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Swim #11, The Missing Link Swim

The Thames Group swam the Thames, from the source to the end of the non-tidal river at Teddington. Three years ago, I swam this swim, from Teddington Lock to Richmond Bridge, accompanied by Pauline and Sylvia on her beautiful Maltese rowing boat. Two years ago, I did it again, a beautiful swim, again with Pauline and Slyvia rowing, with a stop by Richmond Bridge for a picnic, then I joined the crew to row back to Teddington. Sylvia is in her 70s and has her boat in a small boathouse of her own right on the river. Everyone on this stretch of the Thames knows Sylvia, and to be with her is to get a sense of river community here, very friendly, helpful. The second time I swam this stretch, a canoeist stopped to talk, to share his local knowledge, an American in London, a very convivial soul (as most on the river are). Swum three times, I am getting to know this stretch of river, getting to know the importance of the tide chart, a new respect for the power of teh water here. This time, I met with two Serpentine swimmers, but in kayaks today - Vanesa and Boris, and their children. The question from Boris, 'how far are you going', seemed right. "Just to Richmond Bridge" seemed a modest enough answer. I remember Boris once starting a sentence with "When I swam from Germany to Denmark..." Boris is tall, strong, one of the elite in swimming. Nice to exchange a few words on his local stretch. The missing link, why the missing link?  Last year we swam from Richmond to Kew, fast and furious as the tide went out and the river dropped by two meters - The Thames Group was since then missing a swim, Teddington to Richmond. The chain made complete again today. The image is of the Swim the Thames Group, at the end of the then final swim, to the monument at Teddington Lock. 

Swim #12, Bologna, Piscina Sterlino

We have been coming to Bologna for years, one of those seemingly random happenstances. We house-swapped one Summer, with Vita and Claudio - they are both Anglophiles, she, Professor of English Literature, he Professor of Immunogenetics, both at the University of Bologna. As happens upon repeated visits, the place becomes familiar, it is easy to get around, know where to go. In Summer, Vita cannot understand why we want to come to a place where the day-time temperature is 35 degree plus most days. I explain that Pauline is Australian, and living in the Northern Hemisphere, she needs at least two weeks of heat, hopt enough to 'penetrate the bones'. Having spent time in the topics, I am partial to this too, but this explanation is less persuasive. Claudio and Vita have gone to Sardinia, where they now stay with their daughter-in-law's parents. Claudio has learned late in life that swimming is good. But a few things need to be in place for it to be so. Outdoors, yes. Summer, yes. Sardinia, yes. Close to good food, yes. It makes Claudio's swimming very niche, but repeatable, year on year. I love Sardinia - in the year 2000 I was invited to a Vatican Science Congress there, and remember painfully blue waters, seafood that exploded with taste and flavour, the most generous people, and a sense of what Wales might have been like if the Romans had colonised it - much was made of the tribal nature of Sardinian society before the Romans came. The Romans came to Bologna too, big-time. They made the city what it is, set on the Via Emilia, which renamed as Ugo Bassi, runs through the very centre of the city, to and beyond the leaning towers of Asinelli and Garisenda, remnants of a medieval age when Bologna was the New York City of the Western World, so many tall towers there were - the picture of the model of Bologna in the 16th century shows this. It had canals and a thriving textile industry too.


The Piscina Sterlino is close by Claudio and Vita's apartment, so good for the daily swim. Built on the site of the Stadio Sterlino, former home of the Bologna Football Club, the site lay waste for over forty years before it was brought into outdoor swimming use. Peter learned his taste for swimming here, a determined bull-frog of a toddler. There's a lot to know about Bologna, a city that does not reveal itself quickly. Not so much in terms of swimming - there are lakes Suviana and Brasemone into the Tuscan hills an hours and a half's drive away - but they need to be driven to. I have a fondness of the familiar and local, and this pool is perfectly good, perfectly fine on a Summer's day when what people are left in the city are working or re-creating a beach resort atmosphere at the lido. 

Bologna, Archaeology Museum

What have I learned about open water in Bologna? That there are tunnels and channels under the city, that the Romans disciplined the River Reno and its tributaries for agriculture, making the region here abouts the bread basket for the early Roman Empire. That Roman soldiers learned to swim as part of their martial training, and that ending a miliary work-out with a cold water swim was the norm. The Romans made the Western World in ways way beyond governance, infrastructure, politics and the rule of law. Empire. This is what the Museum of Archaeology bluntly puts in front of you when you arrive - the Estruscans, the Romans, and where their material artifacts were found in and around Bologna. And what they copied from the Greeks and possessed for their own.

