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The Crocodile and the Whale – a sponsored swim

After leading the Garden Museum’s major development project you might easily be mistaken in thinking that Director, Christopher Woodward, would be putting his feet up for a well deserved break. Instead, in September, he will be embarking on what he describes as his most difficult challenge to date. He will be swimming 30km in the ice cold Arctic Circle to raise money for an amazing new display.


Christopher is no stranger to swimming; in 2014 he swam 110 miles of the Thames, from Oxford to London, inspired by John Tradescant and his collection’s journey in 1683. The Heritage Lottery Fund, Lambeth Council and over 50 trusts and foundations donated over seven million pounds to the project as a whole, and this swim helped fund the recreation of Tradescant’s Ark with the display of works of art and ethnographic objects on loan from the Ashmolean Museum.

The Ark was perhaps most famous to contemporaries for its wonders of natural history and the curators at the Natural History Museum, London – who have been exceptionally generous, and imaginative – identified in their collection two objects very similar to those which Tradescant once had. A crocodile from the Nile, and the skeleton of a whale. The crocodile was such a prize of The Ark that it is carved as a sculpture on Tradescant’s tomb; visitors to the Museum’s café can explore the Sackler Garden and see him for themselves. The whale was discovered in 2010 during building works in Greenwich, and has since been dated to the 17th century when the Tradescants too were in London. So it was a choice between swimming the Nile – hot, but dangerous – or a swim in the seas where whales used to swim. What was most inspiring was Tradescant’s diary of his journey to Russia in 1618, sailing round the North Cape. He spotted whales three times. And it is thrilling to think that the specimen which will go on display swam in the sea in the same century as he sailed.

Whaling, after a woodcut in ‘Cosmographie Universelle’ of Munster, pub.1552, German School, (16th century), Stapleton Collection

Christopher explains the true challenge he is undertaking:
“The challenge is not the distance (it is over 5 days so three hours in the sea each day) but the cold. Although I shall have a wetsuit, I hate cold water. I’ve been training in the Serpentine; jumping into it in March the cold is like a drill in your forehead; imagine the worst headache you have ever had… Then it cuts through your ribs until you gasp. And then you begin to get really cold. ‘Put on three stone’ I have been told, but despite the excellent food of the chefs in the new Museum restaurant Harry Kaufman and George Ryle it is yet to happen…”

The money raised by the sponsored swim will go towards the conservation, transportation and display of these two fascinating objects of natural history.

Support Christopher’s Arctic swim, donate now.

Top image

Scandinavia, imagined by Antonio Lafreri (1512 – 77) in 1572 at the time of Tradescant’s childhood.  Charmet/Bridgeman Images

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