Achieving a World First - Swimming the River Eden

At 12.15 on Sunday 23rd August, my brothers and I climbed out of the water and onto dry land at Port Carlisle. We had just completed the Worlds first swim of the entire 90-mile length of the River Eden. Over the last 9 days we had swum down gorges, into rapids, over waterfalls, through underwater rock formations and achieved well over our £2,500 target for The Swimming Trust.

Averaging around 10 miles a day, we began at the source up near Hell Gill, at the border between Cumbria and Yorkshire.  Our first day involved trekking up the fells in wetsuits and following the river to its original point. In itself, this is a unique, and highly recommended activity. Upon finding the mossy wet mound that burped its water onto the mountainside, Jack jumped in feet first and disappeared all the way up to his chest! After swimming and sliding through the river as is snaked its way through the boggy ground we came to Hell Gill Gorge, and we plunged into the water once more. 

Watching the landscape change as we swum the course of the River was fascinating. Freestyle allowed me to see how the rock formations and scenery changed both in and out of the water. It was possible to follow giant slabs of sandstone as they changed from ragged outcrops and cliffs to become softer and rounded underwater. The trees and banks of the river were constantly in flux, and even the colour, consistency and texture of the water seemed to change. Opaque and mineral rich near the source, it gave way to clear stretches during the central few days before becoming thick and cloudy as we headed into the Solway Firth.

There were incredibly beautiful sections near Bolton, Appleby, Langwathby, Lanzonby and Armathwaite, and each day opened up new stretches for us to adapt to and overcome. Jack perfected the art of swimming through fast sections by floating on his back, feet first like a sea otter. For some reason this style, influenced in his words ‘by Baloo the Bear from Jungle Book’, seemed to find him achieving incredible speeds as we all swam freestyle trying to keep up! Calum showed great resolve, swimming three days with an intense ear infection and our trusted duct tape bandages fastened to his head to keep the water out. We all know the sense of camaraderie that is achieved through shared adventure, and Swimming the Eden turned us into a tightly knit group with a mutual hatred for the sensation of donning a cold wet wetsuit first thing each morning.

One aspect of Outdoor swimming that I love is how simply it allows you to escape the beaten track, and this was especially true during our swim. We become free from paths and roads, and were able to follow nature on its terms rather than our own. We started to navigate by bridges, using them as places to start and end days, and to coordinate lunch and refuelling stops. They became psychological markers of progress, and there is something incredibly satisfying about rolling onto your back in the water to look up at their arches as you swim underneath them. I will never forget how ugly and unsettling it was to round a corner of the river and see our first motorway bridge just outside Carlisle. After days spent in the water and idyllic Cumbrian landscape, this sight came as a huge and unnerving shock to the system!

Often, days began with interviews and filming with TV crews such as BBC, ITV and Channel 5. This was surreal, but adding to the feeling that the swim was becoming something bigger than just the three of us. Our Mum jumped in and swum 2 miles at an incredible pace with a huge smile on her face! A few days later our Dad raced in for a stretch as well, and in conjunction with the Outdoor Swimming Society, we met up with Mike and Mark at Carlisle, and they came to swim with us for the last couple of days. As we powered out into the Solway Firth, under deep blue expansive skies, I was relieved to see the finish, but sad to find the adventure drawing to a close.

Occasionally during the wider meanders and deeper stretches of the river, Calum, Jack and I would silently sync our swimming strokes as we swam alongside each other. This was never planned, (often we would swim apart from one another, switching around who was at the front and back) but there was something indescribable and harmonious about those moments of swimming. Roger Deakin wrote that ‘following water, flowing with it, would be a way of getting under the skin of things, of learning something new’ and it was during those passages of swimming that I felt I understood what he meant.

Our swim would not have been possible without the help of our outstanding support crew. My School friend James, an Officer in the British Army, stalwartly accompanied us from the very beginning, filming, taking photographs and flying his drone to capture aerial shots. Dave, who kept us safe with his kayak and conquered all the rapids in heroic fashion, and Sandy and Beth who also kayaked, photographed and kept us all sane.

Laurie Crayston