65@65 Swim #42 Winter Swimming World Championships, Lake Bled, Slovenia
Very exciting to be able to attend and swim at the premier gathering of winter swimmers at Lake Bled, Slovenia. The king and queen of winter swimming were there, in their finest dry robes – the Germans Alisa Fatum and Christof Wandrasch. She smashed the kilometer race on day one, with a time of just over 13 minutes, and both won everything they entered. Apart from the sheer awe that this inspires – a Summertime Olympic time done at 7 degrees Celsius in Winter – I am left wondering why this isn’t yet a Winter Olympics event. This growth of this activity across the years should surely see the great winter swimmers becoming rewarded properly before long. Jeremy and I went together, Neil regrettably had to stay back – next time, Neil. And we kept bumping into friends old and new. We stayed in accommodation arranged by Jaana, and were in the company of Serpentine Swimming Club people much of the time – as well as Jaana, there was Nicola, Anne, and Eliza, and in the girls log cabin, George and Matthew in the flat opposite, and the Luckhurst family in their rented house close to the event centre, the Olympic Rowing Centre on Lake Bled. Nick and James distinguished themselves with coming third and second respectively in their distance events.
Bled was a magical backdrop to the event – magical lake – tick; magical island with magical church – tick; magical castle on the top of a towering rock – tick; magical snow clad mountains – tick; and a magical moon in a deep blue sky on the last day – tick. Bled ticked all the magical boxes. Then there were the swimmers, individuals and groups, many dressed for the party with dry robes bedecked with badges, tags and labels, embroidery and sparkles, beanies in club colours, swim caps revealing club or swim identities. My swim identities were Dodo and Serpentine. A bit schizophrenic, but I talked with a young lady who lives in Cardiff and she described the three clubs in and around Cardiff she swam with, and the one near Bristol, who swim at Cleveden ocean pool. “I’m a bit of a swim-slut” she confessed. I sympathised; I guess I am a swim-slut too, but have never known the right term for it. Now I know. And there was much to learn at the Winter Swimming World Championships. Some of the learning was to do with Pauline Barker.
I wanted to meet her, but it wasn’t so easy. I met the first blond women speaking English and asked her if she was Pauline Barker. I got a bemused look. The second attempt was a bit better – this blond woman asked if I wanted to find her now, she could help. “No, not now” I said, as I was getting ready to get ready for my first race, and I was nervous. I really did want to find Pauline Barker, and I did. The third attempt “are you Pauline Barker?” met with success. She was in a hurry, but gracious and polite, she was swimming very soon. We spoke of the Polar Bear Challenge and the work it involved on her part – she is another little-sung hero of winter swimming. Taking the cue from Pauline, Jeremy and I went to the pool-side to watch the races, and there was no missing Pauline Barker there – she wasn’t so much as wearing the Union Flag of Great Britain, as embodying it, with swim-suit, swim-cap – happily the most visible person on the swim deck. Jeremy and I met many people we would like to swim with, and reflecting on the groups and individuals I swim with, I realized that I am happy to with almost anyone, and am very happily a swim-slut. I am also happy to seek gender-neutrality for a word that rolls off the tongue like the f-word does and has an attention-grabbing presence which the f-word no longer has.
