Swim #47 Allas Sea Pools, Helsinki
This Winter has been disappointing, at least in the sense of not being cold enough. I had been looking forward to breaking ice on the lake at Bled, at least in one of the informal swims. There was snow, briefly, while swimming in Lake Bohinj, but otherwise there was sun, and very pleasant radiant warmth in the sunshine if not in the shade. This trip to Helsinki is very much about catching the last of Winter. And about Jaana urging that at lkeast one of my swims should be in Finland. After all, this country more-or-less invented Winter-swimming. Not that I needed persuading – Jaana was pushing against a creakingly open barn door. The last of Winter turns out, this March, to be a delight, even if the snow has mostly gone, the ice too. There was a pile of snow next to the outdoor ice-rink by the central train station, but beyond that, nothing. The first swim stop was to be Allas Sea Pools.
Allas, alas on a Saturday night, is a bit of a party bathing house. Pauline and I arrived in Helsinki that afternoon and headed for these central Helsinki bathing pools after the obligatory walk around the harbour and some of the older streets. The cathedral was beautiful, white, almost Russian-like, at the top of steep granite steps. It was white-protestant austere, and the square below, empty. I was reminded of the communal war-time stock-piling of wood (wood-piling?) in many Scandinavian towns and cities against the implending harsh winters. I saw a photograph of one of the each in the book ‘Scandinavian Way with Wood’ that Theresia Hofer lent me a few years ago (I gave it back). We were discussing our Saturday afternoon activities in the bike shop on Walton Street in Oxford, when, after saying that I would be cutting firewood,l she memorably said ‘oh how I miss my chain saw’. After lending and returning the book, a firewood-based relationship was established, which her being Norwegian, would be life-long.
So to Allas Sea Pools – well organised, beautiful buildings, excellent use of wood inside and out, electronic tags for the lockers, three saunas – women’s, men’s and mixed, naked, naked and clothed. Pauline and I changed and found the water, after talking with a man who had come across from Tallinn on a day-return ferry. He was swim-and-sauna-ing while his mates decided to watch from the comfort of the bar. This kind of summed it up – there were many Saturday night people who did the sauna and the bar, but not the cold water. Anne Katrine, who recommended the place, had similarly been here on a Saturday night and was disappointed in the number of people “who were not doing it properly”. The bright blue pool was as it appears in the brochures and tourist advertising – but was heated. I kind of felt disappointed, hoping as I was for an Icelandic Blue Lagoon kind of experience. The cold water – two degree Celsius – was a slightly longer walk along the deck. This was brown water, harbour water, which had the virtue of being very un-packed, because most people ‘were not doing it properly’. This didn’t bother Pauline or me, even in the packed sauna, packed with not proper people doing their Saturday night.
Allas mixed sauna was, when we first went in, standing room only. It was lively with the chat and chat-up of women and men mostly intheir twenties and thirties, steamy with sweat and water poured slowly on hot rocks – Loyly is the term for this, I learned. It was a bit like being in the pub, without clothes, although drinking was allowed. Sauna-lizards with prosecco glasses and beer bottles in hand lined the high back row seating in the sauna. After cooking ourselves in the sauna just long enough to find space on the top back row and turn a warm pink (not over-cooked), we returned to the cold brown pool for the second swim, shorter than the first. We passed the warm blue pool on the way back to the sauna, and felt this should be tried. Big mistake – my body prickled as I got in, and as the prickling-rash-like sensation subsided, the cold started to penetrate – the blue pool water wasn’t warm enough to counter the cold, except by vigorous swimming, and then not quite. This change from cold to hot water felt messed up, but reminded me of the experience in Banff last February, with the shift from minus twenty air to warm water feeling extreme, but better than not doing it and avoiding the cold outdoors altogether.
Back to the sauna, the oddly bar-room crush of cold-to-warm bodies shuffling up to accommodate people without rubbing up against them. I cooked a little more this time, to a deeper pink, then went back into the cold brown pool – from cold-brown to hot-and-steamy, my body was bright pink, but difficult to tell whether this was because I was cold or hot. My mind couldn’t tell either, as after three dips-and-saunas, from two Celsius to eighty Celsius and back and forth again, I was sauna-giddy. A pleasant feeling on its own, I cannot imagine being sauna-giddy and prosecco-tipsy together at the same time, I can’t imagine if this would feel better or worse. But at least it is legal.
