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Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames

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Stretching 215 miles from its source in Gloucestershire, through England's capital and across to the North Sea, the River Thames has always enticed swimmers.

From bathing kings to splashing school children, intrepid wild swimmers to international athletes, this famous river has long been a favourite. But it was the Victorian era that saw the birth of organised river racing with the launch of the long distance amateur championship of Great Britain.

Soon floating baths were built in London; people swam at official bathing pools and islands at Oxford, Reading and Henley, dived off pontoons at Kingston and played at temporary lidos in Richmond. By the 1930s the Thames had become a top holiday spot for families with beaches at the Tower of London, Greenwich and Grays. Then in 1957 the river was declared biologically dead, organised racing was largely over, and swimming in the Thames was seen as dangerous.

Yet today we have returned to the river in numbers not seen for a long time, some drawn by the thrill of wild swimming, others to compete in annual racing events. Now Caitlin Davies recounts the history of swimmers and the Thames, telling the stories of legends like Annette Kellerman and Matthew Webb, forgotten champions such as Agnes Beckwith and Lily Smith, as well as modern day charity swimmers and sport stars.

Downstream explores the changing nature of swimmers' relationship with the river, featuring previously unpublished archive images, and asks why it is that swimmers still love the Thames.

400 pages, Hardcover

First published March 15, 2015

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About the author

Caitlin Davies

16 books45 followers
I'm a writer, teacher and journalist, the author of six novels and seven non-fiction books. Many of my early books were inspired by the 12 years I spent in Botswana, where I worked as a teacher, award winning human rights journalist and newspaper editor. My more recent books draw on the stories and history of London. These include The Ghost of Lily Painter, based on the true story of two Edwardian baby farmers, and Family Likeness, inspired in part by the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle ‘Britain’s first black aristocrat’.
Some of my books have a swimming theme, such as Taking the Waters, about the bathing ponds and lido on Hampstead Heath, Downstream: a history and celebration of swimming the River Thames, and Daisy Belle: Swimming Champion of the World, based on the lives of several Victorian aquatic stars.
Other books have a criminal theme, including Bad Girls: A History of Rebels & Renegades, nominated for the Orwell Prize for Political Writing, and Queens of the Underworld: A Journey into the Lives of Female Crooks.
I mentor writers at https://www.storyboardwriter.com/

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Displaying 1 - 5 of 5 reviews
Profile Image for Pam.
414 reviews28 followers
September 27, 2022
Downstream follows a recent popularization of open water swimming as well as the history of swimming in the Thames. Caitlin Davies shows that wild swimming has probably always been done but not as much as a recreational activity until recent times. In fact historically the majority of people didn’t know how to swim at all. Many of the early notable women swimmers were attempting to educate people who really should know how to swim.

Parts of the longest river within England have been forbidden to swimmers at different times for safety reasons. If you can ignore possible “Thames tummy,” boating traffic and swans, many think the river is safe. Bathing areas along the river have been popular since Victorian times. Some allowed women at particular hours or designated specially screened spots for women and children. A famous swimming area along the Isis (Thames in the vicinity of Oxford) called Parson’s Pleasure required women in boats to get out of the water above the male preserve and walk behind the gentlemen before entering the water again. Until fairly recent times men swam nude, thus the hullabaloo at Parson’s Pleasure. On the other hand, women swam encumbered with awful swimming apparel—knee length dresses with sleeves, bloomers and tights. In our times women and men can choose swimwear such as wetsuits that help with hypothermia and buoyancy although some open water swimmers disapprove. It seems to be something like climbing Mt. Everest with or without oxygen.

This book progresses from Head of Thames (you must jog or run the first 15 miles or so until the water is deep enough for swimming) by every significant town, bridge or landmark to the Thames estuary. In this respect I felt the book was too long and too repetitive. A real marathon read.

My favorite parts dealt with the early swimmers, especially the women who faced additional obstacles and swam anyway. They are often not well remembered today but Davies’ book puts this to right. Although some of their endeavors were amusing, for instance the swimmer who did his thing with chained wrists and ankles, I didn’t enjoy the attempts at records all that much. The writer’s description of her own swims in the upper Thames were interesting with stories of how it felt to be in the river for hours at a time, near swan encounters and sensory deprivation (you are essentially swimming in a green tunnel without much sound and existing in your own head).

