David Walliams's diary: My epic Thames swim (2023)


So this was it. Months of arduous training had finally led me to the start of my challenge, and the good folk of Lechlade had come out in force to cheer me into the water. I was feeling excited, though more than a little bit nervous, and then it dawned on me… All of these people were about to see me in nothing but a swimming cap and a pair of very tight Speedos. And it was bitterly cold. The word shrinkage came to mind.

After a brief moment with the two women in my life (my mum Kathleen and my wife Lara), I strode into the Thames at 8.22am. It was like walking into a bath of ice. I had naively assumed the Thames might be warm in September after basking in the summer sun.

In reality, the water was below 15 degrees, which is a fair bit colder than when I swam the Channel five years ago. So it’s probably no wonder that a couple of hours after Lara sounded the klaxon to send me on my way, my trainer Greg noticed a blue tinge creeping up my back. It’s one of the first signs of hypothermia, which wasn’t the best of starts. As a result, despite me wanting to do this thing in my trunks (they’re far less restrictive), off they came and on went the wetsuit.

By 6pm, the sun had gone AWOL, the wind had picked up, and the temperature of the water was plummeting. The cold really got into my bones, and I couldn’t keep up the pace. Before I knew it, I was falling behind schedule and the pressure was on.

As the light was fading, I had covered 18 miles and finally made it to Northmoor Lock. It was 2.3 miles short of my planned finish, but I had to call it a day. I felt totally shattered and everything ached. How was I going to do this another seven times? And who’s bright idea was this anyway? Oh yeah, that would be me.


(Video) David Walliams Vs The Thames | Sport Relief Challenges 2012

Morning number two – well, I say morning; it felt more like the middle of the night. I got back in the river at the crack of dawn to try to make up yesterday’s shortfall. I quickly covered those two extra miles, but torrential rain and strong cross-winds arrived, lowering the temperature of the Thames even more.

To make matters worse, I knew that heavy rain causes raw sewage to overspill into the river, spewing out all kinds of unmentionable waste. Probably best not to think about that – or all the bacteria, including E Coli, that I was most likely swallowing.

The one thing that kept me going was the unflinching support from the public. They came in their droves, braving wet and windy conditions to spur me on, and news of my steadily rising sponsorship total gave me a massive boost. That and the mug of tea I received at the nice lock-keeper’s cabin.

Towards the end of the morning, I could see the spires of Oxford. It felt as if I was starting to make some headway, and it wasn’t long before I passed through Iffley Lock, near to where Roger Bannister broke the four-minute-mile barrier. If only I could swim a mile in four minutes, I’d be laughing! But laughter was not on the cards. I felt cold, in pain, and still had a fair way to go.

The evening crept up on me and I swam until it was almost pitch black. Eventually, I came into Abingdon Lock (having completed more than 22 miles) to hundreds of cheering supporters. I’m in no doubt; their encouragement got me to the finish.

After a quick bite to eat I went to bed thinking that, if this wasn’t difficult, then it wouldn’t be worth doing. But little did I know – it was about to get a whole lot worse.



A dark, dark day. After being up all night with diarrhoea and sickness, I felt rough as a dog before I even took to the water. Perhaps it was inevitable that I’d pick up a bug en route – and here it was. “Thames tummy” set in and set me back in a big way.

I just couldn’t keep anything down, and dehydration was a serious risk. Burning about 8,000 calories a day meant it was almost impossible to swim with no fuel in my tank, and we had to keep stopping for the medics to check me over. I feared they’d pull the plug on the whole thing. Thankfully, despite coming close, they let me carry on.

Now, it may be obvious, but it’s worth saying that moving your body through a river when you feel as if you’re going to throw up is tough. I had to fight the impulse to give up with every single stroke. I didn’t want to let anyone down, so I spent the whole day thinking about the people I met in Kenya on my last Sport Relief trip and what a difference the money I’m raising will make to their lives.

By the afternoon, I knew I was in the midst of my toughest ever challenge. Covering a couple of miles an hour felt like chipping away at a mountain, and it was almost unbearable to think that, at the end of my third day, I wasn’t even half way through. Talk about relentless.