65@65 Swim #48 Kulttuurisauna, Helsinki
Approaching this place of calm and swimming from the very centre of Helsinki seemed straightforward, until Pauline and I encountered various (deep) road works. Navigating them by twisting and turning around the various closed streets, we found the water front, as much by knowing that the ocean is most usually downhill, and a little help from Uncle Google. I am resistant to artificial intelligence makingor me, but Pauline was right, just go with it. Once at the waterfront, Central Helsinki across a two hundred meter or so channel, busy motor freeway bridge crossing it, it became straightforward at last, once under the bridge, going toward the ocean proper. The clue was in the big red sign saying ‘sauna’ above a bunker-like building, right on the point between the channel and the ocean. Anne Katrine recommended this place above the others, and she is usually right (but nicely she doesn’t make a point of saying that, ever). The aesthetic, from a distance, was post-modern with 1950s neon signage – so far so good. We got there as the sun was low on the horizon, a slit of golden yellow caught us as well approached the bunker, which it was now apparent, had a smallish pyramid on top. Not quite sure, I thought illuminate-meet post-modern-meet the fifties. There is plenty of quirky playful architecture out there, but I wasn’t sure of the message the building was signalling – playful sauna sounds pretty dodgy, I thought. Once at the front door, the sign said ‘open’, the door pushed open with a small effort, and we were in, into warm fog and in among a crowd of shoes and boots on a big mat. The reflex was of course to take our shoes off. So far so straightforward. Then the purchase of tickets – straightforward for Pauline, but I had to wait. There were no spare lockers, politely explained the very polite, quiet spoken, petite Japanese woman behind the counter. I urged Pauline to go ahead; while waiting a moment, I looked to the end of the reception area, across to the sliding doors and the outdoors – brown water in the distance. I took a walk to the doors and went out. By now my socks were soaked from the damp and the puddles in the wait area, but this didn’t matter. What mattered to me was the need for a swim, a desire really ignited upon seeing the water, the ladder going down into it. I went back to the desk and asked if I could have a quick dip while waiting for a locker. “Not really” said the Japanese lady, speaking with a quiet, polite firmness. “I understand your urge” she said, but it won’t be long. “We don’t know you” she continued, and “it is good to wait also”. So I waited, first on a horseshoe shaped wooden stool, and then on a sofa, as two men who had been waiting were given their locker keys and their small towels for sitting on in the sauna. The stool was one of several, beautifully crafted, raw blond wood, solid, each designed and built for the long-haul. The coffee table in front of the sofa was also wooden, again beautifully crafted, again solid, again blond. There were arts magazines thereupon, and I updated my knowledge of artists using artificial intelligence including Team Lab, in Tokyo. There were people going out to the water, and into the changing rooms, where I anticipated the saunas to be – men and women separate, naked in the sauna, swim-dressed for the ocean water. Most seemed to dip, but there were a few who swam properly, for several minutes, before going back into the sauna.
I waited, not too long, maybe fifteen minutes, but I didn’t really know – the Japanese co-owner (it turned out to be) had cast her spell of calm upon me. I looked to the enamel mugs, on a wooden set of shelves, drinking water for sauna-takers. I was assured that this was the purest drinking water in the whole of Scandinavia. I took a mug and took water, and what could I say? It was the purest and nicest drinking water in the whole of Scandinavia, as I perceived to be so, at that moment. I drank it mindfully, according to Marina Abramovic’s video instructions. As people either waited, or socialised between sauna-sittings (wearing towels for modesty), or lingered after their swim-sauna, the two owners, she and a tall Finnish man, both wearing black smocks, brought tea with a jar of honey for those that wanted it. Each cup of tea was presented with a gentle smile, an honorific thank you, and a bow. It was slowly coming to my attention that I was inadvertently back in Japan, in a Finlandic version of a Japanese bath house. I have been to Japan many times, first in 1994 when I had a Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science Fellowship (equivalent in prestige to the Royal Society or National Academy of Science Fellowships) to do research at the University of Tokyo. I was not the passionate swimmer I am now, but I got to take baths in a number of bath houses, mostly in rural areas, in places positioned for their energy and their view of nature. What came to mind specifically was a bath house in Kyushu which overlooked Mount Aso, an active volcano with sulphurous plumes and fumes. The owner interrupted my spectacular thought, politely, again slowly, with a gentle smile, as she brought me my sauna towel and locker key. The smile had words attached - “today, the water is two degrees” she said, sensing that this knowledge would bring me enjoyment. From my point of view, I was seeking a colder swim than I could get in the fading winter of the UK. From her point of view, she may have been imparting news that the water was warming up. Either way, it didn’t matter – the water would be good. I was informed by another person that it could easily go below zero Celsius, because the harbour is open to the ocean, has salt water. This year it had only gone to minus one in Helsinki. I agreed that this was good, without signalling whether I thought it was good because it wasn’t as cold as usual, or good because it never gets that cold in the UK. Gentle ambiguity seemed to be the call of the day, or at least of Kulttuurisauna. I felt I had left the straightforward unambiguous speaking of Finland and somehow found myself in the shadow-lands of Japan, with its nuanced language, tissue-screens, the floating, fleeting, transient world of ukiyo.
