Swimming Down The River Thames, Lewis Pugh In 2006

Swimming Down The River Thames, Lewis Pugh In 2006

On NBC’s opening montage of its broadcast of the Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics, the Thames was prominently shown throughout the show.

The longest river in England was swum in its entirety in July 2006 when Lewis Pugh traversed from its source near the Welsh border to the North Sea, a total distance of 350 km (217.5 miles).

Pugh attempted the swim (Investec Thames Challenge) in order to draw attention to the impact of climate change on the UK. Coincidentally and appropriately, the Thames stopped flowing in 2006 due to a severe drought. At the time of Pugh’s swim, England was rationing its water rationing and sweltering under the highest recorded temperatures since records began.

I will never forget arriving at the source to find it had completely dried up,” recalled the famed pioneering adventurer who has swum up on Mount Everett, at the North Pole and in Antarctica among other locations. Fully intent on achieving his goal, the former Special Air Service officer laced up his running shoes and ran the first 40km until he could start swimming. “It was blisteringly hot. The swim was a slog from beginning to end. There was no flow whatsoever. Imagine putting your head down in a warm, muddy, polluted river for 6 to 8 hours per day.”

He got sick on a number of occasions throughout the stage swim that took him much longer than he anticipated. “I estimated the swim would take me about 10 days, but in the end it took me 21 days to reach the North Sea.”

And like most river stage swims, the local authorities had their say in the matter. “The Port of London Authority refused to give me permission to swim through London. They said I would be a danger to shipping and that the section was too dangerous to swim.”

Yet he decided to push on and ignore the bureaucratic governing body. “I believed they did not have the legal authority to do so. There were some heated negotiations with the Harbour Master threatening to arrest me.”

But similar to others who swim for specific environmental causes, there were also many highlights that helped spur him on. “Hundreds of people came out to support me. Lots of friends jumped into the river and swam sections with me. And when I reached London (the 250km mark), the Prime Minister invited me to No 10 to discuss what steps should be taken to halt to climate change. Shortly afterwards, the UK enacted the Climate Change Act which regulates carbon emissions.”

To date, Pugh remains the only person to have swum the full length of the Thames, although a number of swimmers have swum sections of it. Most famously, comedian David Walliams swam 230 km (140 miles) from Lechlade to Westminster Bridge and raised over £1 million for charity in the process. Allison Streeter and Kevin Murphy have swum from Gravesend to Richmond (67km) in the tidal section of the Thames.

In 2012, a protester swam into the middle of the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race, causing the race to be restarted. The demonstration led to the Port of London Authority banning all swimming in the tidal section of the Thames without permission. Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London expressed himself in a letter to the Daily Telegraph that said, “It’s time for the elf and safety fanatics to take a running jump – off the pier at Putney.”

Pugh agrees, “It should be the right of every Briton to joyfully swim in the rivers of Great Britain unhindered – the Thames included.”

Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images for Investec.

Copyright © 2012 by Open Water Source
Steven Munatones