‘I launch naked into the unknown’: writers on the joy of wild swimming

‘A routine would kill the magic. The impulse, like the water, must be wild and free’

Rachel Edwards, Oxfordshire

I love our river. It is ours not because we live on it (we don’t), or because we covet ownership of a beauty spot, but because this water flows through our family life. Our stretch of river lies between London and Oxford; it is technically the Thames and not quite the Isis; it is a gentle roar, a rushing calm, a city-country icon that feels deeply personal.

When I first moved to our south Oxfordshire hamlet, 16 years ago, the river’s appeal was clear: every yard of it is picture perfect. Cross the weir, past the mill house and over the lock, past the weeping willow. Walk on with fields to your right and the river to your left, fringed by greenery that is mature yet exuberant (like many of the locals) and tiny beaches where anglers sit, nodding away the dogs who come sniffing at their bait.

From the first, I planned to walk lazy lengths of it, listen to it, lie by it, watch it and without a doubt dip in it. Yet, I am not the strongest swimmer – not the bravest, or most adventurous, or the most lithe. My relationship with our river would not prove a questionable midlife athleticism by the covering of great distances. My love of this water is simply this: it is boundless and immersive. One tentative dip off the side of a friend’s boat, when the temperature and I were both in our 20s, told me it was the real thing.

I go in the water whenever the mood takes me: I have dunked myself to chill out a fraught afternoon and to commune with the dawn. I have been in with boat-weary friends, my husband, and – ill-advised, of course – alone (usually an angler is within shouting distance). To have a regular routine would kill the magic for me. The impulse, like the water, must be wild and free. When I do go in, it is always in summer – I marvel at those with hardy, moon-white bodies who smear themselves in goose fat and launch into wintry seas. I will never be one of their number. Even in a heatwave I mince in, arms bent and aloft, waiting for the cold water to stun my broiling core. Waist depth is optimum; I feel freed but embraced; I think about dipping my head under for a while. No earrings, no watch, offline. I’m ready.

I emerge each time alive but more so, skin teased and tingling, braids dripping, my mind washed of dark clutter; I am, if not quite reborn, then absolved by unseen river gods for as long as the water drips down my calves. Our river restores, rewarding even the most timid dip with cool inspiration. And so, in I go.

Rachel Edwards is the author of Darling (Fourth Estate)

‘Seaweed winds itself around my wrists – I feel like a hybrid sea beastie

Amy Liptrot, Orkney

Much of the time, it would be foolish to swim in the rockpools at the farm where I grew up, on the west coast of Orkney. The Atlantic swell creates huge breaking waves that slam this rocky shore, sending sea spray far inland. But on rare days, the sea is calm and the air is warm and it was then, when I was a kid, that we swam.

The pools form where slabs of flagstone meet; as the tide recedes, a network of “cold tubs” emerges. Pictures of me and my brother there as children look like they were taken on a Greek island. But photographs cannot show the temperature – the water is aways cold enough to make you shriek.

In the summer holidays, friends would appear at the farm to go swimming. It’s a 10-minute walk from there to the pools, across the sheep field, over a stone stile, then a clamber down a bank to the slabs, which all slope towards the sea.

Thirty years later, I’ve returned to take the same walk. Some more of the cliff has crumbled, but it’s mainly unchanged. Oystercatchers are piping above. Out to sea, there’s a creel boat. The odd gannet dives, and seals pop up. Below the high-water mark, in the inter-tidal zone, the rocks are covered in barnacles, mussels, anemones. The pools swell with thong weed, sea lettuce, bladderwrack and more.

These pools are for summer only. The sun has warmed the water slightly, so the temperature is “cold” rather than “extremely cold”. Wearing neoprene boots and a swimsuit, I slide in among the seaweed, which is silky on my skin. Someone once told me that submerging the heart is the hardest part. Then I’m in my element, up to my neck, swimming. Even on this calm day, I can hear the ocean crashing on the beach around the corner. Thong weed winds itself around my wrists and ankles, and I feel like some kind of hybrid sea beastie.

The pleasure of getting cold and, crucially, warm again is beloved by the Scandinavians, with their saunas and icy plunges. It was also, I’ve discovered, known by the ancient Orkney islanders. A recent archaeological dig on the island of Westray uncovered bronze age buildings, including one with a water tank that they believe was used as a sweat house or sauna. The structure was near the sea so a steam could be followed by a swim.