65@65 Swim #43 Lake Bohinj, Slovenia
Jeremy and I drove (well, Jeremy drove) from Bled on day two of the Winter Swimming World Championships to Bohinj, just under an hour away, to swim in what I was informed was the most beautiful lake in Slovenia. Yes, more beautiful than Lake Bled. This was difficult to imagine, so it was important to see. Up and up the road went, following one tributary of the Sava River most of the way there, watching the water go from wild to wild and calm to wild again, and feeling the temperature drop as we went into the Julian Alps. Lake Bohinj was not just beautiful and glacial, with the mountains in the distance dusted in snow, it was quiet and almost deserted, a great contrast to the excitement of the swimming event in Bled. This is where the New Zealand Olympic Rowing Team trains when in Europe, and there was a plaque of gratitude at the rowing platforms on the lake, now empty, but the buzz of rowers training in Springtime was easy to imagine. My mind went to swimming in the Thames, where rowing eights are not always the most welcome sight. Swimming in the company of rowing eights, I imagine my head being lopped off by an oar and being tossed into the distance. Not the way I would like to die. Today it is easy, with nothing in sight on the water. Jeremy and I walk to look at the statue of Golden horn, a legendary deer which lived high on Mount Triglav, in the distance behind the statue. The legend is pan-Slovenian-Austrian-Italian (Friuli-Venezia Giulia). A crazy story, I thought, should be made into a ballet. To paraphrase (and adapt from) the guide-book, “Golden horn’s golden horns were the way to a fortune covered up in the mountains around Triglav. A fearless and young hunter from the Trenta Valley experienced passionate feelings for a lovely young lady and worked out how to win her heart by bringing her beautiful flowers. One day a rich trader from Venice dropped by (as they do) and won her over with trinkets and brilliant adornments and dancing. The hunter approached her, but won over by Venetian trader-guy, she mocked him. He was left distraught and desperate, and teamed up with another hunter (the Green hunter) to seek their fortunes by finding Gold horn. To their shame, they shot Golden horn, who dragged himself away up onto Mount Triglav, where it ate the flowers which brought colossal life power. It ran towards the hunter, who was blinded by its brilliant glistening horns, lost his balance and tumbled from the mountain and died. Moral – don’t mess with Golden horn, not even when you have been traded for a Venetian merchant. It may never happen to you, but you are prepared should you find yourself in an Alpine love-trance-dance-hunting thing at some stage in the future.
The statue of Golden horn was certainly in the right place, and it attracted the few people there were walking by the lake. There being no evidence of dead hunters in Lake Bohinj, Jeremy and I scouted the best place to swim, which was about half way between the rowing platforms and Golden horn, the statue. Winter had so far been disappointingly warm; in the Summer I imagined them cutting the ice on Lake Bled for the Winter Swimming Championships. Today and yesterday, the water was a five degrees Celsius, which while cold, not quite in the zone hoped for. Lake Bohinj was glacially cold, at around three degrees Celsius, I guessed from the sharp cut of the cold on my hands as I entered the water. Then the magic happened – the snow, from dropping a few suggestive evocative grains from the sky as we changed turned to a flurry-fall from dark grey cloud as we swam. This was dangerous – I was enchanted and didn’t want to get out. Golden horn came to mind – perhaps there is a golden eel that enchants and kills in Lake Bohinj? I am not a hunter but a swimmer, but I looked for slivers of shining gold in the water – none to be seen, but perhaps like gold-rush diggers in nineteenth century Australia or California, the belief in the gold is more persuasive than finding gold. This is all not true and total total invention on my part, but maybe this is how myths get started. If on a future visit to Lake Bohinj (it is really worth the visit) you hear of the story of Golden eel of Lake Bohinj, of the fabled drowned swimmer, perhaps pay homage to the statue of Golden eel, please remember you read it here first.
65@65 Swim #44 Serpentine Swimming Club, Hyde Park, London
“Ser-pen-ti- ine, my Serpenti-ine, Ser-pen-ti- ine, my Serpenti-ine”… A musical fruit-loop from the Serpentine Swimming Club Christmas Party choir. “I’m going swimming in the morning; ding-dong my bits are going to chime; water’s almost frozen, it’s what I’ve chosen; so get me to the Serpentine”… A party-piece sung by Sandy at last year’s party, dressed in togs and nothing else. These two very memorable musical-loops, were stuck in my mind, taking turns, dancing in my mind as I crossed Hyde Park, in London, with purpose, ‘get-me-to-the-Serpentine-on-time’ I improvised in the brief break between the two loops. ‘Get me to the changing rooms’ was the other improvisation. I overtook a limping old dog trying to keep up with his owner on his Saturday morning stroll, among many dog walkers, joggers and runners. We saw eye to eye briefly, one limping old dog to another. I was buoyed up by the trip in the previous week to Slovenia – tripping along, in a little pain but happy. The music-loop was carrying me along. Music is a part of the