Jhe public footpath stretched a mere 20 yards from where I was standing, promising a ride along the river, past fields and through woods, well away from any roads. Yet something in my path was blocking access. The very river it runs along – the Thames – flowed between me and this legally designated right of way.
I checked my Ordnance Survey map of this part of Berkshire to see how to reach the path, but there was no other trail that would legally lead me to the island it was on (a bridge I spotted was not a right of way, with a closed gate). It was a legal route that no one could actually access unless they had a boat.
It was this path that came to mind when, a few weeks later, I heard about a new activity that was gaining popularity across Great Britain, that which combines water and walking: the cross-country swimming. This is when hikers and walkers carry a specially designed, large but lightweight, waterproof tow float and dry bag. So when you reach a water hazard, you can just pull out your cossie (or more likely a wetsuit) and swim it.
This activity was born out of confinement, when the swimming pools were closed and the movement of people was limited. It’s the brainchild of two brothers, Will and Tom Watt, whom I met at Grantchester Meadows in Cambridge to be shown the shots, along with a small group of other curious water lovers.
“We spent a lot of time in the lakes growing up,” Tom said as we strolled surrounded by the hum of grasshoppers, the fluttering of butterflies and the chirping of birds, while the River Cam babbles happily. “There you would come down a hill and want to climb one on the other side of the valley, but a body of water stood in your way. It would be an eight-mile walk around it or, he said with a smile, a one-mile swim. That’s when we got the idea. »
The Watts spent time testing a variety of kits to find out what might make this activity possible, including existing buoyancy aids and dry bags, but found nothing that could adequately incorporate all the necessities. . For a time, they focused more on events: they created the Swimmer, a central London half-marathon that runs through ponds, pools and city parks. But 2020 gave them the opportunity to work on the perfect cross-country swimming pack and kick it off with a retreat in Devon, which they touted as “epic adventures on land and water”. It all sounded fun in a type 2 way (miserable while it was happening but enjoyable in retrospect), but what about those looking for less stamina and more fun?
That’s where this route comes in. It’s a relatively easy half-day trip that Tom’s company, Above Below, offers throughout the summer to meet swimmer demand. less experienced. Starting at Cambridge station, it winds along the Cam for 5km to the Orchard tea room, where Virginia Woolf and Rupert Brooke wrote – and bathed. We would do the same thing (minus the writing for most, but not for me), completing a wonderful wet and dry circuit swimming with the current in the Cam.
As wild swimming became more popular (it had a boom when restrictions were put on gyms and pools) it started to run into some obstacles, and this stretch of the Cam is one of them. example. Earlier this summer, King’s College, which owns the land, tried to ban activity here – even though it has been enjoyed at Grantchester Meadows for at least five centuries – citing unruly behavior and littering. Protesters fought the decision and, for now, the practice is still appreciated while discussions take place between the swimmers, the board and the college.
The smell of freshly baked scones and brewed tea mixed with notes of elderflower and fresh cut grass when we reached the cafe. After chatting about some of Tom’s water adventures (including a crossing of Scottish lakes, Broads and islands), we walked to the river’s edge and put on our wetsuits. That’s when Tom revealed his crucial invention – the RuckRaft.
It is a device much like a large inflatable horseshoe, with the raft made from reinforced material which means that even when holding towels, drinking water, dry clothes and snacks (up to 15 kg) in the attached waterproof bag, it always glides over the water surface effortlessly.
As I plunged into the river, its welcome coolness in the humidity of an August day, the weight of my provisions dissipated. My back was free and I just pulled whatever I needed behind me, feeling almost weightless.
I relaxed in the water, my hair floating around my face as I floated slowly alongside dragonflies, a moorhen and her chicks, and a curious gray heron – none of which seemed even recognize my presence.
The whole experience happened too quickly and in no time I was drying off and heading back to the station feeling supported. Although cross-country swimming was invented to provide a challenge, I thought it gave me something far more important: the confidence to try it for myself.
So I decided to return to my inaccessible island, the Thames path. I headed to the Ferry Pub in Cookham with my new kit (couldn’t resist investing in a RuckRaft), plus a rucksack full of dry clothes, a camping stove and a picnic , head buzzing with excitement. I was about to hit this floating trail.
I dived into the waterway and swam across the eyot, exploring its shores for a while. After five minutes of searching, the island gave way: I found my entry point along a tree and pulled myself up.
A quick dry and change of shoes later – from neoprene boots to sandals – and strapping my RuckRaft to my still dry backpack, I finally hiked this trail. Blackberries festooned the hedges and I nosed eagerly alongside robins, sparrows and wagtails. At first the trail was overgrown but as I approached the lock it became a cheerful straight line lined with crowdless fields and topped with trees. Until, as simply as it had begun, it once again ended at the water’s edge.
I changed again and swam further down the river, passing the section that skirts Cliveden en route to Maidenhead. It was as beautiful as when Jerome K Jerome paddled it in Three Men and a Boat – ‘In its unbroken beauty it is perhaps the sweetest stretch of the whole river,’ he wrote – lined now, as it was then, with the chalk hills of the Chilterns, and covered with oaks, sycamores, and beeches. Red kites glided overhead as I swam on my back so I could look up into the woods.
Halfway through, I paused on an island and made tea, thanks to my camping stove, in a place that I would not have been able to reach if I had only walked. Then it was back in the water until, just before reaching Maidenhead, I pulled myself up, dried off and rode the Thames path to the start, my smile almost as wide as the river I was walking along.
“The idea,” Tom explained to me in Cambridge, “is for people to use RuckRaft and the idea of cross-country swimming to forge their own routes and share them with others. To enjoy water as part of their day rather than worrying about it causing unnecessary diversion. And to further open the countryside to walkers and swimmers.
Certainly, both in Cambridge and in Berkshire, my new skills had given me the chance to do just that. Although the Thames Loop wasn’t that long on foot and the swim wasn’t too difficult, it was more than that – the chance to experience a new route that I had never been offered before, the opportunity to reach a picnic spot that otherwise would have been off-limits and, as far as this trail is concerned, the ability to access what was previously inaccessible.
Above races below cross-country swimming events, retreats and day experiences. Upcoming three-day retreats in Devon (July and September, from £324) and Ullswater (September, from £328), include accommodation, food, instruction and local transportation