Just a few minutes of head-up breaststroke is enough before my body tells me I have to get out. I exit the pool as I often do, using my hands as well as feet, to balance on the wet rocks and avoid slipping on the seaweed. I notice that my knee is bleeding – probably a barnacle scrape – and instinctively lean down and lick it. Half naked coming out of the ocean, on all fours, tasting my own blood, an Arctic tern screeching and diving above, I am alive and wild.

Later, warming up with a cup of tea and salty skin, sucking the Atlantic out of my hair, I have a rush of wellbeing. The cold is addictive. It’s obliterating. It’s renewing. Each swim is like a near-death experience, and each time the swimmer survives, they are overjoyed and stronger.

Amy Liptrot’s memoir The Outrun (Canongate) is out now

‘In the Dart the water is peaty; like downing a shot of neat water whisky’

Elizabeth-Jane Burnett, Devon

Treading the bones of ash, roots as steps, I enter the water. Moss-lined bark strokes the balls of my feet as I change lanes from human to river. It is the water’s course I follow now; its currents, eddies and points of stagnation. I have not given myself over completely; I still have a navigator’s awareness – when to steer, to kick, float, or resist. It is a kind of dance.

I have been dancing the River Dart in Devon since childhood. At first, the dances were dips, cooling off with friends on a summer’s day. Later, they became swims, often solitary, as I came to know stretches of the river more intimately, at different times of the year.

As a writer, the names of places pulled me in as much as the water: Black Rock, Sharrah Pool and Bow Creek. Sharpham Point soon became a favourite on account of its easy access, the richness of its bird and aquatic life, and the tint and taste of its water. Here I have swum with kingfishers; their turquoise flashes interrupting the muted landscape with violent sneezes, orange breasts rising like airborne salmon. I greet the swallows, swimming under their flight path, tracing milk bellies, blushed throats. As their tail feathers fan out, so do my arms.

These moments of encounter with other species are a large part of swimming’s appeal for me. I am fascinated with whom I’m sharing the water: from the flashy birds overhead to the microscopic organisms beneath. When the water lifts into bubbles I need to know who’s making them, dipping under to see. There is a sense of unity with my water companions – all of us brimming and skimming and pulling together through the murky underworld of unseen things.

Rivers, and discrete parts of the same river, have different tastes. I love the flavour of the Dart in places like Sharpham Point, where water can be as dark and deep as peat; like downing a shot of neat water whisky.

Writing and swimming are complementary practices; they encourage us to conceive of ourselves differently. Both processes question our habitual ways of moving through the world. Sometimes, I take words into the water. I run Swillowing workshops, where swimmers are given a Wind In The Willows persona to embody as they enter the water, afterwards recording their experiences as rats, moles and moorhens.

The space of the river doesn’t always offer a rural idyll. Even remote locations can bear the marks of human-influenced damage, as pesticides spill off fields into water and, potentially, a swimmer’s body. Just as the fish, and other lives in the water, may carry these pollutants, so may the swimmer. We are in a community with the other species who are similarly entangled in both the problems and the pleasures of our land and waterscapes.

Swimming offers an invitation to kinship with many organisms in and of the water, which I take up whenever I can. In the Dart, furred limbs of ash brush below, as swallows blush above. Always, it is a kind of dance.

Elizabeth-Jane Burnett is the author of The Grassling (Allen Lane)

‘The lido represents convivial, multicultural London at its best’

Johny Pitts, Brockwell lido

I once heard someone describe their depression in the following terms: “Even if the sun is out and the sky is blue, you feel awful. As though the jolly weather is mocking the storm you’re carrying inside.” It made me think of London in the summer: overpacked festivals, sociopathic cyclists, expensive beer and gentrified car parks selling “street food” at exorbitant prices to trust-funded art students. I watch all this from a distance, too knackered to join in even when I can afford to, seeing the culture that sustained me growing up working-class in Britain – brutalist architecture, street markets and secondhand shops – culturally reappropriated in a way that precludes my involvement.

