Barry Watson's cross-Channel hurry

Long-distance swimmers are a breed apart – and Yorkshire has a great tradition of producing champions. Bill Bridge meets one of the best. A PLATE of chicken and chips, two hours' sleep and a smearing of Castrolite under the armpits and across his back. That was Barry Watson's preparation for becoming the fastest man to swim the English Channel.

It was two in the morning of August 16 1964 when he waded into the sea at Cap Gris Nez, and 11.35 when he stepped ashore at St Margaret's Bay, knees bleeding from scrapes on the shingle. He had, in those nine hours and 35 minutes, become a world record-breaker and a national hero.

His feat was the second item on the BBC TV news that evening – conceding the headlines only to the Russian President Nikita Khrushchev who was, as usual, cross with the Americans over some trifle.

Watson remembers little of his swim other than his support team, in the accompanying boat, ensuring he took in food and liquid every half-hour, then, when they realised the record was within reach, urging him on.

"I wasn't thinking of the record when I set out," said Watson. "I thought maybe I could beat the British record of around 12 hours. You just keep going, slogging away. The wind was the worst thing; it is always the wind, not the water, which gets you cold.

"My mind kept going back to Fred Trueman who had, the day before my swim, become the first cricketer to take 300 Test wickets. He was my hero. Later, he asked me to be his guest at a Yorkshire match at Harrogate, and I have a signed portrait of him. He might still remember me."

When Watson stepped ashore, near Dover, the realisation dawned that he had achieved a remarkable feat, although Her Majesty's Customs and Excise insisted he went through their own channel, still in swimming gear and grease, before he could start to enjoy the moment.

"I was in a dream," is all he remembers of his first moments of fame.

His time for the crossing had bettered by exactly an hour the previous fastest Channel swim – by Brojan Das, a Pakistani, in 1961. The best England-to-France swim at that time was 10 hours and 23 minutes by the Dane, Helge Jansen, in 1960. Watson's record was to stand for 18 years.

Two days later, Yorkshire's new hero was on his way back to Bingley for a civic reception.

"We set off in my old Ford Popular, but it broke down at Peterborough and we had to take a taxi the rest of the way," recalls Watson, who was quaking at the prospect of having to make a speech.

"There was bunting in Main Street, Hammonds' Sauce Works Brass Band led the way and there was an amazing crowd," he remembers. "I can't remember what I said but I suppose it must have been all right."

So, the quiet 24-year-old son of a butcher in the village of Crossflatts had to adapt to being a celebrity, judging Miss United Kingdom competitions, opening galas, presenting prizes and playing in charity football matches.

It was a world away from the days when he realised he enjoyed the mental and physical challenge of distance swimming. That was at the pool in Shipley where the manager was George Foot, a tough little man who had worked for years in foundries, had the endurance to swim Windermere and studied to qualify as a baths' superintendent.

"I was in the pool trying – and failing – to keep up with a lad called Keith Unwin," says Watson. "He and George urged me to go to Otley to see a man called Fred Slater, who was a terrific enthusiast for distance swimming.

"I went to see Fred but when I dived into the pool, the cold took my breath away and I could not swim. I said 'I can't do this' and was ready to go home, but Fred persuaded me to stay and that was the start of it all."

Watson joined the Bradford and District Long-Distance Swimming Club, where the members included Graham McIntyre, Kendall Mellor, Dorothy Perkins and Derek Gill, all to conquer the Channel.

He remembers his first attempt at Windermere: "Just ordinary, not up to championship standard." Then it was a break from work as a printer and all thought of swimming to serve two years of National Service in the Army.

When he returned to civilian life and started swimming again he found he could not keep up with Mellor in training. But during his Army days, his strength had developed – "I could lift 200lb, just like that," he says – and once his swimming muscles had been restored to full working order, he found himself going faster and further.

Two months later, he was completing the 11-mile Windermere swim again and won the lake championship the following year. He set records which still stand for the 16-mile Fleetwood to Morecambe race and the 23 miles of the Lancaster-to-Morecambe event. A two-way swim of Windermere convinced his support team of Geoff Oddie and Marie Toft that the time had come to attempt the Channel.

Sponsorship covering the 300 for hotel, subsistence, boat and crew came from his employers – Bradford printing company Watmough's – and a public appeal in Bingley, and it was off to France.