The book would probably be most popular in England as open water swimming is not as popular in other parts of the world. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen elsewhere. The internet shows you can find open water river swims in India, Australia and the United States among other places. There is a long swim in the Hudson River that is a group swim in 5 daily stages from upper New York state which eventually reaches NYC. Also good for readers who like to see the quirkiness of human endeavor.
Profile Image for Diana.
216 reviews2 followers
July 17, 2016
Downstream is Caitlin Davies’ homage to Thames’ swimmers past, present and future. Prior to writing the book she believed that swimming in the river was a relatively recent pursuit, but one day, quite by chance she spied an historic poster at the British Library featuring a young swimmer named Agnes Beckwith. Through further research she discovered that Beckwith was a trailblazer, swimming from London Bridge to Greenwich in 1875 at the tender age of 14. Even more surprisingly, Davies found that Beckwith was not alone in her use of the Thames as a swimming venue. Over the years a multitude of people, male and female, young and old have dipped into the river to tackle feats of endurance or simply to cool off.

The book is arranged into chapters, starting at the source of the Thames and ending at the sea, with each chapter focusing on the history of swimming at a particular location along the river. We are introduced to inspiring swimmers like Eileen Lee who swam from Tower Bridge to Richmond in 1915 and Norman Derham who conquered the Thames Estuary in 1925. In addition to these impressive individuals, Davies also discusses how the river was used for more understated activities including swim club handicaps, diving competitions, and just plain paddling. There are so many interesting characters and events presented in the book that I would have enjoyed the inclusion of a timeline to help me keep them straight. Additionally, I would have loved a map of the Thames because although I'm fairly familiar with the stretch that runs through London, I don't know much about the rest of it.

Some of the most enjoyable portions of the book are Davies’ personal anecdotes that are interspersed throughout. In order to fully immerse herself in the subject, she participates in three open water swims: the first in the peaceful, grassy Upper Thames, the second from the industrial Millwall Dock, and the third in the Thames Estuary where the mighty river meets the sea. We are privy to both her fears and elation as she plunges into the storied river to challenge herself.

A fun book to dip in and out of, Downstream is perfect for history buffs and swimmers alike. But be careful, it will almost certainly make you want to go out and sign up for an open water swimming event, so you can also become a part of Thames swimming heritage.
Profile Image for Meredith M .
72 reviews
June 25, 2016

I had been feeling the tug to take a spell in non-fiction but I was waiting for reserves to arrive at the library. I found this book while perusing the shelves and tried it out sitting in the library. I am a migrant to England and I was curious about what the book would capture of places and way of life.

The quirky enthusiasm for swimming and bathing in the Thames and the associated collection of open-water swimming related trivia charting London's history was engaging. If I find myself by the river on a warm day, most likely outside of London, I may splash about. Certainly not in an open water mass participation swim but the author did three while writing the book.

In chapters organised around each Thames-side location from the official source to end, the author explores swimming history back to when it was a new art in Victorian times and people's relationship to the Thames. With a frequently raised lament about the advent of "Health & Safety", this book explores the ‘glorious tradition’: why people swim, ‎what they get from their swim and asks what they think about while swimming. It is superbly researched yet accessible to read. Me, I’m waiting for Tower Beach Open Day.
Profile Image for Alena.
823 reviews20 followers
December 21, 2018
Very readable, bit too detailed for my level of interest.
Section by section of the river she details the history (and present) of swimming in the area. Very fascinated by the whole open water swimming.
Profile Image for Emma.
Author 7 books19 followers
March 9, 2016
Books I Read 2015
January 9, 2016

In October, I attended a talk on the history of swimming in London by Caitlin Davies and Jenny Landreth at a local literary festival, Archway With Words. Davies’ latest social history book, Downstream (Aurum, 2015) is a history and celebration of swimming the Thames. Although I am not a great lover of swimming, I am passionate about celebrating female achievement through history. On this note, I was pleased to discover the remarkable lives of Agnes Beckwith (who in 1875, aged 14, swam 5 miles to Greenwich), typist Mercedes Gleitze and Ivy Hawke. Despite being a celebrity in her lifetime, I was surprised that the feats of Thames swimmer Gleitze have been so quickly forgotten in popular culture. Her 1927 record as the first British woman to swim the Channel stands as testament to her achievements. Beyond swimming, she set up the Mercedes Gleitze Homes for the homeless in Leicestershire using sponsorship and her charity continues. Davies writes:

Women . . . were still seen as the weaker sex – physically and mentally – and yet here they were swimming for hours over long distances in the Thames.
Displaying 1 - 5 of 5 reviews

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