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Byron’s Epic Swims: Leaving England

Lord Byron, about to do something spectacularThough most famous for his poetry, war heroics, and womanizing, Lord Byron’s greatest achievements all took place in the water.

He was born with a deformity in his right foot, or as it was so sensitively known in the 18th and 19th centuries, a “club foot”. This physical imperfection caused Bryon at least as much psychological pain as it did physical pain, and though he limped, it was often not noticeable to casual observers. Still, he was aware of this limitation, and he overcompensated wildly, throwing himself into violent exercise, trying to play cricket (surely something one does only because of a serious psychological problem), and by swimming.

In the water, his malformed foot became an asset, as it worked much like a flipper. In the water, Lord Byron found that he was at least as god-like as he was while composing romantic poetry, or shocking the British public with his wanton pursuit of married women and other (male) poets. After all, it was this scandalous lifestyle that forced Byron to abandon the UK.

Lord Bryon's first epic swim

In his first epic swim, Byron did the breast-stroke down the Thames River, the back-stroke along the coastline to Dover, and then he did a truly breathtaking sprint of butterfly across the English channel. From there he swam up the coast to the low countries (stopping in the evenings to woo eligible young French, Belgian and Dutch poetry aficionados.) At the mouth of the Rhine, Byron took a hard right turn and did front crawl, until he arrived at Strasbourg. (As far as historians have been able to recreate, this is the single longest swim he did in one go.) He spent a few days recovering in Strasbourg, and then made a series of short frenetic dog-paddles against a strong current, passing Basel, and then making another hard right up the River Aare, as far as Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland. He had heard that his personal physician, John William Polidori was holidaying on Lake Geneva (aka Lake Leman), so he took a short carriage-ride overland. It was there he met Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Godwin (who would later marry Shelley), and Claire Claremont.

When he wasn’t buggering Percy Bysshe senseless, and seducing the other guests at the Villa (he has some measure of success, except with Mary), Byron kept in shape by swimming the length of the lake. (It was also here that the Shelleys, Byron, and the others helped Mary begin writing Frankenstein, and Polidori was inspired to write Vampyre, arguably the first young adult vampire film. Byron was apparently the model for the seductive, super-powerful vampire.)

So Byron rested and recovered, which was a good thing, because soon he would start one of his most ambitious swims ever, through the Alps, from Switzerland to Venice.

Alltop prefers the wading pool. Originally published May, 2012.