Open water swimming has really taken off over the last few years. Sport England said that last year, over 4 million people took the plunge in rivers and lakes locally to them. As a result, some fabulous open water swimming events have sprung up all over the country.
Henley hosts four of these events throughout the summer, culminating in, what us locals affectionately call the Bridge to Bridge swim. The competitors start from Henley Bridge and finish at Marlow Bridge, swimming a total of 14 kilometres, hence its official title of The Henley Marathon. It's quite some extraordinary effort and it's fantastic to watch and to take part in, I am reliably informed.
Open water swimming events have taken place in Henley since about the 1890s. More recently in 2004, two friends decided that it would be rather fun to swim the length of the regatta course the weekend before Henley Royal Regatta started. So, Tom Kean and friend, Jeremy, came out year after year, to swim the course. Gradually word spread amongst their friends, and by 2008, the first of the official events happened. So, we're going to learn a little bit more about these fantastic events that take place from the founder himslef, and the opportunities for you to come open water swimming on the Thames.
Interview with Tom Kean:
How did it all start?
Both Jeremy and I rowed mainly down at Marlow. After we stopped rowing, Jeremy wanted to participate in a triathlon, which involves the slightly uncomfortable task of getting in open water. Now he knew I used to be a swimmer in my youth, so we thought it would be a great idea to do what we'd done many, many times on top of the water, in the water, and we knew that the best time of day to avoid all those rowers, was about four in the morning, just as the sun is rising. So quite happily, because we're both morning people, we got up, swam the course, and at that time, back in 2004, it all felt a little bit daring. We were fully expecting to get arrested down by the boat tents. We jumped in and swam it, down by the boat tents and since word spread, year on year, it just got more and more popular. And, as you suggested, it got a bit formal, so we decided to turn it into a little bit of a business. And that's how the business started, and every year since we have added more events.
We have renamed the bridge to bridge to the Thames Marathon, but it is a swim from Henley Bridge to Marlow Bridge. We love that one because we've actually done that every year, as well and it’s a special one for us. So, as people plan their itinerary, what we think would be very nice to offer an entry to one of our swimming events which would make people feel very special, including a VIP pass.
Alternatively, if you want some kind of one-to-one swim with myself, I am very happy to jump in and take to the hallowed waters of the Thames, our old father Thames.
Where do your competitors come from?
We've had swimmers from all over the world, including South Africa and New Zealand's which is incredible. When these competitors join, we often ask did you enter because you were here anyway, or did you come specifically for it? Fully expecting them to say, "Oh, we just slotted it in, as we were here." However, the feedback we receive is people come from all over the world specifically to do the event.
It's incredible and we've had many, many American people do it as well, and Canadians, so it's really growing as one of those must-do events.
Tell us about the heritage of open water swimming?
Henley really is the home of rowing, and people may or may not know this, but all these trailblazing events haven't been going for that long, certainly in their modern format. As you said earlier, people were doing this over a hundred years before. We didn't know it at the time, but Jeremy and I have really captured this heritage, this provenance, of taking to the water, and we just love the genuine story behind it all. We absolutely love it, and it feels historic and iconic, we love it!
It is great. In Henley, I think we all are very passionate about the river, and I know, certainly, the other side of the bridge, there's a lovely area where individuals can go, so I think the opportunity for people visiting who just fancy giving it a bit of a go, there are some lovely quiet areas away from the rowing.
This is an extremely busy part of the Thames. However, when we do our events, we close the river. It is nothing like as busy in certain areas of the river so you can swim very safely, so safety is always our concern, but as you say, Henley is famous for its river, it’s world-famous for its regatta, and we really do piggyback on the back of that reputation, but as I said, we've created our own provenance, now, going back to the 1800s, so we feel justified in saying we are, kind of, the centre of the universe for open water swimming.
The Thames is one of the most iconic rivers in the world and you can now swim in it quite happily and safely.
Do you have events which are not so competitive?
One of the events that is probably known as the most inclusive is the Club to Pub event that ends at another iconic institution on the river, the Angel on the Bridge.
Medals - people love medals, and somebody, I don't know who it was, I think it might have been Jeremy, said why don't we turn our lovely chunky finishers medal into a bottle opener because the event is proudly supported by another local institution Brakspear, the Henley brewery. They sponsor that particular event; they brew their own specific beer for the swim called the Two Bells. Swimmers get out the water, and they haven't even dried off and they have this bottle of beer thrust into their hand, and low and behold, their finishers medal, it acts as a bottle opener. This is a much more relaxed event, held on a Saturday night. This is a much more social swim rather than a semi-serious event.