WHILE watching the sun rise on a misty morning over the River Thames it would be difficult not to appreciate the beauty of nature, writes Naomi Herring.
Unless it is 6am, 4C and you are about jump feet first right into the thick of it.
As I – a complete novice to open water swimming – stood at Eynsham Lock ahead of the 4km Lock to Lock I began to wonder what the hell I had got myself into.
More than 100 wetsuit-clad swimmers surrounded me and I couldn’t help but wonder what makes someone want to do this regularly.
After the initial shock of submerging ourselves into the water we were on our way – and for the first 10 minutes all I could think was to avoid weeds, avoid touching the bottom and not to swallow the water.
But, the further I went the more I began to understand why “wild swimming” is becoming ever-more popular. It is not often you get to see Oxfordshire’s countryside from that perspective, plus swim by a few disturbed – and no doubt bemused – sheep along the way.
The freedom and thrill of swimming down the surprisingly clear Thames trumps anything a pool could offer.
With the open-space, sunny morning and the swimmers’ infectious enthusiasm you could only enjoy it.
Wild swimming is becoming increasingly popular across the country. Naomi Herring tested out the chilly waters in the wilds of Berinsfield
Next month more than 100 swimmers are set to the take part in Oxford’s first 4k Wild Thames swim event from Eynsham Lock to Kings Lock near Godstow.
I took to an Oxfordshire lake for the first time to experience open water swimming and see what all the fuss was about, as well as getting some training in before I take part in the 4k event myself.
Over the past few years there has been a large increase in the number of people taking part in open water swimming.
So on a wet, cold Sunday morning I donned my swim hat, goggles and squeezed into my new and first-ever wetsuit – which proved every bit as difficult as you would expect.
I waddled into the cold waters of Queenford Lake in Berinsfield, run by Oxford Wakeboard and Ski Club, which provides three laps varying in distance from 300m to 1km.
Despite my initial trepidation and loss of breath as I immersed myself into the cold water, it was surprising how quickly and easy it was to get used to the surroundings.
It takes swimming to a new level with a sense of freedom and excitement that you will never get going back and forth in a pool.
Being able to see Oxfordshire’s countryside in a completely different way, it quickly became clear why many people have become addicted to the thrill and excitement of the sport.
Water slowly filtered through my wetsuit helping to warm me up and – thankfully for a lapsed swimmer like myself – provided an extra bit of buoyancy along the way.
I, like many I am sure, also worried that I would be splashing through algae and weeds as I went, trying to avoid breathing in bugs.
But I was pleasantly surprised at how clear the water was, although it was still tricky to keep track of where you are going.
I had to create a new technique of breathe, breathe, look around and breathe to save swimming off into the bushes and may have taken a slightly longer route in the process.
Oxford Wakeboard and Ski Club director and former British waterski and wakeboard head coach Steve Glanfield said: “We have been running here for five years and in that time the open water swimming has grown from about 50 people in the first year to probably about 800 per cent of that over the past four years.
“It is becoming even more popular – I get daily enquiries about open water swimming.
“Blenheim Palace Triathlon is probably the biggest thing that brings people in as it is just down the road from us.
“It is amazing how popular it has got over the past few years – our Sunday session is the most popular and probably averages about 200 people. It is really incredible. Our core base is water skiing and wakeboarding but over the past year open water swimming is becoming a major part of it as well.”
There are several open water clubs and locations across the county to take on wild swims.
And yes, despite it being an early morning and raining heavily, I would definitely go back.
A FORMER lockkeeper will return to the Thames after nearly 15 years – but this time he will be swimming between locks rather than operating them.
Ben Partridge is among 85 people set to take part in the new 4km Lock to Lock River Thames wild swim from Eynsham Lock to Kings Lock near Godstow.
The new event on Sunday, September 6, has been organised by Swim Oxford Ltd – set up by Bob Gibson and Darrin Roles.
Father-of-one Mr Partridge, 36, said: “When Bob spoke to me about doing the swim, I said how I used to work as a lockkeeper over the summers so I have got a sort of connection to that stretch of the river.
“It was way back when I was at university when I did assistant lockkeeping over the summer. I would man the locks, opening and closing them and making sure the area was kept tidy.
“I have done a few open water swims in the past so this will not be my first.”
Mr Partridge, now an accountant living in Moulsford with his wife Leah and three-year-old daughter Hanna, worked on many locks in Oxfordshire as a summer job during 2000 and 2001.
The main locks he would man included Eynsham Lock, Kings Lock and Pinkhill Lock, but he has worked at others throughout the county.
He now tries to get down to Berinsfield Lake as much as possible during weekends to train for open water events. He said: “I think it will be quite interesting. It’s quite a rural area so we will be able to see a lot of the Oxfordshire countryside a different way.
“Plus not many people can say they have swum in the Thames like that.
“I like being out in the lake as it is more interesting than being in a pool. It is something different. It is quite nice to get a different perspective on the world at eye level.
“The biggest difference is the visibility. In a pool you follow the blue line on the bottom of the pool but in a lake they normally put buoys out and every six to eight strokes you have to look up.”
The wild water Thames swim will see both professional and first-time open water swimmers take to the river.
So far the waterway challenge has attracted swimmers from 15-year-olds to 67-year-olds, with more women on average signing up than men.
It will start at 8.30am with registration for swimmers starting at 6am.
Swimmers must be competent in the sport to enter and aged over 14.
Mr Partridge added: “You can definitely see the numbers [of open water swimmers] down at the lake increasing.”
Sunday 6th September 2015 sees the very first wild-water swim event taking place in Oxford. The 4K Lock-To-Lock swim down the River Thames from Eynsham Lock to Kings Lock is aimed at professional swimmers and absolute open-water beginners alike.
The stunning stretch of the river selected, was reputedly the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland, and passes through Wytham Woods and Oxford University Pastures. For experienced swimmers looking for a challenge or to complete a timed competition distance, then the 4k Lock to Lock offers a highly competitive opportunity. At the same time, first time open water swimmers will be warmly welcomed.
The brain child of triathletes, wild water swimming enthusiasts and local businessmen Bob Gibson and Darrin Roles, the 4k Lock to Lock swim, is the first event from Swim Oxford Ltd – a new company the pair aim to establish as the wild-swim leader nationwide.
With plans in place to host both a 6k and 10k follow up to the 4k Lock 2 Lock, Bob Gibson explains their thinking. “River swimming is an exhilarating experience, and a major part of taking part is the beautiful surroundings. Unlike lake or sea swimming, river swimming can be a delightfully leisurely experience with swimmers becoming immersed in the surroundings.”
Darrin says, “Both Bob and I are keen triathletes, which is how we came to enjoy river swimming. This event is perfect for any sportsperson training for a timed event. An Iron Man for example includes a 3.8k swim. But we are starting people in waves of ability on the day so don’t be put off coming along for your first go.”
With 250 swimmers expected to register the pair are urging people to sign up ASAP. Registration on the day starts at 6.00am with the first wave setting off at 8.30am. Tickets, £40.00 which must be purchased prior to the event are available from www.swimoxford.co.uk. A comfortable wetsuit is recommend. Competent swimmers aged between 14yrs and 114yrs are welcome. There will be no entries on the day.