First of all I think I must make it clear that I am big fan of open water swimming, or wild swimming as it is sometimes comically known in the media (is walking up a mountain ‘wild walking’ or running through a forest ‘wild running’ we wonder?)
I think in general we should be encouraging more people to swim in rivers and lakes, just as they used to be before the Victorians started building swimming baths – primarily because they were more concerned about cleanliness rather than worrying about them exercising.
I also think it’s a crying shame that diving boards have been removed from most swimming pools and that young kids can no longer lark about in the water like they used to. For me swimming outdoors gives me time to think, sort my head out, and, without sounding too much like a old hippy, reconnect with nature rather than spending my time tapping words into a computer while staring at a big screen. In short, I detest the health and safety culture that permeates most of our modern day culture, particularly via the insurance industry that seems to be able to flog us things that we never even realised we needed to be protected against and encourage us to make claims for which we have absolutely no right.
And yet… It is my belief that sometimes – just sometimes – we do need to be stopped, or at least discouraged, from doing stupid things that could endanger our own lives and other people’s. Is it really a basic human right to swim in the busiest part of the Thames as London Mayor Boris Johnson argues in this pompous Daily Telegraph article, To Swim, Perchance, Is To Drown. In the article he champions the rights of fellow Tory Matthew Parris to swim across The Thames in the dark while tipsy as he did in 2007 in his vest and trunks (he read the tides wrongly and was swept nearly a mile up stream thus endangering his own life and potentially those on boats coming towards him). This is, by the way, is the same Matthew Parris who once wrote in The Times: “A festive custom we could do worse than foster would be stringing piano wire across country lanes to decapitate cyclists.” So much for libertarianism then Matthew.
So when the Port of London Authority issued a ban on ‘wild swimming’ in The Thames last week between Crossness in the east and Putney Bridge in the west without a permit my first thought was ‘fair enough’. Actually that wasn’t quite my first thought. I actually assumed you must must already need a permit to swim in this part of the Thames because it is SO dangerous, but apparently that was not the case – until now.
That’s not to say I don’t have reservations about the Port of London Authority’s decision. The problem with these edicts is that once in force they tend to be rigidly applied because no one ever loses their job for enforcing the law while actually going against the tide to DO something that could be beneficial to society (ie. David Walliams raising thousands of pounds for Sport Relief) requires a certain degree of courage and trust. I would be absolutely gutted if the Port of London Authority’s decision meant that the superbly organised Great London Swim in Docklands didn’t go ahead, for example, because of some trumped health and safety concerns.
Boris is right that we live in an increasingly risk-averse culture, but I’m afraid this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be prevented from doing something really stupid like Matthew Parris clearly did when he swam The Thames. The truth is that the London stretch of The Thames is not only dangerous it is also very busy (do we have the right to walk across a motorway or an airport runway?) I don’t know whether making it unlawful to swim The Thames without a permit will work – whether it will make any difference to someone who is drunk who wants to show off to their mates on a Friday night. But if it does then it has to be a good thing.