By about 7pm, I’d covered 53 miles in total and reached Wallingford Bridge – four miles short of the schedule – but it was a miracle I’d got that far. And there were thousands of people lining the riverbank giving me the most fantastic reception. Hearing all the crowds cheer me in, and seeing Lara willing me on, was completely overwhelming. I’m not ashamed to admit that more than a tear was shed as I heaved myself out of the river and on to dry land.


By now, I was, in effect, swimming the Channel in 12 hours, going to bed, waking up and having to do it all over again. And Thursday was more than a struggle. But I had decided that, as long as I could put one arm over the other, I’d carry on.

(Video) David Walliams - Swim

When I awoke, my stomach still wasn’t ready for the calorie-laden, carbohydrate feast I should have consumed in preparation for the day ahead. Instead, I forced down a slice of dry toast and some flat cola. Not really the stuff that endurance swimmers are made of.

On the plus side, what warmed my heart while in the freezing water were all the schoolkids who’d come to cheer me on. It seems this challenge had captured the imagination of young and old alike.

By the afternoon, my pace had slowed to 1.7 miles an hour, and I couldn’t find the energy to speed up. Hardly surprising, given that I’d barely managed to eat all day. Without any fuel, I had nothing to burn and was slipping further behind schedule. There was only one thing for it – baked beans.

They seemed to do the trick and gave me my second wind – so to speak. And with that, I managed to push on through to Caversham Lock by 6.45pm. I’d made it almost exactly half way to the finish.


Things started to look up. Don’t get me wrong – after swimming a total of 38 hours, completing 58,676 strokes and burning 36,115 calories, my body still hurt like hell. But a few things happened that really lifted my spirits.

Firstly, I knew that, after my very first stroke of the day, I would be nearer to London than Lechlade where the whole thing began. That felt good. Secondly, Jimmy Carr turned up to hurl good-natured abuse at me from the support boat. It was brilliant to have a great friend around. And. lastly, the crowds that came out to support me were staggering. The lunchtime welcome at Henley was immense – there was even a flotilla of boats to greet me.

(Video) David Walliams Wants To Encourage People To Swim With SwimBritain

By the end of another 12-hour stretch, I still had a very long way to go, and I knew that anything could happen to halt my progress. Yet, for the first time, I felt that I might actually finish this side of Christmas.

Saturday morning

The weekend has arrived but there’d be no lie-in for me. At 7am, I dived back in at Marlow, with Lara in the support boat to spur me on and feed me cake. I was also joined by Olympic gold medallist Adrian Moorehouse, and, before I knew it, my pace had picked up to 2.4 miles an hour.

Once again, hordes of people came out to line the river bank. As I approached Cookham Lock, I spotted a Labrador, which had jumped in to greet me but was having real trouble scaling the lock wall to get out. There was nothing for it: I had to swim over and help him back on to dry land.

When you’re swimming for hours on end, you’re just alone with your thoughts. But the outpouring of affection from all the people who came to cheer hit me like a wave.

I am so utterly grateful for the public’s support. When news came in last night of my sponsorship total tipping half a million pounds, I felt so overwhelmed. That money will reach people living such tough lives at home and overseas – and that’s what makes every single second of my struggle to the finish worthwhile.

Westminster, here I come.

(Video) David Walliams completes River Thames swim despite tummy ache

To sponsor David, go to www.sportrelief.com/swim


Has anybody swam the Thames? ›

Holbein was a noted endurance swimmer, and on 25 July 1899 he covered 43 miles – the longest Thames swim ever recorded at the time – from Blackwall to Gravesend and back. It took him just over 12 hours, using a slow but powerful stroke described as “half-side, half-back”.

Has anyone swam the length of the Thames? ›

To date, Pugh remains the only person to have swum the full length of the Thames, although a number of swimmers have swum sections of it. Most famously, comedian David Walliams swam 230 km (140 miles) from Lechlade to Westminster Bridge and raised over £1 million for charity in the process.

