No-one has ever swum the whole length of the River Thames, the longest river wholly in England (the Severn, in both England and Wales, is longer). But Lewis Gordon Pugh is aiming to do just that.

Meeting the Thames Torpedo
By JANE FRYER, Daily Mail

21st July 2006

Jane Fryer makes a splash with Lewis Gordon Pugh

The River Thames on the hottest day of the year: dragonflies dip and dive, swans glide and semi-naked bodies bask in the scorching sun on the Oxfordshire river bank. Oh, and a 16st City lawyer in tight, black Speedos pounds though the murky green water, scattering weeds, algae, Coke cans and moorhens.

A few hundred yards behind - huffing and puffing, draped in slimy green weeds and gagging in his choppy wake - is me.

"Come on, put a bit of effort into it," calls Lewis Gordon Pugh over his enormous, muscular shoulder. "And donít forget to look out for all the lovely fish."

Fish? Even with my brand new blue goggles, I can see nothing and, in barely two minutes, I have already swallowed gallons of brackish water. "Hurry up!" he trills, "Itís easy."

For him, it should be. He has, after all, had plenty of practice. Lewis, 36, loves the water so much heís spent the past four years almost immersed in it, smashing swimming records in the most far-flung corners of the world for the coldest swim, the most northerly swim, the most southerly swim and the iciest swim. You name it, heís freestyled it.

Known also as the Ice Bear, the Polar Bear and the Legend of the Fjords, he has swum just in Speedos and a Union Jack swimming cap through ice fields in the Arctic and Antarctic.

He has also powered 130 miles down Norwayís longest fjord, was the first person to complete the holy grail of swimming - a long-distance swim in all five oceans of the world - and, in February, trounced the competition in a 25m pool cut from the ice with chain-saws at the World Winter Swimming Championships in Finland.

So, what on earth are we doing messing about in the Thames? Given all those feats, this one seems a bit tame. Unless, of course, weíre talking about swimming all 203 miles of it, from its source in a field in Mill Farm at Ewen in the Cotswolds to the sunny delights of Southend-on-Sea, Essex - past meadows, cement works, waste pipes, power stations and more than a few drunks - in just two weeks, in a heatwave.

Why the Thames? "Why, indeed?" he sighs, rubbing his enormous thighs with his giant hands, as he sits hunched, sweaty and rather broken in the shade beneath a tree before we dive in. "Itís a question Iíve been asking myself a lot.

'It's a nightmare'

"No oneís swum the whole lot before, and I like collecting firsts. I wanted to raise awareness of climate change for the Worldwide Fund For Nature, but itís turning into the hardest thing Iíve ever done. It seemed like a good idea at the time. When there was a current. And some water...Itís been a bloody nightmare."

Lewis started his journey on Monday. But, as the river is so low at the moment because so much of it has evaporated in the heat, he had to run the first 24 miles. Unfortunately, his broad shoulders, huge hairy chest and narrow hips are not well-suited to marathon running in 36c.

Heís since been recovering from heatstroke, sunburn, general discomfort and, of course, the swimming he has been able to do.

He began "gently" - between nine and 11 miles for six hours a day, which is equivalent to half the English Channel or 704 lengths of an average swimming pool. He will ramp it up in the last few days, once heís in his stride - sorry, stroke.

After revving himself up with a dose of Elgarís Nimrod, Lewis swims in two-hour chunks (starting at dawn to avoid sunburn), sleeps during the hottest part of the day and sets off again at dusk.

He spends much of the rest of the day snacking ("I eat whatever I fancy - no posh diets for me"), chatting to his two mind coaches, organising sponsorship and, rather endearingly, fretting about being described in a recent article as "hunky, if a little chunky".

"I had to put on weight for the swim, but Iíll have lost a good five kilos by the end," he says. Meanwhile, his jolly team of cooks, physiotherapists, psychologists, pace-setters, friends and supporters sip warm cordial, gossip, pander to his every need and sun themselves on the roof of the team launch - a jaunty 60ft red, green and immaculately tidy barge called Thames Crusader.

Every so often, six of them don furry polar bear costumes in the 90-degree heat and clamber ashore with leaflets to educate passers-by that by turning off the TV and using low-energy light bulbs they can help save whatís left of the ozone layer.

'The places I love are melting'

Yesterday, the polar bears went punting on the river. On Monday, theyíll be rowing in Henley. Wednesday will see them picnicking at Windsor. "My message is that weíve all got to do something to save the planet," says Lewis. "All the icy places I fell in love with are melting."

As, it seems, is he. "Itís just so bloody hot," he says, wiping his brow for the umpteenth time. "God, I hate the heat." Itís not surprising. Like his beloved polar bears, Lewis is designed for the Arctic.

Hailed as a medical phenomenon, he has an extraordinary internal heating system that fires up just by looking at icy water and leaves him flushed, panting and sweating. Called anticipatory thermogenesis - the creation of heat before an event - it has only ever been recorded in Lewis and, bizarrely, the nine-banded armadillo from Texas.