I slapped myself in the face mentally, my turn had come, this was not Edo period Japan, this was Finland, and I took the plunge – not into the water, but into the changing rooms, where more nuanced language and practice was expected. Not quite ukiyo, but embracing the spirit of it, the changing room was austere but had everything needed, no more, no less. More crafted wood. Concrete floor – basic concrete – don’t waste resources where there is no need to. I went straight out into the ocean water – I broke with convention, which is to sauna first – my urge, tempered by the wait in the shadow lands, helped by the presence of several Japanese men and women in bath kimonos, was surging back. This must be where Japanese people living in Helsinki come, I thought, without verifying that thought. Water, not verification, called. I went in slowly, gently, step by step, while a few people watched, including Pauline. I swam to the limit of the swimming area, maybe 30 meters, and they watched. I came out slowly, Pauline reassuring the watchers that I did this every day through winter. The response to Pauline was “we do not know him” and “he may not know what can happen if you are not practiced in winter swimming”. I enjoyed the slow, steady swim, which bit into my hands, then feet, then limbs. I enjoyed the getting out, enjoyed the feeling of pain and numbness receding and as blood flowed back to my bodily periphery. I walked to the sauna adopting the slow walking disposition that everyone doing what I was doing here, was doing. Through the changing room, to a shower room, a very basic concrete shower room, with tepid water, not hot. Then I did as was done my all the men passing from shower room to sauna – I took off my togs, showered, and went into the men’s sauna. Which was hot and smoky. The light, seen through the steam and smoke, through the small slit, was changing from golden to grey. One large naked man seemed to be in charge of the water pouring, first gentle and slow, then a fierce dumping of a ladle of water directly into the stove, the front open like an open-range cooker. This was like a scene from a movie, Last of the Samurai, or some such. But in Finnish, not Japanese. A fierce cloud of smoky steam rose to the ceiling and spread to the edges of the box-like sauna and slowed descended on us all, from the ceiling and walls inward. I had seated myself on the top level, where the heat is greatest. As the smoke-steam lowered itself and clinged to my body, I had to climb down to a lower level. I came in to the sauna cold to the core and now had scorching heat-smoke entering my lungs. Resisting the urge to find my asthma inhaler, I though again of Mount Aso – on that particular trip, Tsukasa Inaoka took me walking up this steaming volcano, right to the edge. He was in romantic mood as he told me of the people who come to this very place to throw themselves into the volcano, to commit suicide by having the molten earth devour them, reduce them to the ash that was periodically spewed out. He said that many asthmatics die here too, usually not on purpose, as the sulphur-fumes terminally choke them. Somehow knowing there was worse than Kulttuurisauna smoke-steam (just add sulphur, I thought, bring it on…), that I was not taking a terminal leap into the mouth of an active volcano, had a calming effect. ‘Remember to breathe’ I thought. ‘Don’t stop breathing’ – I settled my breathing. Once calmed and equilibrated, I looked right and left, up and down. There was one large cast-iron stove, taller than the tallest man, powered with seasoned wood – the same stove for the men’s and women’s sauna, each being the mirror of the other. The tall man pouring water onto the sauna fire used a ladle with a very long handle, whispering as he poured – gentle this time, more steam than smoke. The men’s sauna was generally quiet, and we could hear the chatter from the women’s sauna, just two layers of Siberian pinewood, on the other side of the wall, stove-side. It seemed to be a jolly murmur. The stove was fed from the outside, so that the schedule and constant routine of keeping the sauna fired up could not be seen from inside, not disturbing the flow of air and steam and calm. The seating and walls seemed to be of a more crafted and smooth concrete than that in the the shower room. I generally do not love concrete, but this concrete made me happy – it was solid, substantive, held the heat and was smooth to the touch. Only at the top level were the seats wooden (concrete would be too hot, even with a little sauna towel to sit on). The changing room – shower – sauna arrangement was exactly as a Japanese bath house would have it, only instead of a huge communal hot bath (in which one sits naked, and the purpose of which is to relax) there is a sauna (in which one again sits naked, and the purpose of which again is to relax).
