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A cross-country swim along St Patrick’s Stream

Lose yourself in nature on this sleepy spur of the Thames. Paul Mackenzie (Adventure Swims) and Jude Palmer (Run Surrey Hills) pioneer a cross-country swimming route along St Patrick’s Stream. 

This cross-country swim along St Patrick’s Stream, a sleepy backwater of the River Thames, is a true micro-adventure. It’s a chance to explore beautiful, remote and nature rich streams only a stone’s throw from the typically busy and bustling Thames. Allow a half-day for this unusual and exciting route. 

Starting from a public launch and river access point in Wargrave, you begin with a brief and careful swim across the river from the south to north bank before enjoying a quiet walk upstream. The Thames path here unusually winds through several stunning houses and gardens, eventually arriving close to a spur off the river – St Patrick’s Stream – on the opposite bank. 

The stream delivers intrigue, delight and surprises around every corner. At times it is just a few feet deep, but always swimable. With a very small weir and often encroaching trees from the bank, it’s a swim for the competent and adventurous.

Start: directions and timings

There is a pay and display car park in central Wargrave. This is just a short level walk to the ideal swim entry point: a historic and quaint path with river access at the end of a residential road. This journey consists of a very short swim, followed by a walk (3.5km), then the main swim, which is 4km. 

The full journey can be completed in 3½–4½ hours depending on pace and rest stops. Based upon the overall length, depth and possible plants that you will brush against we recommend that this is a more comfortable and safer swim with a wetsuit.

Journey details

From Wargrave, take a short and careful swim directly across the River Thames to the north bank and towpath. Exit from this initial river crossing is possible at several points. However, it is a bank to climb onto the path. A lovely flat path then leads to the main swim entry point followed by a gentle, but exciting in places, swim back to the start.

Once you reach the north bank, walk upstream. Initially, you will walk at the edge of several farm fields until the railway line, then the path continues through several picturesque and luxurious house’s grounds. Don’t worry, you are crossing through their private gardens on a right of way.  

Continue along the path upstream, past Shiplake Lock and a rather grand-looking school with boat clubhouse. A little further still, you will arrive opposite St Patrick’s Stream. Kit up here and let the swim adventure begin!

St Patrick’s Stream 

Once gently immersed in the river, carefully cross the Thames from the north to the south bank and take St Patrick’s Stream river spur – indicated as unsuitable for river traffic. From here on enjoy the boat and traffic-free flow downstream, although you will have to keep your wits about you to avoid overhanging trees and similar hazards. Initially there is an almost unnoticeable weir, less of a true ‘risk’ but watch out for scraping your knees.

The initial parts of the stream are the shallowest. You should be able to maintain an easy breaststroke or front crawl. In places, it would be possible to stand and walk. However this is a swim not a river walk, right? Look out for small shoals of fish darting around through the reeds; it’s worth putting your head in the water to check in with the wildlife below. 

Enjoy meandering through the natural twists and turns; be aware the depth changes as it can be shallow in places. A few rest and picnic spots pop up in clearly wild areas, however towards the end of the journey most banks are clearly private houses and gardens. An interesting tributary joins from the left with a lovely bridge and sculptures overlooking the steam. 

After the second bridge, it is only a short distance until you rejoin the main River Thames with other river craft, boats and users – so be careful. From here it is a lovely swoosh back to where you first entered the river. 

A short distance downstream of this entry/exit point is a friendly and popular pub, The George & Dragon. A possible route variation would be to park in Lower Shiplake (Mill Lane), which reduces the length and avoids swimming across the Thames at the start. 

Safety: extra things to look out for

The Thames is noticeably busier with pleasure craft at weekends, holidays and on sunny days; the school boat club are also often out rowing. Be sure to be vigilant and make sure you are bright, colourful and easy to see. Respect and be kind to other river users and those fishing – there is plenty of space for all of us to enjoy the river. Submerged trees, occasional overhanging branches and shallow sections should be expected. The swans are usually polite and friendly, but giving as much space as possible is wise.

Extra kit

A wetsuit is recommended since the gently flowing water and the reeds and riverside fauna can scratch and tickle. Footwear for walking and swimming is essential; as is a hot flask of tea and cake to enjoy during and after the journey. As with any self-contained adventure, be sure to have enough food, water, warm clothes and safety items within the group. A RuckRaft is a useful piece of kit on swim adventures like this, allowing you to carry all your food, water, clothes and safety items.

Nature while swimming

Depending on the time of year, you might see bright blue damselflies, dragonflies and perhaps a kingfisher if you are lucky. Under the water, look out for fish darting around within the reeds. The riverside view is also spectacular, with many multi million-pound houses and even a Grand Designs property if you are familiar with the show.

Route breakdown

Location: Berkshire
Start/finish: Wargrave
Getting there: Road transport is the simplest, although the entry/exit point is a short walk from Shiplake or Wargrave station.
Duration: Half-day
Difficulty: Moderate, not for beginners
Total distance: 7-8 km
Walk: 3.5 km 
Swim: 4km 
Hazards: Shallow in places; overhanging branches; a small weir; people fishing. 
OS Map: Landranger 175

Route and words by: Paul Mackenzie, Adventure Swims

Want to give this route a go, but not ready to go it alone? Contact local resident and guide Paul Mackenzie at Adventure Swims, 07930 304312, paul@adventureswims.co.uk or Jude Palmer at Run Surrey Hills, runsurreyhills@gmail.com. Their next planned guided swim is on 8 July.

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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.