"The first time it happened was nearly three years ago when I was psyching myself up to swim around the North Cape. I looked at the ice and started feeling hotter and hotter. My face was burning up and I kept asking my team for water. I became aggressive, almost dying to get in the water and do battle with it.

"Your core temperature should be about 37c. Standing there in my Speedos, I went to 38.4c without moving a muscle, and my heart rate shot up from 70 to 160. Itís a sort of Pavlovian reflex."

Since then, eschewing wetsuits or a coating of goose fat, Lewis has trained in swimming pools filled with ice and plunged into ever colder water to acclimatise his body to the cold and develop a unique skill - one which, sadly, is little help in sunbaked Oxfordshire, where he is suffering with the rest of us mere mortals.

The hazards of the Thames are a little more mundane than those he has faced in more exotic parts of the world. Instead of sharks, polar bears and sea leopards of the polar regions, or the deadly crocodiles and hippopotami of Africaís Lake Malawi (which he swam across in ten hours in 1992), Lewisís biggest worries are "overdoing it, submerged shopping trolleys, river traffic and swans".

He is touchingly scared of these birds and his friend James Mayhew kayaks alongside to fend them off, teasing "the big brave polar explorer" all the way.

As we splash along, past meadows, riverside pubs, bobbing bottles and the odd sewage smell, I, however, am rather more worried about hygiene. "Itís really not dirty - not here anyway," he says. "Maybe the odd bottle and a bit of litter, but really itís lovely, a delight - just look at all the pretty birds. You donít need to worry if youíve had your shots."

Which shots would those be? "Hepatitis A and B, diptheria, tetanus and Weilís disease - a potentially fatal illness carried through ratsí urine, of course," he says, cheerily. I close my mouth tightly and cross my fingers and toes.

Born and bought up in Plymouth, Lewis was ten when his family moved to South Africa. His love of adventure started as a boy, encouraged by his father, an admiral in the Royal Navy.

Lewis was bought up on a diet of Captain Cook, Horatio Nelson, Scott and Shackleton and has since been living his own adventure. He didnít have his first swimming lesson until he was 17, but a month later he swam the six miles from Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned) to Cape Town, and holds the speed record of three hours 42 minutes.

A Cambridge law degree was followed by a job in the City of London as a maritime solicitor, but it was never going to satisfy him. He took a sabbatical three years ago, but there is still much of the lawyer about him. While he jokes and flirts, he is focused, competitive and very, very serious about endurance swimming.

In 1992, he swam the Channel and is still smarting at his time of 14 hours 50 minutes. "Iíd do it much quicker now. Everything depends on conditions and I had really choppy water for the first five hours."

Little Britainís David Walliams recently completed it in an amazing 10 hours 30 minutes. "It was a phenomenally fast time, but his conditions were perfect," Lewis says. Would he do it again?

"No. Never. In any career you should always be moving forward. Each challenge must be bigger and harder than the last. Most of all, I like to prove that things are possible. People are always saying: 'Oh no, you canít do that' or 'Thatís impossible.' I want to show that itís not.

"I truly believe that everybody, no matter how ordinary they may appear to be, is capable of extraordinary acts."

But isnít it all just the teeniest bit exhausting having to do ever colder, longer and more gruelling swims? "No, itís exciting, really," he insists, smothering a huge yawn, before dunking his head back under the water. Coming up for air, he says: "I want to settle down and have a family one day; Iíd like four boys to make a 1,000m Olympic team.

"But, for the moment, I love the challenge. Each day I wake up excited about the next mission. Iíve got the next two years stacked up - some really sexy stuff, but I couldnít possibly tell you."

Does his girlfriend, Alice - a perky, blonde Canadian environmentalist sunning herself on the roof of the Thames Crusader - ever tire of it? "It makes him happy," she laughs. "Heís not exactly someone who can relax and laze about, and I havenít tired of it yet. Though Iím sure I will, one day."

Back in the water, we plough on: he, long-stroked and graceful; me, rather less so. If you blank out all the talk about diseases and youíre not trying to break a world record, bobbing about in the Thames on a scalding day is a pleasure. By the end of the afternoon, the crew and the support team are also in the water.

But the thought of swimming six hours a day, every day for a fortnight, is incomprehensible. Particularly as the journey will get harder when Lewis hits the tidal section (in Teddington) and all the muck and traffic of London.

It is there, next Saturday, that he is due to leave the water and, flanked by sweating polar bears, he will walk to 10 Downing Street in his Speedos to deliver a letter on the perils of global warming to Tony Blair.

"I still think that just the Speedos and a load of polar bears might be a rather big decision," he muses, brow furrowed.

"Then again, I bet no oneís done it before. So I suppose thatíd be another first."

And, with that, heís off. Pounding on down the river, anxious to make up for all the time we wasted, chatting. Hard, it might be, but thereís no doubt heíll finish it.

For more information on Lewisís swim, visit www.lewispugh.com (external - login to view) or www.wwf.org.uk/thameschallenge (external - login to view)