TeaThat public trail was barely 20 meters from where I stood, promising a walk along the river, passing through fields and through woods, away from any roads. Yet there was something in my path that was blocking access to it. The river along which it flows – the Thames – flows between me and this legally designated path.
I checked my Ordnance Survey map of this part of Berkshire to see how to access the way, but there was no other footpath that would legally lead me to the island it was sitting on (a bridge The one I saw was not a right of way, with a locked gate). It was a permitted route that no one could really reach, unless they had a boat.
This was the path that came to my mind when, a few weeks later, I heard about a new activity growing in popularity across the UK that combines water and walking: cross-country swimming. This is when hikers and walkers carry specially designed, large but lightweight waterproof toe-floats and dry bags. So when you reach a water obstacle you can just take off your koi (or more likely a wetsuit) and swim.
This activity was born out of the lockdown, when the pools were closed and the movement of people was limited. It is the brainchild of two brothers, Will and Tom Watt, the latter of whom I met at Grantchester Meadows in Cambridge, showing a stroke with a small group of other curious water lovers.
“We spent a lot of time in the lakes growing up,” said Tom, as we were surrounded by the buzzing of grasshoppers, the fluttering of butterflies, and the chirping of birds, while the River Cam jumped happily. “There you’d come down a hill and climb one on the other side of the valley, but there was a body of water in the way. It would be an eight-mile walk or so,” he smiled, “one mile.” Long swim. That was when we came up with the idea.”
Watts spent some time testing a variety of kits to find out what might make this activity possible, including existing flotation aids and dry bags, but found nothing that would adequately cover everything needed. could include. For a time he focused on events: he created Swim, a central London Half Marathon that takes in the city’s ponds, pools and parks. But 2020 gave him the opportunity to work on the perfect cross-country swimming pack and launch it with a retreat in Devon, which he promoted as “epic adventures on land and water.” It all sounded fun in a Type 2 way (sad when it happened but pleasant to watch in retrospect), but what about those who are after less stamina and more joy?
This is where this route comes from. It’s a relatively easy half-day trip that Tom’s company, Above Bottom, runs throughout the summer to meet the demand for less hardcore swimmers. Starting at Cambridge railway station, it travels 5km along the cam to the Orchard Tea Room, where the likes of Virginia Woolf and Rupert Brooke wrote – and took the plunge. We’ll be doing the same (minus the writing for most, though not for me), complete an amazing wet and dry circuit by swimming back with the current in the cam.
As wild swimming became more popular (it experienced a boom when gyms and pools were banned), it began to run against obstacles, and this stretch of cam is a case in point. Earlier in the summer King’s College, which owns the land, tried to ban the activity here – even though it has been enjoyed at Grantchester Meadows for at least five centuries – citing unruly behavior and littering. The protesters have fought the ruling and for now, the exercise is still being enjoyed while discussions take place among swimmers, the council and the college.
As we arrived at the cafe, the smell of freshly cooked scones and brewing tea found notes of elderflower and freshly cut grass. After Tom talked about some of the water adventures (including crossing the Lakes, Broad and Scottish Isles) we headed down the river and changed into our wetsuits. It was then that Tom revealed his important invention – Rookcraft.
It’s a large inflatable horseshoe-like device, with a raft made of a tough material, meant to hold towels, drinking water, dry clothes and snacks (anything up to 15kg) in an attached dry bag Still, it glides smoothly on the surface of the water.
As I took a dip in the river, welcoming its coolness in the humidity of an August day, my load of supplies ran out. My back was free, and I pulled everything I needed behind me, feeling almost weightless.
I relaxed in the water, my hair flowing around my face as I slowly swam with dragonflies, a moorhen and its chicks, and a curious gray heron – none of whom would even acknowledge my presence used to do.
The whole experience went by very quickly and in no time I was drowsy and on my way back to the station feeling elated. Although cross-country swimming was invented to provide a challenge, I believe it gave me something more important – the confidence to do it myself.
So I decided to return to the pavement of the Thames, my inaccessible island. I headed to the Ferry Pub in Cookham with my new kit (I couldn’t resist investing in a rowcraft), along with a backpack full of dry clothes, a camping stove and picnic, head buzzing with excitement. I was about to reach that floating sidewalk.
I jumped into the waterway and swam across the object, exploring its shores for a while. After five minutes of searching, the island calmed down: I found my entrance with a tree and pulled myself out.
Drying off quick and changing footwear afterward—from neoprene boots to sandals—and stashing my Roocraft in my still-dry backpack, I finally crossed this path. Blackberries celebrated hedges and I starved along with robins, sparrows, and wagtails. At first the pavement was high, but as I approached the lock, it became a delightfully straight line surrounded by uncrowded fields and trees. By the time it had started, it had again ended at the water’s edge.
I turned again and swam down the river, taking in the section that runs along Cliven on its way to Maidenhead. It was as beautiful as Jerome of Jerome paddled it in Three Men and a Boat—”In its unbroken beauty, it is, perhaps, the sweetest stretch of all river,” he wrote—now lined up, as That was then, with the chalk hills of the Chiltern, and the canopy with oak, sycamore, and beech. As I backstroke, the red kites glided over me so that I could see the forest.
Halfway through I took a break on an island and made tea courtesy of my camping stove, in a place I couldn’t reach, I was only walking. Then it was back in the water until, just before reaching Maidenhead, I got out, dried up and started back on the Thames Path, my smile almost as wide as the river I was strolling along.
“The idea,” Tom explained to me back in Cambridge, “is that people would use the idea of racecraft and cross-country swimming to create their own routes and share them with others. As part of their day To enjoy the water in the U.S. instead of worrying about it causes an unnecessary diversion and to open up more countryside to walkers and swimmers.”
Certainly, at both Cambridge and Berkshire, my newfound skills had given me the opportunity to do so. Although the Thames Loop wasn’t that long, and the swim wasn’t very challenging, it represented much more than that – an opportunity to head down a new route that had never been open to me before, to reach a picnic spot that Otherwise would have been off-limits and, when it came to that sidewalk, the ability to reach a previously inaccessible one.
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