Earlier this week I had the pleasure of attending the beautiful Roca gallery in Imperial Wharf, Chelsea (pictured above) for a talk about reclaiming our rivers for swimming. It’s a fantastic building designed by Zaha Hadid who, appropriately enough, was also behind the London Aquatics Centre – hence all the curves.
Despite the journey down there taking forever (I could probably have swum there quicker from North London) it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening with guest speakers including Chris Romer-Lee from The Thames Baths Project, swimming historian and author Caitlin Davies and exhibition curator Jane Withers as well quite a few people from other river swimming projects including Archie Coates from the Plus Pools project in New York (you can read more about that here).
Most of the guests were designers, artists and architects. A few were bloggers like myself and the lovely Jenny Landreth. But nearly all were passionate and hardy swimmers – only one woman I met dared to admit that she didn’t like the thought of swimming in a river and preferred a heated pool! Likewise I thought I was going to be lynched when I asked a question about how the pools are going to be heated in order to achieve mass appeal and all round year use (the answer it seems is that they are not – at least there aren’t any plans yet).
Jane made some very pertinent points I thought about how we seek to live near our rivers – even pay a massive premium to do so – but how we are now too fearful to actually step into the water, let alone swim in there anymore. Of course this wasn’t always the case as author Caitlin Davies, whose book Downstream: a social history of swimming the River Thames is out next year, explained. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, rivers like the Thames were watery playgrounds frequented by swimmers as well as home to several floating pools including one at Charing Cross which Caitlin talked in some detail about. Expensive medals were regularly given to the best river swimmers and, as you can see from some of the pictures below, ‘urban beaches’ including one right by Tower Bridge thrived.
So what changed? Partly it was increased pollution in the water especially after the war. But also it was also the increased popularity of swimming in indoor heated swimming pools as well as safer but, usually unheated, Lidos which became popular havens for city dwellers, especially in the summertime. Gradually the lure of the River became less and less to the point where Jane Withers says you now get odd looks even if you venture onto the odd bits of beach on The Thames at low tide to have a paddle. The fact that the Port of London Authority now bans swimming in the main tidal part of The Thames between Putney and the Thames Barrier hasn’t helped matters either though they claim with some justification that the unpredictable tide makes it unsafe for the casual swimmer!
But now it seems the tide of public opinion is, quite literally, turning. The inexorable rise of modern day ‘wild swimming’ which I think really dates back to the publication of Roger Deakin’s Waterlog in the 1990s means that people are starting to re-consider swimming in our rivers again. Bored with sitting behind desks, a generation of people – mostly in their 40s or older – are looking for new challenges whether that’s climbing a mountain, cycling across Britain or swimming in a lake. Whereas once a mid-life involved buying a Porsche or Ferrari, now it’s as likely to involve buying an expensive road bike or wetsuit for a triathlon or open water swim.
Events like The Great Swims (www.greatswim.org) which take place in rivers and lakes across the UK have whetted people’s appetites for so called ‘wild swimming’ while improving water quality has meant that it is now much safer to swim in The Thames than it was 50 years without catching a nasty tummy bug (although ironically this year’s Great Swim in Millwall Dock was cancelled at the last minute because of poor water quality).
Inspired by the lidos around Lake Zurich (see http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2011/jul/22/urban-wild-swimming-switzerland-zurich-geneva) Chris Romer-Lee’s Thames Baths vision is for a floating pool near the Temple steps on the north side of the river (you can read my interview with him here for more details). And although initially the idea was for a pool that would be filled directly from The Thames, Romer-Lee is now working on a filtration system that will improve the quality of the water without the need to wait until the Thames Super Sewer to be in place – something that would have put the project back at least 15 years.
While Copenhagen has already cleaned up its harbour for river swimming, making it one of the few Cities that offer true urban swimming, it’s fair to say that London and New York still have a little way to go. Plus Pool (http://www.pluspool.org) has so far raised $275,000, much of it from the Kickstarter Crowd Funding Platform as well as from individual sponsorship of the pool’s tiles (a truly great idea).
But the New York project still needs significantly more in order to achieve its aim of opening in 2016. The same is true of the Thames Baths Project. Although apparently Boris Johnson is a big fan of the idea, architect Chris Romer-Lee has yet to decide on the funding route. However, he hopes the project could attract some public funding and hasn’t ruled out the idea of corporate sponsorship either.
While the crowd at the Roca Gallery was understandably concerned that these urban pools could become expensive tourist attractions like The Shard, the reality is that the Thames Baths Project will cost around £5.5 million to build and that money has to come from somewhere. The next couple of years is about trying to convert the enthusiasm and passion there is for urban swimming into cold hard cash so that we can all reclaim our river again!
Urban Plunge: New Designs for natural swimming in our cities runs at the Roca Gallery, Imperial Wharf, Chelsea until January 10th, 2015. You can see more information about the exhibition at www.uk.roca.com