Serpentine Swimming Club, as is breakfast at the Lido Café, with swimming at all levels taking centre stage. The club is famous, venerated, internationally-known, the oldest in the world many say, and its members diverse in knowledge and skills, and always interesting. And boy can they swim – I am privileged to know among the most accomplished swimmers and those that swim for pleasure and aesthetics here. The club has many gods, alive and dead, in its pantheon. I place Nick and Boris in this pantheon, the other Nick, Hungerford, is currently undertaking the many daunting tasks that it takes to become a god – the Ice Mile, the Polar Bear Challenge, and next year the Polar Bear Challenge - Jedi level (I have my greeting for him already – ‘Yoda best, Nick!’). He is legend in Scandinavia for not turning up to receive his award at a winter swimming event – now, some say ‘Nick Hungerford!’ instead of ‘skol!’ when they look each other in the eye and raise their glasses to drink’. I am creating the rumour that the Danes will replace the complement ‘You are a Viking!’ with ‘You are Nick Hungerford!’ once he completes the Jedi Polar Bear Challenge. The real Nick Hungerford (the person, not the legend) is an urbane joking-casual Melbourne-charming man, whom I think (I hope!) can take a joke. And in all seriousness I am privileged to know him. We kind-of have an arrangement which would involve him taking me to his work place (why? Because it is interesting), while I in return show him my work place (why? Because he might find it interesting). If this happens, I don’t know if I will recognise him in his work clothes. A very common thing to say at parties where swimmers are in their finest evening-wear is “I didn’t recognise you with your clothes on!”. And often it is true. At the Serpentine many trade the authoritative tread, stomp or clip of black Oxfords or heels for flip-flops, crocs or sandals, or even bare-feet, which is my preference. There are many great and wonderful people at the club, most of which could have a write-up of their own, and there is a strong ethos of friendliness and positivity.
Today the club is on the cusp of transition – the club house will undergo renovation in the coming months (there is much passionate discussion about this – how will it be done? Who was consulted?), and the café sees its opening day after winter-months of renovation. I put my head around the café door, which is ajar, and ask the manager if it will be open today. He is an energetic and charming man in his thirties, and says “I certainly hope so! We have been working solidly into the night all last week to make it so!” Pauline and I wish him the very best – he knows of the swimming club, knows that soon after nine there will be a tidal surge of swimmers seeking breakfast, relentless in their quest for their avo-on-toast (with or without Burford Brown poached eggs) and their swimmers discount. He says he plans to try swimming at the club when it gets a bit warmer, and we encourage him – swimmers are lovely people, we say, and the club is fantastic.
On to the club-house, which is right next door, the little unassuming changing room being crowded by the first wave of swim-racers this Saturday morning. More by luck than preparation, today is a ‘scratch’ race, meaning that everyone starts at the same time, without a handicap. This is accidentally good for me, since the handicap that regular swimmers have, which reflects performance in previous races, is something eludes me because I am never able to join the races for enough consecutive Saturdays. It is an aspiration, so far thwarted. The handicap is to my mind a mystery, a secret protected by Danny the handicapper, and is something that can help secure a win at a race, or conversely secure last place. The handicapper is a person of skill and the position is one of power. People start swimming with the count-down in minutes and seconds from the slowest first to the fastest last, all according to handicap in minutes and seconds. The finish at a handicap race is very exciting and quite chaotic, with most people finishing quite close to each other. I ask Danny and he enters me for the first race, and I am happy to take part – that is enough for me. Today’s winner is Nick, a huge swim-achiever and a role-model for many. Head, shoulders and biceps above everybody, he is part of the back-bone of the club. An experienced channel-swimmer, he trains the channel swimmers of the club – solo and relay.
Robin is another part of the backbone – 79 years of age, he is former President and everyday presence – he knows everyone’s name, has a kind word for everyone, makes tea when it is needed, offers advice when sought, and talks with everyone. Alan is the present President, who works with Scottish astuteness and wit to advance the club’s aims. This morning he calls the club members “an organisation of anarchists” or something close to that. Stray cats are perhaps easier to round up, and that is perhaps why the handicap system works so well –everyone starts in their own time. They just have to know their own time. That is why on entering the clubhouse on a Saturday morning there is clustering of people by the notice-board, where the list of handicaps is pinned. Some are happy with their handicap, some are not, but the handicap time cannot be challenged, and even if it could, it wouldn’t be cool to – that would suggest taking it far more seriously than it should be.
