toilets. They were regularly used up until the 1970s but have since been abandoned and have become somewhat derelict. That is until now, when Oxford’s residents and visitors have decided that it’s safe to go back into the water.
To experience the city-river myself, I decided to create a series of swims right across Oxford last summer. As river swimmers will know, the actual experience of getting into a river itself has its own magic. Being pulled along by the flow, while the trees drape their branches down into the water, and the sunlight glints off the water is spell-binding. It was wonderful to swim through a city that I have known all my life, but to see it from the view-point of the water. As I swam under road bridges, instead of travelling over the top and seeing the water below, I looked up and saw birds roosting in the bridge’s structures. Instead of looking through the branch of trees on the towpath down to the water, I swam past the roots of the trees, and hung on to the branches for a breather. The extraordinary thing is that, even though I was in the middle of a city, I had an instant connection to nature. I found I could make that contact to the power and otherness of the river within minutes of my house.
It was wonderful to swim through a city that I have known all my life, but to see it from the view-point of the water. Instead of looking through the branch of trees on the towpath down to the water, I swam past the roots of the trees, and hung on to the branches for a breather.
The plus side of city swimming is that there are several pubs that have a river-side setting. So as part of my adventure, I planned to end somewhere for a meal or a drink. For instance, the first swim I made started 1 km upstream from the famous Trout Inn in Wolvercote. I booked us a meal for mid-afternoon, left my dry clothes in the car in the car-park of the inn, and walked to my swim start. As so often happens, as I entered the water, I lost all my stressful thoughts, and just enjoyed the sensation of the water and the cold on my skin, the water birds and reeds. The river was completely empty when I started, but the end of the swim was at a very popular spot where kids were jumping into the river off the bridge. It was fabulous to see youngsters enjoying the river like this. I really enjoyed that pub meal afterwards: chilled and enthused about life.
One major difference between country and city swimming emerges on a hot day. As soon as the sun comes out, the popular places can be teeming with visitors, most of them sitting by the water having a drink or a little party. On a cloudy day, there are almost always fishermen, either sitting or walking along the path, or magnet-fishing for families to collect the various bicycles and shopping trolleys that cluster around the bridges. Knowing when and where to swim to avoid the crowds and the boats is definitely part of the planning process to have a great city-swim. Getting mixed up with rowers and punters can be a problem when you only stick out a few inches from the water.
You can purchase a copy of Wild Swimming by Daniel Start from the publisher by following this link.
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