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Lord Byron, poet, lover – and champion-swimmer. By Harry Mount

Blog | By Harry Mount | Apr 14, 2024

Byron in Albanian Dress, by Thomas Phillips Picture: National Portrait Gallery

Byron died in Greece 200 years ago, on April 19, 1824, aged 36. Harry Mount tried – and failed – to emulate his swim across the Hellespont

You might have thought Lord Byron wasn't really the sporting type.

The poet is better known for heavy drinking, sleeping with his half-sister and for his club foot, rather than for any athletic skills.

One of his many mistresses, Lady Caroline Lamb, said that Byron was 'mad, bad and dangerous to know'.

She should have added, '.. . and pretty good at breast stroke'.

I know this because I tried to emulate Byron's feat of swimming the Hellespont - the three-mile-wide perilous stretch of water that lies between Europe and Asia - 200 years to the day after the poet effortlessly pulled it off in 1810. And I failed miserably.

What's worse, I started with huge advantages: unlike Byron, I had a wetsuit on, as well as goggles, a swimming cap, trunks, anti-chafe talc around the neck - and a bucketful of Tesco's Factor 50 sunscreen on my face, hands and feet.

Oh, and did I mention the 42 safety boats, crammed with doctors, lifeguards and chocolate biscuits, which tracked my every move?

All Lord Byron had was the company of an old friend, Lieutenant Ekenhead, and a pair of trousers.

Even so, I was forced to concede defeat after an hour-and-a-half in the water - fished out, with severe cramp, by the coastguard, into the arms of a local doctor, having covered just half of the distance.

Lord Byron took an hour and 10 minutes to do the whole thing. Even now, two centuries on, the record for the crossing is not that much quicker, at 48 minutes.

In 2010, the British winner, Colin Hill, finished in an hour and 27 minutes. So you get the picture: whatever else he may have been, Byron was no softy.

So, what had brought him here to attempt his swim-marathon in the first place?

The Hellespont - which connects the Black Sea with the Aegean, via Istanbul - is the most famous stretch of water in ancient history. Because it separates Europe from Asia with choppy, lung-busting water, it has always been a strategic spot.

On one side of the straits lies the ancient city of Troy, its ruined citadel still commanding the fertile headland; on the other lies Gallipoli, the site of the Allies' 1915 humiliation in their World War I campaign against the Turks.

According to Greek myth, every night Leander swam from Asia to Europe to visit his lover Hero, who would light a lamp to guide his way to a night of passion

Before Byron completed the swim, only two people were supposed to have managed it since the legendary ancient swimmer Leander.

According to Greek myth, every night Leander swam from Asia to Europe to visit his lover Hero, who would light a lamp to guide his way to a night of passion.

It was all fine in the summer. But when the winter storms came, Hero's light was blown out and Leander lost his way and drowned.

Byron did the swim to prove the Leander story was possible, concluding afterwards: 'Any young man in good health and of tolerable skill in swimming might succeed in it.'

Oh dear. In my defence, Byron was 22 at the time - 16 years my junior - and, as his descendant, the current Lord Byron, says, he had far more to prove.

'I think he was always trying to make up for the club foot,' says Lord Byron, then 60, a shipping lawyer who was there by the shore of the Hellespont to support his son (and Byron lookalike) Charlie, then 19, an architecture student at Oxford Brookes University, who was also attempting yesterday's swim.

'He also loved swimming: he swam lots at Cambridge, and then swam across the Tagus [the longest river in Spain], and from the Venice Lido to Venice. But, still, he wasn't very tall and he drank too much.'

I, however, am tall, take regular exercise and am no great hedonist . . . and yet the swim was pure torture.

It started off well enough, as I plunged into the calm water on the European side, making good headway alongside 139 other swimmers - mostly British, but with a smattering of Americans and New Zealanders, and a Finn.

To begin with, it was almost pleasant, like a leisurely holiday swim in Torquay at the height of the season. For a couple of hours, the channel was cleared of the mammoth oil tankers that inch their way down the Hellespont from the Black Sea.

And so, for those few hours, the landscape in my sights - hump-backed, pine-fringed hills, disappearing into the milky-grey horizon, where the Hellespont meets the Aegean - was the one that the Greek hero Achilles would have seen as he dragged Hector's corpse around the walls of Troy in his warped victory laps after slaying the great warrior.

It was a perfect day - around 85 degrees - although the water was unusually icy that May. After a cold winter in the Black Sea, it was just 13C.

Then there were the choppy conditions to contend with. About a mile out, I began to struggle against the waves that were building up and smacking into my face.

I made the agreed distress signal, a semi-circular wave from right to left, and within seconds a Turkish fishing boat rushed to my side

I wasn't making much progress now: one breast stroke took me forward a yard, while the waves sent me back three-quarters of a yard.

What's more, the target we'd been told to aim at - a redand-white transmitter mast on the Asian side - wasn't getting any bigger.

And then the cramp hit. A kind triathlete, Dominic Herbert from Camberwell, South London, had given me some salt tablets at lunch; cramp is caused by lack of salt, sweated out by exercise. I clearly hadn't taken enough of them.

A flashing pain shot up my right calf. Following the advice I'd been given before the race, I dangled my leg loosely in the water and struggled on for a bit. Ten minutes later, the cramp hit again in the right calf and then in the left. I was done for.

I made the agreed distress signal, a semi-circular wave from right to left, and within seconds a Turkish fishing boat rushed to my side.

Once I'd scrambled aboard the stern, a doctor from nearby Canakkale took my pulse and said in a gentle, indulgent way, as if he was calming down one of the more paranoid elderly ladies in his surgery: 'You are absolutely fine.'

Dr Mumtaz Piringciler, my saviour, then gave me a chocolate biscuit, a glass of water and a towel. His assistant, a local lifeguard, gently massaged my cramp-ridden calf.

My humiliation was complete, as our pretty little wooden boat chug- chugged into Canakkale port, past the bobbing red swimming caps of tougher competitors.

I tried to console myself in desperate ways. Perhaps Leander suffered a bit of cramp, too, on his last lover's trip and that's what killed him? Maybe Byron's club foot somehow protected him from cramp - though I didn't dare consult Dr Piringciler on that particular theory.

The only convincing conclusion I came to was that Byron, as well as being highly motivated by his disability, was extremely fit.

Even then, I'm clutching at straws. After all, this was the poet who wrote: 'Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter, Sermons and soda water the day after.'

So I headed off to the Cafeka bar in Canakkale to console myself with his advice - or at least, enough bottled beer to drown the bitter taste of defeat.

Oh, and the current Lord Byron's son, Charlie? Two hundred years after his famous ancestor proved it was possible, he completed the swim in two hours, raising £2,000 for Help for Heroes in the process.

It must be something in the genes.