The Saturday morning race is an opportunity for coming together as swimmers, something that doesn’t routinely happen during the week. Today it is a 55 yard dash, in seven degree water. The group-ness of Saturday morning swimming has several facets – getting changed in the crowded tiny changing room, waiting to swim and talking in huddles, the races themselves, talking and watching the races you are not in, getting changed after swimming (in winter as much as an organised chaos of arms and fumbling of fingers to put on tops and fasten buttons), the announcement of the winners and prize-giving, singing in the choir by the water-front under the skilled direction of Katherine, and breakfast at the café. Many happy huddles make a happy Saturday morning at the Serpentine Swimming Club.
Christo at the Serpentine, Summer Nostalgia
Summer nostalgia, 2018, when the sun shone and the Mastaba glistened in the morning light. This was the Serpentine Swimming Club warden-Summer when the most common question asked by passers-by (after “how can I join?”) was “what’s it for?”. For those that missed it (either the Summer, or the Mastaba), the Mastaba was a landmark sculpture, planned for many years, and located that Summer in the Serpentine, Hyde Park. Christo was the artist, well-known across his life for planning and planting landmark sculpture in key locations across the world. You either love him or you hate him. Or are just plain indifferent to his work. I wardened three times across the Summer, as well as swimming numerous times there, and saw (along with many others) the full life-span of the London Mastaba. There was no Christo-briefing for wardens, and so one was forced to improvise. The tower of red barrels with the white stripe was clearly not ‘for’ anything; it was art. “It’s art, innit?” was the obvious answer, but revealing nothing, being a bit rude, a bit patronising, and not a good way to be an ambassador for the club. “Selfie-stop…” I said distractedly one morning, as I saw a couple of people swim up to it with their water-proof (I hope) cameras to take smiling pictures to save, post and cherish – I (heart) the Mastaba one seemed to signal. I talked to some people about other Christo projects that came to mind – wrapping kilometres of coastline in New South Wales in plastic, wrapping the Reichstag building in Berlin in the 1990s (I was there, I remember it well – Berlin had something of a spontaneous ‘wrap public objects’ thing going in the Summer of 1995), wrapping the Pont-Neuf in Paris… Talk of aesthetics soon turned to talk of single-use plastics, one inquisitor asking how the barrels would be recycled after the sculpture came down. Answer to this, I had not, not even a thought. But it made me think. I thought of how the New South Wales coastline wrapping might have migrated to the Garbage Patch State in the Pacific Ocean, but beyond that, I was stumped, well out of my crease with Adam Gilchrist at his prime keeping wicket.
Although it wasn’t my job to know how art-works are recycled, this was to me to be a novel question. I imagined the living rooms of well-heeled Kensington households having their own a single red-white striped barrel - ex-Mastaba fragment – poised at an angle, in the study, end-up, supporting a German angle-poise lamp, in the toilet, as a base for a toilet-roll Mastaba playfully made by the children… Would this be artwork, or memento? Subsequently I learned of at least one artist, Michael Landy, who made a performance piece of disposing of all of his possessions – recycling must be involved in some way there I thought. In line with the toilet-roll Mastaba thought, I encouraged one couple from Israel (having fun on holiday) to come back with a couple of bags of toilet rolls and make their own miniature one on the bank of the Serpentine. Then take smiling selfies.
The thing itself was BIG. A flat-topped pyramid typical of the ancient Middle-East, typical of desert surroundings, mysteriously plooped into the Serpentine, in the duck poo, seemingly bisecting the length of the lake, seemingly occupying much of its width adjacent to the Serpentine Swimming Club. Christo himself said that the swimmers would probably have the best view of it. Too right; I’m not sure if it was the best view, it was certainly the most imposing view . Swimming in the longer track outside the buoyed area, the Mastaba was a giant that had to be negotiated. In one Summer race, the gap between Mastaba and buoys formed a pinch-point which added excitement as swimmers bumped and jostled through the narrow gap. In the annual bridge to bridge race, the oldest race in the Club’s calendar, swimmers were briefed to steer a course “to the left of the art work”.
