Swimming has always been my ‘sport’ and although most of the time it is lengths up and down the local pool, I always pack a swimsuit when I’m going away in the hope that some more exotic or exciting spot will materialize. It was therefore a real pleasure to discover a book that indulged my fantasies about swimming while giving me ideas for future watery exploits.
The notion of a long swim through Britain began in the pouring rain while Roger Deakin was swimming in his moat in Suffolk. The idea became an obsession and, inspired by John Cheever’s short story ‘The Swimmer’, in which the hero Ned Merrill swims drunkenly home through a series of neighbours’ pools, he embarked on a random journey to swimming spots throughout the British Isles.
Anything that contains water is fair game once Deakin has decided to swim in it, and the pleasure he gets from his swims is infectious: ‘In water, all possibilities seemed infinitely extended . . . Free of the tyranny of gravity and the weight of the atmosphere, I found myself in the wide-eyed condition described by the Australian poet Les Murray when he said: “I am only interested in everything.”’
From the fear of being ‘poached for breakfast’ by the members of the exclusive Houghton Fishing Club on the River Test, to swimming with a family who seem to more or less live in the Avon, diving out of their bedroom windows to enjoy a floating picnic lunch, to Jura where the water was ‘gaspingly, shockingly, ridiculously cold’, he is passionate about his swims. The temptation to strip off and jump into the nearest pool, river, lake or sea becomes almost irresistible.
Water-cum-Jolly in Derbyshire ‘seemed to embody in three words the very essence of the joys of swimming’ – how could it fail? While at Gargrave, on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, he resolutely plunged in, despite his fear of being sucked under a lock gate.
Of course there is nothing better than swimming naked whenever possible, as Deakin did in icy Welsh tarns. Indeed well into the nineteenth century swimming was always done in the buff, but now, when it has to be done almost as a rebellious activity, a naked swim can turn into something deliciously subversive.
Then, too, Deakin notes how a swimmer, his view only three inches above the surface, becomes almost invisible and sees aquatic life at its own level. He swims right up to a frog which eyes him unblinkingly, and he skulks among the reeds, unobserved by a party of birdwatchers.
Digressions into fiction, water-based stories and natural history flourish between lochs, pools and river-swims. Swimming with eels naturally leads him into describing their journey to the Sargasso Sea, a story I always find entrancing. He reflects too on Byron’s Pool on the Cam at Grantchester, where the Romantic poet swam and where later Rupert Brooke, Rose Macaulay and Virginia Woolf bathed.
Sadly, that pool has now been made into a concrete weir, but Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter territory in Devon remains unspoilt. Some of Deakin’s swims brought back memories of my own aquatic exploits. In a loch on Jura, Deakin ‘returned across two hundred yards of the finest water in the world, tasting it at intervals. To feel its balmy softness in every limb, at every stroke, was a kind of heaven’. I too have drunk, from Lake Baikal – the world’s deepest – after a day’s trek through the Siberian taiga. It was icy cold even in August and deeply refreshing, though my companions were puzzled by this simple pleasure.
Some of Deakin’s swims, however, would undoubtedly have left me terrified. I would never, for example, have braved Hell Gill gorge on the Yorkshire/Cumbria border where the torrent swept him along a steep and labyrinthine descent through ‘a succession of cold baths’. His advice that by leaning into the water you can learn to respect it and should never fear it, would not, I suspect, have applied here. Nevertheless the adventure and danger involved in river and sea swimming are all part of the process of ‘letting go’ and making you aware of your body as the water that it mostly is.
Deakin is convinced that there is no anti-depressant to match swimming and manages to persuade us that he is right. In freezing water there is a heady rush of endorphins which the Oxford Textbook of Medicine says make one’s mood change but which ‘are difficult to validate scientifically, although feelings of well-being seem to occur’. With the exception of the proboscis monkey of Borneo we are the only primates that take to water for the joy of it, and we still have webbing between our thumb and forefinger.
The more Deakin swam the more convinced he became that our relationship to water is mystical. The ancients believed in the healing powers of water, and today the Ganges and Lourdes are just two examples of watery pilgrimage sites. But in Britain, though we have a tradition of sacred wells, we have turned water into a commodity – and that is unnatural. We should learn to value it. We also tend to treat it ignominiously. Architects in Japan, Morocco and Kashmir have used water for celebration and allowed it to play a prominent part in design, but in the Tesco car park in Bury St Edmunds the River Lark has been bundled into an undignified concrete canyon.
Deakin does not have much truck with indoor pools, but he finds outdoor pools exhilarating. ‘If you tread on air on your way from the pool, it is because you are floating somewhere just above your corporeal self.’ Water spots – lidos, pools, spas and the seaside – bring people together and create a community. Even London has exciting places in which to swim, such as the ponds on Hampstead Heath, the Lidos at Tooting Bec and Brockwell Park, the Oasis in Covent Garden and the Serpentine. Sadly, some open-air pools are now being closed, which is a shame. An outdoor pool is the perfect antidote to cramped urban living.
In the same way that Bruce Chatwin in Songlines uses an outward journey and its rhythms as a metaphor for internal mapping, so Deakin’s aquatic progress is concerned with the geography of the mind. The rhythm of swimming is not only one of its principal pleasures but also its essence: ‘Mind and body go off somewhere together in unselfconscious bliss, and the lengths seem to swim themselves.’
Deakin seems always to have used breaststroke so it’s probably as well he didn’t attempt his adventure in Australia, for as he says: ‘You should understand that in Australia, swimming strokes are deeply gendered.’ But regardless of what stroke you use or whether you swim alone or in company, to swim is to let your soul soar and your mind go free.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 6 © Sarah Anderson 2005
About the contributor
Sarah Anderson founded the Travel Bookshop in Notting Hill in 1979. After 25 years she has now ‘retired’ from the shop and has embarked on a gap year. She recently returned from Antarctica where she travelled with her bathing suit, but the opportunity to use it never arose.