Don’t go near the water!


Don’t go near the water!

More years ago than I care to remember I learned to sail on the Thames Young Mariners (TYM) lagoon off Riverside Drive. The lake is a flooded former gravel pit – there were lots of those at one time along the riverbank here – and its connected to the Thames by a lock. Our stretch of the river between Richmond and Teddington is semi tidal, so the lock also protects the water level in the marina. (The lake itself covers about 10 acres). When this site and the neighbouring riverside lands were still part of the Dysart Estate, there were 3 farms in this part of the Lands. Then gravel extraction became more lucrative till that too passed its sell by date around the early 1950s. The pits were mostly infilled then and the marina site was sold off in 1952.

These days TYM is managed by an organisation called SOLD – an appealing name to an estate agent obviously!  –  but actually its an acronym standing for Surrey Outdoor Learning and Development. There’s all kinds of water sports and activities across all age ranges including special needs and pre-school, plus camping, outdoor crafts, orienteering and fishing. Anglers say the lagoon is a ‘mystery box’ as all sorts of fish including bream, pike and carp get into it from the Thames. If you’ve never been inside the site, there are also conference rooms with catering available.  Visit online at

When I started learning at TYM, I was better at falling overboard than sailing. On one embarrassing occasion I remember getting the mast of my boat tangled up in the branches of a tree at the side of the lake.  Ben Ainslie I wasn’t. But I did eventually progress and passed my Day Skipper written exam here. I must have got better as not long after I was helping my TYM instructor deliver yachts around Greece from Athens across to the Ionian (via the Corinth Canal on the way).

At TYM I also remember being a guinea pig splashing around in the water while others learned their man overboard drill. You might think twice about doing that now.  Apart from hypothermia, there’s the risk of getting Weill’s Disease, which rather unpleasantly you catch from water borne bacteria from rat urine. It starts with flu like symptoms but can lead to meningitis and kidney failure, though fatalities are rare. In my day we were told to get a shower straight away after being in the water, but it was more of a precaution. But over the last year, 122 people were formally diagnosed with Weil’s Disease, – double the number in 2010.

There can be other nasties floating around in the water and unfortunately after many years of the Thames getting cleaner, in recent years our waterways seem to be taking a turn again for the worse. The number of hospital admissions for all waterborne infections in 2023 was 60% higher than in 2010. Environment Agency data last month reported raw sewage was discharged for more than 3.6m hours into our rivers and seas last year – a 129% increase on the previous year.

This was highlighted recently by the annual University Boat Race. Even the New York Times reported interest was more in what was floating in the Thames rather than on top of it.  “For almost two centuries, rowers raced their rivals in a contest that typically ends with jubilant members of the victorious crew jumping into the Thames in celebration. This year they will be staying as dry as possible.” The danger unfortunately was very high levels of E coli bacteriaalongthe 4.25-mile course (from Putney to Mortlake) leading to strict safety guidelines for the rowers and further fuelling public anger at the deteriorating state of the river. As the Oxford skipper declared, “We had a few guys go down pretty badly with E coli. It would be a lot nicer if there wasn’t as much poo in the water.”

Like many things in the UK, infrastructure originally built well over 100 years ago is reaching the end of its effectiveness (or past it) and is also now overwhelmed by population growth. When new, the Victorian London sewer system was a wonder but it was designed for about 2 million people. We are now approaching 5 times that, just as infrastructure is crumbling. But to the rescue, the new ‘super sewer’ (officially the Thames Tideway Tunnel) has just completed the final stages of construction and will come into service in 2025. (The nearest leg to us runs under Hammersmith through Barn Elms and on to Putney.) It does demonstrate that we are still capable of a major project to reduce pollution and it would have been more or less on time and on budget had months not been lost during Covid.

Much less welcome though are Thames Water’s proposals to directly abstract water from the river at Teddington Lock to cover shortfall during droughts. We’ve often linked the housing crisis in this column to failure to build much public sector housing in the last 40 years, and it also turns out we haven’t built any major reservoirs either, with predictable results. We may face hosepipe bans this summer despite the wettest winter on record.  The Teddington Direct River Abstraction (TDRA) will replace water taken from the river by pumping in treated water from Mogden Sewage Works.  This in turn means digging a tunnel from Mogden under the river near Ham House and on under Ham with shafts being dug at various points en route to the river at the weir. To learn more about how this scheme would affect Ham and to get involved in the local campaign, please visit the website of SOLAR. Its another acronym, – standing for Save Our Lands And

You can’t help but be cynical about the prospect of Thames Water pumping treated sewage into our river when you could say they’re currently in the poo themselves. By the time you read this they may have gone bust, defaulted on their debts or been taken back into some sort of public ownership. Many would question whether privatisation of water was ever an appropriate model in the first place but at its inception the slate was wiped clean for the new water companies. Their inability to keep our water or their own house clean are mainly due to their own mismanagement and poor budgeting.  if we are charitable, they’ve been caught out, as many have, by ‘higher for longer’ interest rates and perhaps some inflexibility from Ofwat who are meant to regulate them. The finances of Thames Water would take up the whole magazine to explain so save to say the most likely outcome(s) at this point might be massively higher bills for us all and/or shareholders and investors taking a big hit. Meanwhile the water gets dirtier. Thames Water have already pumped human waste into the Greater London stretch of the Thames for almost 2,000 hours so far in 2024. Its ironic to note the name of their Head Office. Its called Clearwater House! You couldn’t make it up.