CHALLENGE,  Event reviews,  NEWS

Getting the Henley high

An event for newbies, elite swimmers or the simply curious. Digital Journalist Jo Tinsley reports back on this year’s Outdoor Swimmer Henley Swim Festival.

Sitting beside the River Thames opposite Temple Island, swimmers steadily make their way downstream, taking measured front crawl strokes and trailing their tow floats behind; others pootle along swimming heads up breaststroke, chatting and pointing out passing boats on the other side of the river. In the far distance a raft carrying a giant yellow duck, grande piano and a plush red sofa idles by, while behind me the festival village gently hums with activity as spectators queue for souvlaki wraps and bustle around the many stalls selling everything from the latest in goggles to handmade hand warmers, woolly beanies to cosy changing robes. 

The Henley Swim Festival is an altogether relaxed affair, an event for anyone with an interest in swimming outdoors, whether novice, elite or simply curious. On the one hand it caters for competitive swimmers, like Outdoor Swimmer’s founder and publisher Simon Griffiths who took on the 4x Challenge. 

“I approached it a bit like a swimrun, except I took my shoes off and carried them in a tow float,” he told me afterwards, refuelling on overnight oats with raisins, almonds and cashew nuts (the breakfast he had planned to eat before but ran out of time). “After each swim, rather than take a break, I ran back to the start and swam again. I also removed my wetsuit for my final mile for the suits versus skins experience.”

There was also an UNLTD challenge, with teams or individuals swimming as many miles as they could across the day. ZONE3 athletes Josh Carr and Olly Oakley clocked up 17 between them, Henley Mermaid Laura Reineke swum seven in training for her upcoming Channel crossing, while the team from swimwear brand Deakin & Blue totalled six. 

A festival for all levels

On the other end of the spectrum, many of the 1,000 swimmers who take to the water are either relatively new to open water swimming or, like me, returning after a break and here to experience the delight and sense of achievement of completing an event route with all reassurance and encouragement of a supervised setting. 

This was my first open water swimming event for over three years, the pandemic and the arrival of my daughter having limited opportunities to swim any kind of distance for a while. The furthest I’ve been swimming recently is an infrequent 750m loop at Vobster Quay in Somerset, so taking on the Henley Mile felt both achievable but also a touch outside of my comfort zone. 

The festival also gives you a chance to rub shoulders with open water royalty, many of whom are imparting nuggets of wisdom from the main stage. Walking to the start of my Henley Mile, we struck up a conversation with swimming coach Cassie Patten on the river path and I thought for one dreadful moment I was about to begin my plodding heads-up breaststroke mile alongside an Olympian!

Have a dip in the STA Lido

Aside from my river swim, which I’ll come back to in a moment, I also had a two-year-old to entertain so one our first stops (after the bouncy castle) was the STA Lido, a cordoned-off and supervised section of the Thames where families were enjoying a free dip in the river, along with Red paddleboard demos and an inflatable water-roller. Our little one did her first ‘length’ in a river (with armbands and Dad for support) and was pleased as punch when she was awarded a shiny gold medal for her efforts.

It wasn’t just me who’s brought the family along. Simon’s daughter, Esther, was manning the Outdoor Swimmer stand, handing out free copies of the magazine just as she has done for the past 11 years.“Esther has helped run the stand since 2012,” said Simon. “The first one was our ‘H2Open Day’, before we even worked with Henley Swim. She was only nine!”

We also watched the marvellous Almost Synchro, an open water synchronised swimming group from Bristol, performing in the Lido to roaring 20s songs and sea shanties. And we pootled over to The Bell Bookshop pop-up book corner, where we perused the latest guides, slow travel stories and ‘swimoirs’ while sinking into super soft rucomfy beanbags. 

The bookshop was Editor Ella Foote’s idea and she said it was a real joy to see so many people enjoying this new addition to the festival and chatting with authors. “I had such a great time at the festival that time flew way too quick,” she said. “I always feel like there is so much going on I end up missing something or chatting to someone. The water was beautiful too, clear and cool – just the way I love it.”

As for my Henley Mile, I completed it in a leisurely 1 hour, 2 minutes and 24 seconds, chatting the entire way with Ella who joined me at the last minute for company (having already completed her own mile as part of the Deakin & Blue UNTLD relay team). A volunteer on a support kayak told us we were having way too much fun. I think the smile on my face said it all. 

Registration for the 2024 Outdoor Swimmer Henley Swim Festival, taking place Sunday 14 July 2024, opens soon. Pop it in your diary, and sign up to be the first to know exciting new developments and opening discounts, In the meantime, if you have a long swim in you, take a look at the Thames Marathon (14km) and Half Marathon (5.5km) on 13 August 2023.

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Jo is the Gear Editor for Outdoor Swimmer and also writes news and features for the website. A keen open water swimmer and long-distance walker, she loves seeking out lakes and lidos close to her home in the Mendip Hills, Somerset. She is the author of The Slow Traveller, editor and founder of independent magazine, Ernest, and has previously tested outdoor clothing and kit for BBC Countryfile Magazine, BBC Focus and Ernest Journal.