Scottish Swimmer

Exploring the River Thames with Henley’s open water swimmers

Wild swimming in the River Thames at Henley on Thames

The first time I went swimming in the Thames, I was two. Me and my folks were in a punt in Oxford and I decided to go for a dip. Shunning personal safety and my parents’ mental health, I made the spontaneous decision to leap out of the punt and into the Thames/Isis.

Fortunately, perhaps, I had reins on and didn’t get far before being hauled back into the boat, dripping wet and drookit. Reins, my parents explained years later, had been worn because even as a toddler I’d developed a wee habit of jumping into water. Wild swimming indeed.

Anyway, forty years later and I was jumping back into the Thames, albeit without the reins and parental back-up.

We were in the first week of August on a family camping trip to Henley on Thames, home of the Henley Royal Regatta, Henley Swim Festival and Thames Marathon (we’d arrived the day after it), and I’d taken a couple of hours out from our Base Camp to join a couple of members of the Henley Open Water Swim Club for an enticing explore of their glorious river.

The HOWSC website lists a few choice spots for swims: Marsh Lock, Medenham and Flowerpot. We met up at the latter, a quiet riverside car park just down from the Flowerpot pub.

I think one of the great things about our sport is meeting new people, and it was superb spending a bit of time getting to know Anthony, Mike and Kate (Kate was fresh out of the river and was off for a run). 

Flowerpot is one of your perfect entry points, and ideal for winter swimming. The car park is right on the riverside and you can walk in over easy gravel or jump off the nearby wooden jetty. I dived off the jetty into fresh water on the warmer side of 16C. Though the evening sun was out in full force, the water was murk, weedy and wonderfully refreshing; the flow very gentle at this wide point of the river.

Anthony, Mike and I swam upstream, staying fairly close to the shore. Below us, weeds stretched up from the dark below, forced onto their sides due to the flow, like they were blown over by gusts of wind. While the weeds below showed the effects of the river flow, I only felt it when we stopped to blether or look around the leafy, green tree-lined waterbank.

At some point I was warned about duck fleas (causes swimmer’s itch), which hang out on the weeds and can leave wee itchy red spots after a swim. I figured they’d be no worse than jellyfish.  

After about 500 metres we stopped at a fork in the river and waved as a cruise boat passed as by. Then we carried on clockwise tight round an island, trees hanging low over us, their branches trailing in the water. More ducks pottering about. Then rather suddenly this rural idyll was interrupted as a wide weir loomed out from nowhere in front of us. Cascades of water poured down over concrete steps and through a lock into our part of the river pool and the wee marina, which had also appeared as if from nowhere, and completely incongruous with the Wind in the Willows scenes a few seconds before. We drifted slowly now, sometimes pausing to stand on the shallow, shingly bed, and swam past the few dozen wee river boats, gin cruisers and a crane moored at Hambleden Marina.  

The drift back to the Flowerpot jetty was more relaxed. A meander as the three of us chatted and chewed the fat. A forthcoming Channel crossing and past visits to Scottish lochs. Club updates and river news. Techniques, hangovers, big swims and a smattering of scary stories (deadly hangovers, near fatal ice miles, dismembered legs, boat collisions).

Too quickly, though, it was over and there was talk of the pub (sadly declined; kids’ dinner to sort), though I half hoped to get along for another swim the following evening (never did, sadly). Now Henley’s on our map though, and we’re looking forward to returning to this part of the world and getting the chance to take part in a few of the big swimming events that Henley is known for. And it would also be good to share a beer or three with a few of the local HOWSC swimmers.

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