In September 2016, Ian Rivers, Nicola Goodwin and Julie Hardman became the first people to swim and walk the entire length of the River Wye from the source at Plynlimon through to the Severn estuary
We were freezing, every part of our bodies ached and all three of us smelled horrific: a mixture of mud, wee, sweat, neoprene and a whole host of other stenches that we were too scared to find the sources of. It was day nine of our challenge, day six of our swim, and it was starting to get tough.
We were swimming between Ross on Wye and Goodrich and, from the start; we’d known that this would be one of the toughest days. The River Wye meanders in huge arcing curves through the valley with cliffs on one side and high banks and ploughed fields on the other making it difficult to navigate by landmarks or find a suitable place for our support team to bring us food and drink. We’d had to use a rope to climb up an irrigation pipe through nettles and thistles to get our first hot drinks that morning and it was a long way to our second stop.
As we rounded a bend we were greeted with an explosion of feathers covering the surface of the water; a mixed flock of swans and Canada geese were sitting on the shingle beaches and floating in the shallows. There were birds everywhere, at least 200 of the majestic creatures moving effortlessly through the river. Ian was ahead so he signalled to move towards the left bank away from the bulk of the flock, we followed and so did the birds. For the next few miles we experienced something unexpected and unrepeatable as we swam withand alongside the birds through deep, clear water. They displayed only curiosity, not fear, and we all had huge grins on our faces as we made our way downstream. This moment summed up our challenge; it was difficult but every second was worth it thanks to the chance to become part of river life.
“You’re never too old to have an adventure.” That had been our inspiration and our motivation throughout the challenge. All three of us were experienced swimmers and coaches but we realised that we knew almost nothing about the River Wye that flows through our county. The idea had first been mooted a few years before and then at the start of 2016 we found ourselves surrounded by maps and coffee planning our stages.
The River Wye dominates our home county of Herefordshire as it has done since man first settled in the valley between the Brecon Beacons, Black Mountains and Malvern Hills. If we were to step into a Tardis and visit our ancestors from the Iron Age onwards the only part of the Wye Valley thatt hey would recognise would be the river. As settlements, towns and villages have come and gone the river has remained. We regularly swim in sections of it but parts were completely unknown to us. Now was the time to explore and what better way than by swimming?
The River Wye is officially 134 miles long from Plynlimon to the sea where it meets the Severn at Beachey Head but from the start it was obvious that our challenge would be a lot longer. It would be impossible to swim for the first few days as the river is either just a trickle or underground so, on 12 September 2016, we put our walking boots on and set off in the Land Rover.
We found the source of the river at Plynlimon easily using satellite navigation so at 8am on a misty morning we hit ‘GO’ and started downhill – and then the fun started. We battled waist-high grass, bogs, tumbles, hidden mine shafts, blisters and rain for the next three days. For almost 55 miles we trekked along the banks of the Wye looking longingly at the water below and wondering when we’d finally be able to get in and swim.
What kept us going on foot and in the river throughout the challenge was the kindness of friends and strangers. On the first day of walking we met farmers and their dogs and saw red kites and buzzards soaring overhead. Every person we saw on route smiled, nodded or stopped to chat and ask us what we were doing. During three days of walking we saw two ramblers letting themselves hang free and loose, a man sketching bricks and a couple taking a harrier hawk for a walk, experiences we’d never have had without stepping out.
Finally on day four the water was deep enough for us to swim and at Glasbury we stepped into the glorious Wye. Our feet were covered in cuts, bruises and blisters and had been on fire for the past three days so feeling the water cooling them down was wonderful. After the summer of very little rain we knew there would be many shallow parts of the river so wewere swimming in barefoot-style shoes, and that was a wise move as they protected us through the rapids and were barely noticeable while we were moving.
That first morning of swimming was tough as the water was still really shallow and colder than we’d expected, around 12 degrees. We were passing through the border town of Hay on Wye and some of the most amazing landscape in the UK but the swimming was difficult as we were being bashed to bits by the rocks. We’d taken advice from other swimmers, such as the Hudson brothers, who’d attempted similar feats and so we sculled on our backs through the rapids and used our tow floats for extra buoyancy. Swimming through shallow water saps your energy, it is best described as being in a washing machine with rocks, and we adopted a side push with our hands instead of the normal front crawl to attempt to make progress without breaking our fingers.
We rarely spoke while we were swimming. We’d found by trial and error that we worked best by swimming for between 1.5 and two hours at a time then stopping for a quick refuel before getting straight back in and swimming away without looking back. We were using tow- floats for safety and had two bottles with us that we could use to takeon extra drink if we needed it, but for most of the day we would swim in an arrow formation, 10 to 15 metres apart, just checking every few hundred metres that we were all safe.