Across the Summer, I got fond of the Mastaba. It defied explanation without pretension, it was pretty from a distance in the morning sun, it gave a beautiful reflection, and was all-in-all, harmless. A gentle giant. This was my surreal Summer, when life imitated art, and art and swimming were as one. Then at Summer’s end, the Mastaba was dismantled. Was tossed away, as if the Summer of Mastaba love was just a flirtation, meant nothing. I was disturbed by the growing absence, then steadily made sense of its departure – it just was at first ugly, too big, not FOR anything. Then it was OK that it just WAS. Then when it just WAS in the water-scape, it started to disappear and was soon gone. I rationalised – “it was still pretty when it went; if it had stayed, it would have faded, it would have gotten covered in pigeon poo (at the top) and duck poo (at the bottom) – better to depart when still in glory…”
Not everyone liked the Mastaba, not everyone liked its seeming pointlessness. Some pointed to how the money spent in putting it in place, maintaining it, taking it down, could have been better spent in a lot of different ways. Some were overwhelmed by it; some were underwhelmed. Some saw the arrogance of the arts, some the fecklessness of the Parks authority. I don’t think anyone graffiti’d it, though. In the end, it came and went, and the London Parks authority have had their ikonic art work forever photographically documented – Christo was here. It was an act of vandalism, some said. Christo wasn’t helpful when asked what it was about – he said it was to help people stop and think. It did that, for sure. The Serpentine Swimming Club featured in many of the photos of the Mastaba that Summer, and it did make people stop and think. And some to ask the warden “what’s it for?”
65@65 Swim #45 Vinterbad Bryggen, Copenhagen
I have been a member of Vinterbad Bryggen for several years, after looking longingly at this bathing platform on earlier visits, so perfectly designed, so well-placed in the city. ‘Better to swim than to regret not swimming’. My niece, Sarah, has a great saying – “you never regret a swim”. She said it as justification of squeezing in time for a swim at Grange Beach, Adelaide, when I stayed with her a few years ago. She didn’t really have the time then, and I was her justification – a visitor, in need of a swim. I say to myself all the time now, especially when Modern Time squeezes every possibility of doing something very life affirming during the working day. “You never regret a swim” helps me find a swim where there would otherwise not be one, find kindred people who feel the same way, find the very beautiful, and sometimes encounter the unexpected. “You never regret a swim” keeps my mind, eyes and ears open. I joined VBB because I need to swim in Winter and it is placed so well, with a view of the city, and the crowned spire of Parliament House rising behind Langerbro, the long bridge that links the mainland of Copenhagen to one of its islands. It is also close by the University of Copenhagen’s Southern Campus, still called KUA (Kopenhagens Universitet A) by many and myself, so the decision is pragmatic. If I am close to a swim every day, I will swim every day. There is something very gratifying about getting out in togs and into the water in the very centre of a city, in this case in the canal that defines the Copenhagen waterfront.
Today is already tonight, and I am meeting Anne Katrine to swim and sauna – “lets meet in the women’s sauna, and discuss the project”. The sauna is a place where meetings sometimes take place – in your togs, you are all equal, this reduces status hierarchies dramatically, because there is only embodied capital to display, and not the symbolic capital of clothing, shoes, bags, laptop, and everything else that goes with the material every day. I sometimes think that Scandinavian democracy starts with the great levelling that takes place when all, or nearly all, material trappings are taken away. There are two saunas at VBB – gendered, but flexibly so. Very Copenhagen. If you are a man and woman together in some way, you can use either male or female sauna. Man or men alone, to the men’s sauna; woman or women alone, to the women’s. There are times, usually in the evening, when talking is discouraged, when the swim-sauna thing leads to introspection, calm, and intimacy without words that I imagine would be what it is like to be on a silent retreat. Other times, indeed most other times, people talk, interact, joke and laugh. Like being in the pub. But without the beer. And without clothes. Anne Katrine have a little work to discuss, to get out of the way before enjoying the evening. I swim longer than anyone swimming tonight – “you are a Viking!” says a woman who is completing her Masters in Philosophy, seeking to do a doctorate at KUA. I have had this comment from a number of people – being a Viking is high praise. Of fortitude, endurance, inner strength. It seems to me that this is what being Danish means to a lot of people, deep down. Happiness, as the World Happiness Survey has it, places people in Scandinavia at the top of the list – this Viking world view places people within a deep history and makes the quiet virtues the important ones. Respect is shown by a look deep into the eyes and a very small nod of the head. I am very satisfied by getting the Viking nod from the philosopher lady, before we start a conversation about phenomenology and everyday experience. This is a conversation I have never had in a pub, so in that way the sauna is not quite like the pub.
