What I’ve learned over my summer reswimming Waterlog
“When you enter the water, something like metamorphosis happens. Leaving behind the land, you go through the looking-glass surface and enter a new world, in which survival, not ambition or desire, is the dominant aim.”
A fractured wrist in a brace, awaiting plaster, has laid my swimming plans for this lengthy summer low. Having swum in 20 or so of the rivers, lakes, lidos and beaches in Waterlog, my trip has reached an awkward halt. Last week I waded into the Wissey and watched on enviously as friends leapt off of rope swings and sat on the edge of a raging weir, my trussed up arm stopped me from properly joint in.
Plans to paddle at Clevedon in Somerset have been put on hold. And while I’ll be traipsing across Jura in a few weeks, in search of whiskey-coloured lochans, it’s unlikely I’ll be swimming, but looking into the depths in frustration.
But this unplanned stop has at least given me pause to think about the things I’ve learned on my wild swimming trips across Britain this summer. And made me more determined than ever to complete the journey, doubtless now with some winter swims slung in for good measure.
These are the things swimming outdoors has shown me in the past few glorious months. Some are new, others long held beliefs that have been reinforced by taking dip after dip.
Wild swimming is still seen as utterly eccentric
Roger often talks about how walking, cycling and swimming are seen as outsider activities. My key lesson from this summer, despite endless articles about wild swimming’s ever-growing popularity, is that it’s still something that’s perceived as odd and most definitely not mainstream. Tell someone who doesn’t do this kind of thing that I’m off for a paddle in their local river and they look at me as if I’m unwell. The usual roll call of fears is reeled off: Weil’s disease, pike, pollution. I try to see this as a good thing. The more people see it as something others do, the more glorious, hidden stretches of water there are for the rest of us to revel in.
But it seems far more accepted than when Waterlog was written
I was only 15 when Roger began work on Waterlog, barely able to swim a length of my local pool and much less enamoured of open water. But from my reading of the book, it feels as if we have at least reached a point where more people are willing to slide off of the bank and feel the squelch of a riverbed between their toes. There’s still a hardcore, but I’ve been on stacks of swims this year where I’ve been joined by first time wild swimmers. While most may not understand the impulse, there do seem to be more who are willing to give it a go.
Litter is a blight on our rivers
Every single river swim I’ve been on this year has been blighted by litter. By and large, I’ve swum in isolated spots, at the end of far off country lanes or hidden down overgrown paths. But these secret hideaways are also the ideal places for illicit meet ups and drinking smuggled booze. Fair enough, it happens. But it’s not hard to pick up empty cans, cigarette packets and carrier bags when you’re done. The countryside is for everyone, but when we swim, we shouldn’t have to fill up our backpacks with the crap that others have left to ruin the banks and streams of one of our country’s best assets.
Swimming is still the best way to get to know a landscape
For me, at least. I love walking and cycling (despite it being the cause of my swim-destroying wrist injury), but, just as Roger says, there’s something about getting into water that makes you feel part of a scene, rather than just a spectator. Wildlife seems to ignore you, so you can be part of its secret world. Because of this, I’ve caught sight of reed warblers dashing through the banks unawares, been dive-bombed by kingfishers and seen chub dart around my feet as I’ve waded through the shallows of the Waveney. It can be almost overwhelming at times.