After the sauna, the practice is to put ones togs on again, to go out into the more public area, through the wait area (as I perceived it to be initially, but actually a place to hang out during and after the session). I watched and did as others did, only this second time swimming a little longer. Again, I was watched, this time by one woman in her thirties. I swam, slowly, calmly, came out calmly, and I saw a slight smile as she looked me in the eye. This combination of firm eye contact and slight smile was elating. I felt accepted, if only to the first level of Finland winter swimming. I was at the World Winter Swimming Championships at Lake Bled, Slovenia just a month ago, and I saw how amazingly the Finns perform in this, their sport. I met with Pauline after this second time, as she was about to go into the women’s changing room to get changed. I took a couple more dis-robings and robings, going hot in the sauna, then cold in the harbour, then hot again, then finishing with a very brief cold plunge. Finishing a session with a cold plunge (ending cold) me helps the final rush of warm blood to happen, making the final rush of happy hormones high well after leaving a sauna baths. Kulttuurisauna was the best of the day, on a very good day indeed. It was night-time, and I hadn’t been watched from the shore for my final swim. In fact, I watched another lady swim, and witnessed her calm breathing and steady pace - this seemed to mark the right way of swimming at this particular sauna bath. I complemented her on her strength, and she gave me a short lesson in how to breathe correctly in cold water. I felt I knew this already, but there is always more to know, and different ways of doing things. She was very keen on the yoga-breath idea of swimming in cold water – something for me to take away.
The owners of the sauna are Nene Tsuboi, an artist who moved to Helsinki from Japan in 1999, and Finnish architect Tuomas Toivonen. The plan to build a Finnish - Japanese bath house was an audacious one from the start, but people in the neighbourhood were enthusiastic and supportive of the idea. As a passion project in which the duo presented their ideas with care, careful not to sound crazy, not to talk about energies, the qualities of water, of the movement of air, they gained the respect of the city bureaucracy. Nene Tsuboi said once (probably many more times than once) that “the air on the top of water is different than the air on top of the land; at the edge there is always wind”. In finding the site for Kulttuurisauna, the right place was where the air was constantly moving. Like the water, it has to move, if it doesn’t, it gets stale. They went to the planning department to sign the lease for the plot of land in 2012, the lease for the perfectly-located urban site with two sides facing onto water, perfectly placed for wind. They came expecting a bureaucratic stamp, but instead they were greeted with excitement when the faceless bureaucratic ones turned out to be sauna-lovers in heart and spirit. So pleased were they to welcome Tsuboi and Tuomas who were out to make a very positive contribution to the Helsinki landscape and the happiness of the people who inhabit it.
Looking out across the water, the moon was fully risen and perfectly placed, and my final swim was a moon-swim, as I mentally climbed the rippling moon-ladder in the water. Only a hundred or so ‘steps’ or strokes up this ladder, but in cold water time seems to expand, and each step was a mindful moment. I thought of where I was, looked right and left as I swam back, head up, trying to be as graceful as possible. After the swim, after sauna-shower-getting dressed, I came out to see Pauline on the sofa. Not in a hurry, I sat down for a few moments and learned a little more of the philosophy that guided the building of Kulttuurisauna. The site needs to face the outer water, the ocean, because that is where people ultimately come from. The energy also needs to be right – the power of the stove mirrors the power of the coal fired electricity plant across the water, where the coal pile is lit up in cool turquoise neon in the darkening light. I don’t really have any view about the beliefs that guided the sauna, of the need to have a pyramid on the roof, other than they guided the build of the perfect sauna in place, energy, and vibe. They did it right. Every sauna session here is a performance, a work of living art, and it’s not for me to have an opinion really, beyond my experience of the place. Which was a very calm, slow, experience one – a transfer of silent power - as Pauline and I walked from Kulttuurisauna into the moonlit night.
