River swim earns million pounds for charity

Comedian David Walliams has completed a 140-mile swim down the River Thames, enduring sickness, sewage and angry swans to raise money for street children in Kenya.

Londoners taking strolls along the Thames embankment caught sight of an unusual piece of flotsam bobbing downriver this week. There, tiny among the tourist boats and commuter ferries, was comedian David Walliams, splashing his way through the final miles of an epic charity swim.

Crowds gathered on Westminster Bridge to cheer him on. And he needed the encouragement. The comedian is no stranger to tough swims – he has previously swum the English Channel and the straits of Gibraltar – but this latest journey was by far his hardest yet.

Starting from Gloucestershire, close to the source of the Thames, Walliams took eight days following the river's course to London. The total distance was 140 miles, measured out in more than 100,000 painful strokes which burned around 65,000 calories. That's about what you would get from 250 Mars Bars, or nine kilograms of lard.

But soon after setting off, Walliams was stricken by a severe case of 'Thames tummy', leaving him unable to eat. As well as dealing with a lack of energy, he had to keep swimming while feeling like his behind 'was going to explode' – as he rather graphically put it.

There were more trials to come. In training he had already been attacked by swans and eaten by insects living in the weeds. Now he faced a new danger: half a million cubic metres of raw sewage, dumped into the river after unusually heavy rain. 'I wouldn't recommend swimming in it', said a perplexed Thames Water official.

Towards the end of the swim, the river became dangerous as well as dirty. The tidal section of the Thames is full of treacherous currents and deadly whirlpools. Meanwhile high winds whipped the surface of the water into choppy waves.

How did Walliams keep going? At the hardest moments he would remember Philip, a 12-year-old orphan he had met in Kenya. Money raised by his swim, he hoped, would fund a better future for Philip and others like him. 'I think about him,' Walliams told reporters, 'and not wanting to let him down.'

Sponsored suffering

In that respect, the swim was a colossal success. Donations from the public have been pouring in, as people rush to 'sponsor' Walliams' titanic effort. Media coverage of his watery feat provoked a surge of giving that has already topped one million pounds.

But there is one nagging question: why is it that, in order to give to charity, we had to watch someone suffer for eight days first? In many religious and cultural traditions, charitable giving is something that we do as a duty, without expecting anything in return. With sponsorship, donations are 'earned' and the price is sweat and pain.

You Decide

  1. Would you brave sewage and sickness to swim the Thames for charity? Why / why not?
  2. Would you be more likely to sponsor someone who was doing something hard and unpleasant than someone doing something fun? If so why? Why is suffering important in sponsorship?


  1. What would you do to raise money for charity? Pick something that you think would inspire people to give – then design a poster advertising your challenge.
  2. Do some research into a religious tradition of charitable giving, for example the Islamic practice ofzakat. What do you think of this model? Should we emulate it in modern society?

Some People Say...

“People who do sponsored challenges are just attention seeking.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Do sponsored challenges like this raise a lot for charity?
They do. The London Marathon, for example, has raised half a billion pounds for charity since it began thirty years ago. Thousands of people raise sponsorship money each year for Comic Relief. Then there are endless smaller independent schemes and challenges for other causes.
What sorts of things do people do?
Feats of physical endurance are common, like climbing a mountain or cycling long distances. There are more unusual feats too, like sponsored moustache-growing or funny walking competitions. Some people go skydiving or bungee jumping.
That sounds like fun!
It sounds too much like fun, some people think. At a certain point, a sponsored adventure can start to seem suspiciously like an excuse for a free holiday.

Word Watch

Originally, 'flotsam' (which is related to the word 'float') meant the drifting wreckage of ships carried by sea currents. In phrases it often goes with the word 'jetsam', to mean junk. 'Jetsam' (from the word 'jettison') originally meant cargo that had been thrown overboard.
David Walliams
Famous for his starring role with comedy partner Matt Lucas in the UK sketch series Little Britain, 40-year-old David Walliams has become one of the most popular figures in the UK entertainment industry.
The amount of energy in food is traditionally measured in calories, with an average person needing around 2000 calories per day. Heavy exercise can significantly increase a person's calorie requirement.
Tidal section
As they approach the sea, rivers begin to be affected by tides, meaning that water flows along the riverbed in both directions, depending on whether the tide is rising or ebbing.

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