You’d have to be mad to swim in Britain’s murky rivers now

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‘Wild swimming’ used to be something that old ladies in rubber hats did. They didn’t call it that — it was just swimming, in the same way that horse riding was just riding — but they did it none the less, all year round. Even when everyone else (made soft by holidays in Spain) thought they were mad, they struck out into the grey sea with a determined breaststroke, or broke the ice before lowering themselves placidly into a pond. It’s one of the recurring images of my childhood: the rear view of an unknown pensioner in a bathing suit, stumping off towards a body of cold water.

These days, everyone’s at it. Even me. Since the pandemic began, I have found myself jumping into open water with untypical gusto. The things you dread about it — the shocking cold, and the murky water in which anything might brush against you — are precisely the reasons to jump. It makes you scream, and then burn all over, and then feel elated and incredibly smug.

Internet searches for “wild swimming” rose by 94 per cent between 2019 and 2020. Several times last summer, I found myself jostling for space on previously secluded river banks. It was annoying, but also good. If nothing else, Covid restrictions have given the British a renewed appreciation of our natural environment, and of the exhilarating pleasures to be had in it.

But alas, it turns out we were right to fear the murky water. The Commons Environmental Audit Committee warned this week that Britain’s rivers are being poisoned by sewage, plastic and slurry from livestock farms. Outdated storm drains, and a lack of proper oversight, has led to sewage being released into rivers far more often than is officially allowed. Every river in England failed the most recent tests for chemical pollution, and none were deemed to be in good ecological health.

A retrospective nausea afflicts me now, when I remember how much of last summer was spent splashing about in brown water. My eldest child actually developed a nasty ear infection, caused, said the GP, by bacteria in the river Dart. But the rest of us kept leaping in, rejoicing in our own heartiness.

The CEA committee has proposed that every water company in England should be obliged to designate a stretch of river as bathing water, as an incentive to clean up. But that wouldn’t be until 2025. In the meantime, I suppose, the riverbanks will empty out again, and only the maddest will dare to swim wild.


Cross Words

Last year Josh Wardle, a Welsh-born software engineer, invented a game for his puzzle-loving partner: a sort of digital version of hangman, in which you have to identify a word within six tries. At first they just played it together on the sofa. In November, they put it online. Now, more than two million people worldwide play Wordle every day — including me.

The game practically caused a diplomatic incident this week, when the word of the day was revealed to be “favor”, using the American spelling. (Wardle now lives in New York.) But even before that, Wardle was feeling the strain of keeping two million word-nerds happy. “It going viral doesn’t feel that great to be honest,” he says. “I feel a sense of responsibility.”

There is a lesson there, I feel sure, for those of us who envy the more successful from the comfort of our sofas.

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