Then this exhibition, which echoes the Roman - Greek relationship, in Europe - Africa in more recent times. Bologna has only recently gotten into exhibition making in a serious way, and they do it well, with flair but also great academic seriousness, without being overwhelming. The Ex-Africa  exhibition is the first in the newly created exhibition galleries in this museum. Beautifully curated, there is a sense of 'masterpeice' African art, driven by aesthetics. The Western empires came and took, and it has never recovered. The art presented here is on the terms of the western cannon - that there should be chronology, that there should be 'masters' - and we can now identify them! Which is great, but it is easy to be charmed into a Western account of doing things. More broadly, it wakes me up to the need to listen to all voices, not the Western ones especially, because they are currently powerful.


Plastics - at the Church of Santa Maria della Vita, Bologna

This church I have known for years and visit when I can - it hosts a renaissance masterpiece, a pieta in baked clay of the greatest expressiveness - Christ is dead, and you can feel the pain. So real is the anguish and the torn up emotion of the witnesses to the dead Christ. I feel the pain too, and it doesn't hurt to be reminded of things bigger than myself. In this light, it was a must-see of must-sees, Pauline and I saw a notice for an exhibition about the ecological disaster that single-use plastic is. Plastic waste, on the scale that it is being generated is enough to make now, an age of plastic - as money dematerialises, capitalism can be measured in plastics dumped. 'There is no elsewhere' - a motto of the greens and climate campaigners. The exhibition, in the former hospital hall and rooms of the upper church, drew you in. The imagery beautiful, the piles of waste plastic huge, the damage to ocean life still being counted, the risk to humans still being worked out. The beautiful images made it attractive and repulsive at the same time. I am sure that was the intention. As someone who works on food, nutrition and evolution, I found the presentation on food chain chilling. According to the best evidence, eight out of ten fish have eaten plastic at least once. Therefore most seabird have eaten plastic. The plastic accumulates in the body of any animal regularly eating it, it fills the stomach and causes death by a new form of hunger, that of lack of stomach capacity for real food. It gets worse. Algae that colonise the plastics in the ocean excrete dimethyl sulphide, a fatal scent that fools marine animals to see plastic as food. We are killing ocean life in so many ways beyond the obvious. It will kill us too. Micro-plastics enter the food chain of humans and other land animals via marine life and bird life, carrying pollutants. There is no elsewhere.


Swim #13, Guildford Lido

This was an evening swim, which I drove to, after spending the late afternoon scoping four Thames swims, two for the next couple of months, two for next season. All together, it made sense to see what was there, in terms of getting in and getting out. Usually what gets posted are the swims themselves, who was there, the conditions, how people felt, what was eaten, all good things that bring such disparate and individualist people who choose to swim outdoors, together. There is always a kindred spirit, knowing that swimming brings people together, a sense of solidarity. Scoping the swims relies on local and on the ground knowledge, especially when there are people you don't know, there. This was an End of Summer lido swim, and it felt that way, people wistful of the shorter day length, the slight chill in the air as the sun dropped below the horizon, a sigh of fond farewell, not yet far enough along with shorter days and dropping temperture, air and water, to start greeting the winter and swimming joys of a different kind. The hosts tonight were the very happy and spirited Surrey Open Water Swimmers, who take to the lido when the rivers and lakes do not call, or everyday life doesn't allow a visit to more natural waters. I know only two of them, but we will meet again I am certain, as long as there is water in the rivers. Seems strange to be swimming lanes tonight, when I had been looking at the Thames, for Runnymede to Chertsey Bridge just now. Hywel I know from years of swimming together, mostly around Oxford and Oxfordshire, but if the Thames much more broadly (or longly) - modest, quiet, cheerful, helpful, kind, such a fine friend. Juliet I had just met once, at the Teddington to Richmond swim. She is bubbling with life, fiercely positive, and has just started, it seems to me to be doing longer river distances. 'I want to swim the Thames - all of it!' she has proclaimed. A project we all support.

