A Thames Fit to Swim 

For most people in the UK, water pollution is a third world issue. We have easy access to clean drinking water and aside from the odd hosepipe ban, we can safely use our H2O as we see fit. And yet right in the heart of our nation's capital there's a huge quantity of water that's far from suitable for use.

The River Thames has played a pivotal role in London's growth, acting chiefly as a maritime route but also doubling as a fresh water and food source in times gone by. In the modern day it serves more purposes than ever, yet as the city expands upwards and struggles for ground level space for people to relax, an opportunity is being missed. The river is London's foremost example of living, breathing nature yet pollution remains a very real barrier to its use by the surrounding population.

That's one of the things which fuels the work of Theo Thomas of London Waterkeeper, a charitable organisation which was set up to challenge those who pollute the main artery through London. Highlighting ways in which the Thames could be made swimable, the London Waterkeeper is part of the Waterkeeper Alliance, a worldwide partnership designed to hold polluters to account.

'an opportunity is being missed'

As a charity, London Waterkeeper relies on donations from the general public and grants from sympathetic organisations. One such organisation is Patagonia, the outdoor brand founded by climber and activist Yvon Chouinard in 1973. Known for both its innovative product and its ethical stance on the environment, it's no surprise that Patagonia is at the forefront of companies keen to protect the planet. Through their '1% For The Planet' initiative they donate 1% of their sales (or 10% of their profit, whichever is greatest) to environmental groups like London Waterkeeper, helping them to continue their excellent work while at the same time bringing focus on their plight.

At Proper Mag we're confirmed fans of the Patagonia brand and it was through them that we became aware of Theo Thomas’ work. Keen to learn more, we happily accepted an invitation to undertake an urban hike along the banks of the Thames in the company of Theo. It was perhaps fitting that his plan to end the walk with a dip in the Thames was vetoed, with Theo certain the water would have been unsuitable for swimming due to a recent downpour.

'the worst time to swim in the Thames is the best time to sample'

“I made a Freedom of Information Request to Thames Water” explains Theo. “There are 35 combined sewer overflows to the River Thames and its tributaries between Richmond Lock and Putney Bridge but they only know when 12 of them pollute the river.”

With that in mind, it's fair to say the worst time to swim in the Thames is the best time to sample, when the rain is directing sewage, oil and other street-level waste into the river.

Instead of a bracing paddle in the water, we were instead left to get wet through good, old fashioned rain. Our hike began at Eel Pie Island, an evocative location which sits on the tideway of the Thames and was once home to a thriving music scene in the 60s. As an out-of-towner whose trips to London have been frequent, this was a part of the capital I'd not previously experienced and I was in my element hearing Theo explain its cultural significance. As our journey progressed, there were actual fields I'd have expected to see much farther upstream, some with real life cows in.

Despite the persistent rain, the journey proved to be enlightening. Theo was the perfect guide, explaining the work London Waterkeeper does and soft selling us the idea of the Thames as a genuine leisure destination. He cited Copenhagen as a forward thinking city our own capital could learn a lot from. With similar historic issues relating to pollution, Copenhagen's government took the issue in hand and there now exists a mobile app which updates in real time, telling the public when the water is safe to swim in.

Also on the trip were the guys from the Brokedown Palace, a Patagonia stockist with two retail locations in London. They've been advocates of London Waterkeeper for some time now with store owner Dee being a founding trustee and taking on the role of vice-chair. As a shop with brands which take a strong influence from the great outdoors, it's no surprise that they see the potential in the Thames as somewhere to relax. This is also something Theo is keen to point out.

“...when I swim a couple of times a year, I’m more likely to have someone’s dog next to me than another person. But everyone I talk to is intrigued. When I explain the idea of a swimmable Thames they all think it is a good idea. It would boost the physical and mental health of the city.” he explains.

"People are always surprised when they see someone swimming in the Thames..."

Part environmental talk, part historical tour, our hike continued on, with the scenery gradually changing as we progressed. Points of interest were cited by Theo, who also explained the vital role of the Thames Barrier further downstream in preventing flooding. While attempts to repopulate the river with salmon failed largely due to the water just not being a suitable habitat for them anymore eels can sometimes be found in the Thames as they're notoriously robust and able to cope in the most inhospitable waters.

With the water not suitable for a dip, it was left to Theo to take a sample from the river for later analysis. And as much as the challenge of a bit of breaststroke did have some small appeal, it was my heels rather than eels which caused me damage in the end. A new pair of trainers were the wrong choice for what finished up as a 6 mile walk. We retired to the pub, filled with new knowledge and all the more keen on removing the spectre of pollution from not just the Thames but all UK rivers, and even more keen on London Waterkeeper's Theo for helping open our eyes to a relatively unknown struggle to open up an untapped opportunity.

By Mark Smith - Proper Mag

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Read how Mark from Proper Mag got on when he was invited on an urban hike with Theo Thomas from London Waterkeeper to see the pollution in the Thames, and learn about Thames Fit To Swim

Use the map below to re-create our walk along the Thames: