Drive through the landscape and it is pretty and flat as a picture. Wander
through it on foot and you are part of it, your other senses have time to
engage, brain soothed into a reverie. Forget getting from A to B, walk on the
fractal edge, follow your attraction to the riverbank, the sea edge. Paddle into
the water until you can step off the ground and float.
I have an early memory of standing in the edge of the sea, entranced. As an
unhappy child I read Charles Kingsley's Water Babies (Puffin; ISBN:
0140367365) with longing and recognition. Given the chance, babies
can swim before they can walk. All children seem to have this deep attraction.
Most adults, especially women, have lost it. Except for a week on the beach if
your body is deemed acceptable to be exposed.
This love of water is usually transformed into more organised goal oriented
pursuits, surfing, fishing, serious competitive swimming. I'm used to being seen
as odd for my compulsion to bathe in natural water. Rarely I encounter others,
like the wonderful women from Hampstead Heath's women's pond, some of who swim
all year round into their eighties. Or on holiday in Scotland some of us swim
naked in a loch, where I once watched a kingfisher dive, catch a fish and fly
off with it and then amazingly return to catch and eat another. It was totally
unafraid of this silent swimming head inching closer and felt like the spirit of
the loch itself, come to reward me for my faithful worship.
So I was excited to
discover a book by a fellow wild swimmer. I have an identity! Waterlog by
Roger Deakin (ISBN: 0099282550) is a journey round the coast and rivers of
Britain in search of bathing places.
"When you swim, you feel your body for what it mostly is - water? To
swim is to experience how it was before you were born. Once in the water, you
are immersed in an intensely private world as you were in the womb? The swimmer
experiences the terror and bliss of being born.
So swimming is a rite of passage, a crossing of boundaries; the line of the
shore, the bank of the river, the edge of the pool, the surface itself? You are
in nature, part and parcel of it, in a far more complete and intense way than on
dry land and your sense of the present is overwhelming?
Most of us live in a world where more and more places and things are
signposted, labelled and officially 'interpreted'. ? turning the reality of
things into virtual reality. It is the reason why walking, cycling and swimming
will always be subversive activities. They allow us to regain a sense of what is
old and wild in these islands by getting off the beaten track and breaking free
of the official versions of things."
A newspaper article he wrote prompted many readers to share their own passion
for wild swimming and offer to introduce him to their favourite places. He
visits an extended family living in an old mill who swim straight out of their
window in the pond. Scrambles down ravines to perfect waterfall pools. Sails to
a remote island to swim in a huge turquoise slate quarry, raised up and
surrounded by the sound of the wild sea. Plunges dangerously into an underwater
cascade down a sequence of limestone basins. Goes to sleep and dreams of
swimming, the two states begin to merge.
He discusses the role of immersion in religious ritual, and the Victorians'
recognition of its health giving properties. The decline in outdoor swimming's
popularity as a result of pollution, private property and the growth of indoor
chlorinated pools. He tells of the feats of mostly unknown swimming heroes. A
mathematician calculated how and when to swim round the island of Sark, which he
did 6 times. The last time, at the age of 74 he was drowned near the end in a
sudden surge of rough weather.
The consciousness of danger is ever present. Wind, rain or cold can bring
peril to the strongest swimmer, the calmest water. I am a much more cautious
bather than the writer, but I feel as he feels that the danger is part of the
heightened experience. I cannot enter the water without asking permission,
wordlessly. I resonate too with his perception of how strongly sensuous, even
erotic the passion is. It is my secret love, who I sadly say goodbye to each
autumn and am joyously welcomed back by in spring.