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river swim alastair humphreys

River Swim

Look at the normal with fresh eyes. Seek the extra-ordinary in the ordinary. Step away from the pleasant, unsurprising riverside picnic. Step away and slide down into the water. See the world from a different perspective. Be surprised. Swim a river.
“In wild water you are on equal terms with the animal world around you; in every sense, on the same level” wrote Roger Deakin, the patron saint of wild swimmers. He is right. Swimming down a river for a couple of days has been the most surprising experience of this year of microadventures. Once I had slipped past the green picnic meadow, past the surprised grins and sun/booze-flushed faces of the riverside pub garden I was into the wild. Wiltshire, yes, but wild. My eyes were but an inch or two above the water’s surface so the banks of reeds, bushes and sweet-smelling pink willowherb towered high above me. I could see very little beyond the watery channel that was sweeping me gently on my first river journey. The sun sweeping to and fro across the sky told me that my river was meandering through all points of the compass. It was disorientating and I found it impossible to gauge how fast I was travelling. But it didn’t matter one jot for I was here to explore this river so whichever way the river went was the right way.

I swam through reeds beside the bank, startling moorhens and reed warblers. I imagined giant pike lurking in the murky water waiting to nibble my toes. I kicked a little faster.
Later I swam through lily pads, sweeping them aside with my hands as I glided by. I swam breaststroke, what Roger Deakin called “the naturalist’s stroke” as it is the best way to take in all the sights and sensations. Besides, recent rains meant that the warm water was thick with silt so there was nothing to see below the surface. This was a pity as I had looked forward to exploring the totally alien world beneath the surface. My strongest (and most annoying) demonstration that to swim a river is to dangle between two separate worlds was when I let go, for a fraction of a second, my expensive waterproof camera (a GoPro). And it was gone. Gone. Gone forever into the opaque underwater world below.

Warm water. Blue sky. Fluffy clouds. I lay on my back and kicked my legs for a few minutes, my waterproof red bag towing along gently behind me. I could not believe that I had never taken a journey (even a tiny one like this) down a river before. It was an experience quite unlike running or cycling or even canoeing. It felt wild, really wild. Feral and primitive. Not feral and primitive like the rioters who were -completely unbeknownst to me- smashing up London a few miles down my river. But feral because this most mundane and domesticated corner of southern England suddenly felt wild again.

I lay in a wood on the riverbank in my sleeping bag listening to the noises of a wild night. I couldn’t see lights or hear roads. I saw stars instead. I heard a long chorus of rooks. And throughout the night my wood was alive with crashing beasts – deer, rabbits, foxes – and occasional fat fish leaped and splashed in the black river by my feet.

Dawn. Coffee. My hair reeked of wood smoke. The silent river slid by. A silver mirror. Or a natural, beautiful, uplifting, thrilling version of those flat escalators that fat and mind-numbed people stand on to be moved around airports. This microadventure was so far from that sanitised, dreary world. But that is the world I am desperate to connect with through my microadventures: with people who’ve never camped, never cooked on a fire, never stared at stars, never swum in a river. A poor life this if, full of care, we have no time to swim and stare and be surprised.
I eased myself down into the water and began another day of swimming, wishing that I could carry on this journey all the way down to the sea and the proper end. It has been a revelation. I suspect that this river swim is going to be my favourite of this year’s microadventures.

If you are interested in outdoor swimming then I really recommend these  links:

Thank you to Jim Shannon for lending me a waterproof camera housing.

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  1. Seems like you listened to your readers – we asked for long blog posts and this is exactly why! A fantastic piiece of inspiring writing. This is what you do best.

  2. I’ll second that sentiment, Liam. Another special piece of writing.
    Thank you.

  3. Muchas gracias! Muy amable…

  4. Great blog post Al! Probably my favourite one this year.

    We did quite a bit of wild swimming on our honeymoon, and are determined to go back to our favourite river in Portugal and swim the length of it down to the sea in the next couple of years. It just /happens/ to be a brilliant wine-producing river as well. Total coincidence though.


  5. Thanks for this post Al – very soul-stirring. Your words reminded me of a book I first read as a child – The Little Grey Men by Denys Watkins-Pitchford. If you’ve not read it already, I really think you’d love it. Thanks again!

  6. By reading your inspiring account of the trip, I can easily understand why you suspect this will become your favourite micro-adventure – I guess I will have to hit the pool and brush up on my swimming skills this winter! Thanks for the read – loved it!

  7. I’ve always been a bit antibreastroke (this is an Australian prejudice, Deakin calls us out in Waterlog). But now I always try to include a ‘Deakin lap’ or two of breastroke, looking up at the dawn and smelling the roses (or chlorine) along the way.

    Great idea Al, and a good way to not let rain interfere with a weekend of the outdoors!

  8. Seth Posted

    what bag did you use on this trip? Interested to try a similar trip and was wondering bc i always like to buy new gear

  9. Very Inspiring!

  10. I loved the video about your journey, and adore that you push ideas and boundaries.

    A few weeks ago, my sister and I were hiking in the mountains, around a large lake. The pathway started to move away from the lake, so I asked her if she wanted to swim it. It seemed wild, spontaneous, and a little bit dangerous. I packed my things into a dry bag and stuffed the rest of my backpack with empty water bottles for buoyancy. I put on my pack and clipped the dry bag to it, creating a towable buoy. It was an adventure I will never forget.

    You’re not the only crazy person who likes to swim in the wild. Maybe we’re the sane ones.

  11. Roberts89 Posted

    video looks great ! Where abouts on the river in Wiltshire did you swim? Any points of reference?
    Live not to far away and would love to experience it in the future. all the best on your future adventures!

  12. what a wonderful perspective. I always had swam into rivers but i haven’t got what you’re looking. Too bad that i cannot enjoy it anymore. But your articles still give me your pictures. Many thanks



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