OSS Book Review

Stretching 215 miles from its source in Gloucestershire, through England’s capital and across to the North Sea, the River Thames has always enticed swimmers. Downstream explores the changing nature of swimmers’ relationship with the river, featuring previously unpublished archive images, and asks why it is that swimmers still love the Thames.


Anna’s Review – A Sparkling Book

The Thames. That mighty river which, for over 12% of our inhabitants, is just a great divide between North and South London. Something we cross, occasionally go on (oh, lamentable party cruises), but rarely go in.

This big, familiar, millions of years old river has a history of in-ness as well as on-ness we so often overlook. Caitlin Davies’ warm, gleeful, beautiful biography of the Thames sets out to consolidate and record it.

She starts at the source. A ‘marshy meadow in Gloucestershire’, wellies seeping in water, offering a positive swimmers’ perspective of a river seen so often in terms of thou shalt nots and drowning dangers. A river which, in actuality, has always attracted bathers and swimmers, including some fascinating pioneers, such as the all-female distance swimming clubs of puritan Edwardian England; the first person to swim the length of the non-tidal Thames in 2005, Andy Nation; and more recently, comedian David Walliams, whose fame made such endeavours a little more acceptable to the wider public.

Big On Detail

Big on detail, long-forgotten facts and anecdotes, contemporary and historical, personal and social, the book follows the Thames, section by section, travelogue style. Through the Cotswolds, Oxford, Reading, Henley, Maidenhead, through to the outer London boroughs, the Port of London Authority, and out to Essex and Kent, heading for the sea, each section paints a picture of the social history of each stretch of water, with many places upstream enjoying (still yearned for) glory days of swimming clubs from the late 1800s well into the 1950s.

Agnes Beckwith sparked Davies’ interest in Thames swimming. A 14 year-old Thames swimmer, who in 1875, jumped off a rowing boat at London Bridge and swam off to Greenwich. Garnering much press at the time, she is almost forgotten today, one of many such swimmers brought back to life through brilliant storytelling. Davies’ passion for people is as clear as her passion for the river.

Lovely Historical Photographs

There are some lovely historical photographs too – bathing belles at Hampton Court, Richmond’s temporary lido, and Edwardian swimming heroines – Olympians and the distance sea swimmer, Lily Smith, whose portraits date from 1912 – the first year women swam in the Olympics – women kicking out and causing a fuss in the water, as the suffragettes were kicking up a fuss on land.

The OSS Thames Group gets a long nod towards the end of the book, having completed the non-tidal Thames in 56 swims as a group (with seven members completing the whole journey) and we end in the present, back in London, with Boris Johnson’s approval of a feasibility study for a Thames Lido by Blackfriars’ Bridge.

The Thames will always be London’s river. But this sparkling book reminds us that we should not forget that it is also ours.

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