What challenges did David Walliams face? ›

Walliams has talked about his own experiences of being bullied at school, and the incident where Joe Spud is teased for being last in the cross-country run was based on his own school life: “That happened to me,” he told The Scottish Sun.

What disease was in the River Thames water? ›

Ironically enough, the Thames river that was badly polluted was, at the same time, the main source of drinking water for the citizens of London. Consequently, there was a cholera outbreak in 1832 that persist for 22 years long. The outbreak costs the lives of 35,000 people.

Did the woman who fell in the Thames survive? ›

Folajimi Olubunmi-Adewole was found dead six hours after going into the water near London Bridge in what police described as a 'sheer act of bravery' to aid the 21-year-old woman who survived.

Are there crocodiles in the Thames? ›

Crocodiles definitely aren't native to London's waters, but this is the strange beast that city workers spotted in the Thames yesterday afternoon. They panicked after thinking there was a crocodile resting on a floating pontoon, only yards from where children were paddling.

Is the Thames clean to swim in? ›

It is not recommended to swim in the tidal section of the Thames (east of Putney Bridge to the North Sea). It is neither safe nor particularly nice.

Has anyone swam from the US to Russia? ›

On August 7, 1987, Lynne Cox braves the freezing waters of the Bering Strait to make the first recorded swim from the United States to the Soviet Union. Lynne Cox's swimming career began in her native New Hampshire when she was just nine years old.

Why was the Thames so dirty? ›

The problems of pollution in the Thames reached a head in the mid-1800s as London's population grew to above 2.5 million. With more factories and flushing toilets being widely adopted, the volume of domestic and industrial waste flowing straight into the river only increased.

What is the most unusual thing found in the River Thames? ›

Maybe the most recent strange item found would be a 5,000-year-old human bone found this year (2022). The slightly dark object dates all the way back to the stone age and is a key part of history.

What are the 3 diseases spread by unsafe water? ›

Water and health

Contaminated water and poor sanitation are linked to transmission of diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid and polio.

What is David Walliams famous quote? ›

All you can do in this life is follow your dreams. Otherwise you're just wasting your time.

How does David Walliams get his inspiration for his stories? ›

Inspiration. Having watched a lot of James Bond as a child, inspiring action-packed stories in which someone was almost always shot, David has been very influenced by films and famous movie characters.

Are David Walliams books appropriate? ›

The majority of David Walliams' children's books are written for kids aged eight and older. The author has also penned picture books such as The First Hippo on the Moon and Boogie Bear which are suitable for children from age three.

Which important figure was killed at the Battle of the Thames River? ›

Harrison defeated British forces and their allies in the Battle of the Thames, resulting in the death of the famed Native American leader Tecumseh and the end of his Confederacy.

Who was the boy who died in the River Thames? ›

Boy, 14, who drowned in River Thames heatwave tragedy 'unable to swim and hated water' Image: Brian Sasu, 14, was with friends at Tagg's Island in Hampton, South West London, on Monday (July 18) afternoon as temperatures soared to 37C.)

Who died trying to save a woman who fell from London Bridge? ›

Folajimi Olubunmi-Adewole, 20, was found dead six hours after going into the water near London Bridge in what police described as a “sheer act of bravery” to aid the 21-year-old woman who survived.

Is the Thames a dirty river? ›

It might surprise you to know that the River Thames is considered one of the world's cleanest rivers running through a city. What's even more surprising is that it reached that status just 60 years after being declared “biologically dead” by scientists at London's Natural History Museum.

Is Thames water dirty? ›

The Thames is considered to be the cleanest river in the world that flows through a major city. The Thames is home to 125 species of fish and more than 400 invertebrates. This is in spite of the fact that raw sewage is routinely pumped into the river during heavy rains.

Are there venomous sharks in Thames? ›

These sharks have recently started showing up in the Thames due to warming and rising seawater and are not returning to an ancestral habitat. Spurdogs are slender sharks with venomous spines—the front part of their dorsal fins sports their little daggers.

Which is the most cleanest river in the world? ›

The Thames River in London tops the chart of the cleanest river in the world. London's pride and icon, the river is simply remarkable and absolutely spotless.

