Come on in, the Water's Lovely ; the River Thames Is Cleaner Than It Has Been for 130 Years. in the Fifties, It Was Declared Biologically Dead, but Now Seals Frolic in Its Waters and a Dolphin Was Seen at the London Eye. So Why Aren't We All Swimming in It? LENA CORNER Returns to the Scene of Her Teenage Dips
Corner, Lena, The Independent (London, England)
"Are you sure it's not just another corpse?" says local resident Michele Noach, her eyes scanning the Thames in search of the lone seal recently sighted in Chiswick. "I think they fished one out around here only last week." It seems that wildlife can be an alien concept to many Londoners, especially those who have spent a lot of time on the banks of the murky Thames. "Is it just the one?" she continues. "That's not going to make for much of a colony, is it?"
Despite being officially cleaner than it has been for the past 130 years, the Thames just can't seem to shake off its bad reputation. The seal that took up residence in Chiswick a month ago should be proof enough that the capital's river is now stocked so full of fish that there's enough to go round even for large marine mammals. And if he's not evidence enough, what about the dolphin that came up as far as the London Eye last year, or more recently the porpoise that was spotted at Battersea?
"The water itself is the cleanest industrial river in Europe," says Geoff Adam, the head of promotion at the Port of London Authority. "People look at it and think it's dirty because it's brown, but that's simply the silt. If you fell into the river in the Fifties and Sixties you would be whisked into hospital to have your stomach pumped. That would never happen today. The recovery has been remarkable."
If it really is that clean, why aren't we all swimming in it? Ask any river authority and they'll say that the only people who go in are drunken revellers or people attempting suicide. The only thing to do, I realise, is to take to the water myself to find out what's holding us back.
Adam sounds a note of caution. "We don't recommend that anyone swims in the Thames, especially in central London where the current can reach four knots and there's a lot of undertow. But if you have to, I'd try Ham, near Petersham Meadows. That's where people tend to hang about and let their kids go for a paddle."
We head off through the leafy west London borough of Richmond upon Thames, past Ham House and down River Lane, which opens out on to the Thames. Although you couldn't quite describe the rocky grey sludge as a beach, it does slope gently down into the water. A man is loading up his boat on the water's edge. I ask him if he fancies a dip. "I wouldn't even consider it," he says. "Look at it, you have no idea what's below the surface." "Yes, but what if your boat were to capsize?" I say feebly. "This boat would never capsize," he replies, launching off into the water.
No one else is swimming today, so at least there's plenty of space for me. Feeling slightly foolish, I flap forth in my flippers trying to ignore the steady flow of pedestrians on the towpath. "You'd better make sure you haven't got any open wounds," advises one, as I get to knee- deep. "You could contract Weil's disease from all the rats." I try to recall when I last had a tetanus jab, but can't. Still, it's warmer than I imagined and the smell wafting over from two cows in the nearby field is far worse than anything coming off the water.
It's not long before I'm fully submerged and finding my strokes. Indeed, for a second I feel a moment of affinity with the only celebrity advocate there is of Thames river swimming - Bamber Gascoigne. He's been defying the advice of river authorities for years and taken to the waters at high tide, regular as clockwork, for as long as anyone can remember. He lives on this stretch of the river; perhaps he'll swim by.
The Thames has come a long way since the 1950s, when it was declared biologically dead all the way from Westminster to Gravesend. In the Sixties and Seventies there was big clean-up when the government invested heavily in what were then fairly primitive sewage works. Coupled with a sharp downturn in the volume of heavy industry on the river, we are reaping the benefits now, because it's taken about 30 years for the river to heal itself. …