Swimming then was strictly amateur and the prize for swimming the Channel was a Channel Swimmers' Association certificate signed by Commander Gerald Forsberg, who had himself completed the course. The certificate cost 25 but, fortunately for Watson, there remained enough cash in his sponsorship fund to pay for the piece of paper – and to buy an engraved silver salver.

But that was only the beginning. Over the next four years, Watson swam the Channel three more times but was frustrated by bad weather each time as he tried to complete the double – swimming from England to France and back.

"My team had to pull me out of the water every time," he remembers. "I wanted to go on but they knew we were not going to do it. They were dead right, but it was disappointing all the same.

"The first time I attempted the double crossing I was swimming in a gale force six; the second it was force five, and the last time it was force seven – the waves were enormous. One minute I was looking at the keel of the boat, the next I was looking at the top of the mast. The team in the boat were dead right but it was disappointing all the same.

"I remember once I was so upset at being told to stop that I swam away from the boat. Geoff thought my mind had flipped and came after me – it is a dangerous place the Channel. I was lucky to have him along with me – without my support team I would not have achieved anything like what I did.

"Once, after swimming Ullswater, we were having a bite to eat and I asked Marie where Geoff was. He had gone out to return the boat we had used – he was rowing it back to the top of the lake on his own, in pouring rain. He was an amazing chap."

Several other Channel attempts were lost to the weather – "they used to say down there, 'look out, BW has arrived – bad weather'," smiles Watson.

He maintained his fitness levels by hard training – he once swam a three-mile time-trial in 57 minutes at Bradford lido – and regular tests of his amazing will.

He covered the 23 miles of Loch Lomond and once swam Coniston Water, Windermere and Ullswater in the same day – thick fog upsetting navigation on Coniston so that after swimming for four hours, he found he was only 400 yards from where he started on what he says, matter-of-factly, should have been a "nice and steady" two-and-a-half hour swim. He had been going round in circles.

Then he sat in the back of a tinny white van, wrapped in a blanket, as he was driven to Windermere, completed the well-rehearsed swim, then back, shivering, into the van for the drive over Kirkstone Pass to Patterdale and Ullswater.

"When we arrived, the wind was blowing straight at us, the waves were against me all the way and my muscles had almost seized up with the cold. We are mad, it's stupid really."

Mad or not, his achievements have been recognised by election to the International Swimming Hall of Fame, based at Fort Lauderdale in Florida, he has managed England teams in Egypt and Syria, and when his swimming days were done, in 1974, he rowed in support of others then took to fell-walking, climbing all 214 Wainwrights in the Lake District within four years and scaling 66 of the highest mountains in Scotland.

Yet listening to this shy, humorous, self-deprecating man in his bungalow, in Chapel Road, Crossflatts, where he has lived for the majority of his 65 years, it is difficult to identify the source of his inner strength.

Maybe it came early in childhood. At four, he contracted double pneumonia and measles at the same time, was confined to the horrendous iron lung contraption and lost his sight for three weeks. The doctor told his mother "Never mind, Mrs Watson, you will do better next time." He was such a skinny boy his classmates at primary school called him "Samson".

At secondary school, he became friends with another boy who would grow into a man of singular mind – Harvey Smith. The two would put Bingley in the headlines in ways they could never have imagined.

Watson gives a hint of the well-camouflaged inner strength when he admits: "I like hard things." He watches every wheel turn in the Tour de France – "those lads really are tough" he says – and he drives miles to watch fell races, another form of self-inflicted pain. "I know how hard it is," he says.

His self-discipline extends to diet. Despite being the son of a butcher, he is now a vegetarian, although he admits to loving the smell of bacon sandwiches.

"About 12 years ago, I really fancied one," he remembers. "I fried the bacon, sliced the bread and put it on a plate but just could not eat it. Haven't tried since."

But maybe the clearest indication of the strength within comes with his declaration that he is back in the pool – with one more crack at the Channel his ambition.

"I retired last September, although I still have an interest in a printing business," he says. "I wanted something to do and decided to go along to Bingley pool.

"I go four times a week and have just done 176 lengths – about two-and-a-half miles – in one hour 20 minutes. I have cruciate ligament problem in my left knee and so have to swim using only my arms, but if I can get that fixed, I would love to become the oldest person to swim the Channel.

"The record at the moment is 67. I reckon it will take me about a year to get fit after my knee is done, then I might wait a little longer and get nearer 70 so that when I do it, my record will be harder to beat."

He smiles as he says it but the intent is unmistakable, the eyes tell the truth.

The-obsession is back.