I cheer myself up by reimagining this tough, corporate-in-disguise metropolis as my own personal bohemia, and my search for simple pleasures often leads me to Herne Hill. On the way I cycle past streets named after Langston Hughes, Derek Walcott and Alice Walker. I’ll buy a patty for £1.50 at Mina’s Caribbean takeaway, and wander Brockwell Park, surely one of the prettiest in London, without the pomp of Regent’s Park or the anxious trendiness of London Fields. Like the latter, Brockwell also has its own streamline moderne lido, making it look like the backdrop for an episode of Poirot, though the only death here is of one’s own stress.

During the summer months the lido is quieter in the evening and just the right temperature, cool enough to be bracing, warm enough after a few strokes to encourage you to carry on. Fifteen minutes or so into my swim my goggles begin to steam up, but I don’t wipe them, preferring to let myself exist for the best part of an hour in a world shrouded in mist.

Once I’m in the zone, I don’t hear anything but the reassuring thud of my own pumping circulation and a consoling subaqueous muffle. I used to count lengths, but now I just swim at roughly 75% exertion for 45 minutes to allow my mind to drift off. I problem solve and write as I swim – I composed some of this essay beneath the water; somehow the work that takes place there is devoid of anxiety. A later analysis may disprove my theory, but I only have “good” ideas when I’m submerged, feeling free and creative. I marvel at my human capability as I ply through dead insects in the water – even though it may seem a humble skill (and I swim badly), I can’t believe that my body is making all the minute adjustments it needs to keep itself fluent in the language of the aquatic, while my mind is firmly elsewhere.

It wasn’t always this way. My mother nearly drowned when she was a child, and never learned to swim, instilling the same mistrust of bodies of water into my own childhood. I first acquired breaststroke in my early 20s, in extraordinary circumstances; taught in the creek of a rainforest in eastern Australia by Clionna, a swimming instructor from Ireland I’d befriended while backpacking.

Perhaps that’s why outdoor swimming strikes me as so liberating – it’s where I found my flow. I grew up in a multicultural, working-class urban area, and despite being only a 25-minute drive from the glorious Derwent Valley in the Peak District, as a black kid I felt culturally and spiritually disconnected from the natural amenities of swimming, camping and climbing on my doorstep. It was the 90s, and in the wake of Thatcherism, civic spaces had fallen out of favour – my memories are of dried up drinking fountains and derelict paddling pools.

In the early 90s, Brockwell lido suffered a similar fate, falling into a state of disrepair, and ultimately closing for more than a decade, before being reopened by a charity. This is why it’s so nice to see such a mix of people enjoying the lido now; it’s unlike so many spaces in the city – an inexpensive (free for residents on certain days) community space that’s oversubscribed. Yes, it can get annoyingly crowded (as the police found out when it was stormed by 500 people trying to cool off in the recent heatwave), but mostly it represents convivial, multicultural London at its best, and I always emerge from the water feeling calm, centred, revitalised. Ready to head back into the burning Babylon.

Afropean: Notes From Black Europe by Johny Pitts is out now (Allen Lane)

‘By summer the water is as warm as a bath’

Esther Freud, Suffolk

For more than 30 years I’ve been swimming in the same sea, stepping out over the same stretch of beach – half sand, half shingle – just east of a small village on the Suffolk coast. I learned to swim in an old stone pool in the grounds of my school, and from there migrated to a freezing lake, so cold it ran a cracking ring around your skull, which may be why this most easterly stretch of the North Sea feels familiarly embracing. For years – decades – I considered myself hardy, perplexing my duffel-coated friends as they hunkered on the beach in June, unswayed by my much repeated assertion that they’d feel great, afterwards, if they joined me in the water. But four years ago, when I challenged myself to swim throughout the year, I realised I hardly knew this sea at all. It was forever changing once I arrived to greet it at the same time every morning. Wild and rough; rust brown and green; flat as a millpond; metal grey; mother of pearl; silver. It kept its warmth right through the autumn. December was manageable, but the chill, once it settled, lasted late into the spring. In March, a Siberian ice floe seized you by the ankles, and if you listened, urged you to get out. In May, it beat your heart, scalded your skin, left you glowing and refuelled. By summer the water ( I have been accused of exaggeration) is warm as a bath.