Swim 14, Calshot, Hampshire

It didn’t seem so far to drive. We left in plenty of time, stopping in Winchester on the way. We went into the cathedral, and everything was as it was just a few years ago, a slightly slicker tourist operation, polite informed, helpful, always good. A few tourists wandered around in these hours between routine cathedral activities. Gentle music from the 16th century piped in, attempting serenity. Serene it was, stepping into a cathedral is taking time in a parallel, more timeless world. Time to reflect, pause. Plenty to see, but the music is good – a church / cathredral needs to be heard and not just seen. Cathedral as sonic space, sound sculpture, if I were charged with bringing people into these unique and magnificent places, I would focus on the music – music to show off the sonorities of this vast echo chamber. The sculpture by Anthony Gormley is still here, in the basement that floods periodically (this tells how close to the water table, and to the River Itchen, Winchester Cathedral is). A cloud-like painting on the alter, Barbara Hepworth. The Winchester Bible, from the twelveth  century is a marvel of richness – privilege in Gods name. Done the seeing, now the swimming. Clair invited me, and anyone of the Thames Group to come to Calshot at high tide. This being a week day, it was myself and Pauline, on a day out. Calshot is south of Southampton, which makes it very south. Right on the ocean. Perfect – we want to swim in the sea, don’t we?


We were late. The roads around Southampton are well-used, the traffic detoured, and close to Calshot, we were diverted. I don’t generally like using a sat-nav, but they are great for finding the way in the last few kilometers. In general, an irony of open water swimming is the amount of driving involved in getting to a place – for some, ten kilometers driving for one kilometer of swimming. It’s not a great ratio. We were late, and the Hampshire Swimmers were there, waiting. The tide still high but going out, no time was wasted, since the tide goes out a long way, leaving a mud-bath, if you choose to bathe in it. The water had some life to it, dipping and swelling, so that even with swim caps on, it was easy to lose sight of people. Beautiful water, lovely people. Then cake – we brought one cake with us, Claire had baked two others, including a vegan cake of those who truly respect animals. A most splendid afternoon at Claire’s family beach hut, which has the charm of a retreat, stripped back in its decore, but room enough for a bed and a simple kitchen. Content, we prepared to re-engage with the Southampton rush-hour traffic. Not before trying to see Calshot Castle, on the spit, around the corner from the beach. Not sure if we did, more wishful thinking, I think.


Swim #15, Uppsala

I was in Uppsala for a meeting, a Swedish diet and obesity meeting that had brought together lots of great researchers from different countries, some of them world experts. I was deemed by the organisers, and Paulina especially, to be one of them.  There is a small river that flows through Uppsala (or Upps, as the locals call it), but nothing really to speak of. There are also lakes not so far away, a bus ride away. I knew I should find a swim, but this is Sweden, where individualism can go so far, which is to say, not very far. I arrived in the late afternoon, and within a couple of hours it would be time for dinner. So no time for a swim. How to do this? The next day we had a few hours at the end of the day between meeting and eating in the evening. “Coming to the bar?” asked Paulina. Now, I am used to the Swedish approach to drinking alcohol, which is to tax it beyond belief and to make sales of alcoholic beverages available in state-owned liquor shops. I went into one of these shops once, and I felt Protestan guilt descend on me, feeling that people were looking at me like I had a problem. I left the shop without buying anything. I can do without alcohol in Sweden. So in response to “bar?” I said “Swim.” With a full stop. Not a question. “Unusual, no?” I contnued. “Yes, but not for you”, Paulina replied. Now, how to find a swim in Upps? It turned out, not so hard. Just follow the river upstream out of town. Across the Cathedral garden, past the rune stones there (as in so many places in Europe, there are layers of culture, meaning and religion, easy to find if you keep your eyes and ears open). Uppsala is the burial place of Kings of Sweden, no small thing in what is now a small place in the modern world. And Linnaeus, the person that structured the entire plant world to the present day, was a Professor at the University here (Linnaeus’ teaching garden is still maintained). Do not linger, even though it is interesting – get to the river, follow the river, under and over mostly iron bridges until you meet your bathing platform. Of course! It is Sweden; people swim, most in Summer, some in Winter. Sneaking a swim (this is often the case) between work and work dinner – at least I got a swim. Next time, I must leave enough time and space to go to one of the lakes.


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