On Saturday 17 July Jan Farmer won the Bridge to Bridge race, our summer blue ribbon event. She had to fight her way through a bevy of swans to get to the finish line and claim the cup. James Lythe was second followed by Brian Thomas, both oblivious to the avian obstacle.
A little bit of history here plus a reminiscence regarding Gerald Forsberg, an all-time long-distance great who always had a special place in his heart for the Bridge to Bridge race.
Club members posing for the camera on the Dell bridge, 1931
Races the length of the lake pre-date the club's 1864 foundation. Seen here are Alfred Rowley and Fred Houghton getting the competitors started for the 1914 race, when the club was a mere 50 years young.
The race from the Dell to Rennies Bridge is the summer highlight for club members
The race over approximately 1000 yards from the Dell bridge at the the east of the lake to Rennies Bridge at the west is second only to the Christmas Day Peter Pan cup in prestige for club members.
In the early years of the club a non-handicapped Bridge to Bridge race was used to decide the club Captain. Harry Coulter was the first such race winner and thus club Captain from 1864 until the spell was broken in 1869 when T Morris successfully won the race and captaincy. Coulter's 1864 winning time was 20 minutes and 10 seconds. Harry Coulter was a swimmer of national standard, having come second to the great Harry Gurr in a "Champion of England race". An indication of how technique, training and thus ability has improved is that the current club record for the Bridge to Bridge was established in 2011 by Cameron Kelly with a time of 12 minutes and 42 seconds.
Jan with the magnificent Dave Milne cup
In the 1920s the race commemorated club members who were killed in the Great War
1926 winner T Wiggins said "it was a fine race, but the wound I got at Ypres began to trouble me at the finish"
The 'Bridge to Bridge' race of the 17th July 1926 was featured in the 'Evening News', the headline reading 'Grandfathers in Serpentine Race'. The paper reported "While Londoners were sleeping, 59 swimmers turned out, a record entry, to race in memory of the Serpentine swimmers who fell in the Great War. White-haired grandfathers struggled pluckily with schoolboys. Fred Houghton, the handicapper, started the men from the Knightsbridge end with 75-year-old Richard Ledger leading the swimmers, saying 'I wouldn't miss this great race for anything'. The last man in was W H Melhuish, a bus driver and Club champion for the past fourteen years. At the half distance J.Hughes, a comparative stripling in his sixties, was ten yards ahead of his nearest rival, playwright Henry Devereaux, but it was T. Wiggins, a Kilburn chauffeur, who forged ahead near the finish, which he reached forty yards ahead of W Bayly and Sam Youlton. 'It was a fine race' the winner said, 'but a wound in my leg I got in Ypres began to trouble me near the finish."
The old Club President, Harry Richardson, presented the prizes. A wealthy man, whose generosity was legendary and nothing pleased him more than to present his friends in the club with beautiful prizes and expensive silverware. After his race, he gave each swimmer to complete the course an attractive bronze commemorative medal with the Serpentine Bridge embossed on one side and the inscription "Who Fell in the War" on the reverse to commemorate all the Serpentine swimmers who had fallen in the Great War. Harry suffered acutely from chronic arthritis and swam in thick padded gloves to lessen the pain. In spite of this, he never complained and always remained one of the most cheerful of Club members. After his death, his widow continued to give twelve prizes to this race, specially dedicated to the fallen war veterans of the Club.
(the above information courtesy of Alan Titmuss, club Secretary 1964 - 2009)
From 1935 Mrs G Varley, widow of Gilbert Varley presented the prizes. Gilbert was club President 1926 - 1933. The Varley family continued to sponsor the race until club Handicapper Dave Milne donated the current cup in 1959. Dave and his wife Peggy carried on supporting the race even after they retired and moved to the south coast. Dave Milne died in 2003.
Since 2003 Anthony and Jenny Cleaver have sponsored the race and provided the prizes.
Sir Anthony and Lady Cleaver have sponsored the race since 2003
Jennie joined the club in 1991. Though she never raced, she certainly impressed with her serene and effortless glide through the water. Her graceful secret .... flippers. Jennie's family have a long association with the club stretching back at least to the 1940s. Club member Bill Maggs, in whose memory we still race each March, was butler to the household.
Anthony met Jennie in the late 1990s and joined the club "by instruction" - he wasn't given a choice. Anthony is famous within the club for his exceptionally strong side stroke, much in the mould of Captain Matthew Webb, who in 1875 became the first person to successfully swim across the English Channel. This skill served him well on 21 September 2010 when he was part of the "Serpentine Veterans" relay team. The other team members were Matthew Morony, David Mackertich, Geoff Ransom, George Gselko, Robin Hunter, and Alan Mitchell.
For a report on the 2010 relay, follow this link
Lambeth born Anthony spent a career in engineering and was knighted in 1992. We can thus claim him as our own "a local boy made good" (even if he did hail originally from just south of the river!).
1949, Clary Reed marshalling the contestants, ready for the start
Dave Milne, centre, with Frank Simms and Norman Duckett. Ready for the 1964 Centenary costume race
1982 winner Ron Hamill
Norman Jones first won the race in 1989
Norman won again in 1994
In 2004 Norman became a grandfather three days before his third Bridge to Bridge victory. Three day old Isabelle neatly fitted into the trophy.
Two times club President (1974-1977 and 1998-2001) Alan Lacy presented with the trophy, 1996
The 2010 race coincided with a "big birthday" for then President, Eric Carter
1989, Seventy seven year old Channel veteran Gerald Forsberg reminiscing with Mike Small at the start of the race
Commander Gerald Forsberg, OBE, R.N. joined the Serpentine Swimming Club in 1928 when he was 16, fresh off a training ship awaiting a first proper sea appointment. Gerald was an English Channel record holder and a pioneer of British long-distance swimming. He helped found the British Long Distance Swimming Association and was President of the Channel Swimming Association from 1963 until his death in 2000. Forsberg completed many Channel crossings, and numerous other swims including the Solent, Morecambe Bay, Loch Lomond, Lough Neagh, Windermere "and half a hundred other stretches of water". His naval experience with first the Merchant Navy and from 1938 the Royal Navy gave him great navigational confidence. During an eight mile swim across Torbay he told the skipper of the escort boat "it looks like fog; if it sets in you had better follow me".
Despite all these exploits the Bridge to Bridge race always had a special place in Gerald's heart. Writing in 1963 ready for the club's centenary year, Gerald recalled -
"A week ago I was driving over the Serpentine Bridge. Nodding towards the other end, I casually told my children that this was my very first long-distance swim. 'Daddy,' said the 7-year-old daughter, 'did you really swim all that way? Out went my chest and a glow of satisfaction spread through my being, “Yes!” The old magic is still there. And it always will be."
Gerald Forsberg died peacefully on 24 October 2000, aged 88.