65@65 Swim 49 La Banchina, Copenhagen
La Banchina isn’t Italian, it is firmly Copenhagen in a cockle-shell. It is a café in a run-down shed on the canal front in a brown field site on the Northern stretch of the city, going out to a rapidly renovating urban waste-land. But it really isn’t a waste land, as there is so much mental and physical energy being used in creative and generative ways here, and La Banchina is a small and exciting part of it. The food is great – everything traditional tastes like it should, everything new makes something new happen in your mouth. The staff are intelligent and keep things simple. Ponytails, piercings and tattoos, tee-shirts and dry humour. Last year I came here for the first time every with the Serpentine Crew – Simone, Sarah, Susan, Anne and Marie-Claire. We ordered our sauna as we arrived, and arranged our slot with the people changing at the bench there. Then to the café - the people serving there had a few laconic introductory comments – “you can’t swim in the canal, but as you see…” pointing to the jetty and the ladder down into the December water, where two naked men had just come out. Following up with “it’s against the law to swim naked, but as you see…” Then the food – hot buns covered in a light brushing of a spicy syrup, freshly picked tiny carrots from the nearby greenhouse (which is also tended by La Banchina) in an elderflower vinaigrette (the elderflowers picked last early Summer then frozen. This is the noma effect – it is not just the posh restaurants (of which there are many in Copenhagen) that are raising their game by making their cuisine more Nordic, the food innovators, mostly younger people, are to be found across the city, in the crevices that were grimy that become hipster, in brownfield sites where factory premises don’t just serve as artists’ studios and galleries, but places where urban food is being innovated. Last year, Simone had a field day at Torvhallern, trying everything food-like that he could, the rest of us trying to pull him away. Supper at our apartment that night was memorable, cosy, intimate, hygge. In the afternoon, we befriended people at the sauna, on the deck in front of La Banchina, and, dare I say it, had a very hygge time. The experience was hygge. We took hygge with us into the evening.
La Banchina is organic, biodynamic, locally sourced, farm to table, no meat, local fish, clean wine, sustainable so far as this is possible. Today at La Banchina I can’t find time for all the good the food has. Regrettably, I am by myself, in a hurry (shame on me), in need of a swim (pre-swim tension, hoping to make my stress past-tense). On a Sunday afternoon, the cafe has a line going out of the door. This short-cuts a couple of decisions – I won’t get to eat here this time (there is always next time, another reason to return). I won’t get into the sauna as there is a list of people waiting to get in. So it is down to just swimming. This is immediately relaxing, and enough for me – there is time enough for a short swim in the six degree water. I am by far the oldest person here, chatting as I change. Why am I in a hurry? I am off to the opera house to see Cosi fan Tutti. I am not sure how cool that is to say to hipster people (probably OK, but showing my age, if I am not showing it enough already), so hold off on that. So, I get changed outside with everyone else, climb down two levels of decking and into the soothing water. Immediately calm, I taste the sea water and it is not so salty as I expect sea water to be. On another previous trip, at Ribersborg, Malmo, Jeremy explained why sea water varies in salinity across the world. It made sense to me then, while I was in the water, but I quickly forgot. It did seem logical – who said ”I never remember what people say, only the emotion with which they say it?”
The Royal Danish Opera House is all that Sydney Opera House could have been, if it had been built half a century later. Both are on the water front, in an ikonic location; both had state of the art architecture; both have Danish architects. ’If I were ever to want to have an opera house built, I would find a Dane to do it’ I thought to myself. There is no risk of that. The Opera House in Copenhagen is a destination; you can take the river bus to it and from it. Getting there by boat makes going there an event. Today I was on bus, which stopped behind the House, and I among many was taking the Opera House by stealth, from behind, and from the side. The view across the canal is to the royal palace and the Marble Church, both landmarks. Into the opera house and all is marble and glass and wood, the auditorium being a huge wallnut in the core of the front half of the building. Staircases an walkways at each of the levels above the ground made this a place to see and be seen, the glass front and side declaring transparency to the world of the harbour, with naval ships to one side, to the world of royalty and the church to the