Can you see Russia from Alaska? ›

So yes, you can technically see Russia from Alaska. However, only in very specific spots. You cannot see continental Russia from continental Alaska; but if you were to be standing on Little Diomede (or Krusenstern Island,) you could look across the water to see Big Diomede, (or Ratmanov Island.)

Has a black person ever swam in the Olympics? ›

Who was the first swimmer of African descent to make a U.S. Olympic swimming team? Anthony Ervin of Cal and the Phoenix Swim Club made the U.S. Olympic team in 2000. He was also the first to medal, tying Gary Hall Jr.

What happens if you drink Thames water? ›

Thames tummy, which can be caused by ingesting big gulping mouthfuls of Thames water for eight long days, involves diarrhea, vomiting and fever while also not closing off the possibility of Legionnaires' disease, salmonella, hepatitis, cryptosporidiosis, and Weil's Disease.

Are there sharks in the Thames? ›

Tiny sharks, just half a metre long, have been found in the river Thames outside of London. Four dogfish, also known as mud sharks, were discovered 20 miles downstream of the Big Smoke in Denton, Gravesend, during a study by the City of London Corporation.

Why you shouldn't swim in the Thames? ›

One of the main risks is cold-water shock, causing you to breathe in water, weakening your muscles, and causing immediate heart problems. Unseen currents and reeds beneath the surface could pull you under. I'd urge parents and guardians to supervise younger children closely in and around water.

What does the River Thames symbolize? ›

The River Thames symbolizes the people and culture of the Great City of London. The river connects the south and north banks of London while crossing over 33 bridges, with the river offering a lens to more than 2000 years of the river Thames' human occupation.

What did the smell of sewage in the River Thames cause? ›

From 1831 London suffered a series of cholera outbreaks. At the time, the inhalation of 'foul air' was widely thought to be responsible for the spread of this dreaded disease. Many blamed the fetid smell that hung over the River Thames – by this time little more than an enormous sewer.

What is the oldest thing found in the Thames? ›

A 5,000-year-old human bone was discovered on the banks of the River Thames in London, reported the BBC's Harriet Orrell last month. Dating back to between 3516 and 3365 B.C.E., the femur is one of the oldest objects ever found in the Thames, wrote Time Out's Alice Saville.

Which water is safe for drinking? ›

Purified water is usually tap or groundwater which has been treated to remove harmful substances like bacteria, fungi, and parasites. This means that drinking it is pretty much guaranteed to be safe.

What are the signs of drinking bad water? ›

Waterborne illnesses can cause a variety of symptoms. While diarrhea and vomiting are the most commonly reported symptoms of waterborne illness, other symptoms can include skin, ear, respiratory, or eye problems.

What would happen if you swam in the River Thames? ›

"There could be all sorts of obstructions under the water, there could be boats passing under you or other swimmers below you... "The other danger is cold water shock.

Has there ever been sharks in the Thames? ›

Tiny sharks, just half a metre long, have been found in the river Thames outside of London. Four dogfish, also known as mud sharks, were discovered 20 miles downstream of the Big Smoke in Denton, Gravesend, during a study by the City of London Corporation.

How many people jump into the Thames each year? ›

There are estimated to be between 300 and 400 suicides and parasuicides on the tidal part of the Thames each year.

Are there great white sharks in the River Thames? ›

It highlights changes since the river was declared "biologically dead" in 1957. The report revealed shark species including tope, starry smooth hound and spurdog all currently live in the Thames, and there are more than 115 different species of fish in the 215-mile long river.

Why does the Thames look so dirty? ›

The River Thames appears brown because there is silt on the riverbed. This silt is made up of fine particles which disperse in the water and make it look muddy.

What is the most deadliest shark? ›

The most deadly shark is the white shark which since 1900 until 1999 has caused 251 out of the 1860 confirmed unprovoked shark attacks on humans, 66 of which resulted in fatalities - the highest number for any species of shark.

What venomous shark is in the Thames river? ›

Meet the Incredible Venomous Shark of the Thames River: The Spurdog. Spiny dogfish have venomous spines.


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