Even at the best of times, we are not great travellers. My wife and I have taken our two children on holiday most years since 2010, as far as Ireland, Spain, France and Italy. My wife travelled to Israel in 2017 to visit members of her family. I took my son to Spain at the same time to visit my brother We have never been further afield, and we have friends or family in every country we have visited.
These are not the best of times, and until yesterday none of us had left London for over a year. Some people may be acting as if the Covid pandemic has passed, but we are not. We are still very wary about boarding planes, attending large sporting events or even going to the pub. When the Euro 2020 football tournament was taking place last month, my wife and I agreed that even if we were offered free tickets for the final we wouldn’t go. And we like our football, and we are “double-jabbed” – we both received our second doses of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine in June. It’s too soon for us to be in large venues surrounded by strangers.
Last year my wife and daughter made a single day-trip to Brighton during the summer holidays. We have been planning for the four of us to make a couple of trips to the coast during August but the weather has not been good enough to justify the 100-minute car journey there and back. Instead, we took a day-trip yesterday to Oxfordshire, less than an hour’s drive from West London, to see a stretch of the Thames where people can splash and swim. We took advice from an old college friend of mine who now lives in Oxford. She emailed me a map on which she had marked a good parking spot and somewhere, “a 5-minute walk away”, where we could take a dip.
We had a few false starts. We parked at what we thought was the right location, but there are no facilities there. We drove to the nearest village and stopped at a hotel for a drink and a “comfort break”. We returned to the earlier parking spot, figured it was exactly where my friend had indicated, and had a picnic lunch, all of us wrapped up against the wind. It was 19 degrees Celsius (66 Fahrenheit) and cloudy.
We did some reconnaissance. I walked 10 minutes in one direction and found just one spot where you could get in and out of the water easily. There was a boat moored there. A washing line had been hung from the back of the boat to a nearby tree. It didn’t look like the inhabitants were moving on anytime soon, or that there was much room to get in and out of the water while they were there. There were plenty of other places where you could jump in, but getting out would be a struggle.
We walked 10 minutes in the other direction, and found one spot where you could get in and out of the river easily. We returned to the car to collect our bathing things. By now it was after 3pm, the weather had not improved much, and we hadn’t seen anyone taking a dip. There were narrow-boats on the water, pleasure cruisers, and even a couple in a kayak, but no swimmers. I was reluctant to get wet, but having travelled all that way the children wanted to have a paddle at least. They, and I, put on swim-wear and beach shoes and we, literally, dipped our toes in the water. And then we went further. We all walked in until the water was above our knees. The sun peeped out occasionally from the clouds.
My main concern, when swimming outdoors, is sunburn. I have a light cotton hoodie and an old pair of tracksuit trousers that I have worn at the beach many times. I have a selection of swim caps to keep the sun off my head. I wore the hoodie while we were splashing at the edge of the water and then decided I would take an actual swim. I removed the hoodie, put on a bathing cap and goggles and inserted my best pair of ear-plugs. I waded in as far as my chest and had second thoughts. Eventually, around 10 minutes later, I decided that I would go for it after all, but keep my head above the surface. I swam for about 15 minutes: breast-stroke, with the odd bit of treading water, and then on my back, kicking but not doing full back-stroke. I would do no more than 5 strokes out towards the centre of the river, and then swim back again. You can wade a few yards into the river, but a few yards further in it’s too deep to stand, and you suddenly get a sense of the current. You are also rather too close to the pleasure-boats and other vessels making their way up and downstream.
On a hot, sunny day this part of the river (which I have deliberately avoided naming) would be a lovely place to spend a few hours, but I suspect we would not be the only bathers. I have spent almost my entire life within a mile of the River Thames. Yesterday was the first time I had ever waded in it, let alone swum in it. All being well, it will not be the last.