front, and the world of commerce and industry looking down the canal from this the entry point to it. It was two thirty in the afternoon, thirty minutes ahead of a matinee performance. I bought a cup of tea and climbed the stairs to the top deck of the opera house, where I could look down on the people arriving, hear the hub-bub of anticipatory pre-performance conversation, and found myself a table to sit at. There were plenty of these, and I joined the small number of people who had brought their own food – pre-packed salads, sandwiches, cake. I had my own treasured cake with me, specially. A potato cake, so called because it looks ugly, like a large spud straight out of the ground, covered in brown dirt. This brown dirt is a dusting of cocoa powder. Beneath the dust is a layer of marzipan about three millimeters think – Danes love marzipan. Beneath the marzipan is the structure of the cake – a choux pastry ball about the size of a cricket ball, you could hold it in your hand, if it were not so dusty or if you didn’t care about keeping your clothes clean. Within the cricket ball was a rich vanilla custard. Just speaking it to you now, it doesn’t sound the likeliest combination, but like a lot of things Copenhagen, the unlikely works, and works astonishingly well. The potato cake is the food I really have to have on every trip to Copenhagen, as a defining aspect of the trip.That, and curried herrings, which is another unlikely unexpected delight – it really shouldn’t work as something you would eat, but... But that is another story. Today, at two thirty five, after taking five minutes to explain the Copenhagen potato cake to you, I have a pastry box, within which is a potato cake, which I have fifteen minutes to eat and appreciate, in one of the most stunning locations on the planet. Swimming and cake go together. Swimming in hipster Copenhagen, and potato cake, sqidging vanilla custard trough choux pastry, smearing cocoa powder from marzipan onto cream and cream into mouth and onto beard, was less a coming together than a marriage, one which will be consumated every time I come to Copenhagen. Talk of marriage puts my in good frame of mind for today’s opera, Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte, as the bells for ten minutes to performance ring and echo across the auditorium.
65@65 Swim #50 Tooting Bec Lido
South London Swimming Club are framed as the opposition by the Serpentine Swimming Club, at least when it comes to the annual races between the two London clubs. It is a friendly rivalry, though, one that hardly penetrates anyone’s thinking. Today is Tooting, just ahead of the acceleration of warnings about coronavirus, the day after the sauna was closed for anticipatory public health reasons. The sun was shining, the blue water had a sparkle to it, and was a delightful six degrees Celsius. Pauline baked fruit cake and brought it along. This was the first test of the extent of concern about the present plague. Cake was accepted with gusto, with the laughter of invitation. We come here once a year, usually in February but this time in March, paying a day fee and registering, bringing cake so that we feel we are contributing to the kitchen, where there is tea and toast and anything else that people bring. The cake was devoured between my leaving it in the kitchen and getting changed after swimming – Pauline and I were pleased. The swim, in London’s longest lido, was for me a couple of lengths. A lady called Rachel came and swam next to me, swam-talked most of the first length – she usually swam with her daughter, I could take her place today, because she wasn’t here. She usually swam in Brockwell Lido, but this was recently closed for refurbishment, there were quite a few people from Brockwell Lido there this morning, that’s why. We will need to do a London Lido safari some time… I spoke of Scandivianian swimming and how nice the water was, sparkling blue, how the sun had some warmth to it, how the sky was blue, how much I like the colour blue, and so on. ‘Count me in for the London Lido safari’, I said. Two geese were swimming behind, almost drafting, on a swimmer ahead of us. These geese have the run of the lido, I learned.
There was enough warmth in the sun for me to want to stand in it after getting out, for some minutes before changing. No sauna meant a shorter stay, but no less pleasant for it. I went to shower, and they were just too hot, so I didn’t really shower, just went back to my red-doored cubicle and changed. The doors of the cubicles are an item of identity for this lido, and the steps area has plaques honouring the greats of the club, going back to the start of the lido, in 1906. Tea, people were drinking tea and eating toast, the elbow-bump had become the standard greeting, often with apology for the absence of a hand-shake. The sun was warm, the sky was blue, the tea and cake was delicious, and it was difficult to see that this was the start of the corona-year, 2020.