This year I spent a week in Scotland, driving through the West Highlands, up over the north coast and down again along the east. When we arrived it was raining so hard I could hardly see the hire car, let alone the bay, but on the second day, when it was only drizzling, I ran down to the shore at Glenuig. The water was crystal clear, the sea bed thick with shells and minnows, jellyfish and clams. I had a great desire to strike out to Samalaman island opposite, not so very far, but I didn’t know the sea here – its tides and currents – and alone in the water, I turned back. Travelling north, I swam off a coral beach – seaweed, tall as overshot allium, sprouting above the surface, mist keeping other visitors away; and as we rounded the tip of Britain, the evening sun came out over Durness and I swam out to a curve of boulders. I would have swum on, but there was nothing beyond but Iceland, over 1,000km away.

Driving south again I kept my eyes out for the perfect bay for my last swim, and it wasn’t until we stopped on the edge of Loch Ness, to take a tour of Urquhart Castle, that I found a sheltered shingle beach. And to the surprise of the Philadelphian woman Instagramming her way around the ruins, I whipped off my clothes, pulled on my costume and struck out into the loch. It was clear and warm and fathoms deep, and my heart hammered with the knowledge there was more water here than in all the lakes of England and Wales combined. When I came out I was ecstatic. This swim would last me through the long train journey home.

Back in Suffolk the sea was brown and green. All the same, I was pleased to see it; to know its dips and shallows, the strength of its current, at what moment, at its roughest, to throw yourself in. There were my friends, swimming converts themselves now, and our children, most of them grown, waiting at the agreed morning hour. The first swim was more of a wade, the tide was so far out. The next, later that day, close up against the shore. The third, the night after a storm, the sand treacly, the water refreshing as champagne. And the fourth had wild whipping waves, warm and jubilant. They swept us up, cascaded us down, chasing hard as we scrambled for the shore, so that, safely out, we stood in the sunshine, our towels flapping, remonstrating happily over whether or not that was the best swim yet.

Esther Freud is the author of Mr Mac And Me (Bloomsbury)

‘I cycle to the shore at dawn, and launch naked into the unknown’

Philip Hoare, south coast

The sea is the only place I feel comfortable. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t learn to swim till I was in my early 30s. (My angel was an elderly lady in an East End of London public baths; she wore a rubber hat with daisies on it.) Now, every morning, I get out of bed and cycle to the shore – before dawn, often at 3am, in the dark, even in the winter. I know the place so well that I recognise individual stones on the beach. I launch, naked, into the unknown. Where else can you leave everything behind so effortlessly?

Everyone is beautiful in the water. The sea is queer; the ultimate transformer. It starts with the animals and plants. They merge into one another, still evolving. Take the slipper shell. One of our most common shellfish – shaped as its name suggests, with a tactile little shelf in its white interior. When you find these little beauties on the shore, they’re often attached, one to the other, sometimes seven in a row, in a little communal tower. In fact, as Philip Street revealed in his newly republished book from 1961, Shell Life On The Seashore, they’re creatures caught in the moment of transition. The lowest shell is female, the topmost male – the others are gradually changing, little by little, from male to female.

I’m not going to tell you where my beach is. We regular swimmers prize our private places. Not that newcomers aren’t welcome. According to a marine biologist friend, the south coast waters in which I swim are inhabited by the greatest number of “alien species” in the UK.

I recently spent the afternoon at a Cornish cove. I’d been given directions by a local – through a hole in a hedge and down to a shingle shore. It was loved and cared for. Swimmers came and went, shifting their towels and cans of beer inland as the tide rolled in. As I swam out into the bay, I looked back and realised a spell had come over everyone. People had put down their phones, forsaking digital screens for the big blue screen in front of them. Dogs and children ran free. Time had stopped – but not the sea.

I picked up a shell. It seemed to contain the afternoon in it. I remembered how, as a boy, the beach was the world for me – its terror, and its infinity. Now its darkness is my resort, the safest place I know.

The sea and the shore mean many things – heartbreak and hope, mortality and beauty, transience and persistence. Its withdrawal is a little death; its return, absolute life. We all came to being in the amniotic sea of our mothers’ bellies. We measure our passing summers by the sea, and invest its vastness with our yearning. I’m not sure our souls would exist without it. Jung called it the symbol of our collective unconscious, but I’m not sure you can apply any words to it. It is just there, moving in and out, of itself – the sea inside us all.

Philip Street’s Shell Life On The Seashore, with an introduction by Philip Hoare, is published by Faber. Philip Hoare’s RisingTideFallingStar is published by 4th Estate

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