This is an ikonic place, the swimming platform at Islands Brygge. The place name translates into ‘Iceland Wharf’, which tells of its no too distant history as part of the docklands of Copenhagen. No dock here now, all gone North, to Nordhavn, to where the ships of the Maersk company and its shipping containers are located. Water, the ocean, are, and have always been, important to this nation. I preen with pride when some says to me ‘you are a Viking!’, always in relation to winter swimming. Iceland Wharf is well on the way to gentrification. In Summer the grassy parkland set behind the serious cobbled dock front is teeming with people, mostly young, mostly loud, mostly half-dressed, some drinking, some throwing themselves in the water. Last June we stayed in Islands Brygge, the district, the weather was properly warm, and the people hot and sweaty and Islands Brygge, the wharf, was partying, as was all of Copenhagen. Work seemed to stop for the week as people were bleary eyed in the morning and off to the beach in the mid-afternoon.
65@65 Swim #46 Kastrup Sea Bath, Copenhagen
One great thing about Kastrup Sea Bath, or The Snail, or the Conch, is that it is easy to get to. Two stops from the airport on the Metro, and twenty minutes plus a walk from the centre of old Copenhagen. I came here after work, on the way to the airport, to fly back to London. An opportunistic short swim in the dark. The platform can be seen from the Metro train (just) and in the dark it is easy to find – lit up like a sea sculpture, it is the best of design, and among the best of Copenhagen. That’s another great thing about it. It was built in 2005 entirely out of azobe, an African wood that is harder than steel and seemingly never rots or attracts woodworm. In Summer it is packed – it has diving towers, lots of space to lie about in, and an amazing view over the sea and Øresund bridge (think The Bridge) to Sweden – I can’t imagine those Danish-Swedish Copenhagen-Malmo thrillers without it. Right now I am guided by the lights on the jetty leading up to it. On my own, I exchange greetings with family – adult male, female, two children, all went for a dip. The winter-swimming family. They warned me to be careful, the current is swirling around. They wouldn’t stop me – Danes are far too sensible, assuming that people are grown up enough to assess personal risk for themselves. The Snail/Conch platform was lit up, or up-lit, following the planks to the bathing area – one hand-rail, increasingly dark sea below – was like following the lighting strips on a plane. The platform itself is much bigger than expected, if you haven’t been here before, with plenty of bench space to change in. I put down my thermos and arranged my clothes, left my carry-on luggage safely at the end of the bench. Arranged them in order of putting back on. I recalled a November morning, my first time down here, ever, 7am, blood-red sky, anticipating a much needed swim. Not anticipated were the thirty or so less than clothed bodies, in and quickly out of the water, drinking tea and getting dressed. Someone from Vinterbad Bryggen recognised me and we shared a hug and some tea. This 7am swim happens every day, I was told. That time I didn’t have a thermos flask of tea with me, and people were very happy to share – coffee and stories. “Do we do this in Oxford?” – the most common question. ‘Not quite like this, but yes’. Not quite so naked, not so usually, no. I have swimming friends from Copenhagen visit Oxford and come swimming, usually Port Meadow, but also the lake at the West Oxfordshire Sailing Club. They are easy guests to have – they fit in easily, and are pleasant company. Back to tonight, and the swim before the flight – brief, very careful entry into the swirly darkness-water, swirled around for no more than a few minutes, always careful, then out and changed. Back to the routine of the airport, but mellow in temperament while being processed onto the flight and then off it again at Heathrow. ‘The swim stays with you, and you never regret a swim’, I have heard that said, and I have often said it myself.