65@65 Swim #51 Minster Lovell, Oxfordshire
I was to have been in Italy this week, at the Slow Food Foundation. I have work there two sometimes three times a year. It is always pleasurable, always something new to know about food and its production, manufacture, preparation and cooking. The place is full of young optimistic people from across the work, bright people mostly in their twenties and thirties, passionate about food, real food, with ideas and enthusiasm about making the world a better place. They call me ‘Professore’ and listen to what I say, sometimes absorbing, sometimes challenging, respectfully. They say they learn from me, but I feel I learn as much from them. The instigator of the Slow Food Movement, Carlo Petrini, can sometimes been seen in the streets, or more usually in the Slow Food café and deli, Locale, in the small town called Bra, where it all started. It is a privilege to work here, and I am ready for the shot in the arm of optimism that going there gives me. I am generally optimistic, and am optimistic now, in West Oxfordshire, as this country, the UK, goes into a form of lock-down, the second of several I imagine. I am not, as you have gathered, in Bra, or anywhere near Italy this week, although I have sent my messages, emails, of solidarity, wishing strength and courage in their individual and collective ordeals. My heart bleeds for Italy right now, but I remain optimistic. Cristina, an immunologist, tells me of the mobilisation of young people in Bologna to make sure old people get their food and medicines. She is mobilised in research. Claudio and Vita, both in their seventies, remain positive and stoic. Claudio is an immunogeneticist of aging – “It was expected”, he says. Maddalena, a young philosopher, has her head down. She is writing about everything, because this is the time to write about everything. My friends in Italy are locked down, but mobilised in different ways. I can merely offer solidarity, but more important, they say, just keep working with us. This particular plague is different to all the others – the internet has changed everything. Just keep working with us – solidarity, reducing the isolation, getting work done, even now.
Swimming in the new environment requires some adjustment. I have postponed travel to Italy, Copenhagen, France in the coming weeks, and have become very local. Eynsham is my village, and people are ready to volunteer, well-organised as ever, ten sectors have been created, each with its own set of volunteers and helpers. Oxford University has been amazing in its prompt response – transparent with information, everything done according to the book. Andy, and Achillefs, both bioscientists of the top rank, friends and Fellows at my College, St Cross, are at the front line of research against coronavirus. Both committed, devoted scientists, as are their teams, working around the clock. There is a lot to be optimistic about, as we face the reality of isolation for months to come. Optimism, and hard graft. And outdoor swimming. This is one thing that is not locked down. The plan has changed, and my 65@65 will become more local, more intimate. Swim number 51 is now somewhere not on the agenda at all, but upon thinking, is perfectly logical – the River Windrush at Minster Lovell.
A small stream swelled by the rains, Pauline and got here by parking at the edge of Minter Lovell village and walking through the churchyard to the site of a ruined hall – Minter Lovell Hall. We used to come here with the kids, and we didn’t really learn much about the ruin, the Hall, except perhaps the perfect des-res of its time. We used to picnic here, dip with the kids, as they busied themselves with damming the stream. Today we change in a corner of one of the former wings, and dip tentatively. The water is high, moving fast, too fast to swim against, but not so fast that you can’t swim in the same place. Strong and fast, but with enough of a cold bite to it, to make it worth coming today. In the coming weeks the swims will become more difficult, but we can celebrate the coming Springtime, the change in the weather, and it is more important than ever to keep swimming. Swimming heals; all of us who swim outdoors, in all seasons, we all know that.
65@65 Swim #52 Days Lock, The Thames
The loneliness of the social-distanced swimmer. I miss you all, and it’s only been a week or so. Pauline and I are nostalgic about the old times already. We were reminiscing about Helsinki, just three weekends ago, Saturday night at the sauna. Seemed strange then, seems a great idea now – a packed group of people in their togs, male and female, having a great primate-moment, giggling and chatting. We are walking to Day’s Lock, which is just outside Oxford, on the Thames. The day is the first cloudy one for days, the past few days of isolation and social distancing at home have been sugar-coated by the weather. Today it doesn’t rain, but the wind is big, and it feels good to have a little exposure to nature, beyond the trot around the village. No-one is giggling and chatting here, as we pass, at a social distance, various people walking their bit of local countryside, with dogs, with one other person. We saw three women, a mother and two late adolescent daughters looking distressed, eying us suspiciously – “we are practicing social distancing” explained the mother. The two daughters had runny eyes and red noses. It needed no explanation. We signalled that we were going to the lock. They were going in the other direction, and waited, a social distance away. People we passed were dogged, resigned, with dog, some, only two cheerful couples. Even the swams on shore were practicing social distancing. One dog was trying to swim with the swans on the water – “we call him duck-dog” explained the cheery owner, two social distances away from me. He was the most serious swimmer today – the river was still fierce, the flood plains still emptying upstream. How quickly we seem to have forgotten the recent flooding in the UK. It offered great swimming over the Christmas period. Duck-dog is having a great time, and I envy him or her. At Day’s Lock we stop to watch the water going over the weir, crazy tumbling. We look for a swim spot, for the little beach I remember from last time, when we swam, Jeremy, Alice, myself and others, from Clifton Hampden to Days Lock, five kilometres more or less, in cool April waters. We see it, now fenced off. We look for some way into the water that doesn’t involve plunging right in, and find a place close to the lock, by the reeds. This works. Much more of a dip than a swim, I feel self-conscious about swimming on the first Saturday of lock-down. Today’s headline is about the ’24 hour spike in coronavirus deaths in the UK’. My first reaction is irritation with the journalist that wrote that – a sharp increase is not a spike unless it is followed by a sharp decrease. I am irritated because the journalistic tendency to dramatise really isn’t needed. More people are getting ill, more people are dying and no-one can control it. That is almost not news any more, and some of the media turn to seeking blame. I know enough about the course of epidemics and the social effects and impacts they have, to see that the medical cases and the deaths are one thing, and the steady social strangulation as another thing that affects everyone. And also that it takes time, if the spread of virus is not arrested, for the statistically ‘excess’ morbidity and mortality to become a new norm. Meanwhile, the UK has a sense of being on a war-time footing, with talk of the ‘war against Covid-19’, and loose talk of rationing after days of pre-Christmas-like stock-piling of food.