We swam for an average of 15 kilometres a day in three stints of 5 kilometres, stopping for hot drinks and food on the banks. Our amazing team of family and friends soon became known as our water butlers and without them we wouldn’t have finished the challenge. When you’re feeling cold and tired and you round a corner to see your loved ones waving and smiling it gives you such a boost.
Total strangers such as Dick and Syd from Chepstow Harriers running club would arrive in the middle of a field carrying flasks of tea, blankets and cake plus words of support and encouragement. Such kindness is humbling and inspiring.
We were raising funds for St Michael’s Hospice in memory of our relatives and friends who hadbeen cared for there in their final weeks. Our money was going towards the hospice drinks trolley, an amazing facility which allows the patients to have a tipple oft heir choice every evening before bed. Such a simple, fun gesture makes those being cared for feel like themselves even at the toughest of times and knowing we were doing a tiny bit to help really spurred us on during our low points. Swimming for up to six hours each day gives you lots of time for reflection and thinking and it’s wonderfully cathartic to have to think of nothing else except putting one hand in front of the other.
After seven days and 90 miles of swimming we reached Bigsweir Bridge and the end of our swim; we would walk the final 20 kilometres to the sea as the tide was so strong that we couldn’t risk the danger of being swept away. We had seen the remains of long-forgotten cottages and railway bridges; we had seen birds, fish and mammals plus the more bizarre sights of lost sunglasses and walking sticks, carpets and shoes on the river bed.
Life is sometimes too busy to find true adventure but, to our surprise, we had one in our own backyard. River Wye Source to Sea was a wonderful experience full of friendship, diverse people and fantastic scenery. The river is an ever-changing being, totally different at the start compared to the finish, and it had the same impact on us. It was a tough challenge which tested us all in different ways but it was amazing fun and life-affirming. As we move through winter we miss the calmness of the river and can’t wait to jump back in.
Ian, Nicola and Julie's tips for a swimming challenge
1. CHOOSE YOUR TEAM WELL
We are close friends who train and coach together at Hereford Triathlon Club and we’d spent lots of time together competing and supporting at events home and abroad. We’ve seen each other at our best and our worst and knew when we needed support and when we were best left alone. It’s essential to have people that you trust and know well when you’re doing such a challenge.
2. LOOK AFTER YOUR SKIN AND FEET AND TAKE TIME TO GET INTO YOUR WETSUITS
At the end we had sunburned faces, dreadlocked hair (Nicola had to have hers cut off) and blisters from the walk but not one rub or burn from our wetsuits. We used a mix of vaseline and lanoline and spent half an hour each morning making sure we were fully covered and protected from rubbing. Ian and Nicola had made-to-measure suits from Snugg and Jules had a special suit made by Patagonia as she’s allergic to neoprene, not ideal for a swimmer!
3. PLAN, BUT NOT TOO STRICTLY
We knew how and where we were getting in and out each day and had our support crew at points along the river with food and drink but we didn’t set ourselves set distances to cover each day as we didn’t want to create targets which we would have been under pressure to make. We carried a phone, water and first aid supplies with us but we wanted to make sure we allowed ourselves time to enjoy what we were doing.
4. SPEND THE TIME ON STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING TRAINING As well as spending a lot of time in the water during the summer we also spent many hours in the gym working on our core strength and stability. Using ropes, cables and free weights we had a good base to prevent injury and give us more strength and power in the water.
5. GAIN PERMISSION IF YOU NEED IT
The River Wye is fully navigational but we made sure that we had permission to get in and out of the water and for our support crew to access us at the riverbank. We had great help from the local farmers, landowners and all but one fisherman! The river is owned by none of us and all of us and it’s so important that we all share the water and look after it.
6. EAT WELL
It’s almost impossible to put the calories back in that you use up during a day of swimming but make sure that you eat enough. We found that relying on energy drinks, cakes, gels and sweets didn’t work as we’re not used to so much sugar so we also had peanut butter and marmite and cheese sandwiches plus soup. Foods with strong flavours were also great and got rid of the taste of river for a while!
7. DON’T TOUCH YOUR GOGGLES AFTER YOU’VE PUT ON YOUR LUBE We all did this – every day – sometimes twice a day! We carried a small bottle of shampoo to wash our hands and goggles after the food stops and to give us the chance to see.
8. HAVE FUN
Spending time swimming and exploring with friends is such a privilege. Get out there and have a go, even if it’s just for a day.