Our rivers need to be cleaner, says Martyn Brunt

Brunty’s column takes a serious turn this month as he encounters a spot of tummy trouble after a marathon swim…

Credit: Daniel Seex

Over the 10 years I’ve been writing this column we have, dear reader, got to know each other a little bit I think. And I hope you’ve spotted that behind the comedy grumbling about turbo trainers, people who tap their feet while swimming, and those tiresome gits who rack their bikes the wrong way round in transition, I am at heart an affable sort of chap, who absolutely loves doing triathlons and everything they entail, and who is generally inclined to see the funny side of life.


Not this month, though. This month I’m seriously miffed and I’m afraid I must break with my habit of sharing my latest collection of knob gags with you to complain about a scandalous situation which affects all of us. The incident which has triggered this temporary change of tone is my recent appearance in the Thames Marathon, a 14km swim down the Thames from Henley to Marlow. It’s a race I’ve done several times before, but three things made this occasion memorable:

01 I finished 9th out of 1,000 swimmers in a PB of 3:05hrs (that’s the bragging bit done).

02 Being a triathlete, I decided to run back along the Thames path from Marlow to Henley, wearing my finishers t-shirt!

03 24 hours later I became violently ill as a result of bacteria I’d picked up from the water.

I’ll spare you the grisly details, but I began to feel ill while at swim training a day after the race, and what started out as a bit of windypops quickly escalated into me curling up into a ball and clutching my stomach to fend off the waves of pain. I also had to contend with spells of delirium and a temperature so high that the pattern made by the sweat stain on my sheets is the closest I’ve come to making art. After 24 hours of this I then had three days
of dehydration.

Now, as well as my ‘career’ as Britain’s most mediocre triathlete, I’m also a Masters swimmer and my watery urges have seen me compete in open-water events all over the UK, Europe and America, but in two decades of swimming this is the first time I’ve ever been ill, so to try and understand what happened I started looking into the incidences of people being unwell after swimming in rivers, and I made some fairly shocking discoveries:

   The World Wildlife Fund says that UK rivers are ‘used as open sewers’, and that just 14% meet EU expectations of being healthy.

   The WWF also says that targets for 75% of rivers to be healthy by 2027 are ‘very unlikely to be met.’

   Dr Andrew Singer, senior scientist at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology says: “There is no river in the UK that is safe to swim in.”

   The day before my swim The Times reported that not only do 86% of rivers fall short of the EU’s pollution standards but none of them are tested regularly enough to be officially deemed safe for swimmers.

   Other papers reported that dangerous pollutants in England’s waterways have reached their highest levels since modern testing began, and half of all rivers overseen by the Environment Agency last year contained at least one hazardous pollutant, including pesticides.

Instances of people becoming ill after swimming in rivers are now frequently hitting the headlines, like the story of Melissa Compton, the nurse who swam over 200 miles along the River Severn for charity and ended up having to receive hospital treatment after swimming through raw sewage. And with the number of people now trying wild swimming, it’s going to happen more and more.


I’m sorry for bringing a dose of seriousness into this usually light-hearted moment in your month, but I thought it would be sporting to at least warn you all of the lurking nasties out there. Let me stress that I don’t hold the organisers of the Thames Marathon in any way responsible, it’s a brilliantly organised event which I will undoubtedly do again one day. But for now at least, I’m seriously wary about entering any races which include river swims, and I’ll honestly never complain about the water in Coventry Baths again!