The current war-like footing, against a disease pandemic not known since World War One, is one of the reasons I have chosen Day’s Lock as one of my local 65@65s. The link is the artist Paul Nash. I haven’t mentioned that nearby are Wittenham Clumps, two clumps of woodland on sister hills close-by Day’s Lock. When we swam from Clifton Hampden to Day’s Lock years ago, the Thames horse-shoes around Wittenham Clumps, and we got to see the clumps from various angles and perspective across the duration of the swim. Day’s Lock is the closest to the Clumps, and on that day they gave the end of the swim a unique beauty. Wittenham Clumps are a couple of hills set next to each other on an otherwise flat landscape – they can be seen for miles. On one of the hills, the lesser-prominent one, there is a hill fort, with ditches, the first of which is Bronze Age, around 5,000 years ago. Then more ditches were dug in the Iron Age, around 3,000 years ago. Then the Romans came and used it, developed it further, around 2,000 years ago. It feels old in a layer-cake kind of archaeological way. Years ago, we had the son of an old friend of ours visit from Australia. He was keen on eevrything, and one day we visited some of the very deeply prehistoric places in and around Oxfordshire, Wittenham Clumps being the least deep among them – Stone Henge, Wood Henge, Avebury all belonging to deeper ages beyond the bronze – the Stone Age. I have a love of the Stone Age, imagining how life might have been. I have been privileged in my life to stay and do research among people who only recently left their own stone age, in remote Papua New Guinea. So I find it easy to slip into thinking about food and foraging, group size and religion, all in a past that only reveals itself through bones, stones and the landscape.
This is my frame of mind here at Wittenham Clumps today. There are places you can sense as having many ghosts, many visitors, many owners, even when now deserted, parkland, a place to go and walk, to look around. Wittenham Clumps is like this. Paul Nash had a minor obsession about this place; he painted the Clumps many times. At the retrospective at Tate Britain in 2016 there was a room dedicated to his Clumps paintings. Nash lived in Oxford, for a while on Banbury Road, and in normal times I would cycle past it every day, to and from work. Nash was an English surrealist and before that a war artist in 1917 and 18. This new world we are would be both surrealism and war art if it were not so real life. Nash was a war artist just prior to the start of great influenza pandemic that followed that war and killed over twenty million people world-wide. The consensus seems to be that the 1918-19 pandemic started in the trenches in Northern France and Belgium. The present pandemic, China. The methods of attempted control of the present pandemic - social isolation, quarantine, emergency hospitals, lock-down, seem similar to the previous pandemic. Some of these methods are actually medieval. The biology is of course a universe away from 1918-19. The structure of DNA is known; the structure and function of RNA clearly laid out. Viruses are understood from evolutionary, biological, medical and engineering perspectives. The tech is amazing – and the scientists working it are better educated and connected than ever, dedicated and working around the clock and around the world. This is not 1919, and it seems unlikely that twenty million people will die from Covid-19. We have to stay locked down, that is clear. But being a good Covid-19 citizen means I am limited in where I can swim. And I want to swim freely; I want life back to normal. I know it can’t happen for a while, but I would dearly love to swim with my good swim friends, who have their own versions of what is going on, their own situations and circumstances, who need to swim as much as, if not more than, I do. When I can’t swim in my body, I swim in my mind. Must not stop swimming.