Fenwick Ridley is a fresh-air-head
WRITTEN BY:Luke Douglas
Outdoor Provisions co-founder
“I’ll get out and see you in Haydon Bridge, I’ll be coming under the bridges.”
That was the last message I got from Fenwick before I set off to meet him.
I had zero idea how this would play out but was suitably intrigued. All I knew was that a man with a fantastic beard was swimming/hiking up the South Tyne river and that he was going to get out and have a chat with me.
There is only one river in Haydon Bridge but it’s quite wide, with water flowing around various channels and beaches beneath two big bridges. I was early, but couldn’t help wondering if I’d missed him. Then around the corner he appeared.
Fenwick runs open water and wild swimming training at h2o trails, is a keen ice swimmer and a bit of a pioneer in the pursuit of rivertrekking. He endeared himself to us recently by removing a discarded fridge he found in the river using his trusty RuckRaft (see evidence below). He is infectiously enthusiastic about Northumbria, his local waterways, the impact of swimming on mental health and doing mad things - he is most definitely a fresh-air-head.
He’s a big frame and by his own admission requires a lot of fuel, another reason we’re happy he likes our bars. The effort required to swim up a river in full flow is evidenced in his self filmed video of his North Tyne river trek, or assault as he calls it. Covering over 60 miles and culminating in a swim across Kielder Water. A huge physical and mental effort.
Skip to 3:50 to really appreciate what it means to swim UP river.
Following on from this he’s now beginning his up river assault on the South Tyne, which takes us back to Haydon Bridge. Fenwick is getting out of the water after chatting (shouting) to a guy who recognized him from a house on the opposite bank. He drips his way into the backyard of a pub that backs on the river where he knows the owners too - you can tell he’s from around here and he’s well liked. He even knows the guy that owns all the ducks that are gathering around us; they’re his mate Dan’s, apparently.
Outdoor Provisions: You said this was just a practice run, what’s the plan?
Fenwick Ridley: So, it was meant to be just a bit of an ease in but its turned into a full power mode attempt - as soon as I got in the water and had my boots zipped up, that was it. Let’s see how far I can get…
I came over the Pennines on the way here, which is pretty much the source of the South Tyne. How many days is it going to take you?
You’ve come from where I’m going! With it being quite shallow and a lot less swimming, I just don’t know how long it’ll take. I’ll want to go slow and stretch it out a bit this time. I’m also testing the water quality and reporting back to the Tyne River Trust and doing some more rubbish data collection.
Once I get up to Haltwhistle, I know it gets really rocky and they’ll be a lot more falling over. I’ve fallen over more times today already that I have in total for the North Tyne. My ankle does feel quite sore, I’ve twisted it about 7 times.
So you’ve not been swimming much lately, are you feeling rusty?
I’ve been doing some kinda mad training actually, pulling bags of stones around the lake, tying stuff to us and letting it drag behind me through mud. All on quick release in case I need to let it go but it’s not your ‘normal’ training.
I’ve done a few things to prepare but the only training I can do is actually doing it. I’m a bit sore at the moment but I’m quite happy to get back in and keep going until dark.
How many swimmable bits have there been?
In the North Tyne there were long stretches of river to swim in but I’ve only swam about 3 or 4 times so far today. The water levels are low this time of year. Then some of the bits I could swim are just too fast, so I’m walking up or around them.
And you call this swim trekking?
Yeah, or river trekking. No one else seems to be doing it!
Any white goods that have needed removing?
I’ve seen a bit of rubbish today and recorded the location. Bits of sheet metal, a lilo and some big plastic farming bags. The odd tyre. No bottles or anything like that though, so that’s good. I’ll go out on the paddleboard and remove some of that, once the river is a bit higher.
Talk us through your kit.
I’ve got a Blue Seventy Alliance swimrun suit on with a rash vest over the top, mainly to protect the suit because I’m wearing the bag, a Yeti Panga - which is totally submersible beast of a bag. When I go to swim I detach it and it’s on a cord. If it’s a long period pulling it along I’ve got the RuckRaft in my bag - I’ll inflate that and stick the Panga on that.
Trunks underneath, neoprene socks and thick soled diving boots, which last pretty well given what I’m putting them through. I’ve got me GoPro harness round my chest that I film from quite often.
I’ve got my Dad’s lovely hazel walking stick. Me Dad came with me on the North Tyne trip, supporting me from the riverbank. We’re so busy these days and that time with him was great. He’s left me to it for this one, must be less worried this time!
Knife and whistle. Usually hand paddles but not today. Water. A couple of waterproof boxes with food. A chicken and cheese butty and some Outdoor Provisions bars.
A very particular lightweight first aid kit with some steristrips, a couple of bandages and basic stuff for bad cuts. Mobile phone, spare batteries for my GoPro and phone.
Goggles and a bandana. Kitwise, it has to be quick access gear, all on clips and carabiners that I can get to or change over quickly.
How do you eat on these missions?
If I’m on my own I’ll just find a spot and sit in the middle of the river on a rock like Gollum. I try to do it quite regularly. There was one point this morning I started to get a bit dreamy and not concentrating fully on where I’m putting me feet and I had to snap out of that and eat something.
I have to eat more towards the end of the day. If I carry on when I’m hungry, I’ll hurt myself.
What’s a good starting place for swim challenges?
My best advice for swimming outdoors is just to try it, but do it safely, ideally with some instruction. You wouldn’t just pick up a snowboard and just start boarding, you’d look for lessons, so you can learn and be safe.
That’s what we do at h2o trails. We introduce people to open water swimming, winter swimming and icy conditions. Find a venue that can support you and go from there.
We both lost concentration here as Dan’s ducks started eating Fenwicks sandwich, which made for an excellent photo. Fenwick packed up and we headed along the river bank when we said goodbye and I watched him slip back into the water and continue his march up the South Tyne.
Fenwick text me at 8pm saying he’d just got out at Bardon Mill after 10 hours of walking/swimming/scrambling. Looking forward to following the rest of his South Tyne exploits.